Thursday, June 18, 2009
Kael on Cinema Trash - Part II (Technique)
[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.)
People who are just getting “seriously interested” in film always ask a critic, “Why don’t you talk about technique and ‘the visuals’ most?” The answer is that American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn’t very interesting. … The craftsmanship that Hollywood has always used as a selling point not only doesn’t have much to do with art – the expressive use of techniques – it probably doesn’t even have very much to do with actual box-office appeal, either. … If one compares movies one like to movies one doesn’t like, craftsmanship of the big-studio variety is hardly a decisive factor. And if one compares a movie one likes by a competent director such as John Sturges or Franklin Schaffner or John Frankenheimer to a movie one doesn’t much like by the same director, his technique is probably not the decisive factor. …
Technique is hardly worth talking about unless it’s used for something worth doing; that’s why most of the theorizing about the new art of television commercials is such nonsense. The effects are impersonal – dexterous, sometimes clever, but empty of art. It’s because of their emptiness that commercials call so much attention to their camera angles and quick cutting – which is why people get impressed by “the art” of it. Movies are now often made in terms of what television viewers have learned to settle for. …
I don’t mean to suggest that there is not such a thing as movie technique or that craftsmanship doesn’t contribute to the pleasures of movies, but simply that most audiences, if they enjoy the acting and the “story” or the theme of the funny lines, don’t notice or care about how well or how badly the movie is made, and because they don’t care, a hit makes a director a “genius” and everybody talks about his brilliant technique (i.e., the technique of grabbing an audience). … If a movie is interesting primarily in terms of technique then it isn’t worth talking about except to students who can learn from seeing how a good director works. And to talk about a movie like The Graduate in terms of movie technique is really a bad joke. Technique at this level is not of any aesthetic performance; it’s not the ability to achieve what you’re after but the skill to find something acceptable.
One must talk about a film like this in terms of what audiences enjoy it for or one is talking gibberish – and might as well be analyzing the “art” of commercials. And for the greatest movie artists where there is a unity of technique and subject, one doesn’t need to talk about technique much because it has been subsumed in the art. One doesn’t want to talk about how Tolstoy got his effects but about the work itself. One doesn’t want to talk about how Jean Renoir does it; one wants to talk about what he has done. One can try to separate it all out, of course, distinguish form and content for purposes of analysis. But that is a secondary analytic function, a scholarly function, and hardly needs to be done explicitly in criticism. Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole. The critic shouldn’t need to tear a work apart to demonstrate that he knows how it was put together. The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made – which is more or less implicit. …
The new tribalism in the age of the media is not necessarily the enemy of commercialism; it is a direct outgrowth of commercialism and its ally, perhaps even its instrument. If a movie has enough clout, reviewers and columnists who were bored are likely to give it another chance, until on the second or third viewing, they discover that it affects them “viscerally” – and a big expensive movie is likely to do just that.
Keep reading Kael on Cinema Trash:
Part I (Art)
Part II (Technique)
Part III (Enjoyment)
Part IV (Worthwhile)