- - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

PAULINE KAEL: A LIFE IN THE DARK
By Brian Kellow
Viking $27.95, 432 pages

LIFE ITSELF: A MEMOIR
By Roger Ebert
Grand Central Publishing, $27.99, 448 pages

If, as some say, movies will outlast everything, then fans would benefit from both these books. They give insight into the world of two talented critics during a rich period of filmmaking from the 1960s and ‘70s. During her tenure at the New Yorker (1968-1991), Pauline Kael became one of the most influential critics of her generation, redefining how a critic’s work might benefit the art form. Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, was the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

Both Kael and Mr. Ebert grew up, as Mr. Ebert writes, “living in the world of words.” For Kael, it was San Francisco during the Depression. She immersed herself in English and philosophy courses at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1952, she began writing film commentary for City Lights magazine, until she found her niche at the New Yorker.

In Urbana, Ill., Mr. Ebert abandoned his mother’s dream that he would become a priest and plunged himself into English courses, sacrificing a doctorate to write commentary for the Chicago Sun-Times. The syndicated television programs, “Sneak Previews,” then “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies,” made with co-host, Gene Siskel (who died in 1999) widened his audience.

As Kael and Mr. Ebert were hitting their stride, the films being shown included “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The front cover on Time magazine proclaimed “The Film Generation.” As Mr. Ebert writes, “Movie critics were hot.”

The secret to Kael’s criticism, she admitted, was simple. “I go to the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.” According to Mr. Kellow, readers could sense “her visceral reaction to the movies.” No second-guessing here. “The best reviews have that exhilarating sense of the flash of her first, honest, undiluted reaction.”

Another unapologetic risk-taker has been Mr. Ebert, whose criticism is known for its dry wit and going against the herd mentality. Unlike Kael, however, he refrains from reading a movie screenplay beforehand. “I don’t want to get involved.”

The year 1977 proved to be a turning point in the cinema, as blockbusters became the backbone of the industry. The success of “Star Wars” - and its merchandising - spread worldwide. Both Kael and Mr. Ebert warned that a money-driven culture was producing bland and safe movies. As the 1980s gave way to the ‘90s, the booming video industry not only killed revival theaters; it also decreased the need for movie critics. Kael retired from the New Yorker in 1991 (she died in 2001); Mr. Ebert is still going strong.

Mr. Kellow is at his best giving us an overview of film industry history from the 1960s and ‘70s. He demonstrates as well Kael’s enthusiasm and interaction with the changing world of movies. Her personal life was not eventful. When asked why she had not written her memoirs, Kael insisted she had, in her reviews. As Mr. Kellow writes, “Her life had been consumed by reading and going to the movies and writing about them.”

Mr. Ebert is candid in telling his personal history; his struggle and recovery from alcoholism, his spiritual beliefs, the complications endured from his 2006 thyroid cancer treatment, his humble acceptance of his condition that has left him unable to speak. His insights and memories of Woody Allen, and enduring friendship with Siskel, are imbued with sensitivity.

Reading both books, one laments what once was. “What I miss,” writes Mr. Ebert, “is the wonder.” Like Kael, he was of a generation who remembered the movie palaces, the balconies, “the sound of a thousand people all laughing at once,” screens “the size of billboards, so every seat in the house was a good seat.”

Movie openings were an event, on par with actual theatrical performances, complete with glossy programs. I still have mine from Rockefeller Center: “Nicholas and Alexandra,” adapted from Robert K. Massie’s best-seller; Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo & Juliet.” These, too, were blockbusters, but of serious subjects: well written, well acted, infused with an original, lyrical sensibility. Kael said, “I lost it at the movies.” Mr. Ebert agrees. “We all knew just what she meant.”

As college students increasingly drop out of the humanities in favor of majors that (may) garner a job, I don’t have to wonder what the long-term effect will be. We are already experiencing the repercussions of a society infested with functional illiterates who are unable to philosophize, analyze and criticize with any real depth or meaning. The running subtext of both these works demonstrates how a high-quality liberal arts education, and being nurtured on good books, can produce critics that have something worthy to say. That same diet once also produced better movies.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford, 2007).