Pauline Kael’s reputation as America’s most distinguished film critic is secure. She is defended by high-placed friends fighting the misogynists and elites who have spent the 10 years since her death trying to erase her influence on film culture.
Several new books maintain Kael’s legacy—The Library of America’s compendium The Age of Movies, Brian Kellow’s appreciative but unfortunately titled biography A Life in the Dark and James Wolcott’s diaristic Lucking Out. Yet Kael’s 13 books of collected criticism are all out of print. This tells us that criticism has lost its cachet in the 21st century’s media free-for-all, revealing the dire state of pop culture and the fine arts.
Celebrating Kael isn’t that simple. It means looking back at the glory days of film criticism (when Kael outstripped Clement Greenberg, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and Meyer Shapiro) and lamenting the passing of those titans’ critical acuity and intellectual openness.
Nowadays, criticism is subordinate to the consumerist reflex of media hype. Kael’s legendary maxim, “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising,” goes unacknowledged. Box office numbers now drown out aesthetic curiosity. There’s hardly an independent source of arts information left. And Kael’s reputation, based on good writing and personal assessment, gets reduced to gossipy recollection—that is, celebrity.
Kael’s output towers over the profession that still shamefully calls itself criticism. It’s criticism—Kael’s life’s passion—that’s in trouble. Despite the publishing world’s flattery (and a New York Film Festival panel discussion on Kael), there is little enthusiasm for movies as a sensitive, thinking person’s amusement. Schools don’t teach critical thinking and mainstream media warps it.
Yet, Kael’s revival is propitious because there are now generations of people who don’t know what criticism is. They’ve pacified themselves sucking Roger Ebert’s thumbs, unaware that an honest, intelligent response to art (and not just movies) has nothing to do with numbers, grades or tomatoes. Desperate for groupthink, not Kael’s educated individuality, millennial mobs see art (and that includes movies) as less important than consensus; movies become fashion statements or confirm one’s status. Audiences have lost the feeling for revelation and challenge that vital pop art once regularly provided.
“Perhaps more deeply than any other writer, Kael gave shape to the idea of an ‘age of movies,’” art critic Sanford Schwartz writes in the Library of America collection he edited. “Deeply” is a Kael euphemism; she actively attacked the lofty heights of intellectual pretense. Her style transformed the once staid New Yorker—and culture writing in general.
Kael significantly diverged from the haughtiness of film critic authorities Graham Greene, James Agee and Robert Warshow—men who all harbored mid-20th-century guilt that there were greater, more intellectual pursuits than movies or movie criticism. Kael, no less professional than they were, brandished guilt-free enthusiasm, not because she was illiterate or a vulgar sensationalist but because she was a literate, sensual aesthete who appreciated those qualities in the most kinetic of art forms.
Kael never received the same intellectual respect as her contemporaries Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, credited as ’60s New Journalists for bringing personal flair and temperamental commitment to the duty of intellectual reporting. Schwartz cites another contemporary: “Her overall thinking, which was that of a liberal writer admonishing what she saw as the myopia of her fellow liberals, had much the same drive [as] Jane Jacobs in her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”
Schwartz’s best implication is that Kael made film criticism matter. “As concerned with audience reactions as with her own, she could be caught up in how movies stoked our fantasies regardless of their quality as movies.” But it’s this notion of “getting caught up” that stymies many Kael followers who insist on going down a hedonist path. (That way lies Ebert.) It misses out on the important development of political analysis (that other, personalized criticism out of England and France) that scrutinized social ideology in movies and has been the profession’s only advance since Kael appeared.
Readable as the new Kaeliana may be (Wolcott’s memoir is the most captivating), there’s no substitute for the actual volumes of her reporting/criticism. Against the age of hype, Kael’s criticism stands as a demonstration of how an active intellect can function despite the ebb and flow of trends and fads. It’s regrettable that the Library of America omitted Kael’s 1974 cri de coeur “On the Future of Movies,” the best display of critical thinking in the cultural moment. In that piece, Kael did what’s now unfashionable: She looked skeptically toward the future but weighed the value of what was at hand.