Rigid in her beliefs, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael refused to see a movie twice. She stuck with her gut reaction, defended the lowbrow, and respected artistic risk. Kael often carried her reviews to the extreme of examining social trends at the expense of a film’s technical or aesthetic qualities, making her a pioneer of film criticism and a defining figure of twentieth century cinema.
Her review of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” embodied her willingness to go against the critical grain and probe a film’s psycho-emotional complexities. Kael questioned her peers’ universally glowing reviews and challenged the work’s creative substance. Perhaps the strongest aspect of this review is her analysis of intellectual undertones in a vernacular and honest voice.
Kael fearlessly followed her gut in praises and pans. Although some fear criticism’s polarized spectrum, Kael’s biting prose attracted followers while reshaping critical standards. Ken Tucker noted on Salon.com, “Foes, too, hard their own favorite Kael pieces.” Her writing style and voice have transcended film criticism and filtered into new fields.
Throughout her career, Kael lauded filmmakers for pushing the medium’s limits, notably when she told Francis Davis in an interview her favorite decade in cinema history was the 1970s. Others expected her to say the classical Hollywood era of the 1930s/1940s, but Kael said, “There were directors coming along who really brought something new to the medium.” Creative expression and artistic jumps were praised by Kael; stale techniques and stories were not.
Perhaps her resounding belief in film as art mostly strongly guided her criticism. She said, “One of the great things about movies is they can combine the energy of a popular art with the possibilities or a high art.” Kael’s own writing style reflected this tenet by using common language to investigate complex emotional insights.
Detractors such as Renata Adler have criticized her limited vocabulary, reliance on images, and use of rhetorical questions. Adler said, “Mistaking lack of civility for vitality, she now substitutes for an argument a protracted, obsessional invective…” While her controversial topic choice and writing style were sure to garner enemies, haters nevertheless paid continuous attention to Kael’s craft and contribution.
Modern film criticism was affected by Kael’s unwavering reactions and slicing prose. It’s impossible to divorce her writing from the genre or understate her impact on legions of young critics. Kael was an overwhelmingly positive influence on arts criticism and her legacy lives on after death.