11/21/2011 11:19 am ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012

Pauline Kael

Many years ago, during a press screening of John Irving's "The Hotel New Hampshire," not a pleasurable film, there was a moment when a character made the observation, "Bears float."

"So does shit," said someone in a stage whisper. It was an unmistakable voice, and the anger behind the comment was equally unmistakable. It was, of course, Pauline Kael, whose visceral response to films made it almost impossible to remain within the etiquette of press screenings.

If you are of a certain age, and I'm afraid I am, it is hard to imagine the impact Pauline had on anyone who cared about film, or, as she would have preferred, movies. She had no truck with anything highfalutin. We're talking about the 60s and the 70s and maybe the early 80s when American film was reaching a new, explosive maturity and the directors of France and Italy were embarking on exciting new directions.

By the time she began to be known on the East Coast, the mid-60s, Pauline had been an important figure in San Francisco for many years. Her voice was a revelation. The best characterization of it came from the great fiction writer Harold Brodkey, who pointed out that it was an entirely American voice. The tone of criticism, even at its most distinguished, like John Simon and Dwight McDonald, owed a great deal to the traditions of academia. Hers was entirely colloquial and uniquely her own. Andrew Sarris was building his own style, eventually a powerful one but never as savory as hers.

As the title of her first collection of reviews, "I Lost It At the Movies," suggests, there was an undercurrent of sexual innuendo in the passion with which she wrote. Even when she was writing program notes for a revival house in Berkeley, there was a sense that she was in the center ring and she knew it.

Critics, almost by definition, remain on the sidelines of the art they describe. But Pauline, in the fervor of her tastes, became a player. At one point she made a hideously misguided detour into the business itself, working as an adviser to Warren Beatty. Then there was the business of her followers, dubbed The Paulettes, who tended to be young men who echoed her opinions.

The Paulettes grew out of her sense of criticism as a form of advocacy. She felt gifted directors needed every kind of support, especially when their work was not top drawer. Her corps of supporters could back her opinions and give the director some needed credibility with difficult producers. (If you can find a full page ad for Brian da Palma's "Dressed to Kill" with a list of quotes from a wide range of critics, you can see the full membership of The Paulettes.)

Once, a press agent told me, Pauline told him before a screening that she had to run out immediately afterward. He must not take it as a response to the film. She had to catch a plane to her native Petaluma, CA, to attend a funeral. The press agent thought it odd that he heard from no one the morning after that screening expressing opinions, asking to interview actors, etc. Then, a week later, his phone didn't stop ringing with such requests. He knew Pauline had returned from Petaluma and made her positive opinion of the film known. The Paulettes responded with alacrity.

I sometimes wanted to be a Paulette, but our tastes were quite different and there was no possibility. Not that it was an easy role -- though her company was stimulating, she could sometimes be very hard on even those closest to her. Not to mention those whose views opposed hers. Through her kind offices, I was a member of the National Society of Film Critics. We didn't really know one another well, but we saw each other at screenings. We ran into one another once at a Woody Allen New Year's party (please forgive the name dropping.) After an amusing chat she mentioned she expected to see me at the National Society voting meeting in a few days. I said I wasn't a member and she proposed me.

The National Society was generally thought to be "her" group, as opposed to the New York Film Critics Circle, a much older and more independent entity. At one of the National Society meetings (at which one of the Paulettes arrived with his 10 Best List in red tape on a gray sweatshirt) I sat next to someone from Los Angeles. he wondered why the voting was done in secret rather than out loud, as in L.A. Early in the proceedings, the general discussion before the voting, someone voiced an opinion anathema to Pauline. She lit into him with fury. I looked at my new acquaintance and saw he understood why we backward Easterners voted by secret ballot.

When you were with her you were always taken with her intelligence and forthrightness, though she had odd lapses. (Once, leaving a NYFCC meeting where two of our colleagues had gotten into a heated argument, she remarked that it was because they were "both Armenian." That reflected the unreconstructed spirit of the girl who grew up on a Northern California chicken farm.)

She could also be infuriating, as in the essay "Fear of Movies," in which she chided middle class moviegoers for avoiding films with violence. It was a tenuous premise she had devised to defend and promote two mediocre films by directors who happened to be her friends. As irritating as she could be, you had to admire the fierceness of her loyalty.

These memories came back to me as I read Brian Kellow's exhaustively researched, beautifully written "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark." Kellow has told the life in incredible detail. I didn't realize she had been here in the early 40s. She came with a bisexual friend who was adopted by Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti. They took her in as well until she alienated them and returned to the West Coast.

The road back here was fraught with difficulties -- the first magazines to hire her, when she was already in her 40s, were middlebrow "women's" magazines for whom her views were too severe. They thought of themselves as consumer advisers. Pauline never saw herself that way. Even her many years at The New Yorker were full of confrontations with its legendary editor William Shawn, for whom her firebrand presence was not in keeping with the magazine as he had molded it.

I found the book enthralling because it vividly recreates a world I was part of, which seems now very distant. It is also because Kellow has been generous in quoting her sensuous, percussive, often wise prose -- among other things she was a great chronicler of the changing mores of our time. There are good counselors among critics today but no one has the dramatic power or the conviction that movies were as vital or essential she did.

Pauline was a galvanizing presence, and Kellow has brought her back with overwhelming intensity.