Critics And Criticism

In the mid-1990’s, my parents bought our family’s first Internet-ready computer.  It was a PC–I don’t remember what kind–and it came with two CD-ROMs: Encarta and Cinemania.  I spent hours using both discs.  In a pre-YouTube era, watching minute-long videos or listening to sound clips on CD-ROM seemed like the height of technology, even if the quality was not great.

Cinemania was so much more than a disk version of IMDB.  Movies had reviews from three different critics: Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael.  In the mid-1990’s, everyone knew Roger Ebert because of his television show with his fellow Chicagoan Gene Siskel.  Leonard Maltin I knew from his cameo in Gremlins 2.  Pauline Kael was a new to me.  At the time, I thought she was also the least of the three.  Cinemania only excerpted a paragraph from Kael’s reviews (unlike Ebert or Maltin, both of which were in full) and cited which of her books the review came from.  Her reviews made me angry, and I felt certain I would never read her books.

My next experience with Kael came from a joke on the short-lived cartoon series The Critic.  In retrospect it was rather mean joke at her expense (the sequence starts at about the 2:00 mark), but at the time I thought it was hilarious.  Still I had no idea who Kael was other than just another film critic.  It was not until after she died, and I read her obituary (there were many, and they all very long) that I got a sense of who she was and how important she was.  Eventually I did read one of her books, a compilation of her essays and reviews, and I developed an appreciation of her.  Certainly I had never read a film critic like her before.

This year, 10 years after her death, Kael is back in the public eye.  A new biography has sparked critical interest and reassessment.  Movie critics in particular are eager to talk about Kael and her legacy.  However, the larger cultural world too has taken notice.  While it is true that Kael wrote about the movies, to call Kael a movie critic is to miss the point.  She was a cultural critic, or perhaps more accurately, a cultural warrior.  I use the term “cultural warrior” however, not as we use it today, i.e. one involved in the American political struggle surrounding divisive social issues (same-sex marriage, abortion, etc.)  Rather Kael, pugnacious by nature, wrote about and fought for her vision of American culture via her movie reviews and other writings.  To say that her legacy towers above all other movie critics misses the point.  Her successors, whether acolyte (a Paulette), opponent, or neither, remained movie critics.  Kael was so much more; she was a public intellectual.

Outside of literary criticism I cannot think of another critic in any genre who transcended his or her realm to become a fixture in the public debate.*  In today’s world, the person who comes closest to Kael is Camille Paglia, which is a truly depressing thought.**  Like Kael, Paglia loves her trash culture and defends, although Paglia does not have the coherence to match Kael.  In contrast, a public intellectual like Susan Sontag, who was in some ways, a mirror opposite of Kael, tended to write about culture from a lofty intellectual perch.

In the annals of film criticism, Kael was a unique figure.  In many ways, she was more like the founder of a school of thought.  And like any other such founder, she gathered an inner circle of proteges around her.  In some ways, this was an act of generosity as she nurtured the careers of many young writers (among them her successor at The New Yorker David Denby.)  On the other hand, Kael’s relationship to her Paulettes were no different from (for example) Freud to his inner circle or Ayn Rand to hers.  Kael, like Freud and Rand, demanded an ideological loyalty and cast out those who questioned the basic tenets.  As a result, the Paulettes were always inferior to Kael.


Criticism is more than just critics.  That is fortunate because in the years since Kael’s death, the importance of the critic has waned to almost nothing.  Can you name a famous literary critic?  As for film, there are no critics who, like Kael did, champion young directors anymore.  Perhaps this is not an entirely bad development (it was a source of much criticism against Kael).  In large part this is because culture has changed.  It is fragmented and corporatized–even more so than before.  High culture has all but disappeared, and trash culture monopolizes.  Only the lowest common denominator is catered to.

The public intellectual has largely been replaced by the know-it-all television pundit.  One can fairly debate what a public intellectual is now.  They were those who debated ideas in public outside the realm of academia.  People read what they wrote, which is why magazines that allowed for such debate, such as The New Yorker or The Atlantic, were so valuable.  In the age of television, reading is simply not so important anymore, and reasoned debate does not make good television.  Screaming and shouting is the preferred method.  The more ridiculous the story, the better (which is how you get this gem). Television does not want its audience to think, and there is no long form debate.

