TURNING POINT / Still reeling after all these years: Upon reading Pauline Kael . . . John Lyttle on his first encounter with the New Yorker's legendary film critic

Sometimes life is like the most banal movie cliche. There are moments that change your life . . .

I remember: the heat of the sun on my neck (I burn better than Joan of Arc) and the noises rising up from the bottom of Primrose Hill. A couple half-heartedly arguing, a lawnmower's buzz, Elton John's 'Island Girl' on a distant radio. . . summer sounds.

And I remember how swiftly these everyday things blurred and faded (another corny movie effect) as I opened Pauline Kael's Reeling, a collection of film criticism culled from her New Yorker columns. The pages swallowed me up. Only now as I write do I realise how aptly the book was titled.

Here's how Kael's most famous review begins: 'Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was presented for the first time on the closing night of the New York Film Festival, October 14, 1972; that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913 - the night Le Sacre du printemps was first performed - in music history.' Here's how it ends: 'For adults, it's like seeing pieces of our life, and so, of course, you can't resolve your feelings about it - our feelings about life are never resolved.'

Exhilarated, I flick ahead to The Abdication. I am not disappointed: 'We're sustained by the hope that Christina (Liv Ullmann), who makes off for the Vatican and then faces an examination by a cardinal (Peter Finch), is going to confess to a wildly licentious past and we'll get to see choice bits in flashbacks. When it turns out she has never 'given herself' to a man, we sit in a stupor.'

And she gets right to the bottom of Papillon, an action flick bucking for prestige status: 'Dustin Hoffman's counterfeiter goes through most of the picture subsidising Steve McQueen's escape attempts with a fortune he carries in a tube in his colon, and as the years pass and he keeps paying and paying, you can't help wondering how much money he can be carrying there. The picture is so sedate it never satisfies our curiosity; is that because when a star costs as much as Dustin Hoffman you don't make jokes about the bank roll he's sitting on?'

When I finally look up it's almost dark, the park is nearly deserted and I've completely unreeled Reeling. The evening air is chilly, but me, I feel warm.

Yes, yes, I know: get a grip. She's only a film critic. But to a Shankill Road boy on the loose in London, Pauline Kael's shiny, slangy, straightforward prose was a revelation. I wanted to write about movies, but I'd left school at 15 and Belfast at 17; not the best start. Besides, the way I wanted to write - the same way I talked - wasn't the done thing. Even with the advent of Time Out, British movie criticism was still a formal practice: polite, patronising, middlebrow. It wasn't bad; just safe and fitfully flat, the occasional passionate outpourings of C A Lejeune, Dilys Powell, Derek Malcolm and Alexander Walker notwithstanding. No room for me here; even if Walker, also from Northern Ireland's green and troubled six counties, found the Eng Lit manner a cosy fit once the seams had been let out a little. To me it was, well, a strait-jacket.

Kael's CV offered hope (she didn't land her New Yorker gig until she was pushing 50) and her writing offered freedom. It said: 'See, you can be simultaneously conversational and engaged, fevered and informed, permissive and opinionated, sensitive and cruel. You can mix high and low: don't be a goddamn tight-ass snob.' Kael could ride the French New Wave (Godard really revved her motor) and still sing the praises of old-fashioned Hollywood trash, if it was honest trash. Kael recognises that Lady Sings the Blues lies through its capped teeth about Billie Holiday's life, yet says, 'It has what makes movies work for the mass audience: easy pleasure, tawdry electricity, personality - great quantities of personality.' She understood art and commerce, the twin souls of cinema, and she made it all look so damn easy.

It wasn't, of course. Kael endured weekly sessions with William Shawn, the New Yorker's editor, in which he would attempt to strip her of her voice, an instrument honed on snappy programme notes and local radio. By the time she hit the Big Apple, print and radio had irrevocably fused. Read her words and you hear Kael, cool and clear. Which is precisely what Shawn objected to.

Kael recalls: 'I (literally) spent more time and effort restoring what I'd written than writing it. They tried to turn me into just what I'd been struggling not to be: a genteel, fuddy-duddy stylist who says 'One assumes that . . .' The result was tame and correct; it lost the sound of spoken language . . . the couple of hours I spent with Shawn were an exhausting series of pleas and negotiations . . . I had to fight for every other contraction, every bit of slang, every description of a scene in a movie he thought morally offensive - not my description but the scene itself. He didn't see why those things had to be mentioned, he said.'

How was Shawn to know that Kael was the coming thing, the invasion of pop into the New Yorker's hallowed halls? (Perhaps he did know - perhaps that's the point.) And how was I to know that I was not the only wannabe consuming and being consumed by Kael's canon, that her influence, at first underground and unacknowledged, would eventually number among its adherents individuals as diverse as Julie Burchill, Anthony Lane, Terrence Rafferty and just about every other film critic under the age of 30 currently working here and in the US?

Her style is hard to shake off. Eighteen years after my initial exposure, I still haven't quite abandoned the tics and mannerisms that first hooked me. Which is OK: I am never more myself as when I'm being Pauline Kael.

'Reeling' (Marion Boyars, pounds 16.95)

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test