DATE September 4, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: William Whitworth discusses film critic Pauline Kael,
who died yesterday, and shares some of his memories of working
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're going to postpone our interview with Garrison Keillor until tomorrow
that we can remember the great film critic Pauline Kael. She died yesterday
at her home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. She was 82. She wrote for
The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991 when her increasing weakness from
disease led her to retire. Today's obituary in The New York Times describes
Kael as probably the most influential film critic of her time. But her
influence as a writer and critic went beyond film criticism. Earlier today,
spoke with William Whitworth about her writing and what it was like to work
with her. Whitworth edited Pauline Kael from about 1975 to 1980. Whitworth
worked at The New Yorker for about 15 years, half of which he spent as staff
writer, half as associate editor. He left The New Yorker in 1980 to become
the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a position he held for 20 years. He's
the editor emeritus. I asked him first to describe Pauline Kael's
as a writer and critic.
Mr. WILLIAM WHITWORTH (The Atlantic Monthly): I think she was one of the
great American writers of the past 50 years or so as a stylist and not just
a movie critic, as a sort of social critic, in that if you read through her
reviews of several decades, you sort of see a little historical account of
what the country was going through politically and emotionally.
GROSS: In what ways do you think she was most influential?
Mr. WHITWORTH: Well, she was very influential on young people, and there
dozens of young people who aspired to be movie critics or music critics,
critics, literary critics, all over the country who clearly were fans of
and influenced by her. I can remember someone saying back in the '70s, 20
years ago, all English majors wanted to be Edmund Wilson, and now all
majors want to be Pauline Kael. And I think there was some truth to that.
GROSS: Do you think she changed at all how movies were written about? I
mean, is there any like demarcation of film criticism pre and post Pauline
Mr. WHITWORTH: Well, you know, I'm really not an expert on film criticism,
but I think you can see that. You can see it in her disciples who are still
around today, and one of those marks would be a real appreciation of movies
an art form, you know, not as just sort of inferior staged versions of
and an appreciation of the pop aspect of movies. She wrote sometimes about
enjoyable trash in movies. And if I could quote one thing she said about
movies, as an example of her take on them, this is from a foreword to one of
her books. She says, "Movies can overwhelm us as no other art form, except
perhaps opera does, although folk and rock music can do it, too. For some
people, being carried away by a movie is very frightening. Not everyone
to have many senses affected at once. Some people feel that they're on the
receiving end, being attacked. The appeal of movies seems to go against the
grain of everything they've been told during the processes of education, how
they should learn to discriminate, learn to think for themselves, learn not
be led blindly."
GROSS: That's great. Can you read us any examples of Pauline Kael's
that show what you think made her so great?
Mr. WHITWORTH: Well, before I read anything, let me just try to remember an
example of how funny she was, at least to me and to so many readers. I
remember what this review was, but I do remember her doing it. It was a
about Joan of Arc. And in her description of the plot, when she gets to
they're tying Joan to the stake and arranging the kindling, Pauline says as
they were arranging the kindling, she heard a scratching noise around her,
then she realized that it was her rummaging in her handbag for a match.
GROSS: Any other examples?
Mr. WHITWORTH: Well, I was trying to remember her way of nailing people,
I don't mean putting them down but establishing what they're like in the
movies. Here's one. I mean, some of these are appreciations, not
Here's one of Robert Mitchum. She says, `This great bullfrog with the puffy
eyes and the gut that becomes an honorary chest has been in movies for
30 years, and he's still so strong a masculine presence that he knocks
men off the screen. His strength seems to come precisely from his avoidance
of conventional acting, from his dependence on himself. His whole style is
put-on in the sense that it's based on our shared understanding that he's a
man acting in material conceived for puppets.'
And then, let's see, here's one of--a quick description of Richard Pryor
I think's very good. This was in a review of "Silver Streak." She says,
`Pryor's comedy isn't based on suspiciousness about whites or on anger
He's gone way past that. Whites are unbelievable to him. Playing a thief
the new mystery comedy "Silver Streak," he's stupefied at the ignorance of
hero, Gene Wilder, and he can't believe the way this white man moves.' And
you think about it, that does sort of describe a lot of Pryor's comedy, the
unbelievableness of whites.
