Why Kael is Good for You

It's time to defend a critic's 'contrarian' viewpoint
March 27, 2012

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.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

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.

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.

Armond White is the editor of CityArts, and was three times chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. His most recent book is Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles.