Now we republish Wes Anderson’s essay about showing Rushmore to Pauline Kael that F&F published before the print edition of the Rushmore screenplay. Stay tuned after our feature presentation for a fierce debate between Wes and David Edelstein over his portrayal of Kael.
My Private Screening with Pauline Kael
by Wes Anderson
I already had Pauline Kael‘s phone number because I’d found it when I was looking through somebody’s Rolodex a couple of years ago. ”Hello. My name is Wes Anderson. I’m calling for Pauline Kael, please.” I had immediately recognized her voice (from a tape I have of her on ”The Dick Cavett Show”) when she answered the telephone, but I wanted to give her a chance to introduce herself.
”Who are you?” she said, suspicious and steely. I paused.
”I’m a filmmaker, and I’ve just finished a movie called Rushmore, and I was hoping maybe I could . . .”
”How long is it?”
”Or slightly less. Ninety-ish,” I said.
”That’s a long Rushmore. ”
I hesitated. I thought she was making a joke, but I didn’t get it. I said, ”Well, it’s got a pretty quick pace.”
”What’d you do on it?”
”I directed it.”
”Who wrote it?”
”Me and my friend Owen Wilson.”
”Who’s in it?”
”Bill Murray.” This was my trump card. I knew from her reviews that Bill Murray was one of her favorite comedians.
”Which Bill Murray?”
There was a silence. ”The Bill Murray. You know Bill Murray. You love Bill Murray.”
”What was he in?”
My mind drew a blank. ”What was he in?” I repeated the question. I could only think of one title. ”Meatballs, ” I said.
It didn’t ring a bell. ”You’ll know him when you see him.”
She laughed uncomfortably and said, ”O.K.” She asked if Rushmore was my first film, and I told her no, that I’d directed a movie called Bottle Rocket.
There was another silence.
”Well, lets hope this one’s not too thrown together.”
I thought about this. ”How do you mean thrown together?” I said.
She didn’t answer. I waited. She laughed quietly, and then she seemed to warm up all of a sudden: ”O.K., send me the tape,” she said.
”Actually, to tell you the truth, I’d prefer to screen it for you. Is there a movie theater near you?”
She paused. ”There’s the Triplex.”
”Let me show it to you at the Triplex.”
She sounded skeptical. ”How are we going to do that?”
”I’ll get the studio to set it up.”
”That could be expensive,” she said.
”Well. Let’s stick it to them,” I said.
She liked the sound of this. ”O.K., let’s stick it to them,” she said. She told me she didn’t drive, and that someone would have to pick her up and take her to the theater.
I said: ”I’ll do it myself. How do I get to your house?”
”I don’t know,” she said.
”O.K. I’ll figure it out.”
A few weeks later I drove from Cambridge to Ms. Kael’s house in Great Barrington, Mass. I brought some cookies with me which I thought I would offer her during the first reel.
Her house is stone and shingle and very large, and I saw a deer duck into the trees at the corner of the yard as I came up the driveway. I knocked on the screen door and she looked out. She was sitting in a wooden chair. ”My God, you’re just a kid,” she said.
She told me to open the door. I tried it. I told her it was locked. She told me the lock had been stiff for 20 years, and that I should just fiddle with it. She said she knew it was 20 years because she’d just finished paying off her mortgage.
I fiddled with the lock for a minute and got the door open. We shook hands and I said: ”It’s very nice to meet you. How are you?”
”Old,” she said.
She was a few inches under 5 feet tall, and she stood shakily with a metal cane that had four legs at the base. We both had on New Balance sneakers.
She has Parkinson’s, which makes her shake a little bit and leaves her unsteady. She told me she had been in the hospital with meningitis during the week after we spoke on the telephone, which explained her forgetting who Bill Murray was. She told me I would have to hold her hand and help her get around, and I told her that would be just fine. On the way to the theater she told me she’d invited her friend Dorothy to join us. ”I would’ve gotten a group together, but I didn’t want to have too many people, in case the movie isn’t any good.” I nodded and pulled into the driveway next to the theater. There was a small-town police station there, and I stopped in front of it.