Here's a little appreciative remark about Lily Tomlin. `In repose, Lily
Tomlin looks like a wistful pony. When she grins, her equine gums and long
drawn face suggest a friendly, goofy horse. Either way, she takes the
and holds it for as long as she wants to with the assurance of a star.'
GROSS: You edited Pauline Kael for the last five or so years that you were
The New Yorker from about '75 to 1980. Were there any conflicts editorially
with her? I mean, Pauline Kael, I think, used much saltier language than
The New Yorker was usually comfortable with.
Mr. WHITWORTH: She did, and that was a continuing problem that put me
uncomfortably between Pauline and William Shawn, both of whom I admired so
deeply. I guess I have to set up the process in a way. When we'd put her
piece into type, then that proof would go out to a number of people--to me
the editor, to Shawn, to the fact checkers, to a sort of grammarian. And
all be working on the piece at the same time. And then those proofs would
come back to me and I would examine them with Pauline. And one of the
of course, would be from William Shawn, and his main concern often did seem
be that I not let any naughty words or naughty suggestions into the review.
I do have here an example. This is a Shawn proof on Pauline's review of a
movie called "Goin' South," directed by Jack Nicholson and starring Jack
Nicholson. Right at the beginning, she says, talking about Nicholson, `He
bats his eyelids, wiggles his eyebrows and gives us his rooster that fully
intends to jump the hen smile.' Shawn circles that and says, `Fine in
but let's call this number one. This piece pushes her earthiness at us, as
she wants to see how far she can push us, too. It's the tone of the whole
review.' And you go on down several lines and I see a circled number two.
says, `As a director, he's so generous with views of his backside, you'd
think he was taking pictures of a starlet. He likes this backside so much,
he's named for it, Henry Moon.' So the problem there is the two backsides.
And, again, it's not that those are naughty words, it's the whole tone and
sequence here that he's objecting to, and she did sometimes have a specific
word that worried him.
Anyway, then number three, `He's like a young kid pretending to be an old
coot, chawing toothlessly and dancing with his bottom close to the earth.'
circles `with his bottom' and that's number three. Then number four,
`Throughout the entire pictures, he talks as if he needs to blow his nose.
This must be his idea of a funny voice.' Even `blow his nose' is
objectionable just because it's what Shawn calls earthy, and it's
objectionable, you know, combined with these other references to his
Number five, `appears to accept this cackling, scratching, horny, mangy slob
as normal fellow.' `Horny' is number five. Then number six, `Nicholson
working his mouth with the tongue darting out and dangling lewdly. He's
a commercial for cunnilingus. What a porno team he and Black would make.'
circles that whole sentence.
And, let's see, all right, number six, `Wasn't there anybody on the set in
Durango, Mexico, who could tell Nicholson to give his rump a rest?' Oh, and
then finally, number seven, `The only performer who has a dynamic presence
distinguished from acting crazy is Veronica Cartwright. She has the kind of
talent that Nicholson has when he isn't thinking with his butt.' And Shawn
says, let's see, `The crudeness of this line just hurts. How fix--and what
about two of these--two of these, please see number six in quick
Right after that, there's a sentence that he likes when she moves on to a
movie, and he says, `A writer who's capable of this shouldn't be doing what
she's been doing above.'
Well, now what did we do about those? I left the first one, `rooster that
fully intends to jump the hen.' Then when we got down to, `It's as though
he's taking pictures of a starlet. He likes this backside.' With Pauline's
agreement, I changed `this backside' to just the word `it,' and I noted on
this proof, because it was going back to Shawn, `Here's one less backside,'
said. Then down at the bottom, `chawing toothlessly and dancing with his
bottom,' I took out again, with Pauline's approval, `with his bottom,' so it
just reads `dancing close to the earth,' and I noted for Shawn, `Another
Then on the next page, let's see, `blow his nose,' I didn't try to do
with that. I left `horny' alone, and then, of course, when we got to `He's
like a commercial for cunnilingus,' I changed that to, `He's like a
for a porno movie.' And in the next sentence, which was, `What a porno team
he and Black would make,' I just took out the--because she had--oh, I'm
I forgot to set up that above that, she had mentioned Karen Black from
movie. So here, we take out the word `porno' and just say `What a team he
Black would make.'
