BOOKS: That Wild Old Woman

Pauline Kael has led a war on bad films, raised mere movie reviewing to the level of criticism and given everybody fits

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When Quentin Tarantino was 15, he saw something on TV that changed his life: Pauline Kael. The New Yorker movie critic was being grilled by Tomorrow host Tom Snyder on her rave review of Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and she refused to back down. "I thought, Who is this wild old woman?" the writer-director of Pulp Fiction recalls, "and soon I was going to the library to find her books. She was as influential as any director was in helping me develop my aesthetic. I never went to film school, but she was the professor in the film school of my mind."

That's just how one thinks of Kael: as a nutty professor, the one you laugh at, fear and never forget. We see her prowling the classroom, badgering her students with scathing rhetorical questions, pinwheeling her provocative thoughts on what, when she talked about it, really was the liveliest art. Kael didn't teach you how to look at films -- descriptive consideration of a director's visual style was not her forte -- but she sure taught you how to feel about them. The titles of her critical collections (I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Going Steady, Deeper into Movies, Reeling, When the Lights Go Down, Hooked, Movie Love) document her sumptuous passion for film. Her hyperactive intelligence wanted movies to speak up, move fast, go crazy, make her swoon. She needed pictures to do for her what her reviews did for her readers.

Kael, 75, retired three years ago; we can all relax from keeping up with the ruthless intensity of her opinions. Her voice is echoed, shrilly, wanly, in dozens of movie reviewers whose style she influenced and whose careers she strenuously promoted. But for the real thing, there is a mammoth new book, For Keeps (Dutton; 1,312 pages; $34.95), which collects about a fifth of her movie writing. So far as we know, that's all she wrote -- no fiction, no lit crit, no backward glance at an early life that included jobs as a seamstress, cook and children's companion (Auntie Mame from Mensa!). "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs," she notes in the introduction to For Keeps. "I think I have."

Kael was in her 40s before she became a fixture among cinephiles in Berkeley, California, where her criticism appeared in the form of program notes, radio reviews, screeds in the local film magazine. She couldn't have been further out of the loop -- the double helix, really, that embraced Hollywood movies and Manhattan media -- so she devised a piquant strategy for being heard: she would go to a movie and review the audience. Sometimes she'd review the reviewers, a tactic that led to slams on the New York Times' Bosley Crowther and epochal tussles over the auteur theory with the Village Voice's Andrew Sarris. Not until Kael joined the New Yorker in 1968 did she move to the front line and have to concentrate pretty much on reviewing the damn movies.

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