Thursday, June 18, 2009
Kael on Cinema Trash - Part IV (Worthwhile)
[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.)
In American movies what is most often mistaken for artistic quality is box-office success, especially if it’s combined with a genuflection to importance; then you have “a movie the industry can be proud of” like To Kill a Mockingbird or such Academy Award winners as West Side Story, My Fair Lady or A Man for All Seasons. … I’m not sure most movie reviewers consider what they honestly enjoy as being central to criticism. Some at least appear to think that would be relying too much on their own tastes, being too personal instead of being “objective” – relying on the ready-made terms of cultural respectability and on consensus judgment (which, to a rather shocking degree, can be arranged by publicists creating a climate of importance around a movie).
Just as movie directors, as they age, hunger for what was meant by respectability in their youth, and aspire to prestigious cultural properties, so, too, the movie press longs to be elevated in terms of the cultural values of their old high schools. And so they, along with the industry, applaud ghastly “tour-de-force” performances, movies based on “distinguished” stage successes or prize-winning novels, or movies that are “worthwhile,” that make a “contribution” – “serous” messagy movies. This often involves praise of bad moves, or dull movies, or even the praise in good movies of what was the worst in them. …
Does trash corrupt? A nutty Puritanism still flourishes in the arts, not just in the schoolteachers’ approach of wanting art to be “worthwhile,” but in the higher reaches of the audience life with those ideologues who denounce us for enjoying trash as if this enjoyment took us away from the really disturbing, angry new art of our time and somehow destroyed us. If we had to justify our trivial silly pleasures, we’d have a hard time. … I’ve avoided using the term “harmless trash” for movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, because that would put me on the side of the angels – against “harmful trash,” and I don’t honestly know what that is. It’s common for the press to call cheaply made, violent action movies “brutalizing,” but that tells us less about any actual demonstrable effects than about the finicky tastes of the reviewers – who are often highly appreciative of violence in more expensive and “artistic” settings such as Petulia. It’s almost a class prejudice, this assumption that crudely made movies, movies without the look of art, are bad for people.
If there’s a little art in good trash and sometimes even in poor trash, there may be more trash than is generally recognized in some of the most acclaimed “art” movies. Such movies at Petulia and 2001 may be no more than trash in the latest, up-to-the-minute guises, using “artistic techniques” to give trash the look of art. The serious art look may be the attest fashion in expensive trash. All that “art” may be what prevents pictures like these from being enjoyable trash; they’re not honestly crummy, they’re very fancy and they take their crummy ideas seriously. …
Part of the fun of movies is in seeing “what everybody’s talking about,” and if people are flocking to a movie, or if the press can con us into thinking that they are, then ironically, there is a sense in which we want to see it, even if we suspect we won’t enjoy it, because we want to know what’s going on. Even if it’s the worst inflated pompous trash that is the most talked about (and it usually is) and even if that talk is manufactured, we want to see the movies because so many people fall for whatever is talked about that they make the advertisers’ lies true. Movies absorb material from the culture and other arts so fast that some films that have been widely sold become culturally and sociologically important whether they are good movies or not. Movies like Morgan! or Georgy Girl or The Graduate – aesthetically trivial movies which, however, because of the ways some people react to them, enter into the national bloodstream – become cultural and psychological equivalents of watching a political convention, to observe what’s going on. And though this has little to do with the art of movies, it has a great deal to do with the appeal of movies. …
When you’re young the odds are very good that you’ll find something to enjoy in almost any movie. But as you grow more experienced, the odds change. I saw a picture a few years ago that was the sixth version of material that wasn’t much to start with. Unless you’re feebleminded, the odds get worse and worse. … The problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions fulfilled again. Probably a large part of the older audience gives up movies for this reason – simply that they’ve seen it before.
And probably this is why so many of the best movie critics quit. They’re wrong when they blame it on the movies going bad; it’s the odds becoming so bad, and they can no longer bear the many tedious movies for the few good moments and the tiny shocks of recognition. Some become too tired, too frozen in fatigue, to respond to what is new. Others who do stay awake may become too demanding for the young who are seeing it all for the first hundred times. The critical task is necessarily comparative, and younger people do not truly know what is new. … If we’ve grown up at the movies we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, yet we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art.
Keep reading Kael on Cinema Trash:
Part I (Art)
Part II (Technique)
Part III (Enjoyment)
Part IV (Worthwhile)
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I think this last passage could apply equally well to today. Writing at the tail end of the 60s malaise, when things had already started to turn around but the last of Old Hollywood was dying, Kael was witnessing an art form in decline.
Today, having reached the bitter ends of the childlike promise of 70s blockbusters and the smaller but somewhat refreshing 90s indie boom, American cinema also seems to be at its rope's end. However, financially it is apparently thriving so unlike the 60s we may not see Hollywood ready to turn itself around.
But unlike then, when technological and media-access limitations meant that one had to work through the industry to reach an audience, today the potential exists for bypassing Hollywood altogether. I still hold out hope that the 10s will see, like the 70s to the 60s, a cinematic renaissance in the face of a seemingly-inevitable decline.
The past decade has, to me, seen an outright confirmation of Kael's assertions - most of the "big" artistic pictures have been disappointing, pleasant trivialities at best, bloated bores at worst. In another area, one she did not quite foresee though she's ocassionally been accused of fostering it, trash has also become "big" and forfeited many of the pleasures it once provided. Now the equivalent of those B movies whose appeal she recognized have become so inflated that they are closer to the charges she lobs at Petulia and 2001 - "All that 'art' may be what prevents pictures like these from being enjoyable trash; they’re not honestly crummy, they’re very fancy and they take their crummy ideas seriously." The only blockbuster I've seen that pulled off the combination of artistic pretensions and a trashy milieu was The Dark Knight, and even that was quite flawed (to the point where its virtues seemed almost accidental).
