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Brash, jazzy and passionately idiosyncratic, Pauline Kael set the standard for American movie criticism.

BY KEN TUCKER
Pauline Kael sounded like Pauline Kael right off the bat. When she was just starting out as a movie critic in the '50s, doing radio reviews of movies for the Berkeley, Calif., public radio station KPFA and writing program notes for the city's revival houses, she was already tossing off unpopular barbs ("I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses 'art' films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood 'product,' finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and liberalism") and she was already combative ("My dear anonymous letter writers," she said during one broadcast, "if you think it so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, and so many poets"). She was already looking at the big screen for the big picture ("If you hold the San Francisco Chronicle's review of 'Breathless' up to the light, you may see H-E-L-P shining through it.")

Kael has been providing revelation, scorn, ecstasy and H-E-L-P for the movies for so long, it's hard to believe that she was in her 40s when she loosed these early salvos. Unlike any movie critic of the present era, Kael did not pursue her career while still a cinema-soaked whelp. Born in Petaluma, Calif., on June 19, 1919, she is the daughter of Polish immigrants who moved to San Francisco during the Depression; Kael attended UC-Berkeley as a philosophy major. Married and divorced three times, the mother of a daughter, Gina (born in 1948), Kael spent her early adulthood working at jobs ranging from cook to ad copywriter, seamstress to bookstore clerk.

She ran the Berkeley Cinema Guild and Studio from 1955 to 1960, and began writing meticulously detailed and opinionated programs for the films she was choosing. According to an invaluable profile by Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe Magazine in 1989, Kael published her first review in a small journal in 1953, and thereafter wrote freelance pieces for periodicals as various as the Massachusetts Review, Kulcher and Sight and Sound. Her brief stint at McCall's is part of movie-critic lore, since she was supposedly fired for panning the immensely popular "The Sound of Music." ("We have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs"; Celine Dion should get down on her knees every night and thank Jim Cameron that Kael isn't still reviewing regularly.)

Kael was hired at the New Yorker by editor William Shawn in 1967. There, given the space to turn her conversational cadences into big, sculpted, kinetic essays (Calder mobiles of prose, without the gewgaw sentimentality), Kael came into her own. Her credo: "The reader is in on my thought processes." The enemy? "Saphead objectivity." She delighted and infuriated New Yorker readers with long, reasoned (or sometimes intentionally delirious, unreasoned) rhapsodies over movies her readership would never deign to go see ("Used Cars," "Dreamscape," "Songwriter"), issued pronouncements no other movie critic would agree with (her famous claim that the 1972 premiere of "Last Tango in Paris" is a "date that should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May, 29, 1913, the night 'Le Sacre du Printemps' was first performed, in music history") and denounced highly praised films like the Oscar-winning "Coming Home" ("extremely naive, and possibly disingenuous") with the serene authority of a genius autodidact. While covering movies, she also managed to work in her knowledge and passion for everything from Henry James to ballet to TV sitcoms, and without any self-consciousness or warning would drop in bits of autobiography or various insights regarding her own hard-earned wisdom about the battle between the sexes.

N E X T_ P A G E .|. What would Kael think of Adam Sandler?

 

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