And then, let's see, over to number six, `Was there anybody who could tell
Nicholson to give his rump a rest,' we changed `rump' to `it,' `who could
Nicholson to give it a rest.' And I say to Shawn, `Another backside gone.'
And finally at the bottom, `She has the kind of talent that Nicholson has
he isn't thinking with his butt,' we changed to `rump,' and I said to Shawn,
`Well, softened at least.' So that was all OK with him. And those were the
types of little problems that we had to negotiate between the two of them.
GROSS: Well, William Shawn felt that the crudeness hurt. You know, it was
crude, it hurt. Did you feel that her language was crude in this? Did you
feel that he was overreacting or that she was being too crude?
Mr. WHITWORTH: Well, actually, I think he had a good point here, and it's
just crudeness. It's whether the writing is--whether she's losing a little
control of the writing and seeming to try too hard. Because she did try
hard. Every instance, she was trying to be funny and trying to have a lot
punch in something. And I really think from a stylistic standpoint, leaving
aside whether this is crude or not, that the piece did read better after we
softened those things. It allowed what we left in to be funnier than it was
if she just seemed to keep harping on it.
GROSS: How did she take to this type of toning down?
Mr. WHITWORTH: Well, sometimes it absolutely infuriated her. And she just
would just draw the line and say she wouldn't go any further. Of course,
since mostly I was able to keep them in separate rooms, they could both
explode to me and say what they were going to do and weren't going to do, as
people will tend to do in situations like this. And I would just sort of
ignore it and just keep trying to work at some soft resolution that wouldn't
completely satisfy either one but allow both of them to feel that they had
stood up for what they believed.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Whitworth, editor emeritus of The Atlantic Monthly.
He edited Pauline Kael at The New Yorker for about five years. We'll talk
more about Kael after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're remembering film critic Pauline Kael. She died yesterday. My
guest, Bill Whitworth, edited her at The New Yorker for about five years.
What was Pauline Kael like to work with?
Mr. WHITWORTH: You know, she was wonderful to work with. I really enjoyed
it. She was one of the great self editors, and not all writers and not all
good writers are good at editing themselves. In fact, some writers, once
have struggled so hard to get it on to paper, just can hardly imagine any
changes. I mean, it just looks inevitable and written in stone to them, and
it's hard even to deal with the comments sometimes. But Pauline, in this
process I described earlier of many of us working on the piece at the same
time, she was a moving target because she was working so hard herself.
I and others were sitting around working on today's proof, she was rewriting
it so heavily in the margins that we would have to revise the piece again
night and then start all over the next day with all of us working on the new
stuff that she had put in. And these were not little word changes that she
was doing, but long new paragraphs.
I think her--and it was so much fun for me to watch somebody that I would
almost have to call a genius, certainly a genius at this process, to see how
she worked on her own stuff, and my function in that was not to tell her how
to do things. I mean, I could point to pieces, long pieces, say, that I had
lot to do with structuring and so on, but with Pauline, she wanted somebody
bounce off of, and we would stare at these things that she was doing. She
would read them aloud and she wanted to see my reaction. You know, was the
funny lines funny? Did it seem fresh? Did it seem original? Did it seem
like an interesting point? And she was absolutely ruthless about her own
stuff. If it didn't seem to be working, she hated it and would start
it out. I think her greatest fear was being boring. And so you could see
just working constantly to make sure that the prose had punch and that it
forward motion and, when possible, that it was funny.
GROSS: She had an incredible memory and always said that she would see a
only once, and yet, she'd manage to, you know, write dialogue and remember
details of scenes. And she seemed to have that memory many years after
a movie as well.
Mr. WHITWORTH: She did. In fact, we often, all of us at the magazine, saw
how remarkable that memory was in this way. The fact checking department
there would, of course, be trying to run down every factual item in the
including historical ones. If she referred to another movie, another plot
another movie, another actor in another movie and it could be 10 or 20 or 30
years before, they, of course, had to run that down. And one of the things
you find in fact checking is that it is very difficult to verify anything,
because books themselves are not fact checked. And so when there was a
conflict between what the history book said or whatever the reference book
that the checker was working with, if we had time to work on it long enough
and go back to original sources and maybe call the director or the actor or
whatever, almost inevitably, it would turn out that Pauline was right, and
reference book was wrong.
