Boy, you kids today think you have it so damn tough. Well. Like my old friend and one-time Premiere colleague Howard the K used to say, "YCTM." That stands for "You Can't Tell Me." And you can't. So let Old Glenn take you back on a journey through space and time, to a place that you motherlickers think you're sad to have missed out on. Maybe you won't be quite so sad when this tale is through.
I remember it as if it was yesterday. The autumn of 1985. I was a long way from being a film critic, but I was a rock critic, largely for the Village Voice and sometimes for the fanzine Matter. There were other clients, which I'll get to shortly. And somehow, my colleague and fellow "jerk from Jersey" Rose P. had gotten an invite to a critics' screening of the Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams, at some swanky midtown room; could it have been the Broadway, in the Brill Building? My notes, and my subsequent writings, don't say.
Times were tough for Rose and I. Rock criticism was not paying the bills. Like so many others, we had been fooled into believing that writing books such as Mystery Train had been how Greil Marcus had actually made his living. Once we were in "the biz," our varied editors pityingly informed us that the actual source of Marcus' income was something wholly other. Boy, did we feel stupid. Still. We kept on. Going to lame showcases for Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel at Danceteria, to which Rose would bring a mason jar, and dump all her free shots of Wild Turkey into it, so she'd have something for the liquor cabinet at home. Coming back from the city to Paterson, and sleeping over in the basement of my mom's apartment, chastely. In the morning we would read aloud to each other from Adorno's Minima Moralia. Yes; I do think it was Rose who was the first writer to quote "Big Ted," as Marcus would later dub him, in a published piece of rock criticism. But that's another story.
In any event, we, or rather she, had this invite to a press screening of Sweet Dreams, maybe on account that she was working on a review of the very very first Lucinda Williams album (the one with "Passionate Kisses" on it, on fucking Rough Trade believe it or not) and there was some kind of tie-in there, but in any event we were very stoked to see a Patsy Cline biopic directed by the same guy who did that Vanessa Redgrave Isadora Duncan picture and all that, but of course it was always PATSY that we were all about, and this was even before the Mekons covered her; that's how hip we were.
ANYWAY. There we were in the screening room and all of a sudden Pauline Kael regally breezed in, followed by her retinue, which flanked her left and right. James W., David D., David E., or was it David Ehr.?, and Elvis M. Had Pauline been wearing a cape these four fellows would have been holding it aloft. They came in on gales of derisive laughter. T'was ever thus, I have been told. They took seats at the front of the screening room. There were still a good ten minutes before the film was to begin.
Pauline's retinue began scouring the place for people they could have kicked out, and suddenly Elvis M.'s—or was it David E.'s? Or was it not David E.'s at all but David Ehr.'s?—gaze alighted on Rose's face. Now I knew that Elvis, or David, or David, had been kind of sweet on Rose since meeting her in the offices of the Voice, so I guess I wasn't surprised when the nod was given to Rose, followed by the hand gesture to me that meant, "No, not you."
Rose felt kind of bad about it, I could tell, but what would YOU do, given the opportunity to be presented to La Kael? She knew that, in the spirit of professional bonhomie, I understood, and so she moved forward to make her best impression.
It was during the subsequent exchange between Rose and Kael that "it" happened. Rose stood before Pauline, smiling, and scraping, and bowing, and saying things, or so it appeared, that made Pauline break out in that great, or should I say terrific, gale of laughter of hers; and then, at one point, Pauline looked into the rows behind her. And looked, I thought, specifically at me...and sneered, ever so slightly, and then turned back to Rose and said something that my ears heard as "doesn't rank," or some such.
Rose returned to her seat soon after, to find me in a fairly paranoid state. "Okay, it's fine that you don't want to displease your little boyfriend by doing his bidding and keeping me exclude from her and him and their little circle," I seethed, "but it's a little much that you just stand and nod while she looks at me as if I'm a dog turd on Fifth Avenue and remarks on how I'm out of your, or her, or whoever's, rank."
Rose looked genuinely shocked. "Glenn, I don't think she was looking at you at all. She didn't make any direct reference to you. When she said 'rank,' she was talking about someone smelling that way."
"Me, I bet."
"No. That's the whole point. You just did not enter the conversation at all."
"Great. So it's like I don't even exist."
"No. Glenn. That's not what I mean..."
I stormed out of the screening room. To this day I still haven't seen Sweet Dreams in its entirety.
But I went home and poured my passion into an essay, which I titled "Pauline Kael Glared At Me At A Press Screening; Now, Somebody Must Give Me A Well-Paying, Full-Time Position At A Magazine. With Benefits." It contained several passages which still stir something deep inside of me to this very day. Among them: "I find it hard to believe that this is all really about Pauline Kael thinking that I am a foul-smelling, unsuitable consort for [Rose P.]. If there are several ways to interpret this incident, I chose to believe, as Rose put it, that Kael 'didn’t actually know who she was referring to, but she knew that she was talking about some guy who had already warranted a dismissal from one of her retinue, and that was enough to elicit her curt dismissal.' I think this is about death." And also: "I don’t know from numbers; I will say that while Genesis magazine has paid me generously for the past two-plus years, the fact is that I’m not technically a salaried employee, but a freelancer. I contribute a monthly music column, and sometimes, when money gets tight, I ghost-write some of the porny letters in the front of the book."
I sent the essay to the legendary Robert (or Bob) C., who was at the time my editor at the Voice.
He called shortly after and asked, "Are you out of your fucking mind? Where, exactly, did you expect me to run this, if at all? And where the fuck do you get off slagging Pauline, my all-time favorite critic, in any fucking way whatsoever?" So, no; he rejected the piece.
But because I was such a cussed, feisty writer, even back then, I included a copy of the manuscript of said piece in every job application I sent out from thereon in. I finally struck pay dirt in February of 1986, when one such package met the eye of Jim M., then the senior editor of Video Review magazine. "I've never been too crazy about Kael myself," he said in the first follow-up call. " Say, I want to ask you about a picture I just saw at Film Forum, this Jeanne Dielman thing..."
I soon afterwards scored the Associate Editor position there that I had seen advertised in The Times, setting me on a whole new career path.
And here I am now, talking to you.