A few years ago, I saw that Pauline Kael’s Trash, Art and the Movies made the top 100 (or some such number) pieces of journalism in the 20th Century (or something to that effect). I had never read any of her writing, so I was curious about this. I finally finished reading the piece and I wanted to see if we could discuss it. (Btw, I believe the link is to an abridged version.)
Before I start, I must say that I honestly had some trouble understanding her ideas. To me, her writing wasn’t very clear or well-organized—as if she needed many more rewrites to refine and organize her idea as well as work on being more concise. So I guess what I’m really looking for, at least initially, is getting a clear idea of what the article is saying.
OK, let’s start. Basically, she seems to be championing or at least defending the value of “trash” films (not to be mistaken with a genre), while criticizing those who want films to be “art.” Now right off the bat, I wish she had taken more time to define these two terms. I do get a vague notion of what she means, but I wish she were more precise on these two concepts. By “trash,” I’m assuming she means films that aren’t well-made or serious, while “art” is the opposite. For Kael, trash has value if its “playful”, while art that is not playful has little. Here’s Kael,
If we go back and think over the movies we’ve enjoyed—even the ones we knew were terrible movies while we enjoyed them—what we enjoyed in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness….They have the joy of playfulness. In a mediocre or rotten movie, the good things may give the impression that they come out of nowhere; the better the movie, the more they seem to belong to the world of the movie. Without this kind of playfulness and the pleasure we take from it, art isn’t art at all, it’s something punishing, as it so often is in school where even artists’ little jokes become leaden from explanation.
I’m not entirely clear about her notion of “playfulness,” but I think it is important to understand, if we’re to understand the piece. I’d like some help from others about what she means by this. (And then I’d like to discuss whether people agree with this or not.)
Let me throw out a few more comments and questions before I end the OP:
1. While reading the piece, I wondered how relevant the piece was for today. There were passages that made me think that the world she lived in no longer exists, at least for most people. For example, look at this passage:
Perhaps the single most intense pleasure of moviegoing is this non-aesthetic one of escaping from the responsibilities of having the proper responses required of us in our official (school) culture. And yet this is probably the best and most common basis for developing an aesthetic sense because responsibility to pay attention and to appreciate is anti-art, it makes us too anxious for pleasure, too bored for response. Far from supervision and official culture, in the darkness at the movies where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses. Unsupervised enjoyment is probably not the only kind there is but it may feel like the only kind. Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.
I can see the passage applying to cinephiles, but not the typical moviegoer. There are other passages that Kael speaks as if notions of good art oppress people. But I don’t think that’s true today (if it was ever true), as most people seem indifferent to art and only care about being entertained.
2. As I mentioned the piece seems to range all over the place, and I’m probably missing a lot of issues or details, so please feel free to bring up important parts of the article that I missed.
It’s tough to get through the part where it becomes clear that she has no idea what 2001: A Space Odyssey is about and unfavorably compares it to the space sequences of the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice.
She’s a strange writer and this is a strange article. She seems to be mulling over the old MUBI argument of art vs. entertainment, with the loaded term, trash, replacing entertainment. Like many here, she can’t wrap her head around the idea that both are vital parts of film culture, so she creates a false dichotomy.
So while some fetishize obscurity and foreignness, Kael questions film’s capacity to be art at all. This somewhat fits in with her general disdain for so many great films. Unlike Ebert or Thompson, she doesn’t convey a love of film as much as a love of provocative writing.
She seems to be mulling over the old MUBI argument of art vs. entertainment, with the loaded term, trash, replacing entertainment. Like many here, she can’t wrap her head around the idea that both are vital parts of film culture, so she creates a false dichotomy.
So while some fetishize obscurity and foreignness, Kael questions film’s capacity to be art at all.
Well, her point(s) is unclear to me, but I can understand your take. I sense that she’s not quite saying that films can’t be art—just that our notions of art and the imposition of these notions onto film would damage movies. So, it’s not art that’s the problem, but our ideas of art? But again, I’m not clear about her definition of art and “trash,” so….
Thanks. I’ll try to check out the links.
Pauline Kael is STILL such a lightining rod!
I’ve read so much of her work…in fact, I’m on my third copy of 5001 Nights at the Movies (tattered from over-reading).
Clearly she made a lot of seemingly outre choices in her career including her “friendships” with and subsequent praising of certain director’s work, her almost maniacal, near demonization of Cassavetes - she decimated FACES and gave G Rowland’s performance in Woman Under the Influence only a very saracastic backdoor compliment. She raved about Dog Day Afternoon, but Sidney Lumet was essentially persona non-grata in her book…Lumet believed he insulted her at dinner once and was subsequently written off. And the W. Beatty / Paramount Picture thing was a real head scratcher. Then there are the crazy overpraising of some really dubious films (JINXED is a great example)
STILL…there’s not denying she knew her stuff, was extremely well-read and really did help to propel on the careers of DePalma, Altman and Peckinpah.