We are more in need than ever of movies which try to fuse the appeal of trash with the artistic heights, that combine entertainment and art to the point where parsing them out becomes meaningless.
"I’m not sure most movie reviewers consider what they honestly enjoy as being central to criticism. Some at least appear to think that would be relying too much on their own tastes, being too personal instead of being “objective” – relying on the ready-made terms of cultural respectability and on consensus judgment (which, to a rather shocking degree, can be arranged by publicists creating a climate of importance around a movie)."
Well, anyone who knows anything about Kael and her ethics and her habits knows that the above is a tremendous piece of hypocrisy. Nonetheless, I agree with it. Going back to that last passage from the third entry, I think too many critics say "art" when they mean "ouch." I think too many look deeper and create a reaction that they didn't really have. I'm not one who, like Kael, believes every movie should be seen once. But if a film is boring two times in a row and then piques the interest in viewing No. 3, well, the criticism should sure as shit make that clear. I want critics who write from the gut.
Jason, what do you mean about the quote being hypocritical? It seems like it's a condemnation of other critics and I don't really see Kael as really having fallen into the trap she condemns in her peers.
MovieMan: Well, the passage in question would imply that Kael couldn't be bought, that she always reviewed by her gut. But there are legends that suggest that, yes, in fact, she could be bought.
Likewise, if you believe in the "Paulettes" at all, then you believe that Kael inspired critics who went on to have a group-think mentality, slave either to one another's opinion or to Pauline's. And thus Pauline inspired at least some critics who didn't think for themselves, but who thought for Pauline.
Now, I'm not an expert on the Paulette rumors or her own shady ethics. But I've seen smoke enough places to believe that there's fire in this regard.
None of this is to mistake that I enjoy the heck out of Kael's criticism. But she could be as honest as a politician.
I had not heard those rumors. As for the Paulettes, my understanding was that they tended (and still tend) to follow her ethoes or what were perceived to be her ethos, i.e. pleasure first, leave messages for Sunday School, fart in the direction of Art, rather than duping specific opinions of hers. But I'd like to stress that these were just my impressions...I really have not delved into this area deeply at all and you may indeed be - probably are - correct.
I've been looking online for the rumors you speak of & can't find anything - what had you heard as far as her being "bought"? The only things that come to mind are that she had an in-depth lunch and conversation with the writers of Bonnie & Clyde before praising them - and often denigrating Arthur Penn - in her rave review (without mentioning said conversation in that review) and also that Nashville was screened for, and changes were made according to her suggestions, something she also did not mention in her rave. Neither of these are exactly what I would consider being "bought off" so I'm guessing you had something else in mind...
MovieMan: Mea culpa. I should have phrased that much differently, especially on the Internet where people toss off rumor for truth all the time. Reading my comments again, I did offer some disclaimers in there, but in attempting to be vague, so as not to pretend I know the truth, it reads like I know the truth but won't spell it out. And even then, it's poorly worded.
When I said "bought off," I was being figurative. I was thinking of instances like the ones you described. (To be clear, I never meant to imply that Kael actually took money, or was otherwise paid off.)
Going back to my original comment here, where I got myself into this mess (note to self: never squeeze in comments when you don't have time to reread them), I was really responding to the end of the passage I quoted: "publicists creating a climate of importance around a movie."
It's a remark that makes Kael seem above it all, above influence, above bias, like a hard-line old-school journalist who doesn't get too close to the subject. I think it is safe to say that there's evidence that Kael was not that. To use the Nashville example, Altman catered to Kael's desires, knowing the impact it would have, which as much a marketing tactic as suggesting to the public that X movie is an award contender or that Y movie is a must-see blockbuster. (And, yes, Kael conveniently left out mention of such relationships.)
In my head at the time, that came through, in both comments. But reading it now, it reads like Bill O'Reilly-esque insinuation, which makes me want to puke, frankly. So I thank you for asking me to clarify, so it didn't just sit there like that. Apologies.
That's a fair point, Jason, but yeah, the "bought off" comment really threw me for a loop! I can picture Kael succumbing to hype or subtle flattery - almost makes her all the more lovable. But to discover she took money in some back alley to give The Owl and the Pussycat a rave review would have broken my heart...
I hope to comment on your latest two sometime this weekend or later. It's strange, commentary (though not so much blog traffic) seem to die off sharply around Wednesday or Thursday and hit their nadir on the weekend (that part's not so suprising). Hopefully people return to finish up what was started...(I will)
As for the Paulettes, my understanding was that they tended (and still tend) to follow her ethoes or what were perceived to be her ethos, i.e. pleasure first, leave messages for Sunday School, fart in the direction of Art, rather than duping specific opinions of hers.
I've been out of town and a little late to the party here, but let me comment quickly on this with exampled excerpts below. Take what you want from these (all from "Reformed" Paulettes), but it seems to have been more than just ethos:
James Wolcott: "The Paulette thing was very interesting. When I first got to New York I thought people really wanted to argue, I really thought New York was like it was in movies and when you read things about the Partisan Review gang, that people actually liked to argue and dispute. And what I learned was, no, the moment you disagreed or contradicted somebody they fell silent. They would just absent themselves, like we had nothing more to say to each other. It was sort of absurd."
Owen Gleiberman: "The Paulettes know who they are, and even after her death they remain a smug little circle, bound by certain kneejerk attitudes and tastes.... The irony, to me, is that most of them are good writers. They're just scared of what true independence means."
David Denby, whose New Yorker piece "My Life as a Paulette" isn't available (as far as I can tell) in full form online, but discusses this issue at length. I remember one line being, "You couldn't agree too quickly (with Kael) or you lost her respect, but in the end, you had to agree."
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