Last fall, The New Yorker published a long feature on the life and legacy of Pauline Kael, the most celebrated and distinguished arts critic in the magazine’s history. The piece, by Nathan Heller, ran under a headline that shocked me when I read it: “Pauline Kael, Film Critic, Contrarian.” “Contrarian” is also the brickbat regularly cast at me by bloggers and media pundits who can’t understand why one film critic’s reviews are different from all the others. It’s a derisive, belittling term, and my surprise at seeing it applied to Kael was doubled when I noticed that several other modern critics seemed to agree that it described her perfectly.
On the occasion of two recently published books, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, a biography by Brian Kellow, and The Age of Movies, a compilation of her writing edited by Sanford Schwartz from the Library of America, the au courant term “contrarian,” used as a subhead, indicates a new attempt to understand Kael’s reputation. Though subsequently dropped from The New Yorker piece’s online version, “contrarian” was picked up and repeated as a meme in numerous pieces about Heller’s article, from National Public Radio to The Huffington Post to The American Spectator. During the late 1960s-70s peak of Kael’s career, her willingness to talk back to other reviewers and refute highly promoted Hollywood releases as well as art-house favorites was both captivating and controversial. She brought a wider readership to The New Yorker, increased the public’s appreciation of film criticism, and changed the terms of film reviewing, even while raising the ire of those who objected to her lively passion.
All these years later, the new attacks disguised as book notices strongly suggest that professional attitudes toward criticism have changed drastically. Since the advent of the Internet and the rise of review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, the illusion of consensus opinion now dominates the culture’s perception of criticism. Individual critics’ voices matter less than the roar of the crowd, which judges films as “fresh” or “rotten” and drowns out anyone who begs to differ. Outlying critics are isolated and deprecated, their deviations from the consensus seen as proof of their eccentricity or ineptitude. As an icon of mainstream critical influence, and as someone who had little use for group hugs, Kael’s independent stance presents a real challenge to the current critical order.
Addressing this change is more urgent than simply championing Kael; it’s a matter of defending the endangered voice of independent criticism that Kael represented so well. Now is a good time to redefine “contrarian” as autonomous, uncoerced journalism. Kael’s writing—and the new, ongoing controversy she engenders—makes this absolutely necessary.
Among journalists who once aspired to being film critics—in the years before the Internet made the job easy and unspecialized—Pauline Kael was admired for the unprecedented latitude she was granted during her 23 years at The New Yorker. (She got away with flouting New Yorker tradition as “that horrible debonair style which was once the gentleman-critic’s specialty. They were so superior to the subject that they never dealt with it.”) Her writing was a beacon—eloquent, witty, learned, but above all personal, identifiably the perspective of someone who felt deeply about the subject at hand, but who thought about it deeply, too. Kael was inspiring to read and to emulate because she made movie reviewing more than a frivolous species of journalism. She gave it vitality in ways that made arts journalism seem to matter.
The renown that resulted saw Kael make network television talk-show appearances just like such “serious” writers as Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Gore Vidal—at the time an unfamiliar honor for a mere film critic. She enjoyed additional prominence when her lengthy panegyrics on Last Tango in Paris, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers appeared as full-length reprints in advertisements in The New York Times. Aspiring critics especially noticed her editorial autonomy. Kael’s weekly 2,000-to-3,000-word reviews gave her thoughts breathing room, and seemed to indicate that film criticism itself had attained unusual distinction.
Kael elevated reviewing from the low function of “consumer advice,” a designation that inherently limited the form’s literary potential, and one that automatically implied film was nothing more than commercial product. Today, the profession’s stature has changed. Box-office stats are foregrounded in the media. Filmgoers increasingly gauge a movie’s worth based on its aggregate rating, as individual critics grow less and less important. Indeed, many newspapers no longer employ their own critics, instead running syndicated material or capsule synopses. Reviews have shrunk, and so has Kael’s reputation. Her 13 books (published collections and compilations) have been out of print until recently. The biography and new compendium suggest a recovery, yet negative press reactions seem to take it all back.