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.
By concentrating on Kael’s fortuitous career path and her slangy wordplay, reviewers ignore her critical philosophy. “The new tendency is to write appreciatively at the highest possible pitch, as if the reviewer had no scale of values but only a hearsay knowledge of the peaks,” she wrote. “And everything he likes becomes a new peak.” Unafraid of the status quo, Kael called out the prevailing dangers: “[Film] executives don’t understand what criticism is; they want it to be an extension of their advertising departments. They want moviegoers to be uninformed and without memory, so they can be happy consumers.”
More than 40 years later, those words still define where we as journalists stand, what we should be wary of, and the principles that make a “contrarian” journalist a heroine.