GROSS: Bill, can you leave us with another example of Pauline Kael's
Mr. WHITWORTH: OK. Here's an excerpt from her review of a Barbra
Streisand-Robert Redford movie called "The Way We Were." And it shows how
Pauline could enjoy a movie that was a little messy but fun to see. She
`"The Way We Were" is a fluke, a torpedoed ship full of gaping holes which
comes snuggling into port. There's just about every reason for this film to
be a disaster. The cinematography is ugly. Several scenes serve no
and the big dramatic sequences come butting in like production numbers out
nowhere. The decisive change in the characters' lives, which the story
on, takes place suddenly and hardly makes sense. A whining title tune
embarrasses the picture in advance. It has the excruciating score of a bad
'40s movie. Yet, the damn thing is enjoyable.'
GROSS: You know what I really like about that? She's letting herself
to the movie, in spite of what she thinks of it intellectually or as, you
know, a piece of craft. She just lets herself respond to things.
Mr. WHITWORTH: Right. And this was one of her goals in writing about
to explain that they were not literary exercises. They were visual,
emotional, almost tactile experiences. And she wanted you to understand
she was sort of surrendering to at times in movies.
GROSS: Well, Bill Whitworth, thank you so much for talking with us about
Mr. WHITWORTH: OK. Terry, thank you.
GROSS: And I'm sorry for your loss of a friend and colleague.
Mr. WHITWORTH: Thank you.
GROSS: William Whitworth is the former editor and current editor emeritus
The Atlantic Monthly and former associate editor of The New Yorker, where he
edited Pauline Kael for about five years. Kael died yesterday at the age of
82. We'll continue our remembrance in the second half of the show. I'm
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our remembrance of Pauline Kael. We'll
back to excerpts of two FRESH AIR interviews with her. Also, Ken Tucker
reviews a new CD by singer/songwriter Sam Phillips.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Film critic Pauline Kael discusses her thoughts on
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're remembering film critic Pauline Kael. She died yesterday at the age
82. She began writing about movies in 1961. From '68 to '90, she was a
critic for The New Yorker. She was funny, irreverent and very honest about
her reactions to movies. Even people who disagreed with her taste loved to
read her because she was so much fun to read and because they wanted to know
what she thought and how she arrived at that opinion. We're going to listen
back to excerpts of two FRESH AIR interviews with her. The first was in
(Soundbite of 1985 FRESH AIR interview)
GROSS: How do you see your role as a film critic in terms of the audience
that you're writing to, the industry that you're writing about, the artists
you're writing about and the medium--you know, the medium of film?
Ms. PAULINE KAEL (Film Critic): Well, when I write I don't think about all
Ms. KAEL: I think about trying to get straight what I saw and what it
what's it about and what's good in it, what's awful in it; you know, trying
sort those things out in my own head as I write. But beyond that there are
larger things at work. One of them is that the critic is the only voice
between the advertiser and the public. And if we're out of the way, the
advertisers drown you with--and they drown you anyway, but we try to
that sometimes so that if there's a good small movie, the only way you'll
a word of it is if some critics make a noise.
GROSS: You write your reviews in a very colloquial style. Did you ever
to unlearn academic style because I know you went to college. You were a
Ms. KAEL: That's right. Oh, sure. I had to unlearn all the ways in which
we impressed our professors by using big words and fancy references. I try
learn to write in an American style; I mean, to bring writing more in
with how we actually talk about the movies after we've seen them. And it
a while. At first I was very tight and it took some doing to loosen all
up and to feel free enough to write the way I talk. I wanted it to have the
same rhythm as my spoken word, because I thought it was false to write in a
different rhythm from the way I talked. And I felt that if I could do
know, make them one--that I might have an honest way of responding to
It's one of the reasons I like James Agee's criticism because the passionate
way that he wrote was truer to how we really respond to movies than the sort
of cool, fake objective style you see in most critics who are respected.
GROSS: When you review a movie, you usually only see it once.
Ms. KAEL: That's right.
