Boston's Alternative Source! image!

R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 03/27/1997,


Fur flies over the Kael "kopy kats"

ALT="[Pauline Kael]" align=right width=197 height=200 hspace=15 vspace=5> It's been brewing and bubbling for a decade, a big-time exposé story on the so-called Paulettes, American film critics at major publications who, complimented by Pauline Kael's personal attention to their careers, seem to copycat her singular taste and strive to replicate her slangy, smarmy rhetoric.

A Pauline Kael cult? Even more, a confederated front of Kael-driven reviews?

Veteran Paulette watchers swear it's true: that her most ardent devotees deliberate with each other (by phone? E-mail?), and forge a common School of Pauline position (with Kael's assent?) before articles are written. Paulettes, they avow, have united in the last year to swear allegiance in their reviews to, among others, these five films: Mission: Impossible, Tin Cup, Fly Away Home, Freeway, and The Whole Wide World.

Of course, accused Paulettes say that such theory of a conspiracy is nonsense, and Kael herself vehemently denies it all. In a 1991 interview she scoffed, "This Paulette stuff is kind of like McCarthyism -- once you're accused, you're on the defensive, you have to keep explaining that you're not one, even though there's no evidence that you ever were one."

Who to believe?

I do know what three somewhat deprogrammed critics ("The Paulettes Who Came In from the Cold?") have told me in extended private conversations. Their stories are remarkably similar, of, early, being courted by Kael herself, and then later feeling intense pressure from other Paulettes, and, yes, from Pauline, to stay in line with their critical judgments.

In truth, I've hesitated about investigating the Paulette phenomenon. Do I want the heat for whistle blowing? Some perhaps-Paulettes are very nice people, and two I count among my friends. Do I want to write hurtful things about them?

As for Kael, my two meetings many years ago were pleasant and cordial. I even asked her to autograph a book.

So who wants to become ostracized as the Serpico of film criticism?

James Wolcott (whom I've never met) is extremely willing. The New Yorker TV critic names many names (three are part-time Boston Phoenix colleagues) and backstabs those Paulettes he names in an instantly notorious -- also, snide and vicious -- essay, "Waiting for Godard," in the April Vanity Fair.

A former film reviewer for the Texas Monthly, Wolcott observes that, in the '90s, "Movie criticism has become a cultural malady, a group case of chronic depression and low self-esteem," and that no group is more haggard and lost than "the true Paulettes . . . who still have one eye and ear cocked to Pauline's opinion as they try to re-create her glory days and make each review an event."

For Wolcott, "the Paulettes are like staunch Catholics in a marriage they can't leave." Nobody listens to them anymore, so that "the Paulettes are now reduced to writing for second-tier publications, using their underdog status to champion lost causes and pet losers . . . "

Maybe so, but where does Wolcott see himself when he puckers up before the mirror? Shamelessly schizoid, he brags that he "during the '70s and '80s attended countless . . . screenings as a friend of Pauline Kael's." Talk about the pot calling the kettle . . . !

If anyone is the Crown Prince of Paulettes it's indisputably Wolcott, installed by Pauline where God once put Lucifer. And though he kicks out wickedly at other critics, he's a consummate chicken about bad-mouthing Kael herself.

Here's Kael on Wolcott, from a 1982 interview: "(H)e has tremendous wit, flair, a gift for language."

And here's Wolcott down on his knees in Vanity Fair: "Until her retirement in 1991, Kael enjoyed a great critical run, the greatest since George Bernard Shaw on theater, and, unlike Shaw, she doubled as a role model. With the ascendancy of Pauline Kael, movie criticism evolved into more than a sideline, more than a career. It became a passionate calling."

Yes, James Wolcott's the one to expose the Paulettes!

NOT SINCE Hoop Dreams has there been a documentary as mesmerizing, powerful, and necessary to see as Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins & K.O.S., at the MFA on April 3, 4, 5, and 10. It's the inspiring story of the artistic collaboration of Rollins, a painter from rural Maine moved to New York, and a bunch of special-education kids from the South Bronx he has taken under his wing.

Together, they make fabulous art, and their projects have been shown in major museums. What could be funnier than their SoHo opening, with each kid getting a peck on the cheek from gallery maven Mary Boone? But the extraordinary parts of the movie are the days at the studio, in which Rollins -- part surrogate dad, more surrogate principal -- fights to keep the kids motivated, their eyes on their art and on staying in school. "You are all going to college," he screams at them with desperate love.

No they're not. Something happens to one boy so tragic that I can't write about it. Other kids finally get by: when one graduates from high school at 21, the diploma moment is more buoyant to me than the whole Star Wars trilogy.