Pauline Kael: I Lost It at the Movies

Article excerpt

Nineteen-sixty two was the year I found out there was more to movies than rooting for the good guys and cowering in your seat. I saw Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, and The Manchurian Candidate, probably the first American movie that could have carried Fassbinder's title Fear Eats the Soul. But 1962 was also the year of a filmic incident I've recalled at least as often as I've thought of any of those classics: the night I saw The Pirates of Blood River.

It was the last day of school. The theater was jammed with students, most of them graduating and most of them drunk. The air was thick with the tension oozing out of a thousand bodies. Up on screen, evil pirates, noble Huguenots, and a lot of piranha fish gave chase to a progressively incomprehensible story-line. The movie was not delivering: four years of high school for a reward like this? Suddenly, with bullets shooting off in all directions and nobody caring, a tall kid stood up in one of the front rows, turned to face the crowd, and raised his arms. "I NOMINATE THIS MOVIE SHIT-FUCK OF THE YEAR, 1962!" he roared--and just like that, the release everyone had come seeking was granted.

Puhlished in 1965 by Little, Brown and currently out of print, I Lost It at the Movies was Pauline Kael's first collection of movie criticism. She cites The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and The Manchurian Candidate. She does not mention The Pictures of Blood River. But her book has room for it--and for the anti-epiphany it could produce--as it has room for anything else that might go into the experience of seeing a movie, talking about it later, or remembering it years and years after that. "Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply," she wrote in 1963, in a precise, withering demolition of Andrew Sarris' "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962"--"just because you must use everything you are and everything you know." Thus Kael shares her pages with the audiences that surrounded her as she wrote from Berkeley and San Francisco from the mid '50s on, and with the academic and artist friends she argued with. She shares her pages with the New York critics who handed down the word she so gleefully and damagingly tossed back. "A lady critic" from "far-off San Francisco," Sarris wrote of Kael in 1968, in his The American Cinema, unable to bring himself to mention her by name, but his sneer only barely bottled up his outrage. Can you imagine! A woman! From San Francisco!

Paying her money like anybody else, Kael left the theater transformed or cheated. ("Robbe-Grillet. …