GROSS: Do you trust that initial reaction?
Ms. KAEL: I think it's the best reaction I'll ever have. And I don't mean
that other people need to work the way I do, but I work best that way
when I see a movie the first time, it has all the suspense and excitement
intact in it. And I think when people go back over and over, they
really try to see in the movie what other people have told them is in it.
And even if they didn't like it, they often, you know, begin to fake their
own responses to themselves because there is a consensus opinion that
advertising and prestige develop around a certain picture, even before it
opens to the public. We all know what the industry's pushing; what each
company is betting on. And from the time of year they open it and how they
handle it, we know, you know, what's behind it. And a lot of people fall
into line with that, and if they don't really like the movie the first time,
they go back. And then the second time they convince themselves that they
see more in it.
Often they've done an interview with the director or the stars before
even seen it and so they've been told all the great things that are in it.
think it's very important not to interview anybody connected with the movie
before your see it; to go and then write about what you, yourself, reacted
from what was on the screen and not look for that marvelous performance
been told about. Very often, it isn't there.
Anyway, I simply like that full, immediate experience, and I'm able to
the movie very well from one seeing. So the only times I've ever gone back
was when the review was already locked in and I needed to check that I've
a quotation straight or that I got some point right about where a scene took
place; something of that sort. So I might do that just before it's locked
at the printers. But I always write the review from the first seeing.
GROSS: Do you ever go back a second time and find that that second opinion
very different from the first and maybe you begin to doubt that first
Ms. KAEL: I don't worry about it. No. I just--I don't think a movie
is fatal. I can't--I don't do any great damage to a movie by not liking it,
particularly if it's a big movie. If it's a small innovative movie or a
small-budget movie, if I don't like it, I generally don't say so anyway. I
just don't review the movie. I only go--I think the big ones it's fair to
after if they're dogs, but the little ones I let get away anyway. So I
think I can do any great damage to a movie.
GROSS: You didn't start writing film criticism full-time, really, for a
living until you were in your mid-40s. What were some of the jobs you held
before then? Were they all movie jobs?
Ms. KAEL: Oh. Oh, no. Some of them were. I mean, I did manage theaters
very successfully for a period. I started the whole twin cinema idea in the
country, which I regret now, but....
GROSS: We even went to the quadruple.
Ms. KAEL: That's right. And the more than that...
GROSS: That's right.
Ms. KAEL: ...but, oh, I've done everything from working as a seamstress to
working as a cook; taking care of children. I've done just a lot of crazy
jobs; some of them because I had a child who needed heart surgery and who
in very bad shape and so I couldn't put her in a nursery school. And so I
took a lot of jobs that may have seemed very lowly because--things I could
at home I did a lot of. But I also did things related to movies. I
programmed movies for colleges and wrote the notes for the colleges and
advertising copy for theaters on the West Coast and for--wrote catalogs for
millimeter distributors--all those dreary jobs.
On the other hand, a lot of them I learned how to loosen up my style and
wasn't so bad. Advertising copy can be useful in that because since it
going to be signed, you don't feel the same constraint you would if you were
working on something and you thought, `Ah, this is my definitive statement.'
(End of 1985 FRESH AIR interview soundbite)
GROSS: Paul Kael recorded in 1985. Our remembrance will continue with a
1994 interview with Kael after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Film critic Pauline Kael died yesterday at the age of 82. She
from The New Yorker in 1991, after Parkinson's disease made it difficult for
her to get around. We called her at her home in Great Barrington,
Massachusetts, in 1994 after the release of her anthology "For Keeps," which
collected about a fifth of the reviews from her entire career. She had
several popular collections of her reviews, with suggestive titles like "I
Lost It at the Movies" and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."
In 1994, I asked her how she saw her role as a film critic.
(Soundbite from 1994 FRESH AIR interview)
Ms. KAEL: I really tried to give what I thought was going on in the movies
and how they reflected what was going on around us and how they fault
And there's a lot of falsification at work; I mean, the whole way that
Sylvester Stallone has come to represent what people wish the Vietnam period
had been. I mean, at first it seemed a joke when he kept winning in Vietnam
for us. Now he represents a spirit of winning for the whole culture. And I
guess Arnold Schwarzenneger does the same thing. But those movies are,
essentially, meaningless to people except in making them feel that there's
power in these bodies and that they can identify with that power. But they
come out of the movie with not much, I mean, because they don't know whether
to laugh at the guys or take them seriously.
