Friday, June 19, 2009

Kael on Cult Cinema

[This wandering examination provides an interesting snapshot of Kael’s view of cinema closing out the 60s. Please read and react in the comments section. Let's get a discussion going!]

The following is excerpted from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: The Bottom of the Pit,” by Pauline Kael, originally published in The New Yorker, September 27, 1969. It has been anthologized in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, pages 329-333. (In some cases, paragraph breaks and ellipsis have been added. All other punctuation is faithful to For Keeps.)

A college-professor friend of mind in San Francisco who has always tried to stay in tune with his students looked at his class recently and realized it has time to take off his beads. There he was, a superannuated flower child wearing last year’s talismans, and the young had become austere, even puritanical. Movies and, even more, movie audiences have been changing. The art houses are now (for the first time) dominated by American movies, and the young audiences waiting outside, sitting on the sidewalk or standing in line, are no longer waiting for just entertainment. They waiting together may itself be part of the feeling of community, and they go inside almost for sacramental purposes. For all the talk (and fear) of ritual participation in the “new” theatre, it is really taking place on a national scale in the movie houses, at certain American films that might be called cult films, though they have probably become cult films because they are the most interesting films around.

What is new about Easy Rider is not necessarily that one finds its attitudes appealing but that the movie conveys the mood of the drug culture with such skill and in such full belief that these simplicities are the truth that one can understand why these attitudes are appealing to others. Easy Rider is an expression and a confirmation of how this audience feels; the movie attracts a new kind of “inside” audience, whose members enjoy tuning in together to a whole complex of shared signals and attitudes. And although one may be uneasy over the satisfaction the audience seems to receive from responding to the general masochism and to the murder of Captain America, the movie obviously rings true to the audience’s vision. It’s even cool to believe in purity and sacrifice. Those of us who reject the heroic central character and the statements of Easy Rider may still be caught by something edgy and ominous in it – the acceptance of the constant danger of sudden violence. We’re not sure how much of this paranoia isn’t paranoia.

Some of the other cult films try to frighten us but are too clumsy to, though they succeed in doing something else. One has only to talk with some of the people who have seen Midnight Cowboy, for example, to be aware that what they care about is not the camera and editing pyrotechnics; they are indifferent to all that by now routine filler. John Schlesinger in Midnight Cowboy and, at a less skillful level, Larry Peerce in Goodbye, Columbus hedge their bets by using cutting and camera techniques to provide a satirical background as a kind of enrichment of the narrative and theme. But it really cheapens and impoverishes their themes. … If Schlesinger could extend the same sympathy to the other Americans that he extends to Joe Buck and Ratso, the picture might make better sense; the point of the picture must surely be to give us some insight into these derelicts – two of the many kinds of dreamers and failures in the city. Schlesinger keeps pounding away at America, determined to expose how horrible the people are, to dehumanize the people these two are part of. The spray of venom in these pictures is so obviously the directors’ way of showing off that we begin to discount it. To varying degrees, these films share the paranoid view of America of Easy Rider – and they certainly reinforce it for the audience – but what the audience really reacts to in Midnight Cowboy is the two lost, lonely men finding friendship. …

At Midnight Cowboy, in the midst of all the grotesque shock effects and the brutality of the hysterical, superficial satire of America, the audiences, wiser, perhaps, than the director, are looking for human feelings – the simple, Of Mice and Men. kind of relationship at the heart of it. Maybe they wouldn’t accept the simple theme so readily in a simpler setting, because it might look square, but it’s what they’re taking from the movie. They’re looking for “truth” – for some signs of emotion, some evidence of what keeps people together. The difference between the old audiences and the new ones is that the old audiences wanted immediate gratification and used to get restless and bored when a picture didn’t click along; these new pictures don’t click all along, yet the young audiences stay attentive. They’re eager to respond, to love it – eager to feel.

Although young movie audiences are far more sentimental now than they were a few years ago (Frank Capra, whose softheaded populism was hooted at in college film societies in the fifties, has become a new favorite at U.C.L.A.), there is this new and good side to sentimentality. They are going to movies looking for feelings that will help synthesize their experience, and they appear to be willing to feel their way along with a movie like Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant, which is also trying to feel its way. I think we (from this point I include myself, because I share these attitudes) are desperate for some sensibility in movies, and that’s why we’re so moved by the struggle toward discovery in Alice’s Restaurant, despite how badly done the film is.

I think one would have to lie to say that Alice’s Restaurant is formally superior to the new Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In formal terms, neither is very good. But Alice’s Restaurant is a groping attempt to express something, and Butch Cassidy is a glorified vacuum. Movies can be enjoyed for the quality of their confusions and failures, and that’s the only way you can enjoy some of them now. Emotionally, I stayed with Penn during the movie, even though I thought that many of the scenes in it where inept or awful, and that several of the big set pieces were expendable (to put it delicately). But we’re for him, and that’s what carries the movie. Conceptually, it’s unformed, with the director trying to discover his subject as well as its meaning and his own attitudes. And, maybe for the first time, there’s an audience for American pictures which is willing to accept this.

