Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Kael on Movies on TV

[Lots of discussion still to be had on the first and second posts of Pauline Kael Week. But we continue to press forward. Please read and react in the comments section. Let's get a discussion going!]

The following is excerpted from “Movies on Television,” by Pauline Kael, originally published in The New Yorker, June 3, 1967. It has been anthologized in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, pages 119-127. (In some cases, paragraph breaks and ellipsis have been added. All other punctuation is faithful to For Keeps.)

So much of what formed our tastes and shaped our experiences, and so much of the garbage of our youth that we never thought we’d see again – preserved and exposed to eyes and minds that might well want not to believe that this was an important part of our past. Now these movies are there for new generations, to whom they cannot possibly have the same impact or meaning, because they are all jumbled together, out of historical sequence. Even what may deserve an honorable position in movie history is somehow dishonored by being so available, so meaninglessly present. Everything is in hopeless disorder, and that is the way new generations experience our movie past.

In the other arts, something like natural selection takes place: only the best or the most significant or influential or successful works compete for our attention. Moreover, those from the past are likely to be touched up to accord with the taste of the present. In popular music, old tunes are newly orchestrated. A small repertory of plays is continually reinterpreted for contemporary meanings – the great ones for new relevance, the not so great rewritten, tackily “brought up to date,” or deliberately treated as period pieces. By contrast, movies, through the accidents of commerce, are sold in blocks or packages to television, the worst with the mediocre and the best, the successes with the failures, the forgotten with the half forgotten, the ones so dreary you don’t know whether you ever saw them or just others like them with some so famous you can’t be sure whether you actually saw them or only imagined what they were like. A lot of this stuff never really made it with any audience; it played in small towns or it was used to soak up the time just the way TV in bars does.

There are so many things that we, having lived through them, or passed over them, never want to think about again. But in movies nothing is cleaned away, sorted our, purposefully discarded. (The destruction of negatives in studio fires or deliberately, to save space, was as indiscriminate as the perseveration and resale.) There’s a kind of hopelessness about it: what does not deserve to last lasts, and so it all begins to seem one big pile of junk, and some people say, “Movies never really were any good – except maybe the Bogarts.” If the same thing happened in literature or music or painting – if we were constantly surrounded by the piled-up inventory of the past – it’s conceivable that modern man’s notion of culture and civilization would be very different.

Movies, most of them produced as fodder to satisfy the appetite for pleasure and relaxation, turned out to have magical properties – indeed to be magical properties. The fodder can be fed to people over and over again. Yet, not altogether strangely, as the years wear on it doesn’t please their palates, though many will go on swallowing it, just because nothing tastier is easily accessible. Watching old movies is like spending an evening with those people next door. They bore us, and we wouldn’t go out of our way to see them; we drop in on them because they’re so close. If it took some effort to see old movies, we might try to find out which were the good ones, and if people saw only the good ones maybe they would still respect old movies. As it is, people sit and watch movies that audiences walked out on thirty years ago. Like Lot’s wife, we are tempted to take another look, attracted not by evil but by something that seems much more shameful – our own innocence. We don’t try to reread the girls’ and boys’ “series” books of our adolescence – the very look of them is dismaying. The textbooks we studied in grammar school are probably more “dated” than the movies we saw then, but we never look at the old schoolbooks, whereas we keep seeing on TV the movies that represent the same stage in our lives and played much the same part in them – as things we learned from and, in spite of, went beyond. …

When people say of a “big” movie like High Noon that it has dated or that it doesn’t hold up, what they are really saying is that their judgment was faulty or has changed. They may have overresponded to its publicity and reputation or to its attempt to deal with a social problem or an idea, and may have ignored the banalities surrounding that attempt; now that the idea doesn’t seem so daring, they notice the rest. Perhaps it was a traditional drama that we new to them and that they thought was new to the world; everyone’s “golden age of movies” is the period of his first moviegoing and just before – what he just missed or wasn’t allowed to see. (The Bogart films came out just before today’s college kids started going.)

