Easy Reader: Kellow's Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark Throws Radiant Light on the Renowned Movie Critic

The only fan letter I ever wrote to a public figure -- other than to child star Bobby Driscoll when I was a child -- went to the then New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael. Thinking I might initiate an epistolary acquaintanceship with her, I recounted in a couple voluminous paragraphs how much I admired her criticism and, even more meaningfully to me and I hoped to her, how much our opinions jibed.

From her (if never from Bobby Driscoll), I received a response. She thanked me for writing. That was about it. No movie-buddies future for the two of us. Only years later did I learn she'd befriended many fans, who were also reviewer hopefuls, and that -- often after they'd sent her reviews and she'd deemed them promising -- these admirers had come to be known in the trade as "Paulettes."

So I suppose I could be considered a Paulette manqué or even a Paulette maudit. As such, I leaped on Brian Kellow's thorough and well-written Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking, $27.95, 417pp., illustrations). Himself an avowed Kael partisan -- and perhaps a wannabe Paulette -- Kellow has said he discovered her when he was a Tillamook, Oregon high school student. He decided to write her story when he realized no one else had and someone should -- despite Kael's discouraging one during her life.

Having interviewed 170 people who were prepared to tell what they knew -- with the exception of her out-of-wedlock daughter Gina and the mostly reticent New Yorker staff -- Kellow follows Kael (born in 1919 and to whom he refers as "Pauline") from her upbringing as the youngest daughter of a Jewish emigrant who spent much time as a Petaluma, California chicken farmer and his wife, who was somewhat distant to Kael and her two sisters, Rose and Anne.

Asked once about those years, she said, "Chicken ranching? I can't remember a thing about it. But just ask me about the Mystic Movie Theater in Petaluma." And the quote is more than a clue to her life, which revolved around her love of films from early school days through earlier years in San Francisco when she began writing about her passion in prestigious but low-paying publications (Sight & Sound, The Partisan Review) with the seemingly forever-dashed hope of landing a journalist's post that would afford her more than a meager subsistence.

Kellow also covers the friendships she made in those days with fellow movie-lovers and other literary types -- with some of whom she had affairs, the most notable being poet James Broughton, who fathered Gina but wanted nothing to do with her. Kellow also details Kael's participation in the running of the Cinema Guild art house for which she wrote squibs about films and where she first befriended cinema figures whom she admired.

What could almost be called an impressive apprenticeship continued until, at 48, she landed the New Yorker slot -- which William Shawn, who was to become a boss/frenemy, initially had her alternate every six months with the critic/short story writer Penelope Gilliatt. It was from that lofty perch that Kael made herself perhaps the reigning professional movie-lover -- until, that is, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel went on the tube and usurped her place.

It's on Kael's 1967-91 New Yorker days that Kellow understandably places his emphasis. Often proceeding through those years month by month, he reports on Kael's reviews and the longer essays in which she habitually commented on the state of the art and her beliefs about its rise and fall. Intent on being as bold, brash and undeterred as possible and brooking little nay-saying from any quarter, she even felt free to jump the gun on movies made by directors whom she championed. "At Robert Altman's new, almost-three-hour film, Nashville, you don't get drunk on images, you're not overpowered -- you get elated," she reveled in her "Current Cinema" column after seeing a rough cut.

And it was just that sort of encomium that gave fodder to writers who disdained her response to movies, many of those writers whom she in her turn disdained. Yes, Kellow reminds readers -- who are most likely to take to this book in direct proportion to their adoration of movies and their recollection of Kael's preeminence -- that just as there were Paulettes, there were anti-Paulettes, not that he identifies them that way.

These were people who objected to Kael's evolving critical tics -- and Kellow doesn't shy away from questioning these himself or from presenting Kael as someone whose doesn't-suffer-fools-gladly outlook was decidedly off-putting. More and more as Kael aimed to hip and hype readers to her views, she flung superlatives into print and stretched to find new ways to differentiate them.

Of the Warren Beatty-Julie Christie Shampoo, she ballyhooed, "[T]he most virtuosic example of sophisticated kaleidoscopic farce that American movie-makers have ever come up with." Of Steven Spielberg's Jaws, she jawed it could be "the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made." Of Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci's Marlon Brando starrer, she yelped, "No other film has ever dramatized urban indifference so powerfully."

Kellow also points out: Kael's bias toward directors like Sam Peckinpah who made big, "messy" movies; her interest and concern about how audiences are either manipulated or genuinely entertained by movies; her disapproval of film appreciation courses as inculcating rigid attitudes towards movie-making. Nor does he skimp on Kael's disastrous sojourn as a Hollywood producer -- her naiveté about what to expect when she arrived as a crusader and departed as an only partially wised-up peon.

Of the 170 interviewees to whom Kellow spoke, there's one glaring exception: Gina. That might explain why the biggest lapse in his volume is a clear sense of Kael's private life. Yes, there's something of her controlling treatment of Gina (maybe that explains the daughterly demurral) and of her friendships but not enough of, say, the men in her life and why she swore off them at a certain point. Instead, it was the men of, and in, the movies that seduced her.

He also stints on his own analysis of her writing as well as on the physical aspects of how and where she lived. I wonder particularly about the lay-out of the Central Park West apartment she owned. She once wrote that she judged a director's worth by where he sat when he visited. (She rarely talked about the few women directors, although she's repeatedly on record as disdaining Lina Wertmuller.) She wrote that if a director sat facing the living-room window with the park view, she knew he had movie-making vision. If he sat facing away from the window, she had no use for him.

Talk about Kael's abiding influence on her readers! To this day, if I'm in a room with a window and a view, I think of Kael and sit facing the view in approval-begging compliance. From the way Kellow commemorates her, my guess is that he, too, always sits facing the VistaVision window.