GROSS: In rereading your work, did you find that there were actors,
directors or writers whose careers turned out very differently from what you
expected when you were reviewing their early work.
Ms. KAEL: Almost all of them because I could not have expected that things
would go to hell after the Vietnam period; that the loosening up in movies
the whole personal expression that directors were giving to movies in the
would turn into dust in the '80s and early '90s. And it has. I mean, the
great directors have not sustained their greatness. They've become much
conventional. The people who burst through in the '70s have lost their
bearing. They don't know what to express in the movies anymore or they've
given up trying or they've fought and lost. I mean, a few flops and they
the right to try again, although Sophola(ph) goes on trying and trying and
somehow seems to have less and less to say.
But, I mean, look at someone like Scorsese, who in "Taxi Driver" and "Mean
Streets", brought something really new into films. He's become,
more expert. He's become a fantastic technician, but when he makes
like "Cape Fear" he seems to forget that the purpose of the thriller is to
entertaining. It works on ugliness and dread and you hate it. You feel
you've been through something shameful. It's as if the spirit has soured in
movies. When you went to a Hitchcock thriller, he teased. It was
entertaining. It was titillating. When you go to a thriller now, you
to come out feeling terrible.
GROSS: I want to read something that you wrote about "Mean Streets" when
film came out. You wrote, `Though the street language and the operatic
may be too much for those with conventional tastes, if this picture isn't a
runaway success, the reason could be that it's so original some people will
dumbfounded; too struck to respond. It's about American life here and now
it doesn't look like an American movie or feel like one. If it were
subtitled, we could hail a new European or South American talent--a new
Bunuel, a Stephen Verdi(ph), perhaps--and go home easier at heart because
Scorsese, who is 30, has done with the experience of growing up in New
Little Italy has a thicker-textured rot and violence than we have ever had
an American movie and a riper sense of evil.'
Did Scorsese ever contact you after you wrote that?
Ms. KAEL: Well, he contacted me. I've forgotten when it was. He contacted
me, I think, after "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." He disagreed with
something I had said in it in the review, but we've had cordial relations
the years; very distant, but cordial, even when I've been rather unhappy
his films. And I have been unhappy about any number of them. It seems to
that he wants a career as a conventional Hollywood Academy Award-winning
director, but he lost the confidence in the direction he was going in when
started. But he made a few films that will be landmarks in American movies
forever, I think. And that's an awful lot to ask of anybody. I mean, we
shouldn't say someone is a failure if after two or three great pieces he
doesn't do anymore up to that.
GROSS: Does it--is it hard for you when you've met a director or an actor
and you like them as a person and you really admire--I mean, love some of
work that they've done to then give a bad review?
Ms. KAEL: Of course, it's painful, but it's almost worse to love somebody's
work and find out you can't stand them, which often happens, too. Directors
are very commanding people. They're like generals of armies. And sometimes
when you meet them surrounded by their pimps and sycophants you're not too
GROSS: I remember the last time we spoke about--I guess it was about three
years ago when you retired from The New Yorker, we were talking about taste
and how taste can either make a relationship or come between two people who
might have thought of themselves as otherwise being in love and to--as a
matter of fact, let me just read a short excerpt here. This is from your
review of "Dances with Wolves."
You write, `A friend of mine broke up with his woman friend after they went
see "Field of Dreams." She liked it. As soon as I got home from "Dances
Wolves," I ran to the phone and warned him not to go to it with his new
friend.' And I remember, you know, the last time we spoke you said you were
even thinking about writing an article about taste and I--if memory serves,
you were going to write about how it affects people who are out on dates
each other and how, like, the movie choices affect the power in the
relationship, who makes the choice and then who decides if it's a good
Are there people in your life where you don't want to know what their taste
so that it doesn't interfere with how you feel about them? Like if you have
doctor or something, do you want to know if he likes "Dances with Wolves" or
Ms. KAEL: No. I--well, let's put it this way. I want to know, but I don't
want to have to talk about it.
