Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Essential Kael

I have a couple of posts in the draft stage and a few more in the back of my head that center on either quotes from Pauline Kael or discussion of the New Journalism movement that involve her. I thought it might not be a bad idea to do a quick introductory post because Kael is one of those writers who does need an introduction.

Part of the problem is that, when you say "critic," most people think "reviewer."  Probably the easiest way to explain the distinction is in terms of audience. Criticism is written for people who know a work; reviews are written for people who are thinking about trying it. Kael was, at best, a deeply problematic reviewer. She could wildly oversell films she felt were particularly deserving. Other times, she would simply use the film as a jumping off point for an essay on films or culture or politics. She almost always had something interesting to say, but little that was useful when you were trying to decide which movie to see.

My advice for those new to Kael is to start with the essays, then check out the full (not the capsule) reviews of films you've seen, then stop.

Here are four to get the ball rolling.

Raising Kane
 The New Yorker, February 20, 1971 and February 27, 1971

Kael's best known essay and my favorite. Also her most controversial, though not always for the reasons normally given (see below). The piece is difficult to describe, part critical essay, part historical narrative, part reflection on American culture, but the unifying thread is the story of the East Coast writers and artists who came to Hollywood. By turns affectionate, insightful and sad. At least part of the vitriol it inspired can be attributed to the people she had pissed off a few years earlier with...

Circles and Squares
Film Quarterly (01/Apr/1963)

A relentless dismantling of the American take on auteur theory, particularly that of Andrew Sarris. In addition to pointing out the various contradictions and logical flaws in the standard arguments of the time, it digs into the dangers of praising works and congratulating ourselves just because we catch various allusions and influences (decades before anyone had heard of Tarantino). It may not be a coincidence that many those who came off worst in this piece (particularly Peter Bogdanovich) were among the most vocal of Welles "defenders" after the release of "Raising Kane."

Trash, Art, and the Movies
Harper's, February 1969

Addresses the fundamental paradoxes of taking pop culture seriously. It argues that we should acknowledge the pleasures and the vitality of a good trashy movie without trying to project upon it artistic qualities and deeper meanings to justify our approval. At the same time, we shouldn't equate the lack of trashiness with great art, particularly when it means praising the boring and the high-minded.

Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers
The New Yorker, June 23, 1980

A prescient take on the end of the Young Turk era of American film. Kael didn't care for auteurism as a critical theory but she tended to like auteurs, particularly the big visionary directors like Welles and Kurosawa and Huston. She looked upon the late 60s and early 70s as a golden age with films like Bonnie and Clyde and directors like Altman.

Kael openly viewed herself as an advocate for what she considered important films and visionary filmmakers, and she was willing to cross ethical lines to promote her favorites (such as when she wrote an ecstatic review of Nashville based on a private screening of a rough cut).

The end of the Young Turks era (combined with a brief stint working in Hollywood) left her bitter and pessimistic about the future of American cinema, which led to this 1980 essay. By far, my least favorite  of the four. The topic is too depressing for her to have any fun with and too narrow for her to make the interesting connections that mark the other three pieces. Worse still, the few films of the period she did like are overpraised to the point of exhaustion. That said, the observations on corporate culture are sharp and the predictions about pre-novelization perfectly describe franchises like I am Number Four.

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