Pauline Kael was my mentor

The legendary film critic helped teach me how to write, to think -- and even how to watch movies

Published February 3, 2013 7:00PM (EST)

Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Picture it: I’m 16, sweaty and sebaceous, facing the doorman of an old building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: “I’m here to see Pauline Kael?” I can vouch for the question mark, 45 years on, not because of any uncanny Nabokovian recall, but because, even now, that first afternoon with her doesn’t seem as if it could possibly have happened. It was 1969 (moon landing, "Midnight Cowboy," Manson), I had taken a summer-school class in filmmaking, and the only texts required by our wise teacher were James Agee’s collected criticism and Pauline’s first two books, "I Lost It at the Movies" and the then-recently published "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." Agee was, and will always be, wonderful, but he had died in a taxi soon after I was born, and Kael was more than with us: She had just begun her legendary association with the New Yorker, which in my culturally ambitious Long Island household was received as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls, only weekly and with cartoons.
Los  Angeles Review of Books

Pauline Kael herself opened the door to her apartment, and it was the first of many doors she would open for me, over many years. Standing there in the hallway, I had yet to reach my full height, but she still had to look up to see me. I was amazed. She was tiny? How could that be? She was huge on the page, an empress!

“Oh shit,” she said. “You’re just a baby. Come on in.”

She laughed. The first time I would hear that laugh — musical, rangy, a broad’s laugh, a laugh that welcomed you even as it warned you that once you stepped through that door, you were expected to join her in her merry fuck-you to all bullshit, bluster, and begging-for-Oscars “worthiness.”

I followed her through her rooms. They were white, and the floors looked like someone had polished them with honey. The ceilings were high, and in every room books climbed from the floorboards all the way to the top. She led me to a table, and as she got me a soda, a large man emerged from the bathroom, tucking in his shirt. He nodded to me and didn’t offer a hand.

“Oh, fuck you, Bob,” she said. “You can shake hands with him. He’s not going to take a job from you." “Bob” obeyed. “This man,” she told me then, “is our Next Great American Director, honey. And so far, I’m the only one who knows it. But that’ll change.” Next Great, etc. (yes, Robert Altman), left us and she told me about the movie he’d just finished, a comedy about the Korean War that was so good and so fresh the studio was talking about not releasing it — that before I arrived, he had been in tears.

“Peckinpah is a crybaby, too,” she said. “The tough guys always are. I don’t know about John Ford, but I’m not sure I want to know about John Ford.” (Thirty-five years later I sat across the aisle from Altman on a plane. He slept the whole way, so it wasn’t until we were both at baggage claim that I got up the nerve to introduce myself and share the scene of that long-ago afternoon. He thought for a moment, mumbled something, and then, adjusting his expensive suede cowboy hat, said, “Pauline Kael ... Pauline Kael ... Oh. Right. That’s the cunt who destroyed me.” And that is why one should never approach one’s idols at baggage claim.) I’m convinced that Pauline would have laughed at that, though. She did love her bad boys.

I was still a good kid on that first day, eager to please. I had written — and not even for school! for her! — my “review” of what I had decided was a great film, probably because it had kings, castles, lots of arch and curdled Language, and a queen, always on the verge of tears, with a schmattah wrapped tightly around her head and neck. As Ms. Kael went to find my pages, I wondered: Would it be possible for me to finish 11th grade and alternate with her at the New Yorker?

When she came back, pages in hand, she was laughing again. She refreshed my ginger ale.

“Are you sure you’ve actually read me?” she asked. “Don’t answer that. Let’s get to work. You do know this movie is a piece of shit, don’t you? And isn’t Hepburn a pain in the ass? I used to adore her; we all did. Have you ever seen 'Alice Adams'? But O’Toole — he is beautiful. But I hope this is his last king …”

She didn’t eviscerate me or the review. Instead, and with her own unique kindness, she took my pages apart, almost phrase by phrase, and when she was done, she said, “You do know that you’re not a critic, honey, don’t you?” I didn’t. I was crushed, or thought I was. “But keep writing. And send me things, sometimes.” So I did — the occasional English paper when I went to college, a short story here or there. She always responded with a call or a note, on New Yorker stationary, usually with a single kind word (“Nice!”) or a single, slightly worried one (“Really?”). That first day, she helped me feel that somewhere outside the world of lecture halls and midterms I was — well, not taken seriously, but what I think might be more important: I was heard. Writers need this.

She also left me with a lesson I could never get anywhere else: The key step in life is the step back, to the place where you can hear your own voice, think your own thoughts, come to conclusions that defy the discourse of power that so easily keeps us willing consumers of the safe. I didn’t get back on the Long Island Railroad that afternoon with those thoughts in mind, but I see them now.

