She lost it at the movies

As it happens, I did sit next to Pauline once in that dark.

By David Thomson

Published September 5, 2001 7:36PM (EDT)

Pauline Kael had a very good line about how one of the things movie criticism taught you was the way some relationships split apart, finally, when the two of you go to a movie and discover how different you are. Somewhere or other, she said she didn't think she could love anyone who didn't love "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." Well, you may change the name of the movie, but I think we all know what she meant.

Except that I wouldn't have given anyone a romantic chance in hell with Pauline at the movies. Nor, for that matter, would I advise ever having a date with a film critic -- not if it meant sitting in the dark side by side. As it happens, I did sit next to Pauline once in that dark. It was in a Manhattan screening room, and the occasion was Brian De Palma's "The Fury," a picture starring Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving and John Cassavetes. It exists, trust me.

The seat beside me was occupied only at the last moment, after the lights had gone down, by a diminutive woman who made some fuss getting settled and finding her notebook. Well, 15 or so minutes later, I was nudged out of De Palma's film (this was not too difficult) by a sound coming from somewhere next to me. It was scratchy and raspy, but there were little sighs and moans accompanying it. You may find this allusion fanciful, but it was rather like sitting next to Beatrix Potter's Mrs. Tiggywinkle as she beat the little garments of her laundry.

Pauline (for it was she) was writing up a storm in the dark, with a sharp pencil on the notebook pages. That was the rasping. I watched in wonder as her head bobbed up from the page to the screen, and back again, too intent to miss anything, and apparently writing down not just the dialogue but a kind of running shooting script. And the noises she was making -- the tiny hedgehog squeaks and raptures -- were part of a nearly writhing rapport with the film up there on the screen. She was in love with it. She was, nearly, making love to it.

You may have heard that Ms. Kael had the policy of seeing a film once only. She reckoned that it was an art founded in first impressions, and -- at its best -- a kind of ecstatic participation in and with the film. (You can see how holding hands with that dame was only going to get in the way.) Maybe she sneaked back occasionally, if she really loved a picture. On the whole, however, I think she was as good as her strict word. That she could then write in fine detail about the picture was a tribute to how open her senses were and how rapacious her note taking. But most people who've tried will tell you that taking notes on a movie is a very good way of losing contact with it.

Pauline's great affair was with the movies. She had tried men, many times, and found them wanting. But I think she came into her own when she developed the ability to feel and convey the erotic pulse of a movie -- and not just movies like "Barbarella," about "sexy" things. For Pauline, sitting in the dark and letting the furnace light fall on you was sexy. She was turned on. She needed to be to write well. It was a kind of controlled drunkenness, and in the late '60s and '70s, at least, she found enough readers who felt the same passion. That's why her books (the collections of reviews) had sexual titles: "I Lost It at the Movies," "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" and so on.

That's what I loved most about her. But our relationship didn't click. I thought "The Fury" was spectacular nonsense. History may be on my side, but that doesn't really matter. Pauline was putting out for De Palma because she believed in him.

Still, as the lights came up, I couldn't resist saying, "I can't wait to read your review."

"Didn't you like it?" she asked, less in dismay than incredulity.

I admitted not (I felt like a father telling his daughter the guy's a jerk), and our friendship died there. But I kept her example in my head, and I've never forgotten the sound of that sharp pencil slashing at paper. For me, that was The Fury.

David Thomson

David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (new edition just published), "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" and "In Nevada."

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