A critic who refers to Meryl Streep as “replicant—all shtick” or says “Jaws is a terrific movie—I laughed all the way through it” can’t be accused of wanting boldness. And if the collective reviews of film critic Pauline Kael were anything, they were bold.
Pauline Kael left a strong, if not contentious, impression on readers, movie-goers, and other critics during her twenty-three years at The New Yorker. Gaining as much of a cult following as the art-house films she considered “self-indulgent,” Kael wielded substantial influence in the very industry she wrote about.
Her judgments often collided with the majority opinion; whether she was panning beloved classics like The Sound of Music and West Side Story or galvanizing critical flops like Lolita and Last Tango in Paris, Kael didn't cater to anyone’s viewpoint except her own, something rare in most critics. Even more radical was the idea that people listened to and anticipated what a critic had to say.
But Kael had critics of her own. Renata Adler accused Kael of prizing snark over substance and famously referred to her work as “worthless.” She claimed Kael “reveled” in tearing down films, actors, and directors. To some extent, she’s right. Kael’s writing never sugar-coated things, whether it was to the amusement or offense of her readers and subjects. But any critic who can sit through a casual viewing of Galaxy Quest and remark upon its “sweetness” can’t have it out for all films.
Looking at her reviews for the types of films easily dismissed by critics, it is evident Kael understood how movies should function within their respective genres. An action flick seems like a prime target for a critic at the intellectual New Yorker. But Kael’s biggest disappointment in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was Spielberg’s attempt to imbue the film with too much meaning, which “softens and sentimentalizes the action.” In her review of Say Anything, Kael calls the movie “slight,” but offers it as a compliment. After all, a romantic comedy where John Cusack holds a boom box over his head would fail if it took itself too seriously.
William Zinsser wrote that “criticism at its best [is] allusive, stylish, disturbing. It disturbs us—as criticism often should—because it jogs a set of beliefs and forces us to reexamine them.” So is Jaws funny? Perhaps at parts. Is Meryl Streep a talented but distant performer? Depends on the film. Is Steven Spielberg getting more heavy-handed with age? Now that you mention it, yes. Whatever people’s opinions of her, Kael got people to talk about movies in ways that weren't pre-approved by the public discourse.
But more importantly, Pauline Kael got people talking about critics. She offered bold claims that could only be challenged by bolder ones, prompting audiences to really consider why they loved or hated a movie. And perhaps moving audiences to think for themselves is the boldest move a critic can make.