Certainly, Kael had her critics at the time she was writing. Renata Adler, Kael’s most vehement detractor, published her own review collection titled A Year in the Dark (long out of print) before slipping the shiv to Kael with an infamous essay called “The Perils of Pauline,” a literary assassination which appeared in a 1980 issue of The New York Review of Books. Adler’s highbrow cri de coeur reduced Kael’s populist methodology to “quirks, mannerism, in particular a certain compulsive and joyless naughtiness.” Her ultimate salvo ridiculed Kael’s writing as “jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” This was meaner than wounding. It was intended to be corrective, a reproof of Kael’s influence. Adler’s refutation has evidently returned to contemporary journalism.
In articles about the Kellow and Schwartz tomes, Kael’s self-confident criticism has been disparaged as an eccentricity of her character, proposing that her style and approach are out of touch with contemporary thinking. In a piece on The New Yorker’s website, Richard Brody negatively pointed out Kael’s divergence from conventional wisdom and now-accepted opinion. Harsher invective came in The New York Times: First-string critics Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott lobbed Kael back and forth, complaining about her lack of a theoretical system, knocking her “hyperventilated” prose. Even Frank Rich’s Times Book Review piece, “Roaring at the Screen with Pauline Kael,” ended with an unmistakable smackdown: “A fierce skeptic of all dogmas (including religion, feminism and liberalism) who made her name in part by knocking [Andrew] Sarris for promoting the auteur theory, Kael didn’t recognize that she had morphed into a dogmatic auteurist in her own right—lauding her pet directors no matter what.” The “no matter what” is infuriating, since it deliberately ignores Kael’s explicitly argued efforts to describe the content of a movie she liked or the methods of a director—be it Altman or DePalma or Spielberg—that she (frequently though never uncritically) praised.
Rich and the others show little regard for the endeavor of Kael’s criticism or its complex content. They proclaim that she was influential but spend little time explaining why. Her criticism combined immediate personal response with informed intellectual analysis; her direct, opinionated prose style thrilled some, intimidated others, and causes violent reactions to this day. She also wrote remarkable industry assessments that merged business acumen with sociological scrutiny—not just in “Notes on Heart and Mind” but also her prescient “On the Future of Movies” and “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or The Numbers.” This sort of industrywide macro-criticism is rarely found these days, when the badness and shallowness and pandering nature of most Hollywood fare is joked about or goes unnoticed.
In today’s culture, journalism’s collusion with the entertainment industry has come to be expected. Post-Kael publications like Premiere Magazine, Movieline, and Entertainment Weekly have created a gushy, starstruck culture where hype and reviewing are inseparable. Today, mainstream entertainment journalism is so hand-in-glove with Hollywood in terms of what is and is not worth praise and attention—so tied up with promotional campaigns and fan-boy fervor—that journalists are bewildered and suspicious when they encounter someone who consistently deviates from that consensus. Audiences these days seem to want to be validated in their own opinions, and take personal offense to critics who do not oblige.
Considering that hype, from advertising pages to review pages, is perceived as the only way to respond to popular art, perhaps Kael’s most radical maxim comes from her 1970 piece “Notes on Heart and Mind,” when she averred: “Without a few independent critics, there’s nothing between the public and the advertisers.” That notion seems perverse today, when criticism occupies a different, more indulgent position in the culture.
Far from being an impartial adjective, “contrarian” implies the enmity normally connoted by the terms “gadfly” or “curmudgeon.” It also suggests that there is a standard, established method of reviewing that should not be challenged. Readers have come to expect front-page raves for summer blockbusters, stories about box-office returns, and endless awards-season blather, even though these approaches trivialize the concept of journalistic criticism. The same groveling does not occur in coverage of music, the fine arts, or architecture.
Mainstream criticism today misses an authoritative voice that can demolish sacred cows and build a case for unappreciated artists—or, maybe to put it another way, a critic who is respected rather than scorned for his or her idiosyncratic tastes. Attaching the contrarian label to Kael suggests a willful attempt to dismiss her judgments and criticisms as arbitrary; different just for the sake of being different. And in so doing, the reviewers avoid having to grapple with what she actually represented.