Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kael on Cinema Trash – Part I (Art)

[Condensing this piece of classic Kael was a serious challenge; I’ve left a lot out, but I think the main arguments are here. In an effort to make it easier for folks to comment on individual arguments, I’m breaking up this excerpt into four parts. Please read and react in the comments section. Let's get a discussion going!]

The following is excerpted from “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” by Pauline Kael, originally published in Harper’s, February 1969. It has been anthologized in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, pages 200-227. (In some cases, paragraph breaks and ellipsis have been added. All other punctuation is faithful to For Keeps.)

A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actors’ scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense. Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theatre or in this city, surely in other theatres in other cities, now, in the past or future, who react as you do. And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe most important, imaginable. The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.

There is so much talk now about the art of the film that we may be in danger of forgetting that most of the movies we enjoy are not works of art. … It’s not so terrible – it might even be a relief – for a movie to be without the look of art; there are much worse things aesthetically than the crude good-natured crumminess, the undisguised reach for a fast buck, of movies without art. From I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf through the beach parties to Wild in the Streets and The Savage Seven, American International Pictures has sold a cheap commodity, which in its lack of artistry and in its blatant and sometimes funny way of delivering action serves to remind us that one of the great appeals of movies is that we don’t have to take them too seriously. …

But though I don’t enjoy a movie so obvious and badly done as the American International hit, The Wild Angels, it’s easy to see why kids do and why many people in other countries do. Their reasons are basically why we all started going to the movies. After a time, we may want more, but audiences who have been forced to wade through the thick middle-class padding of more expensively made movies to get to the action enjoy the nose-thumbing at “good taste” of cheap movies that stick to the raw materials. At some basic level they like the pictures to be cheaply done, they enjoy the crudeness; it’s a breather, a vacation from proper behavior and good taste and required responses. Patrons of burlesque applaud politely for the graceful erotic dancer but go wild for the lewd lummox who bangs her big hips around. That’s what they go to the burlesque for.

Personally, I hope for a reasonable minimum of finesse, and movies like Planet of the Apes or The Scalphunters or The Thomas Crown Affair seem to me minimal entertainment for a relaxed evening’s pleasure. These are, to use traditional common-sense language, “good movies” or “good bad movies” – slick, reasonably inventive, well-crafted. They are not art. But they are almost the maximum of what we’re now getting from American movies, and not only these but much worse movies are talked about as “art” – and are beginning to be taken seriously in our schools.

It’s preposterously egocentric to call anything we enjoy art – as if we could not be entertained by it if it were not; it’s just as preposterous to let prestigious, expensive advertising snow us into thinking we’re getting art for our money when we haven’t even had a good time. I did have a good time at Wild in the Streets, which is more than I can say for Petulia or 2001 or a lot of other highly praised pictures. Wild in the Streets is not a work of art, but then I don’t think Petulia or 2001 is either, though Petulia has that kaleidoscopic hip look and 2001 that new-techniques look which combined with “swinging” or “serious” ideas often pass for modern picture art.

Let’s clear away a few misconceptions. Movies make hash of the schoolmarm’s approach of how well the artist fulfilled his intentions. Whatever the original intention of the writers and director, it is usually supplanted, as the production gets under way, by the intention to make money – and the industry judges the film by how well it fulfills that intention. But if you could see the “artist’s intentions” you’d probably wish you couldn’t anyway. Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose. This is, indeed, almost a defining characteristic of the hack director, as distinguished from an artist.

The intention to make money is generally all too obvious. One of the excruciating comedies of our time is attending the new classes in cinema at the high schools where the students may quite shrewdly and accurately interpret the plot developments in a mediocre movie in terms of manipulation for a desired response while the teacher tries to explain everything in terms of the creative artist working out his theme – as if the conditions under which a movie is made and the market for which it is designed were irrelevant, as if the latest product from Warners or Universal should be analyzed like a lyric poem.

Keep reading Kael on Cinema Trash:
Part I (Art)
Part II (Technique)
Part III (Enjoyment)
Part IV (Worthwhile)


Ed Howard said...

It seems indicative of the period Kael was writing in that throughout this piece, she equates the struggle to make art to the desire to make a self-serious "message" picture a la Stanley Kramer or Elia Kazan. Not that there aren't still would-be mainstream artistes who think that just because their movie's about the war in Iraq or racial prejudice that they're making capital-A Art. And there are still moviegoers who will eat this stuff up, and the Oscars still reward these films. But in other ways the landscape has changed, I think, perhaps to some degree at least because of this essay, and also of course because of the increasing influence of the Cahiers critics and auteurism. Ironically, Kael and Andrew Sarris were constantly at loggerheads over auteurism, but they were more or less united in seeking art in trash rather than in the big serious message movies. Today, I think many critics take for granted what Kael is arguing here, that a movie need not -- and indeed, even should not -- strive to impart a message or to become art, and that the best movies are the ones in which the artistry is more subdued and modest.

Whether or not this is a good thing is of course another question. Because while Kael has a point about the blandness of those movies that aim to teach us about The Evils of Race Prejudice or some such, there's also a danger that her stance could, and often has, bleed into a more general anti-intellectual condemnation of any movie that tries to do anything more than entertain us. This is especially apparent in her contention that all art is entertainment, but not all entertainment is art. This requirement that art be "entertaining" to the masses would seem to eliminate the possibility of challenging, difficult art that doesn't connect with the masses, that doesn't "entertain" in the usual sense, but instead engages the mind and the intellect. I don't know if there's any place in Kael's hierarchy here for that kind of movie.

Joel Bocko said...


I think there is a place in Kael's hierarchy for that because she celebrated L'Avventura and other films which moved her without being conventional "entertainment" (though she certainly had it in for Antonioni after that point, didn't she?).

I don't think her definition of entertainment is synonomous with "appeals to the masses" but rather "provides enjoyment and excitement if you're willing to engage".

I also don't know if I'd agree with her sentiment being defined as "the best movies are the ones in which the artistry is more subdued and modest." This does not gibe with her gleeful celebration of follies like Intolerance and 1900, which try too much and fail but fail beautifully. Nor with her general love of romantic, expansive artists like Bertolucci, Coppola, or (as she seemed to read him) Altman. Not to mention Godard and Scorsese.

This is definitely one of my favorite Kael essays, perhaps the one that most gibes with my own sensibilities and ideas about film, art, and entertainment. I really look forward to the other excerpts.

It certainly crystallizes Kael's sometimes elusive aesthetic better than anything else she's ever written.

Jason Bellamy said...

Actually, I think Kael's piece might be even more accurate now than it was then, if that's possible, at least in one respect: most films are not about a message or an emotion or a metaphor; they are about turning a profit. Period.

That said, even within those commercial films constructed in ways that remain truthful to desires of the audience they covet, rather than truthful to the desires of the characters or drama or messag within, there is still technique involved, and that technique is art.

Pretending that everything we enjoy is art might indeed be preposterous, but so is assuming that painters and poets only do it for the love of the game, if you will.