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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Kael’s Anal Cuts BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael By Francis Davis Da Capo Press 134 pages, $18. Though quavering a bit from Parkinson’s disease, her voice was both sassy and savvy, exactly what a faithful reader of The New Yorker between 1968 and 1991 might have expected. When I spoke with her by phone in 1999, Pauline Kael, the grande dame of American criticism, was gracious toward an obscure writer from San Antonio. Yet she did not allow protocols of courtesy to keep her from uttering what was on her agile mind. If she disagreed with me about a movie, and she did, she said so, without fear of offense or error. Famous for refusing to view any feature more than once, Kael wrote and thought on deadline. When she spoke, she was a Gatling gun of apercus. Kael invited me to visit her at her home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Even while employed as film critic for The New Yorker, she lived in the Berkshires, journeying to NewYork City every few weeks for an intensive day or two of special screenings. Kael did not stick around Manhattan long enough to participate in the palace intrigues that fill so many New Yorker memoirs. She had to return home to western Massachusetts, where she wrote the reviews that made her the most influential American film critic, perhaps simply the most influential American critic, of the twentieth century. I knew that an invitation from Kael was no idle gesture, but I was also wary of intruding on an ailing octoge narian. Besides, most writers are better company on the page than in the parlor, and Great Barrington is not exactly around the corner, at least if the clock on your corner is set to Central Time. So I postponed the visit, until time ran out. When Pauline Kael died, at 82, on September 3, 2001, I lost my chance to learn what she had been thinking for the last 10unpublishedyears of her life. What were her takes on Titanic, Slacker, IMAX, Gong Li, DVDs, Dogme 95, and Michael Moore? Francis Davis, a jazz critic who lives in Philadelphia, was more brazen. In July 2000, he traveled to Great Barrington and spent two days with Kael. He records her remarks and his observations in Afterglow, a short book that restores the late critic’s distinctive voice as if on a very compact disc. Instead of the roomy, ruminative essays that filled 13 published collections and thousands of pages in The New Yorker, Afterglow glitters with quips. “One of the things that disturbs me about a movie like Boys Don’t Cry is that it works on dread, rather than suspense,” she proclaims, without explaining the distinction. One of the things that bothers me about a book like Afterglow is that it works on sound bites, rather than sustained analysis. It is obvious that this slim volume lacks the high seriousness of Johann Eckermann’s valedictory Conversations of Goethe but also that I am jealous of the time Davis spent with Kael. Though a rainstorm cancels their plans to go to the movies together, Davis and Kael watch a video of Galaxy Quest, a comic trifle starring Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver that Kael pronounces “sweet.” Watching a film with her must have been like dining out with Alice Waters, and I regret that Davis was not around when the movie maven had something more nourishing to chew on. Kael does offer him a few morsels of gossip, including an account of how Duke Ellington apparently came on to her at a White House dinner and of how she fought and lost a battle with William Shawn, prim potentate of The New Yorker, over covering Deep Throat. According to legend, Kael was fired from McCall’s for disparaging The Sound of Music as The Sound of Money, but she claims it was not her ridicule of the saccharine crowd pleaser but rather budget reductions that cost her the job. She exults in her plebeian taste and recalls it aroused hostility at the urbane New Yorker, which long considered movies too crude to review at all. Bolstered by a cabal of other New Yorker writers, Renata Adler once pronounced Kael’s work “piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” Even though she had the support of the magazine’s editor, it seemed grudging and had to be won again each time she panned a piece of cinematic piety or used a vulgar word. She notes the irony that, because of his conservative tastes, Andrew Sarris, her formidable rival, would have been at home at The New Yorker, while Kael was the one who should have been writing for his raffish, insurgent weekly, the Village Voice: “He and I were at the wrong placesit’s one of those flukes of movie history.” Kael, who calls herself “a mechanical idiot,” wrote her reviews in longhand, in a style that speaks the American vernacular, as if conversing with a companion while exiting the theater. The scourge of sanctimony, she rode out of the West, from rural Petaluma, ,no