Sometimes we suspect, and sometimes rightly, that our memory has improved a picture – that imaginatively we made it what we knew it could have been or should have been – and, fearing this, we may prefer memory to the new contact. We’ll remember it better if we don’t see it again – we’ll remember what is meant to us. The nostalgia we may have poured over a performer or over our recollections of a movie has a way of congealing when we try to renew the contact. But sometimes the experience of reseeing is wonderful – a confirmation of the general feeling that we all that remained with us from childhood. And we enjoy the fresh proof of the rightness of our responses that reseeing the film gives us. We re-experience what we once felt, and memories flood back. What looks bad in old movies is the culture of which they were part and which they expressed – a tone of American life that we have forgotten. …

Probably in a few years some kid watching The Sandpiper on television will say what I recently heard a kid say about Mrs. Miniver: “And to think they really believed it in those days.” Of course, we didn’t. We didn’t accept nearly as much in old movies as we may now fear we did. Many of us went to see big-name pictures just as we went to The Night of the Iguana, without believing a minute of it. The James Bond pictures are not to be “believed,” but they tell us a lot about the conventions that audiences now accept, just as the confessional films of the thirties dealing with sin and illegitimacy and motherhood tell us about the sickly-sentimental tone of American entertainment in the midst of the Depression.

Movies indicate what the producers thought people would pay to see – which was not always the same as what they would pay to see. Even what they enjoyed seeing does not tell us directly what they believed but only indirectly hints at the tone and style of a culture. There is no reason to assume that people twenty or thirty years ago were stupider than they are now. (Consider how we may be judged by people twenty years from now looking at today’s movies.) Though it may not seem obvious to us now, part of the original appeal of old movies – which we certainly understood and responded to as children – was that, despite their sentimental tone, they helped to form the liberalized modern consciousness. This trash – and most of it was, and is, trash – probably taught us more about the world, and even about values, than our ‘education’ did. Movies broke down barriers of all kinds, opened up the world, helped to make us aware. And they were almost always on the side of the mistreated, the socially despised. Almost all drama is. And, because movies were a mass medium, they had to be on the side of the poor. …

People who see a movie for the first time on television don’t remember it the same way that people do who saw it in a theatre. Even without the specific visual loss that results from the transfer to another medium, it’s doubtful whether a movie could have as intense an impact as it had in its own time. Probably by definition, works that are not truly great cannot be as compelling out of their time. Sinclair Lewis’s and Hemingway’s novels were becoming archaic while their authors lived. Can On the Waterfront have the impact now that it had in 1954? Not quite. And revivals in move theatres don’t have the same kind of charge, either. There’s something a little stale in the air, there’s a different kind of audience. At a revival, we must allow for the period, or care because of the period. Television viewers seeing old movies for the first time can have very little sense of how and why new stars moved us when they appeared, of the excitement of new themes, of what these movies meant to us.


MovieMan0283 said...

What a pick! There's just too much to deal with her so I'll gnaw at a few scraps:

Kael too roundly dismisses the ability to "get" a movie on television, but it's easy to see why she does. To someone who had grown up seeing films exclusively in theaters, surrounded by audiences, on a big screen, the difference must have seemed startling and insurmountable.

For our generation, it's trickier: we saw movies theatrically and on television simultaneously. I saw Lawrence the first few times on a small screen, its image hacked up mercilessly, but it engaged my imagination no less than the several times I've seen it on a big screen, odd as that sounds.

Which brings me to Kael's point about the emotional experience one has with the work, particularly one from the past. Here she kind of ambles away from her supposed topic, which Kael so often does at her best. Or rather, instead of discussing the effect TV has on movies she begins to discuss revisiting the past more generally.

Come to think of it, I was too hasty in point #1, because actually Kael's point is not about the size of the screen or the solitude of the experience (at least in the passage you highlight, though she does deal with those aspects elsewhere, albeit as facilitators of a more general effect, which I'm about to highlight). The general effect she's concerned with is trivialization, and its availability and lack of order and context which is more responsible for this than screen size or lack of an audience.

