Roaring at the Screen With Pauline Kael

Frank Rich in The New York Times:

ApaulaThough Kael often made a shtick out of her Western roots — all the better to cast herself as a rebel in opposition to the East Coast intellectual establishment she resented — she was in fact a second-generation American of “Yentl”-ish heritage. Her parents had migrated from Poland to the slums of Hester Street and ultimately to the then pastoral town of Petaluma, ­Calif., where they joined a thriving community of Jewish chicken farmers. Kael, the youngest of five children, was born there in 1919. She adored her father, Isaac, a flagrant adulterer. “Rather than resenting her father for his infidelity to her mother,” Kellow writes, “Pauline seemed almost to take pride in it.” As an adult, she “would be drawn steadily to similarly unapologetic, confident and self-reliant males — as friends, sometimes as lovers and often as objects of professional admiration.” In that last category were the directors Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, James Toback and Brian De Palma. After Isaac Kael lost his farm in the economic turmoil of the late ’20s, he sought work in San Francisco, where Pauline would become a precocious high school student and an expert debater who in one competition, tantalizingly enough, faced Carol Channing. (Alas, the topic and the victor aren’t named.) After graduation, Kael entered Berkeley as a philosophy major and stepped up her prodigious consumption of literature. But she quit college before graduation, impatient to pursue a career as a writer of short fiction and plays. By then she was also pursuing serial attachments to men who had something other than confidence and self-reliance in common. They were all poets, and all gay or bisexual — Robert Duncan, Robert Horan and James Broughton.

Kael and Horan hitchhiked across America in 1941 to break into the Manhattan literary world. Broke and homeless upon arrival, they camped out in Grand Central Terminal. Horan wandered the streets in search of food, and one night caught the eye of the composers and lovers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti when they spotted him weaving in front of Saks Fifth Avenue as they walked home from the opera. The couple unofficially adopted Horan, and, unsurprisingly, he peeled away from Kael. Thus began an odyssey, lasting more than a decade, in which she supported her writing habit with what she called “crummy jobs” — among them stints as a ­publishing-house grunt, a clerk at Brentano’s, a violin teacher and a freelance tutor. After some four years of defeat in her efforts to break into professional writing in New York, she returned to San Francisco. By the early ’50s, she was running a laundry and tailoring business off Market Street, desperate to support her young daughter, Gina, fathered out of wedlock by Broughton in 1948. She continued to crank out unpublished stories and unproduced plays in whatever spare time she could find. When she learned that Gina had a congenital heart defect, she could not afford the surgery needed to repair it. Once Kael’s fortunes finally changed, it was through a lucky break as improbable as starlets being discovered at Schwab’s drugstore. Arguing with a friend about a film in a Berkeley coffeehouse in the fall of 1952, she was overheard by Peter D. Martin, the founder of a new film-criticism journal, City Lights. Martin was so captivated by Kael’s riff that he invited her to review Chaplin’s “Limelight” — which she did, in a pan revealing her critical voice in embryo. Mocking the film’s climax, in which the Chaplin hero, a has-been clown, dies in the wings of a theater after achieving redemption, Kael wrote that it was “surely the richest hunk of self-­gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral.” The piece attracted the attention of Mary McCarthy, among others, and soon Kael was submitting articles about film to other small but prestigious outlets like Partisan Review and Sight and Sound. At the ripe age of 33, she had at last found her subject as a writer. She had also found a literary community, in an exploding Bay Area bohemia populated by the likes of Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter Martin’s partner in creating the legendary City Lights bookstore and the founder of its publishing-house spinoff.

More here.