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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice