Friday, June 19, 2009

Kael on Criticism

[On what would have been Pauline Kael’s 90th birthday, it’s appropriate we get some of her thoughts on criticism. Please read and react in the comments section. Let's get a discussion going!]

The following is excerpted from “Replying to Listeners,” by Pauline Kael, originally aired on KPFA, January 1963. It has been anthologized in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, pages 50-54. (In some cases, paragraph breaks and ellipsis have been added. All other punctuation is faithful to For Keeps.)

How completely has mass culture subverted even the role of the critic when listeners suggest that because the movies a critic reviews favorably are unpopular and hard to fine, that the critic must be playing some snobbish game with himself and the public? Why are you listening to a minority radio station like KPFA? Isn’t it because you want something you don’t get on commercial radio? I try to direct you to films that, if you search them out, will give you something you won’t get from The Parent Trap.

You consider it rather “suspect” that I don’t praise more “name” movies. Well, what makes a “name” movie is simply a saturation advertising campaign, the same kind of campaign that puts samples of liquid detergent at your door. The “name” pictures of Hollywood are made the same way they are sold: by pretesting the various ingredients, removing all possible elements that might affront the mass audience, adding all possible elements that will titillate the largest number of people. As the CBS television advertising slogan put it – “Titillate – and dominate.” …

I try not to waste air time discussing obviously bad movies – popular though they may be; and I don’t discuss unpopular bad movies because you’re not going to see them anyway; and there wouldn’t be much point or sport in hitting people who are already down. I do think it’s important to take time on movies which are inflated by critical acclaim and which some of you might assume to be the films to see.

There were some extraordinarily unpleasant anonymous letters after the last broadcast on The New American Cinema. Some were obscene; the wittiest called me a snail eating the tender leaves off young artists. I recognize your assumptions: the critic is supposed to be rational, clever, heartless and empty, envious of the creative fire of the artist, and if the critic is a woman, she is supposed to be cold and castrating. The artist is supposed to be delicate and sensitive and in need of tender care and nourishment. Well, this nineteenth-century romanticism is pretty silly in twentieth-century Bohemia.

I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practices with honest, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or a film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets.


Ed Howard said...

This essay reminds me of the whole big mess back when No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood dominated the Oscars and there were all those complaints that "nobody" had seen those movies and so the Oscars should concentrate on more popular fare. I guess things haven't changed very much. People still just look to critics -- when they look to them at all -- to have their tastes validated.

Jason Bellamy said...

Exactly, Ed. As I was reading this, all I could think about was The Dark Knight and all the fanboys who insisted that audience demand (hype + box office) meant greatness.

(Before anyone starts that brawl again, I like The Dark Knight ... but some of the arguments of its fans for why it was great absolutely sucked.)

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

You didn't include the hilarious passage where she corrects one of her naysayers' spelling errors -- ha! Either way, I agree somewhat with Ed, although I think today critics have even less clout than they did back then -- most people decide what they're going to watch at the theater based on whether or not a particular film's marketing campaign speaks to them, rather than whether the film has a "fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes. So the titillation has dominated.

I also enjoy Kael's defense of acerbic, negative reviews that are seen as "anti-artist," although I think it's interesting to point out that she probably invented, or helped develop, the manner in which critical consensus tends to respond to a new director's releases. In other words, debuts with promise are usually given a lot of slack, as are experimental sophomore pictures, but if a director hasn't figured himself or herself out by film 3 it's time for a right good panning. Funny how sharp individualism can turn so easily into formula, I suppose.

And I still steal this line: "Well, this nineteenth-century romanticism is pretty silly in twentieth-century Bohemia."

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking of responses to a lot of these Kael posts, but above all I wanted to thank you, Jason, and your thoughtful commenters -- it's my first visit here and I've had a great time.

Zack said...

If Kael is trying to 'find value' by seeking out great, unknown films, then I applaud her efforts, but her self-defense of refusing to recognize 'big name' films just because they appeal to a wider audience than transgendered lesbian Iraqi war vets makes no sense: what's good is good and what's bad is bad, and her refusal to recognize a film based on the merits of what it achieves instead of the nature of its creator only gives the impression she is the exact kind of critic she denies that she is.

Joel Bocko said...

Zack, I think you're missing the point: Kael wasn't opposed to big-name films because they were big-name films but because they were usually (by her lights) so bad. And yes, this had something to do with them being "big-name films" (the process which goes into making a "big-name film" being detrimental to the film's quality much of the time, as she describes in the passage) but, after all, she did eventually give positive reviews to Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather, and even Jaws - so it's not as if she dismissed blockbusters without a second glance.

It's also worth remembering that this was broadcast in the early to mid 60s, a time when Hollywood was hitting a slump from which it would not emerge until the late 60s. (Of course, many would argue we have reached just such a slump again...)

Joel Bocko said...

And before I start clucking audiences for going to films based on marketing campaigns, I should note that that's pretty much how I attend new releases too (on the rare occasion that I seem them at all...I've yet to see a single 2009 release, sad to say).

I ruthlessly privilege great movies on DVD, but since I go to the theaters rarely it's usually with a friend who wants to see something, so it becomes more of a social occasion than a movie-going. And when I am deciding what to see, it's often whatever was nominated for an Oscar or has a "buzz" going, which is only a step up if that from seeing whatever was #1 at the box-office or has the most ads on TV (sometimes the lines blur).

So I shall not cast any stones here, except perhaps at the exhibitors/studios/whoever's to blame for making theatrical moviegoing so expensive and so unsatisfying that it's become a rare excursion for me rather than the regular habit it used to be.