To see a movie, to feel more alive

What movie critic Pauline Kael loved was energy, and it made her own work so extraordinary.


September 09, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Whether she was calling Nashville "the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen" or the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers "the best movie of its kind ever made," Pauline Kael always meant exactly what she said.

When I think of her critical vocabulary, I recall slang she used so distinctively that she might as well have patented it -- like "zizzy." Or words she used in combina-tions that were uniquely hers, like "rotten-rich."

She was too wary of theory and repetition to rely on critical catchphrases or inject her words with inflated meaning. Yet in the many conversations we had over the course of a 28-year friendship, one word would come up again and again whenever she thrilled to a piece of writing or a movie. The word was "energy."

In the days since her death, many of us have rightly hailed her for her ferocious candor, her embracing humor, and her ability to grasp the big picture of the movie scene and American culture while effortlessly carving away at the filigree.

I think her greatest gift, though, was the way her instinct worked as a critical divining rod to locate the vital energy in all forms of art and entertainment (and in artists and entertainers). That energy could be intellectual, visual, kinetic, musical or dramatic. Or any mixture, or all at once. Her instinct for it enabled her to champion personalities as opposite as Marguerite Duras and Barbra Streisand, Cary Grant and Richard Pryor; and movies as different as L'Avventura and Saturday Night Fever, Weekend or Shame and Oliver!

What these movies share is the capacity to make viewers feel more alive walking out than they did walking in -- they expand your mind or ignite emotions or compel you to make an interior journey that is exciting in its revelations. And what Kael wanted movie critics to do was add to the energy, not just ride on it: to bring their own risk-taking and intuitiveness to considering a performance, an image, a narrative or a joke.

Energized by work

Those who knew her saw both the energy she drew from the movies and the energy she poured into writing about them. In 1983, in a spell of bad health, she blacked out during a screening.

The very next day she was on the phone to then-fledgling screenwriter Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), who had written the final version of the great political adventure Under Fire. She checked a fact for her next column, and hung up, then called him back to tell him she thought it was a wonderful movie.

It's been said that by the time Kael retired in 1991 after 24 years of writing for The New Yorker (she returned after that only for interviews), she had lost touch with the mass audience. Where once she had singled out moviemakers like Steven Spielberg early in their careers as born popular entertainers, later arrivals like James Cameron left her cold. Actually, she never lost her appetite for movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; she liked Speed a whole lot more than I did. What she resented is the way purely technical masters like Cameron could fake the euphoric effects or sense of wonder that Spielberg imbued with zest and joy.

At any rate, it wasn't the tenor of movies in the '90s that caused her to put away her notepad. It was the advancement of her Parkinson's disease, which made the act of writing torturous to someone who could compose only in longhand.

Kael's handwriting itself had a slashing power: When I sent her a screenplay in the '70s, the criticism was offset by the dynamic way she scrawled, after one five-page section, "That was a good scene!" It suited her potency as a personality. She was diminutive, but, like a hummingbird, she was full of motion when she was standing still. And when she scolded, she was never merely cranky. She picked on targets who could take it.

Critic meets critic

I met her when I was a senior at Harvard and the movie critic at the Crimson. I had just panned her current cause, Last Tango in Paris, in earthy yet jejune terms that I probably hoped would approximate her own effortless raciness. The ruling minds at the literary society, the Signet, decided it would be fitting to have me introduce her at their annual gala, Strawberry Night. Little did they know that I was, underneath my attitude, an enormous fan.

When I introduced myself she looked me up and down (I had at least a foot on her) and said, "So that's what you look like." But after making the rounds she found her way back to me and said, "At least you know something about movies." We talked about John Huston as a favorite director -- I was writing my senior thesis on him. I didn't know we were starting a conversation about movies that wouldn't end until the day she died. Almost her last statement to me, uttered on the phone an hour before she died, was her response to the subject of veteran director Lamont Johnson. "Isn't he amazing?" she asked, italicizing the word though she couldn't speak over a murmur.

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