I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs," notes Pauline Kael in her introduction to this distillation of her life's work. "I think I have." And it's true: If there's any one theme guiding her selection of these 279 essays and fragments (which weigh in at 1,291 pages and represent, she says, one-fifth of what she has published these past 30 years), it's her vision of movie criticism as a free-form autobiography.
Kael pointedly begins with her 1963 essay on Hud—in which she corrects that movie's high-minded falsehoods about western life with a vivid account of her own childhood on a California ranch. Elsewhere the painful memory of a broken 1947 love affair informs her deeply felt response to a De Sica masterpiece: "Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings."
Youth and passion are her religion, and she's a good preacher: Annette Bening is "a superb wiggler"; Jessica Lange has "a raw physicality that's challenging and heroic." Kenneth Branagh's "burning blue eyes" and "baby fat convey a suggestion of secret knowledge, and his head, overscaled for his short frame, rivets attention." These are praises so right that they can forever merge in the mind's eye with the artists they describe. But don't get on Kael's bad side: "Rain Man is Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes."
For Keeps is no one-note performance: Kael makes a jazzy, generous record of her mind's life span, a record sure to please her many fans as well as anyone who just plain loves movies. (Dutton, $34.95)