The Internet has diluted the debate even further.  Any fool with a blog can be aspire to be the next great public intellectual or social critic.  All he needs is an opinion and basic literacy, but that does not make him the next Lionel Trilling.  I think therefore I blog; I blog therefore I publish; I publish therefore I matter.  The problem is that separating the wheat from the chaff is nigh impossible on the Internet (to those still reading this post, thanks for thinking I have something worthwhile to say, although I do consider myself one of the fools.)

Ironically, the print media has made the Internet even worse.  Go to the website of any major newspaper and you will find it packed full of blogs.  Most of them, aspire to report rather than opine, although there are some that do not pretend to the print media’s nominal adherence to non-partisanship.***  Even worse than the online print news outlets are those online news sites that are only online.  I am thinking of Slate and Salon in particular, but there are many others.  The quality of Salon and Slate has been particularly damaged by giving their writers blogs.  Salon is the far more egregious of the two, but one expects that from a publication that gives platforms to hacks such as Glenn Greenwald and David Sirota (among others).  Salon has given up on the legitimacy in favor of preaching to its choir.†  Slate is headed in that direction.


A relative of mine wants to be a comedian.  I’ve never seen him perform, although in person he is quite trenchant and funny.  I fear however, that he has a view of comedians that is just unrealistic.  My relative’s hero is George Carlin, and in said relative’s mind, a great comedian should be like Carlin, social critics or speakers of truth to power.  In other words, a modern-day version of the fool from King Lear.

When Tracy Morgan made his now-infamous attempt at a comedy routine, and was thrown out in the cold by, among others, his boss Tina Fey, my relative was furious.  He thought that comedians should have the freedom to say whatever they want and the only thing they should be criticized for is not being funny (which by all accounts, save for one rapper, Morgan was not). My relative was especially angry at Tina Fey, and called her a hypocrite for speaking out against Morgan so forcefully.

The truth is that my relative is wrong, and not just in his deluded belief about the importance of comedians.  No one should be immune to criticism because of their occupation.  A comedian need not say the “right” (i.e. socially correct) things, but he should not be excused from potential backlash than a non-comedian for upsetting his audience.  Having the freedom to say whatever you want means have to accept that others have that same freedom.  Words have power, and those who take that power lightly do so to their own peril.

What my relative does not understand is that criticism is a two-way street.  Critics can (and do) become the criticized, and any public figure opens him or herself up to attack.  I have read many critics who complained about receiving hate mail after panning a blockbuster film.  Pauline Kael herself was always the focus of often vitriolic criticism (including her long-running feud with the film critic Andrew Sarris), and that was the way she liked it.  She dished it out, she took it, and she dished it out again.  That is why she alone among all film critics is still being discussed years after her death.


* Both Frank Rich and Frank Bruni were critics at The New York Times (theater and food respectively), and not doubt both would claim they are now public intellectuals because they now engage in the larger sociopolitical debate.  I am not sure I would agree, that is besides the point.  Both left their positions as critics of culture to be social critics.

** Is there anyone, excluding politicians, who has a higher opinion of herself with less reason to than Camille Paglia?  Lazy thinking, a complete inability to self-reflect, and an iceberg-sized chip on the shoulder make for poor writing.  There is a reason why Molly Ivins’s brilliant take-down of Paglia has become legendary.  (This one is pretty good too.)

*** The illusion that the media should have no bias is not only misguided, it is pernicious.  When one side of the debate spouts off lies, then that just destroys the debate.  The media has the responsibility to report the truth not simply what both sides say and call it a day.

  Salon has basically given up on the idea of journalism.  There are no investigative pieces.  Even their book reviews come directly from the Barnes & Noble website, which makes Salon a shill.  Salon has also published an excerpt from the latest book by conservative gadfly and infamous homophobe Joseph Epstein, which proves that despite its claims to liberalism, the only orthodox views that Salon truly holds to are its staunch anti-Israel and its pro-Occupy Wall Street positions.

  It is very rare for a comedian to truly make a difference, and when they do it is usually because there is a court case involved (George Carlin, Lenny Bruce).  Otherwise, even the greatest and edgiest are no more than the boys (and girls, but mostly boys) in the back of the room who throw spit balls.  Most comedians cannot even rise up to that level, and mediocrity is rewarded, which is how Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno have become corporate empires unto themselves.