Pauline and Me: Farewell, My Lovely

The death of Pauline Kael (1919-2001) was announced on a

local television-news program late on Labor Day night, as I was preparing for

my first film class of the semester the next morning at Columbia.

I can’t say I was as saddened as I had been a few days earlier by the death of

Jane Greer (1924-2001). Still, do not send for whom the bell tolls, it tolls

for thee, and all that. Pauline was 82, and I am 72, and who knows when the

Grim Reaper from Ingmar Bergman’s The

Seventh Seal will come for me?

Long ago, Pauline and I were once a virtual figure of

speech, like Cain and Abel, as our critical feuding began back in 1963 and

never really ended-if not between the two of us personally, then between the

people who supported her and those who supported me. Yet truth to tell, we never

much liked each other, though we managed to co-exist in the embarrassingly

voyeuristic world of movie-reviewing.

Anyway, the next morning I was certain that no one from the

media would call to get my thoughts on her life and career. But I was wrong. The

phone rang just as I was about to leave for school. It was CBS Radio, and they

asked me to say some words about Pauline Kael. At one time, it would have

seemed like asking Mary McCarthy what she thought of Lillian Hellman. But maybe

38 years is a long time to carry-or even remember-a grudge. I trotted out

Northrop Frye’s old insight that after

The Iliad , we in the West have treated the death of an enemy as a tragic

rather than a comic event, though I hastened to add that it was a bit

melodramatic to speak of Pauline as an enemy. I praised her criticism in as perfunctory a manner as I could muster, and credited her

with being a brilliant journalist. I toyed with the idea of saying that she

wrote with her heart, like Norma Desmond in

Sunset Boulevard , but I thought better of it. I kept insisting, however,

that there were other people more inclined than I to do full justice to her

long, productive and much-honored career.

When I finally got to my class, I asked how many students

had ever heard of Pauline Kael, and only a few raised their hands. Even fewer

raised their hands when I asked how many had read Pauline Kael’s reviews from The New Yorker . Out the window went all

my personal anecdotes about Pauline and me.

One other bizarre note

was struck at Columbia, when I sorted through the mail that had

accumulated during my absence all summer. There was a release with no date on

it from the National Arts Journalism Program. The text read in part: “Film

critic Pauline Kael will become the first NAJP-Columbia University

Distinguished Lecturer in Criticism at the National Arts Journalism Program

(NAJP), the program announced today. The Distinguished Lectureship in Criticism

was established by the advisory Board of the NAJP to acknowledge the lifetime

achievement and support the current activity of America’s most distinguished art critics.”

All well and good, but

what puzzled me was how the NAJP expected Pauline to give lectures in the fall

when she was reportedly too ill from Parkinson’s disease to leave her home in

Great Barrington, Mass. Possibly she had accepted the appointment as an honor,

knowing that she would be unable to fulfill the lecturing duties. Still, it was

strange, me coming upon the release on the morning Lawrence Van Gelder’s

thoughtful and conscientious obituary appeared in The New York Times .

I didn’t actually read

the obituary until after I’d come home from school. My name and affiliation

with The Village Voice was coupled

with Bosley Crowther of The New York

Times as early targets of Kael’s invective. I noted also a long quote in

the obituary from Louis Menand’s rapturous tribute to Kael in The New York Review of Books of March

1995, even as he demeaned her alleged imitators as inferior-a fittingly Kaelian

touch. It was in this same piece that Mr. Menand expressed the regret that he

couldn’t refer to me as the late Andrew Sarris. I responded at the time with

all the pent-up rage of my Peloponnesian roots and my red-hot Greek peasant

blood by canceling my subscription to The

New York Review of Books . Mr. Menand’s is the kind of biliousness that

Pauline seemed to evoke from her champions.

Returning to the more distant past, I first read Pauline’s

prose in 1961 in Film Culture , a year

or two before I had any idea what she looked like. To put a point to it, she

wrote like a Berkeley babe who was

bringing personalized and impressionistic sex to film criticism, and throwing

out all the polite and formal evasions in our hedonistic profession. This, I

think, is her major contribution to the craft.

How we first met in person is a story I have published

before, and it has caused me to be scolded by Pauline’s admirers for being

ungallant. Nonetheless, I was surprised that she looked (and was) older and

completely unlike the fantasy female I had constructed from her writings. In a

way, she seemed more dangerous and invulnerable an adversary as she was than if

she ‘d looked more like how she wrote.

To go back a bit, one night in 1963 I received a phone call

from a woman identifying herself as Pauline Kael. Mind you, this was after she

had published her “Circles and Squares” essay that blasted my “Notes on the

Auteur Theory in 1962″ essay to smithereens, with a few homophobic innuendoes

thrown in for good measure. And here she was, calling me to come meet her at a Manhattan

hotel. Since it was late at night, and I was living in Kew

Gardens with my mother and would

have to walk up a long hill to take a subway to the city, I hemmed and hawed a

bit. “What’s the matter,” Pauline snapped challengingly, “won’t your lover let

you leave?” Back then, “lover” had an exclusively gay connotation. So here I

was, an ineffectual heterosexual minding my own business in Queens,

and my manhood was being questioned again.