GROSS: But you don't want to choose your doctor about whether, you
don't want to chose your doctor based on your evaluation of his film taste.
Ms. KAEL: No. I expect--I don't expect doctors to know much about movies.
Presumably, they're too busy to go to them that much, but there are fields
which it's astounding to find out what people like and it's a little
depressing. It would be hard to date, I think, if you were a young woman.
It'd be hard to date somebody who loved "Dances with Wolves," but I wrote
about that early when I wrote about someone who adored "West Side Story."
I think it's always a problem for a young woman, in particular, dating, but
men I know have problems. I know a young man who was very upset because his
girlfriend didn't respond to "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." And he felt it was
hopeless to be with someone who didn't respond to that particular movie.
GROSS: Well, do you think these strong feelings that you have about films
and your kind of stupefaction when somebody likes a movie that you think is
really dreadful--do you think that's ever interfered with relationships in
Ms. KAEL: Sure. It definitely has because it enters into so many other
areas. I mean, even a piece of music--"Dido and Aeneas" I have--was a
point in my life when I discovered that the husband who'd bought me the
recording of it that I wanted actually hated it.
GROSS: And did that affect your feelings about him?
Ms. KAEL: It sure did. I had thought that we saw eye to eye because he had
bought it for me and I assumed he adored it. No, those can be terrible
GROSS: Did you ever meet anybody who you truly saw eye to eye with?
Ms. KAEL: No, but I meet people who are close enough to me so that it
doesn't think--`No, never mind.' I mean, small variations you can accept,
but it would be painful, I think, to be living with someone and be unable
express your enthusiasms for certain works because they didn't share them.
(End of 1994 FRESH AIR interview soundbite)
GROSS: Pauline Kael recorded in 1994. Kael died yesterday at the age of
We'll conclude our remembrance with another excerpt of our 1985 interview.
(Soundbite from 1985 FRESH AIR interview)
GROSS: When you realized that you really loved movies and that they were
important and important to you, did you want to make movies or did you know
right away that you wanted to be a film critic and write about movies?
Ms. KAEL: Oh, no. I mean even the thought of criticism came very late. I
went to movies all my childhood. I mean, that was before the rating system
kept kids out and it was also before the era, really, of baby-sitters. We
were a large farm family and we all went. I was carried by my older
and sisters or my parents. And so I really saw movies from a very, very
age. And I did remember them very well. I remembered them better than my
older brothers and sisters, which always sort of surprised them. But it
wasn't until fairly late in life that I started writing movie criticism.
it was just one of those fluky things you start doing when you're trying to
make a living at home. I had tried to do other kinds of writing and I sort
experimented with other kinds of writing; writing plays and essays and all,
but movie--the movie criticism started really when I was--I guess my late
early 30s, but I didn't get a professional job until much later. I was
already 46 or 47 before I ever started making any money at it. When I did a
radio show, I wasn't a paid contributor to Pacific. I was one of their
And I enjoyed writing about movies, though, and I enjoyed talking about
And my style seemed to fall into place more easily on movies. For one
I'm interested in all the arts and I think all those factors came into play.
I'm interested in the theater and in opera and in painting and music. And
somehow or other, movies are a way to use all of that. And I've always been
interested in social and political things. And that, too, comes into it.
GROSS: Because you have to report all the time on your own emotional
reactions to a movie and your more intellectual reactions to the movie, does
it ever dim your own passion for the film? Do you lose the passion when
you're always reviewing and reporting on themes?
Ms. KAEL: No. I think you're more steeped in it because writing about a
movie, trying to evoke the sensations of that particular film, you
re-experience them and you experience them more acutely. I mean, you're--I
think writing seriously about anything you care about, you get to like it
more, not less. I love seeing a good movie because then I know I will have
the fun of trying to share that experience with other people. I never go to
movie wanting it to be bad. I always go wanting it to be good because then
I'll have something new to say. I mean, an innovative movie means I'll have
something new to write about. And that's the most exciting part of being a
(End of 1985 FRESH AIR interview soundbite)
GROSS: Pauline Kael recorded in 1985. She died yesterday at the age of 82.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by singer/songwriter Sam Phillips.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Sam Phillips' new CD
TERRY GROSS, host:
It's been five years since Sam Phillips put out a new CD and seven years
she made any significant commercial impact with her album "Martinis &
Bikinis." Phillips' new album is called "Fan Dance" and critic Ken Tucker
says it has a haunted beauty that gives it mystery and allure.
