As a teen, I remember haunting the bound periodical stacks of my school library. I’d pull a massive New Yorker volume off the shelf with a grunt and drag it into a secluded carrel. Calcutta being a city of chronic power shortages, evenings usually found the metropolis dark, dotted with the dim lights of kerosene lamps. Grade school kids were often employed by the library as lamplighters. When the power went out, they’d trawl the corridors, poking their heads into carrels, matchbox in hand, while readers waited patiently, fingering their bound volumes like Braille texts. When the power came back on, the kids turned down every last wick before the library closed for the night.
It was in a cramped and musty carrel by the light of a pungent-smelling lamp that I read the first piece of movie writing that I memorized: Pauline Kael’s review of Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill. It began thus:
One of the most sheerly enjoyable films of recent years, this sophisticated horror comedy, written and directed by Brian De Palma, is permeated with the distilled essence of impure thoughts. Set in Manhattan, it’s about sex and fear; De Palma presents extreme fantasies and pulls the audience into them with such apparent ease that the pleasure of the suspense becomes aphrodisiacal.
Young and impressionable, I copied out the review and carried it to school in my backpack every day for a week. I circled all the unexpected turns of phrase, underlined the zingy adjectives and drew doodle-balloons around the intricately constructed sentences: I was becoming intimately acquainted with a piece of music as I was learning it by heart. Never mind that I had seen nothing by De Palma or any of the directors she discussed in the review, including Hitchcock. It would be years before I caught up with Dressed To Kill, appropriately so in New York.
I've had a long and complicated relationship with Kael's work, marked both by love and exasperation. Her prose remains matchless. But in the end it is Andrew Sarris' auteurism that packs the greater resonance for me. His books The American Cinema, Confessions Of A Cultist, and The Primal Screen formed and shaped my thinking about movies (especially American movies) — more so than Kael ever did. But each time I pick up one of her pieces and start to read, within seconds I've got a grin on my face and I'm shaking my head in admiration. What a writer.