Of course, I went out of sheer curiosity and a pathetic

search for adventure. Well, I finally saw Pauline in the company of her

sweet-tempered daughter, Gina, whom I’ve liked ever since, and one of Pauline’s

gentleman friends, who I later learned was a gay analyst. So go figure. Why did

she want to meet me? I suppose to neutralize or intimidate me. I gathered that

she imagined I would be grateful to her for being shown the error of my ways.

She was on a visit to the city and seemed to feel like an outsider in the

critics’ community.

From the beginning,

Pauline scored points with the non- cinéaste

cultural establishment by her apparent debunking of all film scholarship, her

unceasing ridicule of film scholars, and her apparent denigration of movies as

unworthy subjects of serious academic study. As long as she was on the attack,

she was hailed as a Joan of Arc halting the movie-buff barbarians at the gates

of academe-hence all her honorary degrees from institutions resenting the

incursions of cinéastes into the

liberal-arts curriculum.

But once Pauline began

revealing her own enthusiasms for movies with the mantras of “fun” and

“trash”-not to mention her own pet auteurs (Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Brian

De Palma), whom she would defend to the death-some of her support from the non- cinéaste and anti-movie intelligentsia

began to fade away. Pauline never lost it at the movies, as the title of one of

her books states. Like the rest of us, she found consolation on the silver

screen for all of life’s disappointments, and they were many. She was a late

starter, as I was-writing her first review at 35 and getting her job at The New Yorker at almost 50. But whereas

I was grateful to have started at all (at age 27), she seemed bitter that her

great opportunity came when time had robbed her of much of her energy-or so she

once confided to me, when we were still talking.

My wife, Molly Haskell, has reminded me that though Pauline

and I battled like cats and dogs, perhaps our destinies were linked in some

mysterious way. Perhaps it was as Molly reported me telling a doctor during my

grave illness in 1984. “What,” they asked, concerned about my intermittent

hallucinations, “do a cat and dog have in common?” The proper answer, I suppose

now, was that both were household pets. But back then, I remembered enough

structuralist theory to reply: “What cats and dogs have in common is that they

define each other by their differences.”

Before Pauline attacked me in print, I felt I was obscure to

the point of anonymity. After Pauline attacked me with such passion as some

auteurist monster, I realized that I had moved from obscurity to notoriety

without passing go. In berths and hard cash, she profited much more than I

did-in addition to its prestige, The New

Yorker paid better than The Village

Voice , and Pauline did stints as a consultant in Hollywood.

But she deserved it for her relentless self-promotion and her artful suggestion

that she was the ultimate authority on all movies because the opinions of

colleagues were worthless.

For years, I disbelieved her statement that she never saw

any movie more than once. How could that be possible, I thought, except in the

service of some Gestalt theory of her own? Then, one

day, I realized why this statement made sense in her case. By eliminating the

possibility of a revised opinion, she could endow all her reviews with papal

infallibility. She never had to say that she had been wrong or that she was

sorry. That was for us ordinary mortals. Her word was final and eternal. There

are many people who believe this, and they are entitled to their opinion. For

me, it is unthinkable that I should deprive myself of the pleasure of seeing my

favorite movies again and again, or hearing my favorite operas and pieces of

music again and again.

Jean-Luc Godard once noted that he and his colleagues on Cahiers du Cinema had missed the boat on

Max Ophuls and John Ford. I would add Frank Borzage to that list. I happened to

miss the boat the first time around on Billy Wilder, Sergio Leone and Debra

Winger. We all change as we get older, and our perceptions of films change with

us-all of us, that is, except Pauline. Her first impressions are engraved in

stone forever and ever, because that is all movies deserve.

Pauline once called me a

“list queen” to my face, but by then I had become accustomed to her reflex

insults. But it started me thinking. To my knowledge, Pauline was the only

critic never to compile a 10-best list. Her admirers might say that Pauline was

above such trivial journalistic diversions. But with a 10-best list, a critic

puts his or her tastes on the line, and makes an easier target than one would

get, for example, by plowing through Pauline’s steam-of-consciousness prose.

I am always being asked to appear on panels bemoaning the

state of contemporary film criticism when compared with the supposed golden age

of the nouvelle vague and the

Kael-Sarris contretemps. I always pour cold water on these projects by

asserting, as I do now, that film criticism today is far superior to what it

was back in the supposed golden age of the Kael-Sarris cat-and-dog fight, when

two comparatively provincial and unsophisticated careerists-one in San

Francisco and the other in New York-collided in a maze of misunderstandings

that concealed the fact that they were both consumed by movies with much the

same emotional intensity.

So which of us was proven right in the long run? In the long

run, as John Maynard Keynes or someone once said, we are all dead.