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.