The lights go down on America's greatest movie critic

By Owen Gleiberman
September 14, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

The word critic has a harsh and not very pretty ring to it, and it never felt smaller or more inadequate than when applied to Pauline Kael. The adored, feared, controversial, forever feisty, staggeringly influential New Yorker movie reviewer may have been a critic to her bones, but more than that, she was a celebrant. For nearly 40 years, Kael, who died at her home in Great Barrington, Mass., on Sept. 3 (she was 82 and had been retired since 1991), poured her eternal love affair with movies right onto the page. She seduced readers with the slangy analytical thrust of her bebop candy sentences, which seemed to spin and whir and crackle with the joy she took in writing them. As a stylist, she was a wit, a magician, a professor, a confessor, a virtuoso prose swinger. Her passion flowed directly into your nervous system, like some weird brain-enhancing drug. A great many people weren’t just fans of Pauline Kael’s. They were ardent addicts.

I’ll never forget the moment that I discovered her reviews. I was 17, sitting in a friend’s parents’ living room and thumbing through an issue of The New Yorker, a magazine I’d barely heard of. There was Kael’s review of Carrie, a movie I had seen on opening day and loved. Sissy Spacek, she wrote, ”uses her freckled pallor and whitish eyelashes to suggest a squashed, froggy girl who could go in any direction; at times, she seems unborn—a fetus.” The movie itself was ”a terrifyingly lyrical thriller…. No one else has ever caught the thrill that teen-agers get from a dirty joke and sustained it for a whole picture.” Reading that piece, I felt as if I were watching the movie replay right in front of me, even as I was now seeing it through the uncanny objectified looking glass of Kael’s mind’s eye. She had the unique gift of standing completely outside of a film and completely inside at the same time. For some of us (and yes, I do mean ”us”—that clubby shadow universe of religious film fanatics that Kael perpetually invoked), a movie, regardless of how terrible or how great, simply wasn’t a complete experience until you’d read Pauline Kael’s review of it.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that no other cultural critic in the 20th century—not James Agee, not Lester Bangs, not Andrew Sarris—inspired that sustained level of collective reader engagement. Kael wrote for The New Yorker for 22 years, after getting hired by editor William Shawn in 1968, two years after she was axed by McCall’s (reportedly for panning The Sound of Music). Readers of the magazine got to know her loves (Altman, Godard, Bertolucci, Lynch) and loathes (Kubrick, Eastwood, later Fellini) as surely as they did their own. Through it all, she inspired writers as well as readers. In 1979, when I got to know her personally, I was one of countless collegiate slackers who dreamed of becoming a film critic for one overwhelming reason: to write in the spirit of Pauline Kael. The power of what she did was so compelling that it’s as if she was the Elvis of movie critics.

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