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Jeff Simon: Pauline Kael roars back in readers' memories

Jeff Simon

I never met Pauline Kael. I didn't correspond with her either. Nor did we chat over the phone about the latest movies.

No matter how many screenings and movie events I've attended in other cities, I don't think, frankly, that I was ever in the same room with her.

She never got me a job -- or tried to. No one, then, would ever dream of calling me a "Paulette," the derisive term often flung dismissively at the large assembly of younger critics who were often accused of everything from thoughtless cult idolatry to unimaginative aesthetic stenography.

Kael died at the age of 82 in 2001. Before that, ill health (Parkinson's among other things) removed her from regular movie reviewing.

Why, then, are mainstream and social media both full to the brim this week with statements about Kael? Because, on Wednesday, the Kael centennial came upon us. Her birth 100 years before was celebrated.

Then again, maybe it was merely observed. Or worse, cursed. Whatever it was, it's going to be worth thinking about for a long time.

I read her devotedly for almost 40 years, starting with her first book of essays and reviews "I Lost It at the Movies," whose 1965 paperback edition became one of the most well-thumbed books in my library. With all that, the first time I ever wrote about her specifically was to notice one of the earliest times that "Aunt Pauline Went Off Her Head" about one film or another (most notably Robert Altman's "Nashville," Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris," Sam Peckinpah's "The Killer Elite" and Brian DePalma's "Casualties of War").

I've been thinking about Kael for that long. In the year of her centennial, it seems to me that all in all, she has to be considered the greatest American movie critic we've ever seen and probably ever will.

It isn't that she doesn't have impressive company up there on Olympus -- Dwight Macdonald (my own personal inspiration at the beginning), Macdonald's friend James Agee, Otis Ferguson, a whole raft of wits, prose stylists, and thinkers of all stripes. None had her longevity.

Among them all, Kael was the only one who was always cultural news -- almost everything she wrote, but especially those movies whose fate was transformed completely by her (beginning with her rescue of Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde"). The pervasiveness of her influence made her a major subject for other critics, whether they wanted it that way or not.

That wasn't the only reason she commanded attention in the critic's trade. She emerged in a '60's era when critics often had a grand old time savaging other critics. Kael famously bounced gleefully on top of the solemnity of Andrew Sarris when he elaborated on the French "auteur theory" (that the director is the author of a movie).

The hilarious irony of that is that, as time went on, no one ever became more of a completely irrational and dubious "auteurist" movie critic than Kael, hysterically praising movies by her favorite directors that are, at best, only marginally watchable today. Did any critic ever offer the public knee-jerk raves as overstated as Kael's encomiums to De Palma, Altman and Peckinpah?

Her influence was negative, as well as positive.

If it weren't for Kael and Sarris sniping at each other for years at such a high level, would the world have seen Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert turn into one of the more successful, if unfortunate, TV acts of their era?

I don't think so.

I personally hated Siskel and Ebert's TV show. The show itself came from Siskel's initial urgings, but it was Ebert who was always the one other critics paid attention to. What made me cringe, frankly, is when they would take their act to late-night TV talk shows and turn into squabbling 12-year olds for the edification (and general disrespect) of the audience.

What I must confess now is not understanding at the time that Siskel and Ebert's completely regrettable TV act transformed "movie critic" into a genuine American occupation that people could understand and start taking for granted in the ordinary cultural scheme of things.

It was Judith Crist, of the New York Herald Tribune, who was TV's first major movie critic on the "Today" show, to be followed by Gene Shalit, who was part critic, part humorist. They didn't begin to have the following of Siskel and Ebert, whose eventually syndicated act was such a low-grade parody of Kael and Sarris in print.

Ebert's evolution over the years was even more fascinating than Kael's. He won a Pulitzer Prize early when many people thought he didn't really deserve it. (It probably revealed, at the time, more about the prize committee than it did about him.) By the time salivary gland cancer and physical suffering removed Ebert completely from reviewing on television, I thought he had become such a genuinely noble figure that, in a perfect world, he'd have won the Pulitzers' first award to a critic for his life work. (God bless the Oscars; they actually do some things right.)

Ebert's work as a writer and a journalistic figure was never better or purer than it was at the end of his life.

Not so with Kael on her more elevated journalistic level. Her behavior at events with other critics started leaking out -- hilarious comments during movie screenings, but also startling rudeness at filmmakers at press conferences. Anyone, by that point, who didn't know that Kael wasn't kidding and could be a heedless slave to her passions, just wasn't paying attention.

David Thomson writes about her penetratingly: "She was thrilled and aroused by her own power. There were problems with that. Her writing could turn bullying. And as she grew older I think she yielded to a younger tougher style. She let herself become the godmother and career broker for far too many young critics (the Paulettes) and she did not always see her own vanity or sharp edges. ... I loved her work but did not like her much as a person -- and I think many felt that way."

Vanity is a problem for any writer of any longevity. Even so, I've always thought that when it came to assessing other critics, those who might be thought of as "provincials" (i.e. working outside major metropolitan centers) often do have one advantage: They can judge their fellows in major metropolises by their work alone, not their private personalities or public behavior on professional occasions.

In the social media era when critic tote-boards like "Rotten Tomatoes" have superceded the influence of the Kaels of this world, it isn't always easy to imagine the role of a powerhouse critic like Kael in our new media world.

One piece, though, I'd dearly love to read in the year 2019 is Kael, come back to life, dealing with whole phenomenon of Turner Classic Movies -- not just the movies chosen for showing, but the "presenters" (as the Brits call them) introducing each film.

I can't stop myself from wondering what on earth Kael would make of  TCM turning vintage movies and movie stars into the essential ingredients of a sedate and privileged American lifestyle with clubs like garden clubs and its own wines, no less, named after movie stars.

Where, I wonder, is Kael when we really need her, Rotten Tomatoes be damned?

You won't find her on this earth writing. You'll have to find her in book form -- her anthology "For Keeps" the most complete of them, but also the most expensive. Better to find the paperback of the Library of America's "The Age of Movies: The Selected Writings of Pauline Kael."

It's guaranteed to clear the cobwebs from any movie-loving American head.

In her centennial year, that's worth celebrating.

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