Thursday, June 18, 2009
Kael on Cinema Trash - Part III (Enjoyment)
[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.)
We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art. The movies we respond to, even in childhood, don’t have the same values as the official culture supported at school and in the middle-class home. At the movies we get low life and high life, while David Susskind and the moralistic reviewers chastise us for not patronizing what they think we should, “realistic” movies that would be good for us – like A Raisin in the Sun, where we could learn the lesson that a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family.
Movie audiences will take a lot of garbage, but it’s pretty hard to make us queue up for pedagogy. At the movies we want a different kind of truth, something that surprises us and registers with us as funny or accurate or maybe amazing, maybe even amazingly beautiful. We get little things even in mediocre and terrible movies. … Do we need to lie and shift things to false terms – like those who have to say Sophia Loren is a great actress as if her acting had made her a star? Wouldn’t we rather watch her than better actresses because she’s so incredibly charming and because she’s probably the greatest model the world has ever known? …
Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in the movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so. It’s the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings. At best, the movie is totally informed by the kind of pleasure we have been taking from bits and pieces of movies. But we are so used to reaching out to the few good bits in a movie that we don’t need formal perfection to be dazzled. There are so many arts and crafts that go into movies and there are so many things that can go wrong that they’re not an art for purists. We want to experience that elation we feel when a movie (or even a performer in a movie) goes farther than we had expected and makes the leap successfully. …
If we go back and think over the movies we’ve enjoyed – even the ones we knew were terrible movies when we enjoyed them – what we enjoying in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness. …
Keeping in mind that simple, good distinction that all art is entertainment but not all entertainment is art, it might be a good idea to keep in mind also that if a movie is said to be a work of art and you don’t enjoy it, the fault may be in you, but it’s probably in the movie. Because of the money and advertising pressures involved, many reviewers discover a fresh masterpiece every week, and there’s that cultural snobbery, that hunger for respectability that determines the selection of the even bigger annual masterpieces. …
Kicked in the ribs, the press says “art” when “ouch” would be more appropriate. When a director is said to be an artist (generally on the basis of earlier work which the press failed to recognize) and especially when he picks artistic subjects like the pain of creation, there is a tendency to acclaim his new bad work. This way the press, in trying to make up for its past mistakes, manages to be wrong all the time.
Keep reading Kael on Cinema Trash:
Part I (Art)
Part II (Technique)
Part III (Enjoyment)
Part IV (Worthwhile)
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What Kael is talking about here is termite art but, seemingly unlike Manny Farber, she seems to hold out the possibility that it can be applied to a work as a whole, and that therein lies greatness. This view hits right at the heart with what drew me to cinema, what I took from at its best, and what I continue to struggle for in watching and writing about movies.
On another note, just last night, I saw Napoleon on the big screen. Stretches were quite tedious, and I thought Gance's attempts to force elephantine art onto the screen were often unpleasant. When it worked, it was because of the foolish, almost childlike audacity of the gesture. The best bits were the termitic moments, the small chamber pieces dealing with the Terror - with that hideously pockmarked Robespierre and Gance himself as the foppishly dapper Sant-Just. Just the sight of Robespierre in those 18th century cooler-than-thou sunglasses was worth the price of admission.
Indeed, even Napoleon himself becomes a more likable protagonist when the mythologization cools down (I found the scene on Corsica largely intolerable) and he's allowed to seem a monstrously vain, yet likably arrogant, little man.
In other words, it was not the pompous granduer of the film that appealed to me but the moments of chutzpah and, well, trashy enjoyment.
Back to Kael...
The following passage is why she is my favorite critic, and why I feel so in tune with her views even though we often come to different conclusions on the same films. The root approach is the same:
"Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in the movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so. It’s the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings. At best, the movie is totally informed by the kind of pleasure we have been taking from bits and pieces of movies."
Indeed. To read this is to think of all the movies I love that I don't walk around arguing are "great" movies but that totally succeed in their aims. They might be messy. Or they might be modest. But they are fun to watch, and how isn't that "great"?
The idea that challenging or uncomfortable films are somehow deeper is a mistake I think almost all of us make far too often. (Which isn't to imply that movies should always be a hoot.)
That's true, but what I like about her (and why I think I feel closer to her aesthetic than many pop critics) is that she still maintains the distinction between "trash" and "art" even while celebrating the former and condemning much of what is mistaken (important distinction there) as the latter.
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