Not every movie has to matter; generally we go hoping just to be relaxed and refreshed. But because most of the time we come out slugged and depressed, I think we care far more now about the reach for something. We’ve simply spent too much time at the movies made by people who didn’t enjoy themselves and who didn’t respect themselves or us, and we rarely enjoy ourselves at their movies anymore. They’re big catered affairs, and we’re humiliated to be among their guests. I look at the list of movies playing, and most of them I genuinely just can’t face, because odds are so strong that they’re going to be the same old insulting failed entertainment, and, even though I have had more of a bellyful than most people, I’m sure this isn’t just my own reaction. Practically everybody I know feels the same way. This may seem an awfully moral approach, but it comes out of surfeit and aesthetic disgust. There’s something vital to enjoyment which we haven’t been getting much of. Playfulness? Joy? Perhaps even honest cynicism? What’s missing isn’t anything as simple as talent; there’s lots of talent, even on TV. But the business conditions of moviemaking have soured the spirit of most big movies. That’s why we may be wiling to go along with something as strained and self-conscious as Alice’s Restaurant. And it’s an immensely hopeful sign that the audience isn’t derisive, that it wishes the movie well.

All this is, in a way, part of the background of why, after a few minutes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I began to get that depressed feeling, and, after a half hour, felt rather offended. We all know how the industry men think: they’re going to make “now” movies when now is already then, they’re going to give us orgy movies and plush skinflicks, and they’ll be trying to fed youth’s paranoia when youth will, one hopes, have has it off like last year’s beads. …

Being interested in good movies doesn’t preclude enjoying many kinds of crummy movies, but maybe it does preclude acceptance of this enervated, sophisticated business venture – a movie made by those whose talents are a little high for mere commercial movies but who don’t break out of the mold. They’re trying for something more clever than is attempted in most commercial jobs, and it’s all so archly empty – Conrad Hall’s virtuoso cinematography providing constant in-and-out-of-focus distraction, Goldman’s decorative little conceits passing for dialogue. It’s all posh and josh, without any redeeming energy or crudeness.

Much as I dislike the smugness of Puritanism in the arts, after watching a put-on rape and Conrad Hall’s Elvira Madigan lyric interlude (and to our own Mozart – Burt Bacharach) I began to long for something simple and halfway felt. If you can’t manage genuine sophistication, you may be better off simple. And when you’re as talented as these fellows, perhaps it’s necessary to descend into yourself sometime and try to find out what you’re doing – maybe, even, to risk banality, which is less objectionable than this damned waggishness. …

One can’t just take the new cult movies head on and relax, because they’re too confused. Intentions stick out, as in the thirties message movies, and you may be so aware of what’s wrong with the movies while you’re seeing them that you’re pulled in different directions, but if you reject them because of the confusions, you’re rejecting the most hopeful symptoms of change. Just when there are audiences who may be ready for something, the studios seem to be backing away, because they don’t understand what these audiences want. The audiences themselves don’t know, but they’re looking for something at the movies.

This transition into the seventies is maybe the most interesting as well as the most confusing period in American movie history, yet there’s a real possibility that, because the tastes of the young audience are changing so fast, that already tottering studios will decide to minimize risks and gear production straight to the square audience and the networks. That square audience is far more alienated than the young on – so alienated that it isn’t looking for anything at the movies.


The Film Doctor said...

I can accept some of Kael's criticisms of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (its smugness, the trivialization of killing Bolivians, etc.), but I've never understood why she disliked it that much (perhaps she didn't like the treatment of women in the film?). Kael spends much of the essay writing about other movies instead of building much of a case against Butch, and you can look at the western as a kind of commercial watering down of Bonnie and Clyde, especially at the end, but what of the chase scenes? What of the wit of Cassidy asking for rules in a knife fight, the reference to White Heat at the beginning, and the surprisingly easygoing way in which Newman generously gave so many close-ups to Redford, thereby cementing his stardom? Isn't the last gunfight neatly done? It may be that we've moved so far from the classic western period that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid looks better as a result. Didn't the youthful audience at the time associate the two gangsters on the run with evading Vietnam? If only in terms of its place in cinematic history, the film deserves more credit than the indirect insinuations she makes here.

Jason Bellamy said...

On the specific point of Butch Cassidy, it seems she just didn't get it. Not from a logic perspective; from a comedy perspective. She thinks it's a bad thing that it's packed with jokes. Of course, that's what people love about it. To some degree, I take her reaction as one affected by the fact that she'd watched oodles of traditional Westerns. I think this is a case where she was alarmed by all the ways it wasn't what she expected, and she didn't embrace the new vision. We all have those moments.

Chris said...

I hardly think she didn't like Butch Cassidy because she didn't like jokes. If you really read and know her work, you would know she almost always responded well to genre movies that had a funky wit or were jokey

Jason Bellamy said...

Christopher: I agree with your description of Kael overall. But this is one of the exceptions allowed for in your "almost always" rule. Here's more Kael from the same review:

"...It’s a facetious Western, and everybody in it talks comical. The director, George Roy Hill, doesn’t have the style for it. (He doesn’t really seem to have the style for anything, yet there is a basic decency and intelligence in his work.) The tone becomes embarrassing. Maybe we’re supposed to be charmed when this affable, loquacious outlaw Butch and his silent, “dangerous” buddy Sundance blow up trains, but how are we supposed to feel when they go off to Bolivia, sneer at the country, and start shooting up poor Bolivians? George Roy Hill is a “sincere” director, but Goldman’s script is jocose; though it reads as if it might play, it doesn’t, and probably this isn’t just Hill’s fault. What can one do with dialogue like Paul Newman’s Butch saying, “Boy, I got vision. The rest of the world wears bifocals”? It must be meant to be sportive, because it isn’t witty and it isn’t dramatic. The dialogue is all banter, all throwaways, and that’s how it’s delivered; each line comes out of nowhere, coyly, in a murmur, the dead sound of the studio...."

Yes, it's all banter. Yes, it's meant to be sportive. But I think it plays. Of course comedy is the one thing you can't argue. She didn't laugh, so she's right to say it's not funny. I disagree.