Richard Kramer recently wrote a brief memoir essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books that was reprinted in Salon. (The titles are instructive: the original was titled “A Broad’s Laugh: On Pauline Kael”, while Salon called it “Pauline Kael was my mentor”. Kramer leads off with an anecdote about visiting Kael at her home in 1969, when he was 16 years old.
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.
One of the things Kramer does well is show how Pauline Kael could be the person who promoted the career of a Great American Director, and also be the person who was later denigrated by that same GAD, and also be the kind of person who did right by a 16-year-old, and continued to do right by him until she died. It’s also noteworthy that a short essay about a critic who has been dead for more than a decade, who in fact quit reviewing movies all the way back in 1991, is just as interesting now as it would have been when she was still alive.
And finally, it’s noteworthy that Kramer’s piece is written as a memoir. There is something about Kael that inspires a personal response. Of course, she was famously personal in her critical work. Yet it was a constructed “personal”. Brian Kellow’s fine, loving, warts-and-all biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, told even obsessives a lot of things about the critic that we had never known before. We felt we knew her, but what we knew was “Pauline Kael”, not necessarily Pauline Kael. For this reason, a short, anecdotal look at the “real” Pauline from someone like Kramer, who knew her, is welcomed.
Kramer also helps us understand how Kael’s influence went beyond movies (which is perhaps why her influence still seems relevant). He writes, “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.”
Ultimately, Kael’s influence on this blog has been made clear over the years, most importantly in the tagline: “I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have.” Those of us who spend a lot of time (I guess 11+ years of blogging counts as “a lot of time”) following that idea know what it means to reveal “Steven Rubio” while keeping Steven Rubio slightly more private.