--Hold on. Before I hit "paste," I should probably explain who the hell Pauline Kael was to all you kids who come here expecting fart jokes and skateboard videos. (Patience, that is still what this site is about. Future posts will work to combine both.) Kael was a film critic for the New Yorker from 1968 to 1991. She was to that subset of criticism what James Brown was to his trade. Her style, at once casual and authoritative, was a major influence on a generation of critics. Roger Ebert, a friend and acolyte, wrote in 2006: "[I]n 1967, I met Pauline Kael and Werner Herzog and many others, but to meet those two was of lifelong importance. Kael became a close friend whose telephone calls often began with 'Roger, honey, no, no, no,' before she would explain why I was not only wrong but likely to do harm."
So that's who the hell Pauline Kael was. Without further ado, here is that line from Heller's article. He is describing a dinner party in '65 at the director Sidney Lumet's apartment , at which Kael, then a "small-time movie critic" from Northern Cailforna, was a guest:
Lumet liked Kael’s work. Over the previous few weeks, he had allowed her on his set as a reporter, hoping she would learn something about shooting technique. Also present that night was the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and after a few drinks—actually, after quite a lot of drinks—Hirschfeld and Kael started quibbling about the uses of movie criticism. Finally, Hirschfeld asked her point-blank what she thought critics were good for. Kael gestured toward Lumet. “My job,” she said, “is to show him which way to go.”
[The whole article is great and for the time being on the happy side of the paywall.]
I am tempted to call that quote, "Bad ass," with a respectful pause between the two words. That would be very of-my-generation. A bike shop guy once assured me that the single-speed Trek hybrid I was eyeing was "Bad [pause] ass." Really, it was just a comfortable ride with an innovative carbon drive chain, but since you sat upright riding it, and since it could barely hit 20 MPH, it was hardly an apt description. By "Bad [pause] ass," he meant "a well-crafted machine and an exceptionally comfortable ride." Guys my age say that to describe any manner of fine thing: a guitar solo, a microbrew, a well-worn baseball hat, etc.
But here, I mean it. Lumet invited her to his set so that he might teach her something. Eventually, he got the order straight. Lumet later said of the moment, "I thought, This is a very dangerous person." And that, of course, is a synonym for a bad ass.
Think of great art as the North Pole. It is beautiful and exotic, but remote and inaccessible to most of us. It takes a Robert Peary to go out and find it. By the start of the twentieth century, art became so specialized and complex that we needed help even understanding it. We needed someone out in the vanguard to either articulate, in words we lack, why we liked the accessible, or to explain, with reasons we do not even have, why we should admire the inaccessible. Think of it this way: most people, untutored and unschooled, cannot look at a late period Picasso and appreciate at once that it's a masterpiece. It takes a critic to lead the way. Even other artists need help getting there.
Today Kael's idea of the critic as the vanguard is almost bizarre. Critics--both film and otherwise--have been fired en masse from every newspaper in the country. Even magazines like the Atlantic have truncated their criticism sections to two brief articles way in the back with the mail-order Panama hat ads (and then usually, in the Atlantic, pissing and moaning about how bad everything is; but that's a rant for another time). Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel could once make or break a movie with just a thumb up or down. It wasn't actually that binary: even those who did not read their reviews could take on faith that eloquent and intelligent reasoning went into the aim of their thumbs. Now, many viewers are likely to decide which movie to see based on statistics like the Tomatometer or box office ticket receipts. Today very few critics tell very few viewers which way to go. How can they tell a leading director?
Stop me if this is super cliché, but when I consider the influence of intellectual types on us Common Folk, I often recall the opening lines of Czesław Miłosz's "The Captive Mind." (Who doesn't?) "It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy." Considering that Miłosz is talking about Marxist philosophy as the driving force behind Soviet tyranny, I nominate "in general unpleasantly" as the The Greatest Understatement of All Time. In a less menacing way, he is right clear across the board. Our fates are influenced by all sorts of intricate and abstruse fields that most of us do not understand: electricity, engineering, computer technology, medicine, chemistry, and on and on and on. Right now, botanists are debating the best way to plant seeds. This discussion, one that few of us even hear, will shape the fate of the human race.
Art is no different, no less specialized, and no less influential. Art went into the shape of the computer you read this on, the font in which these words appear, the clothes you now wear (though naked is the optimal way to enjoy my site), and each of those art-driven things has left an incalculable yet direct influence on the quality, shape, and direction of your life. To help explain that influence, and then to point out new directions to go in, is the critic's job. (By the way: to anyone who considers criticism a secondary or even parasitic craft plied by the inferior, I politely suggest you go read Shakespeare or Joyce with no commentary, footnotes, or even a dictionary at hand. Enjoy.)
So Kael is right. The Lumets of this world are steeped in criticism--to varying degrees, yet invariably far beyond the rest of us. They are hopelessly in thrall to the opinions of the Kaels and the Eberts. Lumet, like the rest of us, needed a Peary to tell them where the North Pole even is. The critic is that pathfinder. To be a good pathfinder you need to be a very dangerous person. You need to be a Bad [pause] Ass.