Yet at the same time there's the suggestion that perhaps this reevaluation is more "correct" than the earlier experience, and implicit - though perhaps unacknowledged - is the idea that movies on TV actually strengthen one's critical judgement, allowing one to see through the personal biases and circumstantial phenomena which attached one to a work in the first place. Of course, with Kael, who didn't like to revisit movies, and who celebrated the visceral experience of first contact, and who often held trash aloft for the appeal it had to our momentary sensations and pleasures, this implicit point may have been unintentional, seeing as it runs up against much of what she cherished about the moviegoing experience.

Yet her tone does not seem very oppositional, despite all her criticisms - something about the "movies on TV" experience intrigues her. If nothing else, her statements are reminders that in addition to her penchant for excitement and celebration of trash, she actually set the critical bar for "greatness" quite high and did not admit many of her own favorites - indeed most - into the pantheon.

(So much for scraps - I have to split this comment in two!)

MovieMan0283 said...

"When people say of a 'big' movie like High Noon that it has dated or that it doesn’t hold up, what they are really saying is that their judgment was faulty or has changed. They may have overresponded to its publicity and reputation or to its attempt to deal with a social problem or an idea, and may have ignored the banalities surrounding that attempt; now that the idea doesn’t seem so daring, they notice the rest. Perhaps it was a traditional drama that we new to them and that they thought was new to the world; everyone’s 'golden age of movies' is the period of his first moviegoing and just before – what he just missed or wasn’t allowed to see."

This is one of the most astute things Kael ever wrote, and it's a point I largely agree with. It's why I make the distinction between "favorite" and "best," a distinction many consider false but which I see as essential. Favorites often provide a more intense, passionate experience. I wouldn't do without them. But it's an ephemeral category, with works often slipping in and out, whereas the strength of the "best" only grows with time.

Just one example: last night I watched The Graduate. I've always known about the criticisms of it, but to me they seemed off-the-mark, as I was wrapped in the film's romanticism. But repeated viewings, and perhaps being in the wrong "mood" to watch it, led to a rather unengaging experience this time. Suddenly Nichols' flashy style, which I had often admired, seemed rather forced and inorganic. And having read repeated analyses of the film from adult viewers in the 60s, who didn't buy into the film's youth cred and saw it primarily as a rather cold, misanthropic social satire I was more keyed in to this aspect. I began to wonder if I'd projected much of the romanticism onto the film (though the second half still indulges in this mood).

This is not to say that my next viewing of The Graduate won't restore my former affinity for it, or that I won't perhaps find a new, more full way "in" to the movie and accepting Nichols' flamboyant technique. But clearly my attachment to the film had more to do with its status as a "favorite" than a "best" and if I rediscover its greatness, it will probably not be on the same grounds I did as a teenager.

The films which I value most can stand on two legs: a personal attachment, wobbly but suitably emotional; and a more "objective" admiration which grows with time and provides a stability the favoritism does not.

"Watching old movies is like spending an evening with those people next door. They bore us, and we wouldn’t go out of our way to see them; we drop in on them because they’re so close."

I often wonder how many acquaintances and friends Kael lost over the years - she certainly didn't hesitate to throw them under the bus to make a polemical point; often, reading her, one gets the sense that she only hung out with self-aggrandizing boors and pretentious pseudo-intellectuals. You'd certainly want to think twice before talking to her at a party, wouldn't you? (Yet it was probably a hard temptation to resist.)

FilmDr said...

Kael writes: "(Consider how we may be judged by people twenty years from now looking at today’s movies.)"

Heaven forbid! I hate to think of what people in the future may think of this year's crop of summer blockbuster wannabes.

Kael makes lots of good points in this passage, but a similar discussion today would have to take into account pan and scan versus letterbox screening, huge flat screen TVs at home, and the selection of Criterion classics on DVD, just to name a few of the things that complicate our responses to works on TV. Kael is right to point out that movies are "magical fodder" due to their instant accessibility (I think John Updike compared a movie to a glass of milk--instantly drinkable as a novel never is, but our viewing of films on TV has changed quite a bit. She also could have mentioned how some old movies like The Maltese Falcon hold up well today because they anticipate changes in the way we view movies, but she's right about the complexities and subtleties of trying to judge films from different eras.

