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The Pronouncements of Pauline : Movie lovers haven't necessarily agreed with critic Pauline Kael--but the more heated the debate, the more she felt she was doing her job : FOR KEEPS: Thirty Years at the Movies, By Pauline Kael (Dutton: $34.95; 1,280 pp.)

October 09, 1994|David Ehrenstein | David Ehrenstein is a free-lance writer and author of "The Scorsese Picture."

'Get out of here with your cowboys boots," screamed the anonymous letter sent to Pauline Kael shortly after she became film critic for the New Yorker in 1967. Recognizing it as the handiwork of one of that magazine's contributors "whose prose seemed to be rolled like an English lawn," Kael wasn't irritated--just surprised. "I didn't have cowboy boots," she said, recalling the incident in a recent interview, "I've never had cowboy boots."

To anyone who has ever met this petite, personable woman, it's rather hard to imagine her as the Billy the Kid of belles-lettres. But once you start reading her reviews, the image of a pistol-packin' Pauline becomes rather irresistible. If she isn't rounding up a posse to fight off Oliver Stone and his band of pseudo-intellectual rustlers, then she's forming a citizens' committee to run Robert Altman for sheriff. In fact, just about every Western archetype fits Pauline Kael--except schoolmarm.

"For Keeps," a massive anthology culled from 10 previously published collections of her writings (most of which are now out of print), gives ample evidence as to why, for the past 30 years, Pauline Kael has been such a singularly lively voice in a profession given to ad-copy puffery and dust-dry platitudes. Her up-close-and-first-personal style (she claims her goal is "the sound of spoken language") and offhand wit (describing French actress Miou-Miou as "the Brigitte Bardot the cat dragged in"), has made her the most readable of critics--if not always the most lovable. You don't win friends and influence people by calling Fellini's "8 1/2" "a hack's notion of Freudian anxiety and wish-fulfillment," or declaring Dino De Laurentiis' 1977 remake of "King Kong" to be "a pop classic that can stand in our affections right next to the original version." But then, to put it in the rhetorical form she loves (and her severest critics despise), who ever read Pauline Kael expecting to agree with her?

"The hate mail piled up," she recalls in the book's introduction, speaking of the atmosphere surrounding the mid-point of her tenure at the New Yorker. "Then, curiously, some of the readers began to enjoy hating me. Maybe my conversational American tone brought them into a closer relationship than they'd been accustomed to; maybe what they had first experienced as a crude invasion from the pop world began to be something they looked forward to." Or maybe they simply came to realize that Kael wasn't just giving them her straight-from-the-gut unvarnished opinion, she was virtually demanding that they respond in kind: immerse themselves in film as fully and passionately as she did, and talk about what they saw once they'd surfaced. And that demand--to use one of Kael's favorite phrases--was turning them on.

When "Bonnie and Clyde" appeared in 1967, Kael wrote: "The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: how we came to love them and feel they were ours--not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours." Kael was smack on top of the zeitgeist , explaining why this comedy-drama about Depression-era bank robbers had become a rallying point for young educated audiences of the Vietnam generation. But for the better part of her career Kael, more often than not, found herself not at the center of things, but off to one side.

When her taste coincided with that of the masses, on blockbusters like "E.T.," "Tootsie" and "The Way We Were," Kael had no trouble getting anyone to listen to her. But she was only able to spur a few of her readers in the direction of what she aptly called "minority movies" such as "The Night of the Shooting Stars" and "Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000." Far more of them lined up for films Kael despised such as "A Clockwork Orange" and "Midnight Express." And there were precious few takers when she went out on a limb praising the likes of "Pennies From Heaven" and "Casualties of War." You can sense Kael's frustration with all of this in her position-paper-styled essays ("Trash Art and the Movies," "Fear of Movies," "Why Are Movies so Bad?"), where she scores both the industry and the audiences for their lack of adventurousness. But no critic, no matter how well-known or widely read, can influence the movie-making powers-that-be or buck the effect of their enormous marketing and promotional powers. And when a critic is as deliberately contentious as Kael, it's hard to credit how descriptive cliches such as "most powerful" and "most influential" have been attached to her name.

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