Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, I was movie-mad. I saw everything and kept a scrapbook of clipped-out movie ads underneath which I wrote short reviews, while on my bedroom door I posted each year a 10-best list, written in multicolored markers. I was intense about it all, and eventually, come junior high, the kids at school started making fun of me. I talked about movies too often, it seemed, for too long, with too much passion; they seemed to suspect something unseemly in my ardor. I thought of those kids and their taunts 20 years later, after I’d come to know Pauline Kael. During one holiday season, I kept calling her to report on yet another movie that had me excited. “You have movie fever!” she proclaimed, her words falling on me like a benediction.
I started reading her when I was 16, when a co-worker at the bookstore where I worked after school handed me a copy of The New Yorker, telling me to read the review of Brian De Palma’s The Fury, a movie I couldn’t stop talking about. “You’ll like this critic,” he said, and I did. I was hooked on Kael from then on, but she scared me too, because she often tore apart movies I had enjoyed, which made me wonder, for the first time, why I loved what I loved. In other words, her writing encouraged me to think. In reading Kael I learned to pay attention to my own responses (one of her favorite words), and eventually, when I was about 28 years old and living in L.A., I began writing movie essays of my own that I self-published as an ongoing series called “Flickers.” Once or twice a year, for over 10 years now, I’ve been mailing these pieces to friends and family. In the summer of 1990, I mailed a special edition of “Flickers” to Kael.
That was the first time I heard her voice on my answering machine. It was a Friday in October, two months after I’d sent her (via The New Yorker) a small photocopied “Flickers” book in which I tried to get at my deeply personal feelings for 10 films from the 1980s. As an epigraph, I had used a famous quote of hers: “There’s nothing quite like that moment when the lights go down and all our hopes are concentrated on the screen.” My friend Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s Bookworm, who had known Kael for 20-odd years, had urged me to send her a copy. “You’ll hear from her,” he promised, and damned if I didn’t.
“Hi. It’s Pauline Kael. I just wanted to say it’s obvious you have a real feeling for movies, and I’m flattered you wanted to quote me. There’s some really nice stuff in your book. Bye-bye.” It was astonishing. For months afterward, whenever Michael and I would talk on the phone and my call-waiting tone would sound, one of us would joke to the other, “Oh, it’s probably Pauline again.” On a January 1991 afternoon, I was talking to Michael when the other line clicked, and while neither of us made our joke, lo and behold, there was Pauline, calling for real. She explained that she was putting together a new book, Movie Love, which she must have known would be her last collection of new reviews, since she would announce her retirement two months later. Lightly, as if she were calling for a recipe, she told me that she wanted to quote from one of my essays in her introduction. Was that okay, and did I want to be identified as Chuck or Charles? Flabbergasted, I stammered and babbled, and I kept doing so for a good long time, as I slowly learned to relax into our growing phone friendship.
“Tell me, what have you seen?” was always the first thing Pauline would ask when I talked to her, with expectant, hurried urgency, as if she were leaning forward into the phone, very much wanting to hear the scoop, the word, the promise that a good film was on her horizon. The years passed, and we kept talking. She encouraged my writing, and I kept her up to date on what was new, while also trying (as several of her other movie friends did) to keep her supplied with screening videos of the new films that never made it to her little Massachusetts town. While we talked occasionally about her health problems and sometimes about my romantic woes, we mostly stuck to the movies. As the 1990s progressed, she started asking when I was coming to visit, and there was a sense that she was telling me to hurry, that time was running out. Finally, in the summer of ’98, I flew to New York, rented a car and headed for her peaceful, tree-nestled, white Victorian house in the Berkshires. A shockingly small, intensely alert woman greeted me, one with whom I immediately felt at ease, probably because she reminded me of my grandmother, a comparison I wasn’t brave enough to mention. Pauline did not like growing old.
Almost immediately, we headed off to a movie. De Palma’s Snake Eyes had opened nationally that day, but sadly, it wasn’t playing in Great Barrington. We settled for the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary, which I’d already seen and hated, but which appealed to Pauline because she’d gotten a kick out of their Dumb and Dumber. While many would defend Mary as a very funny movie, it doesn’t play so well to an audience of four people. At one point, Pauline said out loud, more to herself, it seemed, than to me, “These boys have a pacing problem,” and later looked over at me and said, “You are heroic for seeing this again.” She’d brought along a baggie full of oatmeal cookies, but when I went out to buy us drinks, the manager wouldn’t let me pay, waving her hand instead, saying, “Please. You’re with Pauline.”
Amazingly, yes, I was with Pauline. I took her grocery shopping and she bought me dinner, and we stayed up late, curled up on the sofa, watching and talking movies and telling each other stories of how we’d ended up as writers. I asked her if she’d always been so sure of what she’s so sure of, and she said, “Yes. Always. Even as a child I knew very clearly how I felt about things.” She asked if I liked being a movie critic, and I joked that I wouldn’t feel like a real critic until I’d been blurbed in an ad for some crummy comedy, and she said, “If you’re writing real sentences, they can’t blurb you.”
In a way, I think that’s all she wanted — for me and everyone else to write real sentences and to trust in our own ways of thinking, as she did. She never seemed to mind if I disagreed with her, as long as I was ready to back my opinion up. Without doubt, she was a complex woman, and in the years to come the biographies and exposés will have at her, but she was good to me. Tough and unsparing once or twice, when she thought I was writing dishonestly, but it was toughness born of caring and a boundless generosity. Like this: Last year I sent Pauline a tape of an episode of Dawson’s Creek, in which Dawson is given a hardcover copy of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Pauline’s second book. When she called to thank me, I told her that dumb-dumb Dawson didn’t know how lucky he was, since a hardcover of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is impossible to find. Three days later, an inscribed hardcover copy landed at my door.
I last spoke to Pauline 10 days before she died, when I called to tell her that I was on my way to interview my first movie star. “Who?” she asked. “Gena Rowlands,” I said, sort of holding my breath, for she’d never been a fan. There was a pause, and she said, “Oh, no! She’s huge and tough!” and without thinking I said, “Well, Pauline, I spent the weekend with you. How hard could it be?” She laughed — that rich, full, never-phony laugh — and made me promise to send her a copy, and as I put the phone down I thought, not for the first time, that there are few moments as joyous as the one in which you’ve just made Pauline Kael laugh.