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Thanks, Pauline, for the Movies
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It's Academy Awards time again, a time to celebrate the motion picture, a time that invariably reminds my wife Gerry and me of the great debt we owe to the late film critic Pauline Kael for leading us into a lifetime of enormously pleasurable entertainment.

Kael, dead now for six years, taught us, and I'm sure many others, to truly appreciate and, most of all, simply enjoy movies as movies, to marvel at their uniqueness.

We still treasure the now badly worn printed programs describing the films that were showing at two cramped and drafty theaters in Berkeley, California, the Cinema Guild and Studio, that Kael and her then-husband, Edward Landberg, operated in the 1950s and 60s.

It was those program notes, written anonymously by Kael, her equally plain spoken and extraordinarily insightful radio commentaries over local Pacifica Station KPFA -- and, of course, the terrific films shown at the theaters -- that hooked us on movies for life.

Until then, the motion picture didn't much matter to us. Most contemporary films didn't seem worth watching and there was virtually no opportunity to see the classic films of years past -- or to even know of them. There were very few repertory theaters, no videos to rent, and few critics who didn't either dismiss films as lightweight fluff or assess them pretentiously as high art.

Kael was highly opinionated, often arrogantly so, brash, combative, stubborn and most certainly eccentric. But never was she pretentious, never pompous, never less than a witty and passionate advocate.

It's highly unlikely that any theater ever has screened a richer mix of films than did those theaters in Berkeley. Double bills at both of them, usually changed weekly, offered many of the greatest films ever made. Some were well-known, at least to critics, some obscure, some celebrated, some scorned, many misunderstood. Some were aimed at mass audiences, some at smaller targets. Many were old, some were new.

We had not seen most of the films, or even heard of them. Kael's often provocative program notes forced us to think seriously about them and about movies generally -- if only to disagree with her, as we sometimes did.

We kept coming back for more, again and again, even after my job required us to move to the state capital in Sacramento -- 80 miles from Berkeley but a distance we drove regularly to join the almost invariably full houses at the Cinema Guild and Studio.

Kael didn't hesitate to challenge conventional critic wisdom -- or conventional critics, especially including the New York Times' ludicrously inept but extremely influential Bosley Crowther. Neither did she spare Hollywood executives, whose primary task was not making good movies, but making lots of money.

Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky," Kael told us, "shows up directors like DeMille for the vulgar charlatans they are."

Nevsky was but one of several marvelous Eisenstein films she programmed, and one of many silent movies by several directors. She exposed us to the unique experience of the highly imaginative movies that relied on movement alone to tell their stories. We saw for the first time the work of Buster Keaton, D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, Rene Clair, Fritz Lang, Carl Dreyer and other masters of silence.

We saw the "moments of almost incredible beauty and power" of "Metropolis," and stunning "decor of delirium" of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," the grand excess of "Greed," wild humor of "The Italian Straw Hat," horror of "Nosferatu," the astonishing acrobatics of Douglas Fairbanks and so much more.

But talkies naturally were Kael's main concern, and those she programmed were virtually all unforgettable. Among them was the curiously neglected Japanese masterpiece, "Chushingura" -- "fabulous beyond description... perhaps the greatest film ever produced."

We were privileged to also see for the first time probably the greatest of all European films, Marcel Carne and Jaques Prevert's "Children of Paradise" -- a "magnificent creation... a film poem on the nature and varieties of love."

There were other memorable Japanese and French films, and films from every other country where movies were made, as well as a glorious assortment of U.S. movies of all genres.

"Movies," Kael once said, "should give pleasure, pleasure that encompasses sensibility and excitement" -- and if they did, she showed them, be they profound dramas or lighthearted comedies or musicals.

Most film enthusiasts undoubtedly know of Kael's work solely through her 10 books and the reviews she did for the New Yorker after leaving Berkeley in the mid-sixties. Excellent reviews, probably even better and certainly more detailed than her program notes.

But it is to those worn programs that we first turn for guidance whenever presented with the happy prospect of viewing a noteworthy movie from the past or near past. And even if we never see another film of any vintage, we still will have warm, vivid memories of the wonders Pauline Kael brought to us long ago in Berkeley.

Copyright (c) Dick Meister