Hail Kael!

Seems it's been the same headlines all summer: The oil spill. Gay marriage. Mel Gibson. Afghanistan. The decline of film criticism. OK, kidding about the last one; though, to hear some critics discuss it, the future of their craft is a matter of global concern. Mostly, these pieces consist of critics writing about things other critics have written about the dire state of criticism, prompting even more critics to weigh in on the subject, with the topic sentence getting lost along the way. For a dying art, film criticism sure has a lot of practitioners bemoaning its alleged demise.

One thing all these mea culpas and counterlaments have in common is at least a passing reference to the queen of criticism, Pauline Kael. The decades Kael wrote for The New Yorker (1968–91) were a golden age of film criticism—movies were just beginning to be taken seriously as an art form as legitimate as theater and literature, but the box office had not yet been completely dominated by mainstream blockbusters.

In her reviews, Kael can come across as a bit of a bully and a snob—you imagine her voice as either shouting or cackling with derision. Which is why it's such a treat—and a shock—to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her essay "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers" by watching this 1982 conversation between Kael and Canadian interviewer Brian Linehan. Kael is neither shrill nor scolding, instead evincing a genuine passion for film and actors such as Robert Preston, Paul Newman, and Debra Winger, for whom she predicts big things (wonder what happened there?). It's a rare glimpse of what the critic looked and sounded like, and a nostalgic trip back to a calmer, quieter time in TV—almost makes you want to write a piece bemoaning the demise of the TV interview.