The Critics: Film Studies: Pauline's pen of passion

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Happy birthday comes a day late, and I'm not sure "happy" is the word, for this woman frets mightily at the way age and Parkinsonism have stilled her pencil. Nevertheless, yesterday, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where she lives in a fine, rambly house, Pauline Kael was 80. I was going to call her the most important film critic of her time. But I can hear her sneer - attacking my thought and her own yearning for the title - "Darling, film critics aren't important". And they're not. Not even the movies matter now.

Kael retired from her job at The New Yorker in 1991, and she was always a very American figure. So let me sketch in the outlines of her life. She was born in 1919 in Two Rocks, California, a village west of Petaluma, an hour north of San Francisco - though you had to go by ferry, for this was before the Golden Gate Bridge. She was the youngest of five children born to Polish Jews who had emigrated, scratched and saved running a store, and bought a chicken farm. When she was eight, her father went bust; he was forced to work in a grocery in San Francisco. Pauline was tiny, very smart, outspoken and abrasive, and at 17 she entered the University of California, at Berkeley, on a scholarship, to read philosophy.

She was an avid moviegoer, shaped by the terrific talk and tough flirt of 1930s comedies. If you read Kael on Bette Davis, say, you can see how that actress - a little affected, headstrong and emotionally superior - might have played the 20-year-old Pauline.

That's how she dropped out of Berkeley, just short of her degree. She went to New York and lived with a poet, soaking up Bohemianism. She came back to San Francisco and lived with a film-maker, James Broughton, with whom she had her only child, a daughter, Gina. There were a lot of men in her life, and plenty of arty hopes. But Gina was sick, and Pauline had to pay the bills. That's how she started writing film reviews, and from there got involved with the man who ran the best art-house theatre in Berkeley.

Pauline managed the theatre, sold tickets and wrote idiosyncratic programme notes. It was only when the theatre-owner jilted her that she began to send her work to national magazines. It was in l967 that she started at The New Yorker - not much short of 50. That year she established her battleground with a rhapsody on the violence, sexiness and excitement of Bonnie and Clyde. She was never genteel. When she published her second collection, she titled it Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, "perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies".

But in waiting so long, she had been lucky, for she found her voice as Hollywood took off on its most daring days since the 1940s. She had dangerous films to write about, and she was at her best then: Bonnie and Clyde, Peckinpah, the Godfather pictures, the best of Altman, early Scorsese, the young Rafelson, Bogdanovich and De Palma (one of her favourites - or follies) - to say nothing of Fassbinder, Godard and Bertolucci. Those were glory days, and she revelled in the chance to urge or shame young Americans into liking the new pictures. Equally she enjoyed the friendship (or the calculated flattery) of directors hungry for her good word.

In 1978 she was reckless enough to accept Warren Beatty's sly invitation to be a producer. She lived in Hollywood briefly, hated it, and returned to be beaten up by the enemies she had earned over the years.

Even in Berkeley, Pauline Kael had acolytes. Young critics were on the phone with her, absorbing her opinions and then moving on to big jobs at her recommendation. They were called "Paulettes", and it wasn't always a pretty sight. But Pauline needed to be right, to be honoured by her court. When Last Tango in Paris came along, for Pauline it was The Rite of Spring, and liking the film became a test of faith and loyalty.

I sat beside her once at a press screening (by chance - I was not a disciple) and her tiny figure was not just hooked on the screen and Brian De Palma's prowling camera (it was The Fury) but scribbling in the dark. She was beginning her review as the film unwound. And she said she never went back to see a picture a second time. Nothing matched the first thrill - and she wanted to capture that.

That limited her. In general, she wrote only reviews. Her one book, on Citizen Kane, was provocative but ill-considered, and the endless richness of Kane has swept it away. She never seemed to notice anything apart from cinema, let alone write about it. But when she was on, which lasted 15 years, she was a true writer, letting her nerve-ends run wild on the page. Agree with her or not, you had to read her. And if you were a writer, you had to learn from her. It was like trying to kiss Bette Davis while she was set on slapping your face.