The Magazine

Memoirs of a Voyeur

A firsthand account of the second-rate.

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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From that point onward, I never worked a regular office job again, solely writing for a living, something that would have been impossible if New York hadn’t been a city of low rents [in the 1970s] and crappy expectations that didn’t require a trust fund or a six-figure income for the privilege of watching everything fall apart before your eyes.

Lucking Out is as much a book about New York in the 1970s as it is about James Wolcott. No one would argue that the 1970s in New York was a golden age, unless one’s taste ran to grunge, graffiti, unorganized crime, aggressive begging, and ubiquitous squalor. In one of his dreary Greenwich Village apartments, from which the view presented on the streets below was of muggings and sexual exhibitionism, Wolcott one day received a phone call from Pauline Kael. She liked an article he had written about stand-up comics, and now invited him, in effect, to join the cult devoted to her and become, as the various young men in the cult came to be known, one of the Paulettes. (The names of some of the other Paulettes are Michael Sragow, Joe Morgenstern, Terrence Rafferty, Owen Gleiberman, and, mentioned earlier, David Denby, who published an essay in the New Yorker in 2003 called “My Life as a Paulette.”)

In his lengthy chapter on Kael, Wolcott records several of her more wickedly amusing remarks about John Simon, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, and others. (A shame that Kael, who always mocked Didion’s stylish despair, wasn’t alive to comment on Didion in her current professional mourner phase.) She was death on Neil Simon and Mike Nichols (“God, the shit he gets away with!” she said of the latter). William Styron and Gore Vidal were also on her blacklist. She sniffed, then snuffed out, pretension, of which in the making of movies there is never a short supply. Of the movies of John Cassavetes she wrote that he exhibits “the kind of seriousness that a serious artist couldn’t take seriously.” She was not much taken with Woody Allen, and thought even less of him after he officially became a genius.

Kael never allowed herself to see a movie twice, lest thoughtfulness kick in, eliminating feeling and ousting original gut instinct.

One thing I learned from Pauline was that when something hits you that high and hard, you have to be able to travel wherever the point of impact takes you and be willing to go to the wall with enthusiasm and over it if need be, even if you look foolish or “carried away,” because your first shot at writing about it may be the only chance to make people care.

Wolcott’s exact relation with Kael isn’t entirely clear. Was he her Boswell and best imitator, or merely her Jerome Zipkin, the man known for walking fashionable women in Manhattan? He notes that she would sometimes read her New Yorker reviews to him over the phone. He was among those invited to join her for screenings of new movies, where her most glancing comments could gravely upset the producers of the movies. Friendship with Pauline Kael came at a price; it was said that one was allowed to disagree with her about three movies—but no more. Wolcott claims no influence upon Kael, and, rather the reverse, feared her influence upon him, or at least feared her wanting to control his life by choosing not merely his opinions but also his lady friends.

“In a sense,” Wolcott writes, “we would all fail Pauline because none of us would surpass her defiant nerve, her resounding impact.” Certainly no critic stirred up more talk about his or her subject than did Pauline Kael about the movies during her years (1968-91) at the New Yorker (minus the time she spent on a failed excursion as a producer and consultant in Hollywood). Her opinions were far from conventional: She didn’t care for Charlie Chaplin, she disliked Chinatown and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She raved about Last Tango in Paris, comparing its historical importance to the night of May 29, 1913, when Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps was first performed. She was always brilliant but frequently wrong. She could treat a throwaway movie like Popeye as if it were Pindar. Moral seriousness in movies seemed to infuriate her; she would supply that on her own.