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.
Published 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 Pirates 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… may say that… the existence of the two characters begins when the film begins and ends ninety-three minutes later, but, of course, we are not born when we go in to see a movie—though we may want to die by the time we leave.”) Kael made prissy writers like Sarris uncomfortable because she demanded more from movies, from life, than they did. It was easy to find yourself in Kael’s essays; it was harder to get out of them. As with West Side Story:
Sex is the great leveler, taste the great divider. I have premonitions of the beginning of the end when a man who seems charming or at least remotely possible starts talking about movies. When he says, “I saw a great picture a couple of years ago—I wonder what you thought of it?” I start looking for the nearest exit. His great picture generally turns out to be He Who Must Die or something else that I detested—frequently a socially conscious problem picture of the Stanley Kramer variety. Boobs on the make always try to impress with their high level of seriousness (wise guys, with their contempt for all seriousness).
It’s experiences like this that drive women into the arms of truckdrivers—and, as this is America, the truckdrivers all too often come up with the same kind of status-seeking tastes: they want to know what you thought of Black Orpheus or Never on Sunday or something else you’d much rather forget.
Kael published her first review in 1953; the pieces in I Lost It at the Movies begin in 1954, with an attack on the right-wing Night People and the left-wing Salt of the Earth. Straight off, Kael sucks everything into a movie: literature, politics, moronic comments heard leaving a theater, great wisecracks heard inside it, the mood of the country, the whole arc of culture from the Depression into the postwar boom. The reason I look back to Pauline Kael’s book, though, does not exactly have to do with its perspicacity, anger, or love. (Reading Kael on Jules and Jim, it’s hard not to fall in love: with the movie, its characters, with their love for each other and their time.) I look back to Kael’s book—or, really, carry it with me, as I have since 1966, when I first read it—because like few books of criticism before or since it pays its promise in full: “you must use everything you are and everything you know.” On page after page Kael’s writing moves as if to match that pledge, to test its limits. The result, for a reader, isn’t admiration or envy. It can be a kind of wonder: what would it feel like to write like that—to feel that alive? A lot of people other than myself are still trying to find out.
Artforum, September 1993