I saw Pauline Kael give a talk once, back in the spring of 1976, when she had just begun her latest six-month “vacation” from The New Yorker. She spoke for awhile, maybe half an hour, I can’t recall. Her topic was masculinity in movies, and she might have recalled her still-fresh essay on Cary Grant, although again, my memory isn’t much good for this. After she’d spoken, there was a question-and-answer period, and one by one, people from the audience (it was in Zellerbach, for folks who know about Berkeley), given the chance to say a sentence or two to Pauline, would inevitably call up the name of some movie they loved that Kael hadn’t reviewed, asking her what she thought of that movie.
Thirty-five years later, I feel like that night I got an early preview of what it would be like when she died. You see a new movie, and you wonder what Kael would have thought. Given that she only reviewed films for six months out of the year, we have had long practice in wondering what she thought of this or that. Over in our Facebook group dedicated to our fifty favorite movies, Phil Dellio and I found ourselves wondering what Kael had thought of Five Easy Pieces, scrambling through our battered copies of her books (I assume that’s what Phil was doing, I know I was … given that everything is out of print, and given that I read everything on a Kindle now, it’s kind of amazing, but I own all of Pauline Kael’s books, along with several written about her). She scattered a few comments about the film when talking about others, but it came out during one of her six-month sabbaticals, so she never reviewed it. (Despite this, you will see blurbs of Pauline praising Five Easy Pieces … the quotes are from The New Yorker, but the words were Penelope Gilliatt’s, which the publicity folks miss, perhaps on purpose.) Here we are, two grown men sharing an appreciation for a film from the early-70s, and both of us ask ourselves, “I wonder what Kael thought?”
It’s odd, because her lasting influence comes not from her opinions, but from her writing. I don’t think anyone would read her old reviews just to find out what she liked or disliked about a movie. And I don’t think there are any living critics out there who read a review of hers, found that they agreed with her that The Fury was a good movie, and decided at that moment to become a critic. No, people read her writing and were inspired by that. Film critics, music critics, book critics, writers across many fields were influenced by her approach. She wasn’t systematic (this, in fact, is often held against her, that there was no real identifiable “System of Kael” beyond an informed subjectivity), but she brought the entire range of her knowledge to each review. You often learned more about the original text in her review of a movie like The Bostonians than you would from reading a review of the novel itself, because Kael didn’t just talk about the movie, but also about the novel, and about James, and about how the film reflected on James, etc. When Greil Marcus stated in his first great book that when he listened to Elvis he thought about Herman Melville, that was Pauline talking.
And Kael’s conversational tone made you think she was right there, badgering you about whatever movie had crossed her path. If you ever heard her speak, that feeling was even more extreme. To this day, when I read an old interview with her, I can hear her cadences in her answers.
So it is that Pauline Kael, dead for almost a decade, not having written for two decades, still sits in the backs of our minds, and we think to ourselves, “I wonder what Kael thought?”