Jason Bellamy said...

Yeah, lots to discuss here. A few thoughts ...

* There's no question that better technology (wider screens, better picture, DVD, Blu-Ray, etc) has made the "TV" movie experience better than it was. MovieMan mentions Lawrence, but I didn't "see" that film when I saw it on worn VHS on a small TV; I just "watched" it.

* I do agree, though, that in most cases the home TV experience and the theater experience are different. The theater remains more immersive.

* As far as TV preserving movies that don't deserve it; that's true. A few weeks ago I learned that I get about six Encore channels (I never realized it before). I flipped through and ended up watching as much as 20 minutes of Coyote Ugly. Seriously. Why? Because I'd heard it was terrible and wanted to see if it was true. There's no reason, none, for that movie to be remembered or cherished. I don't think audiences are clamoring for it. But there it was. (Yes, I'm aware that TV also allows us to catch great movies we otherwise would have overlooked; it works both ways.)

* "everyone’s 'golden age of movies' is the period of his first moviegoing.." I like that passage, too. And it's true. I remember the movies that blew me away in high school. My reactions were real, but I didn't know the movies I was reacting to were copies of something else, poor imitations of something better. Then again, my reactions were real. Sometimes we get so caught up in tracing a film's origins that we put too much stock in that which comes "first."

James Hansen said...

Jesus. There's so much here I don't even know where to start or what to say.

A point I find interesting is about the accessibility of film history in comparison with art history. Of course, this has changed quite a lot with internet culture as mundane artists are critically examined next to major works all too often, but no one really knows anymore so entire bodies of work can be seen much differently now. Its an odd problem to have, but one that film intellectuals, especially those who study avant-garde, have been struggling with in recent years. People seeing works, and seeing them in the "wrong" way, is not something those artists are interested in, but its becoming nearly impossible to maintain that. I wish Kael were still around to see what she would say in this regard. Hard to speculate, but this is a hell of a passage.

I do think there is something different about seeing movies in theaters than on TVs, but its not necessarily always good or bad. I had a better experience watching FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON on my laptop on an airplane than during a press screening of NYFF. Nathan Lee has described similar experiences with Malick's THE NEW WORLD. Who knows...

I suppose that wasn't so contentious. There's just so much in this passage I'm a bit overwhelmed in creating a coherent response.

Hokahey said...

Jason - unfortunately Coyote Ugly is on TV for a good reason. It's a popular movie! It's one of those movies that glamorizes the whole bar culture. Another movie that doesn't deserve to be on TV but is on frequently is Pretty Baby. It's always on FX. You turn on TV, and there it is! Once when it was a free On-Demand movie, I told myself I would force myself to watch it. I couldn't get through fifteen minutes of it.

So, I guess, as with all technology, you gain and you lose. It's sad when you flip on the TV and see Coyote Ugly, but I have TV to thank for my exposure to tons of classic 30s, 40s, and 50s films that I watched when I was growing up. Well before the VCR exposed more people to old classics, I had quite an extensive filmography under my belt because of television.

Hokahey said...

I meant Pretty Woman. Can't even get the title right.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: Rrrrright. But Kael's argument would be: How did Coyote Ugly become popular? I don't believe that film was a huge hit in theaters, and much of its success was based on a wet-T-shirt promise that its PG-13 rating couldn't keep. So if it's become popular today with teens, it's because of TV; not because teens of yesterday fell in love with it. Not to sound like a fan of the film, but as far as audience approval goes, Coyote Ugly ain't no Pretty Woman.

MovieMan0283 said...


