“I was often accused of writing about everything but the movie,” film critic Pauline Kael answered in Afterglow. Although stubbornly opinionated, even presumptuous in her writing, Kael as a critic revealed greater truths of American culture through film reviews.
Popular film was her medium of criticism when she began writing for the sophisticated New Yorker in 1967. She embraced the pop appeal of movies, how energy flows out of them. She noted good directors, such as Altman with Nashville, use pop as a vehicle for art.
The magazine’s editor, William Shawn, noticed the average age of readers significantly lowering after Kael joined. It was her receptiveness that lead to her popularity her as a critic. Kael enjoyed big box office hits such as Jaws, the Matrix, and E.T, yet she dubbed The Sound of Music as “The Sound of Money.”
She criticized Hiroshima Mon Amour, and its reception, that the intellectual audience found “wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism.” Juxtaposed to E.T.,she described the viewing experience with a “lightness of soul.”
Yet her writings has not been met without criticisms. Renata Adler in House Critic denounced Kael’s writing as overbearing, and her mannerisms as overused. Despite attacking Kael for losing vitality after the ‘60s, even Adler emphasized “Whatever else you may think about her work, [...] she certainly does know about movies.”
Kael aimed to write film reviews as accessible and reliable. Kael consciously tried to write the way people talked about a movie when leaving the theater. Ken Tucker’s article on Salon.com cited Kael saying “the reader is in on my thought processes.”
She did not automatically praise art films because of its moral appeal, and she did not immediately oppose Hollywood films as a commercial product. Likewise, she wrote “I didn’t want to write academic English in an attempt to elevate movies, because I think that actually lowers them.”
Ken Tucker noted Kael asserted her opinion in spite of her editors, “the sort of critical independence Kael maintains is increasingly rare.” Kael wrote acerbic lines of talented actors, such as Paul Schrader in Taxi Driver liking “the idea of prostituting himself better than he likes making movies.”
It was Kael’s receptiveness paired with her stubbornness that led to her everlasting influence. When a critic takes his or her medium seriously is when the critic is taken seriously.