Movies, ''A tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry corrupt world,'' have never had a better friend or foe than Pauline Kael who, by the way, meant that definition as a compliment. For nearly 25 years, Kael and The New Yorker flourished in a marriage of opposites. For a time, the magazine was best known for its least characteristic writer, a critic who saw movies and everything else with all of her senses, emotions, memories, and appetites at the ready, and who was haughty only in her antielitism. ''It's so damned easy to be cultured,'' she wrote in 1969.
You can cherish FOR KEEPS: 30 YEARS AT THE MOVIES (Dutton, $34.95), an anthology of the best of Kael's writings from 1961 to 1991, as the evolution of an influential style of argumentative writing, and as a topography of American culture through its most popular art. Or you can just enjoy the free- swinging wit of some of the smartest movie reviews ever written. Either way, For Keeps is the nimblest 1,250 pages around, a movie buff's field trip with an ideal tour guide.
Kael, who was well into her 40s when her New Yorker reviews gained attention, won her devoted audience by treating her chosen subject with the tough love of a seasoned observer. Her writing is sparked by the searching, intuitive connections she makes between movies and painting, literature, opera, theater, politics, and to The New Yorker's doleful dismay sex. And she never lets her responses become so high-flown that she loses track of the essential populist questions that fuel her: Is it good? Will you like it? How will it make you feel?
Kael's attention to those gut-level issues may be why her praise comes almost as a quickening of the senses, an invitation to join in the elation that she finds in Godard or Bertolucci or Altman or De Palma. And her rebukes can sting like a rattan cane. Tom Cruise will never face an icier dismissal than Kael's assertion that ''his knowing that a camera is on him produces nothing but fraudulence.'' Even what appear to be her blind spots for instance, a career-long grudge against Meryl Streep can accommodate daggers. ''She makes a career,'' snapped Kael, ''of seeming to overcome being miscast.''
Although she often marched into open combat with other critics early in her career, Kael never faced much of a challenge from rivals once she came to prominence. In For Keeps, she puts her work up against her first real competitor: time. And she wins. The reviews and excerpts in this collection run as they appeared 30 years ago (when she was first hitting her combative stride in radio pieces), 20 years ago (when her powers as a critic and a rhetorician were at their zenith), and 10 years ago (when her iconoclasm began to be tinged with crankiness). Nothing has been updated, and nothing needed to be. Though her reviews can seem wildly off the mark (and it would be great to know if she's changed her mind about anything ever), one thing they're not is quaint. True, Kael's swipes at the decline of moviemaking in the late '70s, for instance are unduly poignant, if only because she had no idea how much worse things were going to get.
But more often, what stands out in For Keeps is the clarity of her foresight. Kael grimly prognosticated a generation of technically proficient, soulless film-school grads back in 1969, before anyone else even spotted the insular dweebs on the horizon. She hailed (and scolded) Steven Spielberg as ''that rarity among directors, a born entertainer'' in 1974, before Jaws was a guppy. And she mulled the desensitizing effects of screen violence while Clint Eastwood was still buying his first box of .44 cartridges.
In 1978, sorting out one dreadful film from another, Kael wrote of the horror of being ''poleaxed by apathy.'' ''If a movie doesn't 'pulse,''' she wrote, ''it's dead and it deadens you. Your heart goes cold. The world is a dishrag.'' For 30 years even when most of what she was writing about was flat-lining Kael's writing pulsed. It still does. A