As far as "watching" vs. "seeing" Lawrence, I've heard that quite a few times from other people. For whatever reason, it was not true of myself, but it's been true of other movies: Seven Samurai, for example. (Not sure why.) On the other hand I enjoyed Persona and La Chinoise much more on initial video or DVD viewings than when I caught them in theaters. L'Avventura, which I had warmed up to on video, baffled me in the big screen: it was beautiful but suddenly so much harder to digest than it had been on my TV (not a bad thing, of course). One's mood and the effect of the audience also play a strong role in positive or negative theatrical experiences.

Nonetheless, all things being equal (which, of course, they never are) the theatrical experience is the ideal one. Larger than life, with a group, and almost always what the artist intended, for whatever that's worth.

Thank God for TCM & DVDs though - they've brought me so many films I would not have been able to see otherwise...

Ed Howard said...

This is a real meaty essay, and it's definitely daunting to know where to begin. This is one of my favorite Kael pieces, even though, as someone who primarily watches movies on TV at this point, I can't say I agree with her. But then, as others have pointed out, so much has changed since Kael wrote this that she's hardly even talking about watching movies on TV in the same way that we mean it today. Not that I think she'd be any happier with the DVD revolution or widescreen TVs or any of that. What she seems to object to more than anything is that film is a medium in which trash coexists on a more or less equal plane with masterful pieces of art. And the showing of films on TV, the loss of the sacred space of the theater, only exacerbates the problem.

Of course, really it's the same with every art. Kael mentions art history and theatrical history in comparison to films, but it's hard to compare since film is (even now) still such a young medium. It's the only medium where it's possible for an aficionado to have a rather broad grasp of the medium's entire history, and not just at a surface level -- and for critics and fans growing up in early eras, this was even easier. This also means that in terms of sheer numbers, the great masterpieces of art or music far outnumber the great masterpieces of film -- if someone was to approach film the way an art student approaches painting, and only study the accepted Michelangelos and Picassos of film, it would be quite a short program of study. So naturally anyone interested in film as an art is going to keep looking, to go beyond the accepted greats, because there's so much else out there.

So what is Kael actually advocating here? Forgetting the films that were forgotten in the past? But isn't looking at the past the way auteurism has reappraised some of those directors we currently consider "the greats"? Isn't the constant consideration and reconsideration of the past the process by which all artistic canons are formed?

Daniel Getahun said...

Man, I wish this wasn't such a busy week for me, but as I've been able to check in on this I've been completely fascinated. The "golden age of movies" line here is a classic that I won't forget.

Really great thoughts on all of these posts so far, but due to time and the fact that brilliant people are making points better than I could, I'm watching from the sidelines for now.

Great work, Jason, not only in choosing these excerpts, but in the consistent quality of your writing that's drawn a loyal and intelligent crowd like this to The Cooler.

Kevin Wolf said...

I love reading Kael, and this is a great example. Thanks for posting it.

Most interesting to me, as to a few others here, is the idea that the sheer availability of old movies let a lot of junk maintain a foothold alongside even acknowledged masterpieces of film. As far as this goes, when Kael wrote it that was very much true. As she notes, films were sold or leased to television in packages.

But I wonder if it's as true today, despite the likes of the Encore "cineplex." Yes, there's still plenty of junk but it tends to be recent enough to have an audience that's already seen and enjoyed it (or at least to have heard of it).

With the exception of TCM and some DVD distribution, there's rafts of old flicks that don't see the light of day, or are issued once on DVD and quickly disappear. The distribution has gone from essentially being free (broadcast tv, which when I was growing up showed old movies all the time) to for-pay (cable, DVD). In this system of distribution, minor, damaged, and just plain bad movies simply don't make the cut as they might have back when your local (pre-infomercial) channel was trying to fill air time. Even better known films (known to aficionados, anyway) have remained unreleased to home cable or video. The pay model plays to the desire for newer, color, sound movies.

I wonder a bit if the studios kind of shot themselves in the foot by letting tv licenses expire and shifting their income on old movies to the emerging cable and VHS markets (later DVD), much more broadly controlling which movies were out there to be seen. I suspect this is perhaps why some younger viewers seem to dislike black and white films. Used to be you could see one on tv everyday.

I'll stop before I really go OT.