October 19, 2011
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Perhaps no recent writer has inspired richer reminiscence than has Pauline Kael. In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller equals the best of these with What She Said: the doings and undoings of Pauline Kael. 5000 words, and worth every one of them.

A lot of people now . . . dream of a lost moment when the opportunities were truly “hidden like Easter eggs,” when the paths were not yet mapped and overrun. How can we be expected to create properly, the thinking goes, without the tools of past success? How can we write without the old serious publications, make movies without risk-taking Hollywood producers, live without cheap urban housing, discover art without the underground, make a career without the circulation-desk jobs?

Kael’s great achievement was to fight this way of thinking, to persuade her readers that work is always done with the machinery at hand. It was, for her, a liberating insight. The last movie that Kael reviewed for The New Yorker, in 1991, was “L.A. Story,” a small Möbius strip of entertainment-biz insiderism nothing like the New Hollywood chefs d’oeuvre that had once thrilled her. Yet she loved it. In the last line of the piece, praising Sarah Jessica Parker as the ultimate Tinseltown child, it’s possible to see Kael wink twice. The first wink turns this closing statement into an epigraph for her career. The second alludes to the modern classics that she never lost touch with. The line that ended that review was “She keeps saying yes.”