MY PERILS - AND PAULINE'S - AT THE MOVIES
by T.S. Kerrigan
American Reporter Correspondent
Los Angeles, California
LOS ANGELES -- When I read a book by Joan Didion or a poem by Dana Gioia about what it's like to be a native Californian, I'm always puzzled because their experiences and impressions are so different than mine. Perhaps if they had grown up in Los Angeles when I did - that provincial city that no more resembles its present self than it did the original pueblo - they would have an altogether different view of what it meant to be reared in this state.
In the 1940s and '50s, Los Angeles was the Mecca of the movies. The downtown area was filled with theaters, some of them palatial, like The Orpheum.
They were almost all first-run theaters and they always carried a double
bill. Some, like the Paramount and the Twentieth Century Fox, were actually
owned by studios. There was a feeling that films were a local industry and were
entitled to our support. I don't think any of the several newspapers that
flourished in the city at that time ever gave a film a bad review. Film criticism
simply did not exist in Los Angeles.
Though my mother and father were to be important influences later in my life, it was World War II and they were involved, respectively, in the war and the war effort. My grandmother became the main adult figure during my early years and she was an indiscriminate fan of the movies. I suspect that even before I was born I could hear from the womb the clicking noise that her change purse made as she continually opened and closed it to get the necessary funds for bus fare or the price of admission to a current film.
Margaret Meade remarked a couple of decades ago that we would soon be seeing the first generation of children raised, not by their parents, but by television. Years before that I and others in my situation were undoubtedly raised by the movies. Before I started school my grandmother took me to two movies every day of the week, and four movies a week thereafter. She seems to have had no particular interest in selecting films suitable for a child and we ended up seeing everything available. Even now, I can walk into a living room with an Alan Ladd or Dana Andrews movie on the television screen and accurately predict what is going to happen next, despite the fact I have no recollection of the titles of any of these films.
When I got older and farther away from my grandmother's influence, I went to the Saturday matinees at our local theater with the other kids in the neighborhood. We booed and hissed the "Japs," as we referred to them, in some of the most offensive films ever made. The enemy officers were always played by the same actors who consistently specialized in a policy and practice of the most fiendish of tortures. I have often wondered whether these propaganda films exist in a vault somewhere.
There were also the westerns. You went to a theater called the Hitching Post in Hollywood wearing a cowboy outfit, entering only after you had checked your cap guns at the door. You went in the morning and left in the evening, never seeing the same picture twice. My least favorite films were musicals, though I was familiar with them all, having heard them at home on the Lux Radio Theater. Imagine anyone today sitting in front of a radio for hours listening to actors read from screenplays!
I abandoned films at 13, when I started becoming interested in literature. We had never had more than a few books in any of the places we lived and I mostly got my fiction from my mother's two regular magazines, Ladies Home Journal and Redbook. The thing that made the greatest impression on me at the time was that the heroines in these stories had names very different than any of the girls or women I knew, names like Allison and Madison. Shortly thereafter, I graduated to the World's Popular Encyclopedia, which my father inexplicably bought at the local supermarket.
I didn't know anyone who had been to college, but I somehow came up with the notion that by reading all the books in The Modern Library, which I had seen in Robinson's department store, where my mother worked, I could qualify as an educated man. In hindsight, it does not seem like a bad idea, but school, and later girls, got in the way. With this state of mind, I rarely went to the movies, except on an occasional date. If the truth were known, I now despised the movies for the popular and pedestrian vehicles I judged them to be.
Then, in the very late '50s I entered the University of California at Berkeley, which changed my life and my thinking in many ways. One of the most significant of these was my attitude toward film. There was a small theater, The Berkeley Cinema, what would now be called an "art house," where I was taken, kicking and screaming, by some fellow students one evening.
I don't even remember what we saw, but I know that the experience transformed me. I became a regular visitor to that theater in the months and years that followed. I saw, for example, all the Jean Cocteau films, all the Ingmar Bergman films, a film of Picasso painting on one side of a pane of glass while the camera panned in on the reverse side, filmed performances of classical Greek tragedies, a number of what are now recognized as surrealistic classics, and many, many others. My eyes had been opened and I realized that some films could actually have the density and substance of good fiction.
As important and revealing as these films were, they were matched by the knowledge and information provided in the programs we were given with each film. These were scholarly, brash and usually passionate guides to these films. Exactly 35 years later I learned from my then brother-in-law, Alan Ormsby, a prominent screenwriter, that the person who both wrote these guides and selected these films was none other than Pauline Kael, generally considered the most influential film critic of modern times.
Born in Petaluma, Calif., in 1919 - a town then primarily known for its chicken pluckers - Pauline had been hanging around Berkeley for years. She been married and divorced three times, and was the single parent of a daughter she had to find a way to support. She worked at odd jobs and in restaurants and bookstores. She didn't write her first movie review until 1953.
Then, between 1955 and 1960 she began writing those astounding programs for The Berkeley Theater and selected the films, which introduced me to serious filmmaking. When she did hit the big time with McCall's, she was shortly fired for trashing "The Sound of Music." She did not come into her own until she was hired by the courageous William Shawn at the New Yorker in 1967 and was finally given the freedom to write in the manner only she could, dwarfing the so-called film experts of the present day. Then came all the wonderful and, again, opinionated, books of reviews (I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Nights at the Movies, etc.) which are on the shelves of every serious movie buff.
I never met Pauline Kael, though our paths may literally have crossed several times in the Berkeley of those days - -perhaps on a busy day on Telegraph Avenue - but she gave me and others in the audiences at the Berkeley Theater insights on how film could truly be an art form, as much as music and literature, the same message she was to give the world a few years later.
I rarely go to movies these days, which seem to me to consist for the most part of car chases and sexual coming of age drivel. I don't even recognize the celebrities on the lurid magazines set out at the checkout counters of our supermarkets. If Pauline were only still among us! How she would have responded to this dreary state of affairs with that irrepressible insistence on excellence!
AR Correspondent Tom Kerrigan writes poetry, plays and essays, and has successfully argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.