PICTURE IT: I’m 16, sweaty and sebaceous, facing the doorman of an old building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: “I’m here to see Pauline Kael?” I can vouch for the question mark, 45 years on, not because of any uncanny Nabokovian recall, but because, even now, that first afternoon with her doesn’t seem as if it could possibly have happened. It was 1969 (moon landing, Midnight Cowboy, Manson), I had taken a summer school class in filmmaking, and the only texts required by our wise teacher were James Agee’s collected criticism and Pauline’s first two books, I Lost It at the Movies and the recently published Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Agee was, and will always be, wonderful, but he had died in a taxi soon after I was born, and Kael was more than with us: she had just begun her legendary association with The New Yorker, which in my culturally ambitious Long Island household was received as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls, only weekly and with cartoons.
Pauline Kael herself opened the door to her apartment and it was the first of many doors she would open for me, over many years. Standing there in the hallway, I had yet to reach my full height, but she still had to look up to see me. I was amazed. She was tiny? How could that be? She was huge on the page, an empress!
“Oh shit,” she said. “You’re just a baby. Come on in.”
She laughed. The first time I would hear that laugh — musical, rangy, a broad’s laugh, a laugh that welcomed you even as it warned you that once you stepped through that door, you were expected to join her in her merry fuck-you to all bullshit, bluster, and begging-for-Oscars “worthiness.”
I followed her through her rooms. They were white, and the floors looked like someone had polished them with honey. The ceilings were high, and in every room books climbed from the floorboards all the way to the top. She led me to a table, and as she got me a soda, a large man emerged from the bathroom, tucking in his shirt. He nodded to me, didn’t offer a hand.
“Oh, fuck you, Bob,” she said. “You can shake hands with him. He’s not going to take a job from you." “Bob” obeyed. “This man,” she told me then, “is our Next Great American Director, honey. And so far, I’m the only one who knows it. But that’ll change.” Next Great, etc. (yes, Robert Altman) left us and she told me about the movie he’d just finished, a comedy about the Korean War that was so good and so fresh the studio was talking about not releasing it — that before I arrived, he had been in tears.
“Peckinpah is a crybaby, too,” she said. “The tough guys always are. I don’t know about John Ford, but I’m not sure I want to know about ...read more