TASTE MAKERS : People Who Shape and Define Matters of Taste : PAULINE KAEL : AND YOU CAN QUOTE THAT . . .
A Kaelette is not a computer microchip. Nor is it a backup singer in a rhythm-and-blues band. A Kaelette is a creature, male or female, whose writing bears an uncanny resemblance to the New Yorker’s fabled film critic. A Kaelette is, to be blunt, a knock-off--a road-company Pauline Kael whose existence the real Pauline Kael acknowledges, but doesn’t approve of. Originals are bored by their disciples, and as Kael puts it, “I am my own touchstone.”
Romancing that stone has come to be a legend in the bicoastal film community that reveres and fears Kael: Her taste validates shaky egos, even though it may not sell tickets. (Circulation at the New Yorker still hovers around 500,000--and Kael tends not to like blockbusters.) That she writes only for the New Yorker--about whatever she chooses and at whatever length--is part of the reason she stands apart from the herd, and why she’s had enough material for 10 books. After 18 years on the job, Kael is what Time magazine’s Richard Schickel calls “the most quotable critic right now writing.” At 66, she’s also the sturdiest.
“You don’t get pushed around here,” she said, leading a visitor down the half-mile walk from the New Yorker lobby to her “rabbit warren” of an office. The room reflects a journalist’s hard road: It’s got a school-marmish desk, one curtainless window, no art, almost no reference books, one L. L. Bean bag, and a nondescript sofa. “I’ve worked at places where you do get pushed around, and where movie companies got you fired for your taste; where pressures were very forcibly put on you.” (Kael was talking, without any reserve whatever, about her short tenure at McCalls, where, when she referred to “The Sound of Music” as “The Sound of Mucous,” she soon found herself out the door.)
“I never made a living at this until I was in my forties,” says Kael matter of factly. She didn’t write movie criticism until she was 35, but did live a “checkered bohemian life” working as a seamstress and a cook. When her debut review (in the Bay Area’s City Lights magazine) referred to Chaplin’s “Limelight” as “Slimelight,” a new non-reverent voice was heard. That voice deepened through long lean years of Berkeley radio broadcasts and film quarterly columns, and the result is pure idiosyncrasy. So is her way of working. The Kael cubicle here is someplace she visits every other week, to proofread her reviews, set up screenings, but not to idly chitchat. Her colleague, Andy Logan, is a fellow grandmother and confidante, but otherwise Kael keeps to herself.
In Manhattan she might have dinner with writer Bob Towne or producer David Chasman, and is as likely to go to the ballet as to a movie. In the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where she lives alone (after several divorces), she might brunch with neighbor Roy Blount Jr., but more likely will be home reading (currently Don Carpenter’s “A Couple of Comedians”) or listening (to early Aretha Franklin or recent Jessye Norman).
What she doesn’t do is dwell on the past, moviewise or otherwise. She has no VCR here or at home. There are no vintage movie posters in the office, and no lurking Eve Harrington putting her life in order. Pressed, Kael will admit James Agee influenced her, but there were no mentors. What there is, is a fast mind at work. If Kael could describe Kael in one word, it would probably be pithy .
“Eisenhower II is how I sum up this moment in time,” she said, pleased with the label. Then she turned serious. “Movies are terrible now, and it’s very hard not to be glum when the man who directed the ‘Godfathers’ (Francis Coppola) is filming childrens’ novels by S. E. Hinton, things like ‘Rumble Fish’ and ‘The Outsiders.’ One expected more of him, but I think after ‘Apocalypse Now’ audiences have come to expect less. There’s an elation I used to feel about going to a movie; only a fool would be elated now. When movies are terrible, you wonder where does the responsibility fall?”
Kael wasn’t going to squirm out of the answer to that question. Unlike Kaelettes, she knows and speaks her mind, not double talk. “Why are movies so bad? One hates to say it comes down to the success of Steven Spielberg, but. . . . It’s not so much what Spielberg has done as what he has encouraged. Everyone else has imitated his fantasies, and the result is an infantilization of the culture. Spielberg, with his TV series (“Amazing Stories”), now rips off his own things. I can’t think of any other director who’s started paying homage to himself so early.” Then, with a maternal look in her eyes--Kael was an early Spielberg booster, particularly on “Sugarland Express"--she added, “He’s still young, so there’s time.”
Oracle is not a role Kael defends. Unhappy with the state of the movie art, she is not personally depressed, or down. “The things I like very often don’t succeed, that’s all. ‘Heartbreakers.’ ‘Songwriter.’ ‘Sweet Dreams.’ Even ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ didn’t succeed on anything like the level it should have.” She shrugged it off as if to say, “Keep me off the pedestal.”
But if Kael is bored by things like “Death Wish III,” she is equally bored by what she calls “self-help” movies: “Ordinary People,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Twice in a Lifetime.” “Those movies that reflect wholesome healthy values through the approval of family--they succeed. Movies today are either therapy or fantasy.”
And it doesn’t seem to matter. This is not a critic who makes calls in the middle of the night to find out how she should feel about a picture. “I tend not to be ambivalent,” she understated, “and I won’t write about something I don’t have strong feelings for. Sometimes there’s simply no room or energy for another review.”
Let alone nostalgia. The woman who managed America’s first twin art cinemas, in Berkeley, and was inventive at programming Busby Berkeley and Mae West revivals, now won’t look back. Movie history is in her books, not in her vocabulary. If asked, she will admit that some of her tastes, and judgments, were formed in what she calls “the golden time of the ‘70s, the time of the young De Palma and Scorsese. I helped them and they helped me rise to the occasion. My temperament chimed in with their work, and I wanted to do them justice. It was a generation that read and was interested. It was an era of something different. Now. . . .”
Now, it’s Eisenhower II, but Kael prevails. In her office are a variety of Nike running shoes, which she wears to run for the Berkshire hills. “I moved to Massachusetts because people bother you here. They wait outside your apartment building, or come up to you in the library. In the country I decompress, then I come back here to see a movie, and let’s say I love it. What’s hard to believe is that nobody sitting around me agrees. Or those who do, I’m not interested in. It’s the opposite of flattery to write like somebody else. Who wants somebody like me around?”