You’re probably familiar with the article. Can you help me out with the questions I had?
Btw, in reading David’s review of For Keeps, he seems to support Brad’s reading of her writing. Do you know if Kael made a more thorough and coherent argument for her position that films should be entertainment, not art (which is the way David and Brad seemed to interpret her position)?
I really am pretty ignorant about Kael but I’m suspicious when people say, " she really did help to propel on the careers of DePalma, Altman and Peckinpah." Is this really true? I know there is no way of saying for sure but had there not been a Pauline Kael, would Altman still not succeeded? Would Bonnie and Clyde all but be forgotten today?
I know that she supported with zeal and gusto certain people who weren’t in the graces of the mainstream at the time but I just wonder if her support was as critical to these filmmakers’ success as some would have us believe.
Just as an example, Cassavetes flourished and made brilliant films in spite of Kael’s demonization. Could Altman not have gone a similar route? Could he not have survived the derision of Kael the way Cassavetes did?
A couple factors lend some legitimacy to the idea that Kael “made” certain films and directors.
1) Her basic move was to adopt certain films or filmmakers (Last Tango in Paris and Nashville were two prominent examples) and write the most glowing reviews possible, using the full force of her language in their services. For these she became a champion, while pretty much crapping on whatever else was out there.
2) It was the seventies and, in New Hollywood, critical acclaim actually meant something. As the most well known critic of that time, she had more influence than any critic might have today. She was a contributing factor to the success of certain films, but it would be an exaggeration say she was the only factor.
Ok but by the time Nashville came around, Altman was already a star. So while she may have lent some support for that specific film, is it a bit of an exaggeration to say she made Altman? And was Nashville not received well by other critics? It seems to me the film was nominated for several Oscars, wasn’t it?
These are genuine questions – I really have no opinion one way or the other.
Well she liked DePalma, Altman and Peckinpah, and write about them effusively. Whether her support helped them win audiences is difficult to say. But anyone studying their work and the critical reception to it is obviously obliged to read Pauline.
I’m no expert on Kael. I’ve read 5001 Nights at the movies (I don’t much care for her micro-reviews) and recently read her first collection of long form reviews, I Lost It at the Movies. Here’s my two cents…
First I think it’s important to realize that Kael, though generally associated with the late 60’s and 70s, was actually writing about film in the mid-50’s when tv was the huge new thing and Hollywood was doing everything they could to get people to continue coming to movie theaters. I think it’s an important note as it places Kael at beginning of a dramatic change in the industry.
It is certainly confusing at times, what she means by trash but a famous quote of her’s sums it up easily…““Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Kael doesn’t hate movies or art. She adores both I think but is very realistic about the complexity of filmmaking and it’s ability to achieve artistic greatness. She uses the word “trash” but it should not be taken as derogatory. Another critic might refer to the same film(s) as entertainment, a “popcorn” film, or even genre filmmaking. As someone who has studied film, in school but also for years before hand as an autodidact, my initial instinct is to rail against this notion. I want to believe that film is sacred and that there are hundreds of truly inspired artists out there but that would be my passion talking. When I really consider it, Kael is right; the (vast) majority of films could never be considered art. As hard as that might be for most of us to admit, its something that any cinephile should realize if s/he really wants to appreciate the cinematic world. Once you free yourself of notions of “good taste” a whole world of interesting and exciting films opens up to you. I think, from my limited readings, this is what Kael is getting at. I can’t say I like her but I definitely see what she’s saying. I don’t agree always but who agrees with any critic all the time?
I wish I had more time but I’ll leave with one final thought. Genre studies is one of the most valuable additions to film studies and Kael seems to have understood that long before it was fashionable. For that, at the very least, I appreciate her existence.
great points Jason.
I put her in the pantheon of film critics working in America in the sixties & seventies….right along side (she may not be happy) Andrew Sarris, David Denby, Vincent Canby, Stanley Kauffmann, Paul Zimmerman, Penelope Gilliatt, Bruce Williamson, Joe Morgenstern, Hollis Albert, Jack Kroll, Roger Ebert, Charles Champlin,and of course our own David Ehrenstein
Realizing the likes of John (everything is either too pretentious or too simplistic) Simon and Richard (Cliffs Notes Biographer) Schickel were writing at the same time, but what’s the opposite of pantheon?
When I really consider it, Kael is right; the (vast) majority of films could never be considered art.
