In a 2008 retrospective of the late Pauline Kael, the influential New Yorker film critic, who championed the violent, transgressive product of the “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s and pre-Star Wars 1970s, beginning with 1967′s Bonnie & Clyde, Robert Fulford of Canada’s National Post wrote:
Kael, whose critical reputation was in its early stages, used Bonnie and Clyde as the opening shot in what turned out to be a war against middlebrow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road taste. Her New Yorker piece began: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it.”
She announced no less than a revolution in taste that she sensed in the air. Movie audiences, she said, were going beyond “good taste,” moving into a period of greater freedom and openness. Was it a violent film?
Well, Bonnie and Clyde needed violence. “Violence is its meaning.”
She hated earnest liberalism and critical snobbery. She liked the raw energy in the work of adventurous directors such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. She trusted her visceral reactions to movies.
When hired as a regular New Yorker movie critic, she took that doctrine to an audience that proved enthusiastic and loyal. She became the great star among New Yorker critics, then the most influential figure among critics in any field. Books of her reviews, bearing titles such as I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down, sold in impressive numbers. Critics across the continent became her followers. Through the 1970s and ’80s, no one in films, except the actual moviemakers, was more often discussed.
It was only in the late stages of her New Yorker career (from which she retired in 1991) that some of her admirers began saying she had sold her point of view too effectively. A year after her death (in 2001) one formerly enthusiastic reader, Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, wrote: “Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline.”
Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film’s worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. “It was fun watching the applecart being upset,” Schrader said, “but now where do we go for apples?”
Where indeed? But nobody who was standing behind the Panavision movie cameras of the ’60s and ’70s, or the television minicams of the 1980s was asking that question; they were too busy kicking over the applecart. Unfortunately though, “you can only be avant-garde for so long before you become ‘garde,’” as former Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts once warned her fellow leftists. Similarly, a century ago, when bohemian French modernists coined the phrase, “Épater la bourgeoisie!”, evidently, they never stopped to consider that the bourgeoisie would eventually long grow inured at efforts to shock them.
Or that the bohemians would become more than a little bourgeois themselves, along the way.
Related: “The most disturbing thing about this ex-Disney star’s sordid routine? My teenage daughter’s blasé reaction.”