The Memory Store :: Pauline Kael

I met Pauline Kael in San Francisco in the early ’60s, a few years before she became the New Yorker’s film critic. Already, her notes for showings at the Berkeley Cinema Guild were locally famous.

“Out in San Francisco, though, there was this person, writing as frequently as she could manage to sell.” – Renata Adler, New York Review, August 14, 1980.

One evening – September 8, 1962 – in her apartment with a mutual friend, we were discussing films and I had the misfortune of praising one or two she didn’t like. I had just finished reading her a review I’d written of the Crucifixion, as it might have been written by … Pauline Kael. The rather negative review ended “The actual crucifixion scene, after all the scourging and mocking, was another letdown. Ultimately, it didn’t seem like a real death. The other reviewers who were there, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, will have their own views of this overwrought scene, but…”

“You bastard,” she said with a frowning smile, and began explaining why she couldn’t possibly have written that….

Just about then we heard sirens coming from the south, and saw a fiery sky. “Let’s go see!” we said. So a few minutes later we arrived at Van Ness and O’Farrell, where tall brick St. Mary’s Cathedral was burning. Flames like Gustav Doré’s visions of Hell surged around and through it. The church had survived the 1906 earthquake, but it wasn’t surviving now. I might have called the sight “cinematic,” but not where Pauline could hear me.

The sidewalks were crowded with onlookers, many of them in tears. “Burn, baby, burn!” Pauline shouted as one wall came down and an infant Jesus fell out of His niche and landed in the accumulating ruins.

“Then there began to be quirks, mannerisms, in particular a certain compulsive and joyless naughtiness.” – Renata Adler

Bystanders were weeping. Some heard her, gaped, frowned, turned away with wet eyes and evil looks. She continued her remarks.

The next day, UPI carried the story. “Three hundred firemen battled the blaze as 5,000 spectators gathered. … Within minutes, huge orange clouds of smoke were soaring up from the burning structure, and were visible throughout much of the city. Shortly before 11 o’clock the roof caved in as firemen poured water through the big windows of the choir loft. The flames then turned a greenish hue as the copper roofing caught on fire.” So it was cinematic, after all.

I didn’t continue working on my review of the Crucifixion, and its pages were eventually consigned to the flames.

“The pervasive, overbearing, and presumptuous ‘we,’ the intrusive ‘you.’ the questions, the debased note of righteousness and rude instruction­ …” – Renata Adler

END

 

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