”You can’t park here, Wes.”
”Oh, I think we’ll be O.K.”
She shook her head. She said that this was proof I was a movie director. No one else would think they could double-park in front of a police station.
We went into the lobby and she introduced me to Dorothy. ”This is Wes Anderson. He’s responsible for whatever it is we’re about to see.” Then Ms. Kael told me I should change my name. ”Wes Anderson is a terrible name for a movie director.” Dorothy agreed.
I ran out to move the car, and then found Ms. Kael and Dorothy sitting near the back of the theater. Ms. Kael explained, ”I like to see the whole screen.” I offered them some cookies, and Ms. Kael immediately started eating one. ”These don’t have butter in them, do they?”
”My guess is they probably do,” I said.
”I’m not supposed to eat butter,” she said, but she kept eating. Ms. Kael and Dorothy watched for an hour in total silence. Then Dorothy, who is a real estate agent, got paged and walked out, and that was the last I saw of her. Finally, the movie ended, and I took Ms. Kael’s hand and walked with her out of the theater.
”I don’t know what you’ve got here, Wes.”
”Did the people who gave you the money read the script?”
I frowned. ”Yeah. That’s kind of their policy.”
We started slowly down the steps. ”Just asking,” she said. It was a short walk to the car. ”At this point, I would usually tell you not to worry if you have to carry me, since I only weigh 85 pounds. But you look like you don’t weigh much more than that, yourself.”
I was a little disappointed by Ms. Kael’s reaction to the movie. I started reading her New Yorker reviews in my school library when I was in 10th grade, and her books were always my guide for finding the right movies to watch and learning about filmmakers. I’d gone to great lengths to arrive at this moment. ”I genuinely don’t know what to make of this movie,” she said, and I felt she meant it.
I drove us back to her house. We went inside, and Ms. Kael invited me to sit in her study and talk.
The house is full of books, and the rooms are large, with lots of windows. She took me to a closet in a room so crammed with tall stacks of boxes that you had to turn sideways to squeeze around them. The closet had extra copies of all her books. She told me I could have any of them I wanted. They were first editions, and I wanted to take a dozen of them, but eventually I just chose two.
I asked her to sign one of them for me, and she said this would take a few minutes. Her Parkinson’s makes it difficult for her to write. That’s why she quit The New Yorker. I asked her if she’d ever dictated a review, and she said, ”I think I wrote more with my hand than with my brain.” She said she would never write again.
”Glad to hear it,” I said, thinking of the review of Rushmore that she wasn’t going to write. She looked up at me. She smiled faintly.
Then we sat for a while talking about movies, and she finished signing my book, and I told her I had to get back on the road. I was headed for New York, and it was already getting dark.
She walked me to the door, and we chatted a little longer. She told me to keep in touch, and we said goodbye. I didn’t look at her inscription until I’d checked into my hotel room. It said:
”For Wes Anderson, With affection and a few queries. Pauline Kael.”
Wes Anderson is a filmmaker living in New York.
David Edelstein’s letter to the editor (and Anderson’s response):
New York Times
February 21, 1999
“A VISIT WITH KAEL
To the Editor:
Boy, could I relate to Wes Anderson’s ”My Private Screening with Pauline Kael” [Jan. 31] about traveling to the Berkshires to show his film ”Rushmore” to the retired New Yorker critic. Here’s a young guy who adored Ms. Kael’s work all his life, learned how to watch movies from it and dreamed of screening for her his own film. Doubtless the response he’d hoped for was along the lines of: ”You’re a genius. You’ve revolutionized filmmaking. You’ve captured the adolescent experience as no one has before.”
