An eye on the screen (then and now)

By EW Staff
Updated November 18, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

”These are hardly the best of times for moviegoing,” remarks Pauline Kael. ”Action movies have taken over … [And] after you’ve admired the special effects, what’s left to say?” At age 75 and in declining health, the world’s brashest movie critic still has enough energy to see virtually everything that comes out.

”There’s always hope, because it’s a great medium,” says the privacy-loving Kael in an interview mainly conducted by fax machine. She notes that even bad movies will never lose their audience. ”There’s something about the medium that draws people no matter what.

”I left out [reviews of] the middling sort of unmemorable movies,” she says of the For Keeps selections. ”I felt as if some lesser part of myself were rattling on.

”I don’t think this fat volume would be worth having if it weren’t for the movies of the ’70s — the period when American pictures grew up,” she says from her home in Great Barrington, Mass., where the operators of the local Mahaiwe movie theater treat her to midnight screenings of prints that directors have sent her. ”It was also the period when movies asserted that they were an art form and they got by with it … Things opened up … People laughed at the profanity in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. It felt good, like loosening your tie.”

Raised on a Northern California farm, and educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Kael later sprang into action in the early ’60s as a reviewer for Berkeley’s listener-sponsored KPFA with broadcasts that sliced and diced the East Coast critics. ”I was seeing wonderful movies from abroad that had been panned — and often doomed — by the Eastern papers,” she recalls. ”And I saw American movies such as The Manchurian Candidate that the New York reviewers just didn’t seem to get.” With a few exceptions, her attacks on critics tapered off after she moved to New York in 1965: ”Most of them don’t loom so large once you meet them. They don’t have the stature to be villains. They’re often tired and indecisive, and they just swing in line for the high- prestige movies.”

Even in retirement Kael can be counted on for an adversarial voice. What’d she think of Forrest Gump? ”I hated it thoroughly,” she says, citing its ”Reagan-era” view of the counterculture. As for The River Wild, she says only, ”I took my grandson. It’s great for kids.

”I didn’t go to The Lion King,” Kael says, then adds, ”I draw the line at Disney.” Pulp Fiction? ”I enjoyed it hugely … [but] it’s been taken a little too seriously.”

Kael says of her book: ”I wanted to suggest the pleasures that actors can give us — that’s why I included short riffs on performers like Rip Torn and John Candy and John Gielgud. I would love to think that this sense of pleasure will be communicated to reader-moviegoers. Does that sound wet? Too bad, because I don’t know how else to say it.”