As I try to net the facts and my feelings about Pauline, I see that what I got from her was less a way of looking at movies (although her way has never left me) than a way of looking at life. "Challenge everything," I heard her say between the lines, and sometimes on them. "An opinion is an action, a flag planted, a flare shot to the sky. Movies and love and life are one. Know everything, and then know more. And above all else — know what you find in 'Charade' is just as valuable, if not more so, than in 'The Seventh Seal.'" For a budding something-or-other, which I was on that first day, mottos like this were all you, or anyone, needed to know.

In my senior year I sold a story to the Magazine. Yes! The New Yorker! I didn’t do it through her — I sent it in, cold — and I think that pleased her most of all. And when I graduated and moved for a few years to New York, she’d take me to screenings. We saw a terrible movie with Liv Ullman called "Pope Joan." She laughed throughout it, said “Jesus!” audibly a dozen times, and at the end, as we were walking out, asked “Isn’t she just full of shit?” She’d also ask me to escort her to the occasional critics award event. One of these featured Ingmar Bergman, who had made a rare trip to the U.S. to receive a citation. At the reception afterward, Bergman was surrounded by admirers. Across the room, I sat at Pauline’s table with some budding critics eager for her blessing, Talia Shire (Francis Coppola’s sister) and Kathryn Altman, wife of the previously mentioned Next Great.

“He’s done some good work,” Pauline said, with a nod in the direction of the stern master of Faro Island. “I love 'Smiles of a Summer Night.' But I know how his mind works. Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni — I don’t write about those movies because I don’t have to see them to write about them. They’re important. Always. And I don’t give a shit about important. It’s dead by the time the lights go down. But your husband, and your brother,” she said, taking the hands of Mrs. Altman and Ms. Shire, who were flanking her. “I never know what the fuck is going on in their minds, what they’re going to do next.” The famous profanity, followed by the famous laugh. “Even if it’s shit, they’re 10 steps ahead of me. And that,” she said, raising her glass to Bergman, who, across the room, raised his glass in response, “is what I guess you’d call my critical stance.”

Over the years, we’d be in touch. She stopped writing about movies; said it was because of what they had become, how she couldn’t think of anything to say about them, and that had never been the case in the years when she directed our attention to so many good and wonderful ones and helped us see them through her excited eyes. She may also have stopped writing because she was sick for a long time. I got a note from her maybe a year before what no one knew would be the end. “Richard, Gina [her daughter] is typing this for me. […] I remember the day when you came to meet me with that shitty 'Lion in Winter' piece. Please forgive me. And never, promise me, never get Parkinson’s.” Her illness was no secret; I think the extent of her suffering from it was.

And there was one more moment between us. She called me. She was in the hospital, although she didn’t say that. Her voice was weak, this writer whose voice was always so strong, all brass section, all parade. “What will become of all of you?” she asked. “What will you do with no good movies?” How do you answer that? I tried to keep it cheery. “Have you heard about this movie 'In the Bedroom'?” I had seen that, a few weeks earlier. It was the first movie that came to mind. “Oh, someone sent it to me,” she said. For a moment she sounded like herself -- confident, more than a little bossy, sexy in her very personal way. “It’s just a piece of shit, honey. That’s all it is. That’s all anything is, mostly.” Then I could hear her starting to fade. “Except for Sissy Spacek, of course. Who has ever been like her? Or Diane Keaton! Or Streisand, in 'Yentl.' God, I adored that strange girl in 'Carrie'...”

And that was it; the door shut. Whatever it was she said after that, I couldn’t hear it. I think someone else’s voice said, “Here’s the doctor,” and then there was the endless clattering business of hanging up the hospital room phone that anyone with old and unwell parents intimately knows. Ten years later, when the author Brian Kellow published his excellent biography, I learned things about Pauline I had never known, about the tracks she had cleverly covered so she could become, over time, someone who uniquely turned criticism to conversation, who said hyperbolic things about movies — and risked looking ridiculous — because movies were her love, who could make a 16-year-old boy feel that, if he kept his eyes open and didn’t take any shit, he could join her from time to time at her table.

Recently, on the day before it would be too late to change another word of my first book, I decided, perhaps in a no-atheists-in-foxholes move, I did want an acknowledgements page. I saw that my book was something I’d written, yes, but it was also something I’d been led to, over time, by many people. In my haste, I forgot to mention Pauline. I hope these words can apologize a little for such a glaring omission.

By Richard Kramer

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