But what exactly do you mean (or what does she mean) by “art?” I tend to think of all films as art—but all them are not good art, and most are not great art. Some of the films are primarily entertainment vehicles while others aspire to something more. My sense is that by “art” she means something serious, sophisticated and even profound. At the same time, in the article, she seems to use the concept in primarily a negative way—connoting an overly stuffy, academic and inauthentic approach. But she never really clarifies this, so I’m uncertain.
Perhaps Kael’s primary target was the unhealthy perspective viewers adopted when they thought of movies as “art.” Hence the vehemence for “trash” and against “art” as descriptors of film. Along these lines, “trash” might make people relax and experience films without pretension in a way that “popcorn films” or “entertainment” may not have. I think that’s a worthy objective, but I’m not sure if I agree with her approach. More importantly, I think she could have expressed this more coherently and clearly.
(FWIW, I wasn’t offended by her use of “trash”.)
Jazz…"Perhaps Kael’s primary target was the unhealthy perspective viewers adopted when they thought of movies as “art.”
I could not agree more….I always thought she meant that with movies, you have to look at them in context to what they are and in relation to other movies. You can enjoy “trash” such as Valley of the Dolls or Plan 9 from Outer Space (just examples, no freaking out about those choices) as just what they are…clumsy, junk that nevertheless entertains. They do not approach “art” in the same sense that things like Rules of the Game or Citizen Kane or Hiroshima, Mon Amour (again, just examples) do.
that’s just my take.
“Just as an example, Cassavetes flourished and made brilliant films in spite of Kael’s demonization.”
If you call flourishing making one box office bomb after the next, and having to act in shitty movies and/or remortgage your house to finance them, then yes, i guess he ‘flourished’, but the harsh reality is that Cassavettes was pretty much a commercial failure as a director.
Didn’t Nashville bomb too?
Flourish in terms of continuing to make great works of art. Of course he was a commercial failure (although I’m not sure I would say failure because that implies he was attempting to be a commercial success, which sort of makes me laugh) but what does that have to do with anything? He still flourished as an artist. He still made great films. Lumet too. He was both a commercial and artistic success, even though Kael didn’t like him.
I’m just not sure she was the king maker people make her out to be.
It’s not that her demonization of Cassavetes had any affect on HIS flourishing (at least as an artist..let’s face it, his films didn’t tear up the boxoffice), just like her constant criticism of the likes of Robert Duvall, Candice Bergen, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, etc didn’t harm them either.
re: Altman…he hit with MASH, then had Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, Thieves LIke Us and California Split (some awsome movies), but with Nashville…there’s no denying Kael’s raving about that UNCUT version put it on the map as other critics subsequently recognized that this movie (even cut) was something special…and it didn’t bomb..costing $2M, making nearly $10M.
^^oh ok, didn’t bomb, but performed under expectations
SANTINO: i like Cassavettes a lot, but the reality is that he was an outsider and had to fend for himself if he wanted to direct. That makes him a renegade, and a bit of a legend. it would have been nice if Kael supported him. whether it would have resulted in more bums on seats is debatable though.
I think Cassavetes films are so inaccessible to most mainstream audiences (even the sophisticated mass audiences of the 70s) that I don’t think any love from Kael would’ve made him a star the way Altman was. His films were just too challenging.
I always thought she meant that with movies, you have to look at them in context to what they are and in relation to other movies…
Then again, based on the articles and what others have said, she didn’t seem to apply this approach when it came to art films. It’s hard to know if she was a) anti-art; b) anti-art films; c) didn’t think films could be art.
Maby David E can confirm….
There’s a legend that Cassevetes ran into Pauline Kael at one point and (literally) kicked her in the ass…
No. He stole her umbrella.
Yeah, it is difficult to say Cassevetes flourished by any metric, but look at Altman’s budgets and one can see why Hollywood execs humored him.
^ They let Altman make 3 Women because they knew Star Wars would cover any losses they made.
I’m curious to know what you think of the piece—specifically do you consider it among the best pieces of American journalism in the 20th Century?
Also, do you—or anyone else—think her piece is relevant to today’s moviegoers?
3 Women Budget, USD 1.5 million
Nashville Budget, USD 2 million
how did I get ass kicking out of stolen umbrella?!?
I thought the piece wasn’t her best. To me she was much better on individual films than overaching “think” pieces about everything. And what she had to say then has little relevance today.
The best piece of 20th Century journalism si “Winthin the Context of No Context” by George W.S. Trow.
Producers ‘humoured’ Altman mostly because Mash was a huge success, and maybe they thought he could repeat it. His career was pretty much ‘over’ by the 80’s though. He was still making films, but the impression i got is that people gave up on him. for a while
A Woman Under the Influence is a great film, but I don’t see how it’s significantly more challenging than say One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Network, Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull. Maybe it’s a bit more raw, but not significantly more difficult to comprehend.