Normally, The New Yorker is the world's most decorous magazine. So when a notice in its March 11 issue began, ''We regret that Pauline Kael feels that it's time,'' the grammar's awkwardness was enough to imply that her retirement was an event too big to grasp.
So far as movies go, it was. That Kael has spent 24 years happily parked behind her machine gun at the magazine is the least of it. Since the days of James Agee whom Kael surpassed no other critic has ever had her brains, her humor, her enthusiasm, or her influence.
I was 14 when my parents shoved Kael's 1968 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang at me. I remember being horrified that she thought Gone With the Wind wasn't much. Soon, though, in that book and her earlier I Lost It at the Movies, I was experiencing what maybe only teenagers are unguarded enough to get at full tilt: a new voice in my head. This one was funny, rude (Arthur Schlesinger's discovery that ''Life today is filled with tragic choices'' earned the snort, ''One of them was his decision to become a film reviewer''), unabashed about rapture (''To say it flatly [Jean Luc] Godard is the Scott Fitzgerald of the movie world''), at home with ideas as if history and all the arts were part of conversation, and sexily worldly-wise.
I was dim on her background a childhood on the Sonoma ranch owned by her Polish-Jewish parents, college at Berkeley, years of bohemia before, at 33, she published her first review (of Chaplin's Limelight; she said it stank). Nor did I have much notion of her uphill battle to get her work printed; ousted from more than one publication for irreverence, she claimed that her first 10 years of writing netted her a total of $2,000. I just knew there was this woman in San Francisco who wrote like she took the world on for breakfast every morning.
Kael was 49 when The New Yorker gave her a berth. She'd always seen culture as one way the world talked about itself. From the late '60s through the mid-' 70s, movies mattered more that way than they have since, and Kael was at her influential peak. Then the institution-flouter became an institution. Her Deeper Into Movies won the 1974 National Book Award. She fostered a slew of young, predominantly male Kael imitators, most notably her New Yorker successor Terrence Rafferty, and Vanity Fair's James Wolcott. (Aping her tastes and style, they're known in the trade as Paulettes.) Her generosity wasn't fake; I've gotten a couple of the many warming calls she has made to beginning writers over the years. But it has always bothered me that a writer so independent should surround herself with epigones one crack about the Paulettes was that they all loved Driving Miss Daisy because it was their story.
Kael's later work seems less vital partly because the high-concept blockbusters ruling Hollywood in the last 15 years don't count in the same way. As the movies' importance waned, she seemed to inflate her writing to compensate. Perhaps because she'd stayed an outsider so long, she also grew prone to confusing influence with power, championing her friends. Some, like Woody Allen and Warren Beatty, were savaged in print once they dropped out of her good graces. At worst, she wasn't far from a film-world version of Walter Winchell, conducting vendettas and boosting intimates.
These habits are unseemly; they detract from Kael's greatness. They don't change the fact that greatness is the right word. Even thumbing through the '80s work, I keep having the feeling Kael described in her brilliant review of Norman Mailer's Marilyn: ''Just when you get fed up with his flab and slop, he'll come through with a runaway string of perceptions ''
Single-handedly, Kael changed the way her readers thought about the movies, and pop, and how the shoddiness or electricity of art underpins everyone's life; maybe about America, too. I imagine even nonfans will be disconcerted when the next New Yorker comes, and suddenly they don't know which page to turn to first.