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)