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Collection offers insights into Kael and her craft

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AMHERST, Mass. - Francois Truffaut once published a book called "The Films in My Life." Anyone interested in the books in Pauline Kael's life, or at least the ones about film, can inspect the contents of a sizable alcove on the second floor of Hampshire College's Johnson Library Center.

Shelved there are the roughly 3,000 books and periodicals that made up Kael's professional library.

The Pauline Kael Collection, which opened last September, is no mahogany-paneled famous author shrine. It's a well-lit, no-nonsense space surrounded on three sides by metal shelves and furnished in what might best be called Open Stack Nondescript: two small tables, a couple of sofas, a few chairs.

The unpretentiousness is doubly fitting. Kael's books were for use, not show. She drew on them during the four decades she wrote about movies - most notably in The New Yorker, from 1967-1991. And Kael, who died in 2001, wrote a famously unpretentious prose: slangy, wisecracking, conversational.

As she said in a 1989 Boston Globe interview, "I have tried to write about movies in the language that's appropriate to them."

Kael's marginalia are very much in the classic Pauline mode.

Penciled in a quick, tight cursive, her comments favor the expressively expostulatory: "gawd," "oh my," "huh?," "poo," "bull," "good," "Jesus!," "he's right," "ugh," "yup," "oh come on," "??," and "!" Peering at her emphatic scrawl, one can almost hear "her sharp pencil rasping away," as David Thomson once described the auditory experience of sitting next to Kael at a screening.

Craig Seligman, the author of "Sontag and Kael" (2004), notes how important reading was to her. "Although she's of course associated with the movies and writing about the movies, Pauline always considered movies as secondary in her life to books. She said once in an interview, 'I could live without movies. I couldn't live without books."'

"It's a great collection, a terrific melange of the things she chose for herself and the things people sent her," says Gai Carpenter, director of library and information services at Hampshire.

In the 11-decade history of the movies, no writer has had quite the impact Kael did - or does. Her influence, conscious and otherwise, is discernible in both the style and sensibility of countless reviewers writing today. The Times Literary Supplement once compared her body of work to George Bernard Shaw's music and theatrical criticism; and Roger Ebert wrote that Kael "had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades."

After Kael's death, her papers went to Indiana University's Lilly Library: 126 cartons' worth of letters, manuscripts, and files. Lilly has an extensive film-related collection that includes John Ford's papers and Orson Welles's.

Kael's personal library, 70 boxes' worth, was sold off by Ken Lopez, a Hadley dealer in rare and used books. Kael, who lived in Great Barrington, had contacted him before her death. Lopez also was charged with the task of finding a home for the film-book library.

"We hoped not to split it up," says Gina James, Kael's daughter. "So it's nice that it's at Hampshire, though it's kind of a fluke."

Kael, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, had no special attachment to Hampshire. "I approached Hampshire for two reasons," says Lopez. "They're right near where I live; and they have such a great film program over there it seemed a perfect place for it."

Hampshire, whose best-known film graduate is Ken Burns, has long emphasized filmmaking and film studies. Also, its library is the chief depository for film materials in the Five College System (which includes the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Smith College, Amherst College, and Mount Holyoke College).

The sale was made with the understanding that Kael's books would form "a working special collection," Lopez says, "rather than one just salted away." As a result, its contents can be checked out.

"It's well used by the students," says Hampshire's Carpenter.

Although separate circulation figures aren't kept, she notes, "Returns to the collection are kept on a separate cart, and every day it's full."

What students get are titles one might see on any film devotee's shelves, only more so: two editions of Lillian Ross's "Picture," the first and third editions of Thomson's "Biographical Dictionary of Film," two editions of Lewis Jacobs' "The Rise of the American Film," the 1987 edition of "Inside Oscar," John Gregory Dunne's "The Studio," Kevin Brownlow's "The Parade's Gone By," four Stanley Kauffmann collections, Manny Farber's "Negative Space" (inscribed "for one favor after another"), Dwight Macdonald's "On Movies," both volumes of the paperback edition of "Agee on Film," three Andrew Sarris collections.

Kael and Sarris were famous critical antagonists. Her first edition of his "The American Cinema" has just two markings in it, "nonsense" (next to Sarris's assertion that the western resists parody and satire) and an extremely large exclamation mark next to Sarris's stating that his directorial chronology "represents a weighted critical valuation."

In Robert Warshow's "The Immediate Experience," Kael underlined his stating as a reason for going to the movies "because I took all that nonsense seriously." In the margin, she added a furiously squiggled, "huh?"

William Goldman's "Adventures in the Screen Trade" abounds in marginalia. Where Goldman notes that "The Godfather: Part II" got more Oscar nominations than its predecessor, a clearly exasperated Kael scrawled, "Did you notice its quality? Goldman sees everything in terms of formula."

There are numerous biographies and specialized critical studies.

First place goes to books on or by Jean Cocteau, with 12. The runner-up is Cary Grant, with eight. Two of the most marked-up books, in any category, are Frank Capra's "The Name Above the Title" ("It's the bio, not of an artist, but of a battling rags-to-riches businessman") and Elia Kazan's "A Life" ("If people are dead, he seems to feel free to say what he wants about them").

As might be expected, some ringers have crept in: an oversized paperback on "David Bowie's Serious Moonlight: The World Tour," a set of bound galleys of Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation," Woody Allen's humor collection "Without Feathers," a paperback novelization of "Superman III."

Kael's influence extended to filmmakers as well as writers.

There are two copies of Paul Schrader's "Transcendental Style in Film" (one of them inscribed, "To Pauline Kael, At last I have a chance to return the favor, Paul"). Wes Anderson sent Kael a copy of his "Rushmore" screenplay. The inscription is printed in blocky blue ink: "For Pauline Kael, Thank you for all of your thoughts and writings about the movies. They have been a very important source of inspiration for me and my movies, and I hope you don't regret that."

And, of course, there is a copy of Truffaut's "The Films in My Life." Kael's championing of such Truffaut films as "Jules and Jim" and "The

c.2005 The Boston Globe

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