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)

6 comments:

MovieMan0283 said...

This is a fascinating excerpt and a more troublesome one than the previous.

Firstly, Kael is wrong about The Graduate: its technique is a big part of why it affected audiences of the time. It just doesn't like the kind of movie Hollywood was making for the most part in 1967, and to imagine it as an American film of 1965 or maybe even 1966 is just impossible. The use of zoom and telephoto lenses, the emphasis on close-ups, the integrity of each shot on its own terms, and especially the use of pop music...perhaps together, Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate can be considered the Citizen Kane of the late 60s. True, much of what they used was taken from European cinema but it had not been put together quite in this way before: fused with American-style storytelling, Hollywood glamor, and a directly youth culture appeal.

However, even where Kael's wrong, she's right, in her condemnation of technique for its own sake. I watched The Graduate the other night and, despite the fact that for years I've considered it a personal favorite, Nichols' technique actually turned me off. It seemed overly impressed with itself and at times disruptive of the viewing experience. In other words, the film suddenly began to seem to calculated to me, less intuitive than it perhaps should have been (which is not to say that Nichols wasn't improvising stylistically at all, as I recall reading that he was, nor that a "greater" film isn't carefully planned to: it's how the film feels, not what was actually done, that I'm talking about here.)

But of course I can't swim all the way with Kael's anti-formalism. Sometimes she hits the mark and sometimes, she misses...sometimes all within the same sentence. For example:

"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."

Hmmmm...well, yes and no. The greatest movie artists DO unify technique and subject; even in the cases where technique is noticeable, if it works, there's a good reason for that foregrounding. But I don't quite buy "art" subsuming technique - would she say that "art" subsumes content? Or does she consider content synonymous with art, and technique merely a lowly appendage to the process?

Yet I do sympathize, and sometimes flirt, with the idea that one should avoid getting too technical and try to discuss the work as a whole. Nonetheless, I ultimately seem to feel that one can break down the work into parts, analyze and enjoy it and then put it back together again, unlike Humpty Dumpty.

Jason Bellamy said...

I agree with the 'art subsums technique in great films' argument to this point: I think that when, on first contact with a film, we're reacting to the technique instead of the result of the technique, then the technique has failed.

I could list several examples here, but a frequent offender is the long, unbroken take. A few years ago, there was on in Atonement that got everyone chatting. Well, if I'm watching that scene saying, "WOW, NO CUTS!" I'm not really watching the movie. It's like paying attention to Shakespeare's penmanship instead of the drama his poetry it creates.

Of course, technique is still important. And I love to look back and try to deconstruct what happened, and how it works. But for the average moviegoer, technique is invisible. That's why those of us who love movies and look into them more deeply can end up arguing about the greatness of a film based on an entirely different set of principles than what the movie is, in theory, "about."

So, Kael is wrong when she suggests there's no reason to discuss technique, because technique has an impact, noticed or not. But if all we see is the technique, we're paying attention to brushstrokes and missing the picture.

FilmDr said...

"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. …"

An interesting statement that hints at her methods. It implies that she leaves the discussion of technique for weaker films (and I remember that she panned The Graduate for its conventional pandering to the younger audience). For better movies she focuses on what is "new and beautiful"? I find I tend to analyze the film's techniques after trying to enjoy it whole, but it is true that often the most effective techniques do not call attention to themselves. Her critical technique implies a split between the intuitive appreciative side of the critic and the analytical side. She tries to convey her raw emotional reaction to a film, but that can make for a scattershot and overly personal critical method that can seem biased at times. It's almost as if she wants to be an innocent filmgoer lost in wonder and a jaded critic simultaneously.

Jason Bellamy said...

"It's almost as if she wants to be an innocent filmgoer lost in wonder and a jaded critic simultaneously."

Very well said!

MovieMan0283 said...

Jason, I think ideally one responds to the work as a whole first, and then takes a step back (or a step in) to analyze it.

Of course, it doesn't always work this way and one area I disagree with in Kael's essay here is the idea that USUALLY it's the film's fault and not the viewer's. I've changed my opinion on too many films, watched too many movies in the wrong mood (or with too many distractions) and been unengaged, to really believe that.

Alvy Singer said...

Hello. Well....

"One doesn’t want to talk about how Tolstoy got his effects but about the work itself."

This is a clear proof of why Kael, with all his goals, has serious problems with literature and never take care of Barthes or some literature theory.

They actually talk about Tolstoi got his effects: in the use of the language. In the beautiful sentences. In the clarity of characters. In the correct use of delicate adjectives. In terms of structure and view. The work itself is a great language effort.

That's why, like it or not, technique is very important.