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Pauline Kael: 1919-2001

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Back in 1982, a friend of mine sent a brief letter to Pauline Kael. In it, he told Kael that he always enjoyed her film criticism, but that he felt her new book was something of an incomplete, slapped-together disappointment.

Perhaps, he figured, even the mighty deserve to be reprimanded when they're slumming. Kael, whose witty admonitions during her tenure at The New Yorker drew an especially obsessive readership, had standards to maintain.

Several weeks after my friend mailed the letter, he received a phone call from Pauline Kael.

Film critic Kael dead at 82  

I just sat there listening with my jaw hanging open, listening to them discussing "Raiders of the Lost Ark," with Kael taking the unpopular position that Spielberg's movie was a mere shadow of the Saturday morning serials it satirized. For two movie-obsessed college students, having Pauline Kael call you to engage in such a conversation was tantamount to Babe Ruth phoning to argue balls and strikes.

Kael is gone now. I still think she missed the boat on "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and I disagreed with her on many other movies. But I always read her stuff with great interest, because she wasn't afraid to get emotional about movies, and wrote in a deceptively casual manner that sounded for all the world like she was calling up and shooting the breeze.

Movies were Kael's passion, and it showed. Nobody's ever written a more perceptive review of "Taxi Driver," and her early acclaim for "Nashville," Robert Altman's free-form essay on America's skewed identity, helped open people's eyes and ears to a remarkable film. She was also one of the first writers to praise "Bonnie and Clyde," after it was dumped by Warner Brothers and pulverized by critics who felt its mixture of folksy Americana and bloody violence was somehow immoral. That, she noted, was exactly the point. "How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?" she wondered in the review's opening sentence. How indeed?

These days, many people want a critic to tell them that calculated, poorly executed, utterly derivative films are still worthwhile because they're "just movies."

Kael resisted that trend. After watching a movie, she thought about it, felt it, and wrote an entertaining essay loaded with her own conclusions.

She left it up to us to determine what we were thinking, and we owe a great debt to her for daring to start intelligent conversations. A critic can perform no greater service than that.

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