For the past two decades Pauline Kael's vivid, intelligent, passionately argued movie reviews have delighted and stimulated so many appreciative readers that one must resist the temptation to call her stylish writing caviar to the general: It's more like beans and franks for the multitudes.
She has been praised as a ''great critic,'' her writing on film favorably compared to that of Shaw on music and Baudelaire on art. I hear also in her prose echoes of Edmund Wilson's unexcelled diligence and endless intellectual curiosity. And yet, recently, there's been some backlash: You hear former Kael admirers mutter, ''She's repeating herself,'' or, ''She likes everything now.''
I do believe Kael is beginning to take it easier on contemporary movies (though there are blessed, hilarious exceptions to that rule). But that's because her powers of analysis are growing. Her increased empathy with moviemakers' aims constitutes a kind of fine tuning that places her critical emphasis quite properly on what is photographed or written or acted well. She knows that artistic accomplishment on any level is fearfully difficult and deserves celebration.
Enthusiasm, discernment, and several other excellent qualities are richly displayed in this big new volume, which contains her reviews written for the New Yorker between mid-1980 and late 1983. There's also a wide-ranging essay, ''Why Are Movies So Bad?'' Its title aside, this is less an indictment of the whole art form than an acerbic survey of ''recent developments within the industry'' which ensure that corporate policies and strategies are seldom challenged and that lowest-common-denominator entertainment is what's produced.
Not that Kael is afraid of ''entertainment'' per se. She's a fan of genre movies such as ''The Road Warrior'' and ''The Dogs of War'' that function efficiently and deliver what they promise. She's fond of energetic trash (''Flash Gordon,'' ''Fast Times at Ridgemont High'') that has its own campy integrity and brazen performers like Bette Midler and Richard Pryor, whose attractively manic personalities transcend their star vehicles.
She has a true movie fan's sensibility and clearly enjoys pointing out incidental splendors in bad or forgettable films (Aretha Franklin's exuberant appearance in ''The Blues Brothers,'' John Gielgud's classic comedy turn in ''Arthur''). She's excited by promising new actors (Amanda Plummer, Eddie Murphy , Sean Penn, among others). And she keeps track of interesting performers and directors and reports on their progress.
She also shows a real visceral recoil from ''message'' movies that assume our responses rather than earn them. Among recent critical successes that bored her to tears or moved her to ridicule, are ''Gandhi,'' ''Missing,'' ''Chariots of Fire,'' ''Ordinary People,'' and ''Sophie's Choice.''
Sometimes her prose is looser than we'd wish. Speaking of flawed movies with fine moments in them, Kael suggests, ''. . . if you're eating a bowl of Rice Krispies and some of them don't pop, that's OK because the bowlful has a nice poppy feeling.'' That's bending over backward for informality.
Yet these reviews are also filled with examples of how thorough and resonant her thinking and her prose can be; for example, the following: ''It's one of the least amusing ironies of movie history that in the '70s when the 'personal' filmmakers seemed to be gaining acceptance, the thoughtful, quiet George Lucas made the quirkily mechanical ''Star Wars'' - a film so successful that it turned the whole industry around and put it on a retrograde course . . . .''
It's her knowledge of the movie-history context and her nuts-and-bolts approach to the finished images up there on the screen that give Kael's essays (at their best) their special authority. When she notes that '' 'An Officer and a Gentleman' seems to come out of a time warp - I've seen it before, with Tyrone Power,'' she's drawing on a lifetime of experience of seeing movies clearly.
Kael works harder than most other critics, paying close attention to cinematography, lighting, musical scores, and scripts. When she reviews a film made from a novel, it's evident that she's studied the novel as well. Though I'm enormously impressed by Kael's skills, I think I understand some of the recent complaints about her work. A strain of chauvinism, a preference for home-grown pop entertainments is discernible. Kael is impatient with the recent work of great foreign directors like Bergman, Godard, and Kurosawa, and often she writes as if she's become insensitive to experimentation. She may, paradoxically, have attained a needlessly limited view of what film can accomplish.
Still, there's nobody like her and no pleasure quite as keen as reading Kael's appreciative analyses of films that really matter to her - in this volume , ''The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, ''Atlantic City,'' ''Diner,'' ''Shoot the Moon,'' ''The Night of the Shooting Stars,'' and a dozen or so others. Her enthusiasm, receptivity, and thoroughness have set standards which critics of other arts might well emulate, and we all still have much to learn from her.