Making his toast at my wedding reception, the best man joked, for far too long, about my puzzling, feckless, pre-engagement life, the laughter diminishing from genuine to polite to, finally, non-existent, when he said he’d been concerned, if not too surprised, the time he learned that Pauline Kael was granted a restraining order. No more than seven people in the room recognized the name, I’m fairly certain, and the majority of those seven had heard the joke in some form, if only very occasionally, since the early ‘80s. A fine speaker, the best man was able to get the room back.
The origin of this long-running in-joke is a dull one: I discovered Pauline Kael’s writing while a teenager, and soon my friends saw me carrying around paperbacks with titles like I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and with an author photo of an older woman with a mischievous grin. Before long, I’d receive her books as gifts, with inscriptions less-subtly pornographic than the titles, ostensibly autographed by Pauline herself; I’ll spare you any examples.
The other part of it is, I asked for it. I read her film reviews in The New Yorker religiously, and quoted passages from them with ease. As we headed out on a Friday night to see Blow Out, say, I’d let slip that Pauline Kael says it has a dreamlike clarity and inevitability. Don’t I sound like a fun teenager?
I’ve been reading about Pauline Kael the past few days; later this month a new biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow (whose previous book was a life of Ethel Merman) will appear just days after a new Library of America compendium of her work, The Age of Movies.
I don’t know how I feel about this news. I can share my consumer take on the matter: I won’t purchase the biography, though I might bring home a library copy and skim it; I’ll snatch up the Library of America book the day it lays down, because all but one of my Pauline Kael paperbacks have been lost to time. In a way, the existence of this new book seems as strange to me as the Library of America’s two-volume series of American noir crime novels, from 1997; it seems, in other words, like an embalming. But noir and hard-boiled fiction is tough to keep pinned down, and Charles Ardai and his Hard Case Crime imprint, along with some crummier-looking but equally worthwhile reprints from other specialty houses, started shoveling it back onto the store shelves in paperbacks, as God intended. I don’t think there’s anyone left out there to champion Pauline Kael in her native state, in books she gave titles like Deeper into Movies and Taking It All In. Always a divisive figure among her contemporaries, the younger generation of critics are mostly dismissive of her. (All of it has always smacked of sour grapes to me.) Does anyone remember that the former won the National Book Award, and still came out in paperback with its title in hot pink? To me, the title The Age of Movies suggests that, twenty years after her retirement and a decade after her death, Pauline Kael is as lost to time as the paperbacks I used to own, as dead as James Agee. But read something she wrote, and she seems more alive than David Denby, I promise you. Why wouldn’t she hate a title as definitive-sounding as The Age of Movies?
I had never seen a copy of The New Yorker until I thumbed through one in a waiting room at the University of Michigan Mott Children’s Hospital sometime in the late seventies. My younger brother, Matthew, born with Muscular Dystrophy, increasingly spent more time in the respiratory intensive care unit there than he did at our home, and, for the bulk of my high school years, my routine was to come straight home after school, leave for the hospital with my parents as soon as my dad came home from work, eat dinner at the cafeteria there, and spend the rest of visiting hours sitting in a waiting room – the RICU was a ward, and no visitor under the age of eighteen was allowed; my brother was in an iron lung, and couldn’t be wheeled out for a visit.
Bored, surrounded by human misery, I was grateful to discover the magazine. Movie-mad, I only bothered with The Current Cinema, and the short reviews in Goings On About Town. During Kael’s tenure, the “Revivals, Classics, Etc.” sub-section had its own grouping of short reviews – all by Kael; they were taken from the “Notes” she had written on hundreds of classic Hollywood and foreign films while curating for a revival house (in Berkeley, if memory serves.) Leaving the rest of the magazine unread, I went through the supply in the RICU’s waiting room quickly, and began systematically searching the other waiting rooms in Mott and, eventually, the entirety of the University of Michigan Hospital, for back numbers I hadn’t seen yet. All of this had to be accomplished with a certain amount of stealth, as well, because my parents had an expectation that I would stay close at hand, or at least, not go missing from the waiting room for any extraordinary amount of time.
Looking back, I can see that I was lonely and scared. At the time, reading Pauline Kael may have been mostly solace. But there was nothing else like it for me. Until then, I had read the movie reviews in the Detroit Free Press, written by Susan Stark, before she jumped to the Detroit News. I had stared at the print ads for the never-reviewed dreck I would be cackling through at the drive-in a few years hence. I enjoyed “At The Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert” on public television, initially because of the film clips and the barely-contained hostility between the two men, but later for their special episodes, when they set aside the weekly reviews to discuss “Trends in Cinema”: a full half-hour, for instance, devoted to the disturbing rise in the use of the killer’s POV shot in slasher films.
Kael in print was this sort of intellectual enquiry into the aesthetics of what many intellectuals would dismiss as junk, with what felt, to me, like the entire weight of a classical education thrown behind it. I wanted in.
Maybe that was all I knew, really. I was an imaginative kid, a good student, but not a great one. I didn’t have the discipline of a great student. But I knew education was my best chance. My parents, children of the Depression, hadn’t made that American Dream leap, about wanting their children to do better than they had, at least not where education was concerned. They had other things on their mind, for God’s sake. I was on my own.
This was the era of the last gasp of the public intellectual in America, a truly weird period when it was possible to know William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer strictly through their appearances on television talk shows. I tried to follow their arguments when I caught them on Dick Cavett, but they might have been speaking Greek most of the time, as far as I could tell.
Pauline Kael, even when I couldn’t grasp what she was getting at, was using language in a way that was exciting to me. And, thanks to my discovery of the city of Ann Arbor, just outside the hospital environs, and its ridiculous number of film societies, I was soon able to re-read her notes having seen Wages of Fear or The Seventh Seal for myself.
Film, besides, was the great democratic art – of necessity made by committee, never made by auteur alone, and meant to be watched by The Crowd. I felt justified when I refused to acknowledge much of a difference between seeing Fellini’s 8 ½ at U of M’s Modern Languages Building or David Cronenberg’s Scanners at the Drive-In Algiers; it was all part of a continuum. If trying to find my way into American intellectual life in a pre-internet world without roadmap or actual mentor involved sitting in the dark, with Karen Allen or Nancy Allen or Theresa Russell up on screen, en deshabille, what could be better? If I didn’t find my way to the academy, I would get by, or at least learn to think critically, without it.
Is that too grandiose? I soon found English teachers who helped me develop my critical thinking, and I eventually made it to college. Here is what Pauline Kael did for me, then: She made me feel less alone in my conviction that Blow Out and Used Cars and Diner were perfect movies. Did it matter that she loved DePalma but hated Hitchcock? In the years since she left the scene, I have found myself occasionally thinking, right in the middle of a movie, Pauline Kael would love this. Reese Witherspoon’s leaping victory dance in the school hallway in Election. The monster’s first appearance, rising from the river, in Bong Joon Ho’s The Host. All of Flirting with Disaster and Citizen Ruth, and most of Dick.
In fact, I’m certain I’ll be disappointed when I pick up The Age of Movies, because my lizard-brain will expect new reviews: the latest compilation. What does Pauline think of The Social Network?