(Soundbite of Sam Phillips song)
Ms. SAM PHILLIPS: (Singing) Ah. Ah. Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah. When we open
eyes and dream, we open our eyes. Ah. Ah, Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah. When we
What does it mean to dream with open eyes? Sam Phillips poses questions
this throughout "Fan Dance," an artfully, often deceptively simple
of songs. Working with her husband, the producer/musician T-Bone Burnett,
Phillips is intent on creating mood music that doesn't veer into Muzak;
reveries made with the simplest accompaniment, often just guitar and piano,
but have an urgency to them.
(Soundbite of Sam Phillips song)
Ms. PHILLIPS: (Singing) I don't remember last night who painted my picture.
There was a car in the ocean off of Suicide Bridge. The heart collector had
his hands on me at the edge of the world looking out; at the edge of the
looking out; at the edge of the world looking out.
I heard what you couldn't say to me. You gave it away when you said it to
her. You're a secret that I tell myself, running through a thousand lives,
hoping there's one on the other side at the edge of the world looking out;
the edge of the world...
TUCKER: Where Phillips' best previous work, "Martinis & Bikinis" used
that described specific acts of betrayal and feelings of loss and despair,
there are songs on this new CD that could easily have done without words at
all. You don't get the mood Phillips wants to evoke in a song like "Wasting
My Time" by reading the lyric sheet, with its repetitions of the title
and arid images like `My soul's a worn-out road.' The exhausted anger and
resignation that make the song powerful is instead in the grown of Martin
Tillman's cello and in the eloquent moan in Phillips' voice. If someone who
spoke no English were to listen to "Wasting My Time," they'd probably
understand very clearly that Sam Phillips feels she's been wasting her time
a guy she's very well rid of.
(Soundbite from "Wasting My Time")
Ms. PHILLIPS: (Singing) I'm wasting my time, wasting my time. I've been
wasting my time. I'm wasting my time, wasting my time. I've been wasting
time. My soul's a worn-out road where you've left a trail of reminders.
sky forgets; turns black with pain, but the rain remembers your face and the
streets know your name. I'm wasting...
TUCKER: In a recent interview, Phillips has described the songs on "Fan
Dance" as impressionistic, noting that, quote, "I just wasn't able to find
the words to express what I was talking about; the ecstatic and trying to
beyond the everyday to those moments of illumination which are the most
important things in life."
I think the closest Phillips comes to describing her ideas is when she sings
the song "Five Colors," in which she works changes on the Daoist phrase
colors blind the eye.' For any other musician such appropriations of
philosophy would be strained, but Phillips' utter lack of pretension and the
smokey ache in her voice give shape to the words she's invoking.
(Soundbite of "Five Colors")
Ms. PHILLIPS: (Singing) I don't mind if I am getting nowhere, circling the
seed of light. I've been greedy for some destination I can't get to. Where
are you? I turn in reverie to perfect silence, ...(unintelligible) shelves
hide ourselves. I try but can't find refuge in the anger, a walking mystery
of the ...(unintelligible). Five colors blind the eyes, and see the world
inside, amazed, alone.
I don't mind if I am getting nowhere, circling...
TUCKER: A bit later on the CD, as if to acknowledge how little use
conventional lyrics are to her, Phillips offers a composition called "Is
Your Zebra?" whose words consist solely of what, when, who, how and where.
It's not a particularly successful experiment, that one, and Phillips
here and there; going wifty and aimless on us. But for the most part, Sam
Phillips has created a lovely dream of a CD, one you can listen to with your
eyes open and still feel it putting you into a trance.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Fan Dance" by Sam Phillips.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Fan Dance")
Ms. PHILLIPS: (Singing) The violinist puts his violin away. Forbidden city
broken in two tonight. I use my blindfold to dry the tears. The stage is
empty and tired of light.
But when I do the fan dance, I'm all red in China. I'm dialing life upon my
telescope. Friends and I...
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