What a bummer it must have been to find Ms. Kael somewhat hobbled by Parkinson’s disease. And then, when she gently implied that she didn’t think the picture added up to much, how devastating. Here’s the thing, though. A person with even an trace of decency would not have turned around and written up the encounter in a way designed to make sport of her infirmities. I hope that if Mr. Anderson is ever on the kind of mind-altering medications that advanced Parkinson’s and meningitis sufferers find it necessary to take simply to function, someone doesn’t visit his home and then surprise him with an account of what he said and did in a major newspaper.
The writer is the film critic for Slate, the Internet magazine.
edelstein and eddie izzard
Wes Anderson replies:
I sent a copy of my article to Pauline Kael before it was published because I didn’t want to refer to her Parkinson’s without her permission. I told her I wouldn’t publish the story if she didn’t want me to. She read the piece and thanked me for dedicating our script to her. (The article will appear as the introduction to the published screenplay of ”Rushmore.”) She also suggested some grammatical changes and asked me to correct a few details, which I did. The suggestion that I wanted ”to make sport” of Ms. Kael’s infirmities causes me great pain and embarrassment. I thought it was clear in my article that I not only deeply respect Ms. Kael but that I very much enjoyed meeting with her.
David Edelstein’s response:
Anderson’s response had enough half-truths and distortions to warrant a reply in this column. Let’s look at his assertions line by line:
I sent a copy of my article to Pauline Kael before it was published because I didn’t want to refer to her Parkinson’s without her permission. I told her I wouldn’t publish the story if she didn’t want me to.
According to Kael, she said it was OK to publish the story as part of the introduction to the Rushmore script: Printed screenplays generally have runs of no more than a few thousand copies and are largely read by buffs and wannabe screenwriters. But she didn’t know that Anderson’s account would appear in the New York Times until the day the paper landed on her doorstep–and if she had known, she told me, she’d have screamed.
She read the piece and thanked me for dedicating our script to her.
According to Kael, she first learned she was the dedicatee of the Rushmore script when she read Anderson’s reply to my letter in last Sunday’s Times.
She also suggested some grammatical changes and asked me to correct a few details, which I did.
She asked that Anderson note that her recollection of the events in question was quite different–which he didn’t.
The suggestion that I wanted “to make sport” of Ms. Kael’s infirmities causes me great pain and embarrassment.
So much pain and embarrassment that a few nights ago he was telling the story all over again on national television to Tom Snyder. Anderson’s encounter with the retired New Yorker critic has now become comic fodder for his autobiography. How long before it turns up in a movie?
I thought it was clear in my article that I not only deeply respect Ms. Kael but that I very much enjoyed meeting with her.
I like Ken Tucker’s description of the piece in a recent appreciation of Kael in Salon: “putatively affectionate but peculiarly heartless.” Like the obnoxious hero of Rushmore, Max Fischer, Anderson has trouble seeing much beyond the bubble of his narcissism.
Molly’s appreciation of Bottle Rocket
Danny on Hotel Chevalier
Molly on Hotel Chevalier
Wes Anderson iTunes playlist
O: Do you ever hear a song and think, “I have to have that in a movie?”
WA: Yeah, I do all the time.
O: What’s an example of that, a case where a song actually made it in?
WA: Every single song that’s in Rushmore.
THE RUSHMORE SOUNDTRACK IN ITS ENTIRETY
“Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl” – The Kinks (mp3)
“Sharp Little Guy” – Mark Mothersbaugh (mp3)
“The Lad With the Silver Button” – Mark Mothersbaugh (mp3)
“Edward Appleby (In Memoriam)” – Mark Mothersbaugh (mp3)
“Piranhas Are a Very Tricky Species” – Mark Mothersbaugh (mp3)
“Friends Like You, Who Needs Friends” – Mark Mothersbaugh (mp3)
“Kite Flying Society” – Mark Mothersbaugh (mp3)
“The Wind” – Cat Stevens (mp3)
“Margaret Yang’s Theme” – Mark Mothersbaugh (mp3)
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
Rendering a viable opinion.
Bawdier and bloodier than Beowulf.
Bruni and Sarkozy, yay.