Pauline Kael was famous for seeing movies only once, and her reactions to them were definitive--they left no wiggle room for doubt. Can anyone who followed her career as America's most electrifying movie critic cite a time when she changed her mind? Four weeks before her death, she was as stubborn about her opinions, and as skeptical of the critical conventional wisdom, as always. When I last spoke to her, she was in a Boston hospital, having bounced back, at 82, from what seemed to be a minor stroke. She hadn't seen the revised "Apocalypse Now Redux," but she wasn't buying my insistence that the new version was deeply impressive. Coppola's epic had broken her heart when it first came out--she had been awaiting a "visionary, climactic, summing-up movie." When it didn't measure up to its promise, something changed for her in the movie landscape. "Since then, I think," she wrote in 1980, "people have expected less of movies and have been willing to settle for less."
Kael wanted nothing less than ecstasy at the movies, and her passionate responses changed the way audiences looked at them and critics wrote about them. (A northern California native, she died in Great Barrington, Mass., on Sept. 3.) Reviewing for The New Yorker from 1967 to 1991, Kael possessed the most commanding, provocative, sometimes infuriating voice in criticism. It was a voice uniquely American in its rhythms and attitudes--slangy, impudent, scornful of pieties, but deeply informed by all she knew of life and art. Her reviews burned with a furious certitude that got your head buzzing and your heart racing--just like the movies she adored. I wasn't a close friend of Pauline's--years could go by between phone calls--yet I was having conversations with her inside my head even before I met her. For fans and foes, her presence was inescapable.
Kael used her intimidating intellect (she'd studied philosophy at Berkeley) to trash the purely intellectual approach to movies. She brought every sense she had to bear on the subject. As the sexualized titles of her books ("I Lost It at the Movies," "Reeling") implied, she went into the dark with the expectation of ravishment. "I can enjoy movies that don't have that moviemaking fever in them," she wrote in her 1978 essay "Fear of Movies," "but it's enjoyment on a different level, without the special aphrodisia of movies--the kinetic responsiveness, the all-out submission to pleasure... If a movie doesn't 'pulse'--if the director isn't talented, and if he doesn't become fervently obsessed with the possibilities that the subject offers him to explore moviemaking itself--it's dead and it deadens you. Your heart goes cold. The world is a dishrag."
Kael was prophetic about people settling for less in the movies. And after her retirement in 1991, it seemed people settled for less in the way movies were talked about. It's painful to think we'll never have the gift of her insight again. She made thinking about movies a joyous, high-stakes game. For Kael addicts, the world is going to be, for a while at least, a dishrag.