Matt, the evasion is yours — you’re tackling her career from a completely ad hominem perspective, focusing not on what she wrote but on collective gossip as to how she treated her acolytes. It’s unimportant. The only thing you have to account for, in the end, is the writing you left behind, whether you expressed your own view even if it meant taking on others, or whether you were too intoxicated by influence to form an opinion of your own. In that regard, she scores higher than her followers.
I think “L’Avventura” is a demonstrably better film than “La Notte.” The former is a much richer, more involving story — and curiously enough if you watch it today it moves a lot more briskly than I think it did for people back then n first watching. The very familiar theme music, for example, is downright insistent. It’s masterful, the way it pulls us into one mystery and then gradually disintegrates that mystery for anothrer, greater one. But “La Notte” — well, I’ve only seen it once, but I found it completely unendurable. Brlliantly shot and composed, but a truly dull dark notte of the soul.
“The only thing you have to account for, in the end, is the writing you left behind”
Notice Rodney, that I haven’t said that this invalidates the writing in any way, so what I did say is not ad hominem in the least. Rather, I was pointing out that the apparent implication of what you said—that she was she was somehow an advocate for democratic thinking in an unproblematic way—wasn’t necessarily true if you consider her desire to maintain Mabusian influence over a nationwide network of “Paulettes.” And, by the way, I don’t us all agreeing at any point that everything except what she actually wrote was out of bounds for discussion.
You can discuss anything you want, but her legacy is her writing, and if the question is “What’s so great about Pauline Kael?” then it is that, not disgruntled, conspiratorial-sounding hearsay, that I would point to. I’m sure she could be dislikable and disagreeable as a person, but it’s kind of hard in perspective to be concerned.
" her legacy is her writing"
Yes and no, as should be apparent from the current discussions surrounding the release of A Life in the Dark and The Age of Movies.
. . . and guess which is selling better, the bio or the comp of her writing? This is illuminating.
(fwiw, I’d rather talk about her writing, hence the suggestion I made—probably back several pages now—that people who admire her writing more than I do post pieces so that we can discuss the writing rather than the personality)
Except it was implicit in her writing as well, hence the hectoring tone she took and in her constant use of the royal “we”. She wasn’t a writer who entertained alternative possibilities and she was harsh on those who might potentially disagree with her which she tried to forestall by creating strawmen to attack or simply by flat dismissal without investigation. This isn’t even getting into the almost hypocritical nature of her being so insistent on the entertainment value of movies, the trash over the art, but still attacking others for having differences of opinion and being so vehement over what she was entertained by being better than what someone else may have enjoyed. If movies are primarily entertainment, then the individual’s taste is all that matters for judging such a thing, so where was that aggression coming from?
People often credit Kael with being passionate, which she was, but passion in itself is no virtue as one can be as passionate about vice as virtue. Passion may not be the enemy of reason, but it is often an uneasy acquaintance as the intensity of the emotion can overcome a cooler rational understanding. A fair number of people seem to enjoy Kael’s writing style, but there are also a number of us who found it hard to bear in the best of circumstances and almost impossible to read without wincing in many others. I mention this simply to suggest that the claim for craftsmanship isn’t even as cut and dried as some seem to believe it to be. Sure, many of the other noted critics of the era weren’t much better in many regards, but that is hardly reason for celebration.
“Yes and no, as should be apparent from the current discussions surrounding the release of A Life in the Dark and The Age of Movies.”
There are no end of interesting characters who have made their living as a film critic, but it’s the work that comes first.
Greg X — You seem to be prescribing as an alternative a lame, it’s-all-subjective, why-can’t-we-all-get-along type of writing that has no conviction or interest to it. Castrated, dull, bloodless writing that betrays no sense of zeal or personality is very often hailed for having a “cooler rational understanding.”
Not at all Rodney, I’m just saying that Kael’s method of appreciation contrasts her mode of expression. To say something is inconsequential while treating it as extremely consequential is problematic at best and goes towards pointing out some of the inconsistencies of Kael’s as well as suggesting that she didn’t really fulfill some of the potential aims of a critic, instead tending towards reviews. If people enjoyed her reviews or found then useful for choosing what movies to see, good for them, I didn’t, but that’s okay. It’s thinking of her as being a great critic that troubles me as she often tended to speak in terms that aren’t particularly useful in that regard if one wants to come away from reading a critic having gained a better knowledge of how a film works and what may be at stake in it.
“To say something is inconsequential while treating it as extremely consequential” — can you give me an example of what you’re referring to?
I’m mostly referring to what I can’t help but take as her overview on her profession made in that enormous article on trash, art and movies, which is as close to a manifesto as it could be without being explicit. In that she outlines what “we” go to movies for, and that is to recapture feelings we had when we first started seeing them. It is entertainment and it is personal, that being the case, she should be reflecting that in the tone of her articles, but she doesn’t. Instead of treating pleasure as the personal taste issue it is, she picks fights and asserts a “correct” taste while bashing strawmen she sets up to represent some sort of social pressure from high minded schoolmarms or other figures of pretense. There is something deeply incompatible about her stated aims or pleasures and the manner in which she speaks of them that is apparent to me in much of her writing. (Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some good things to as she was given to occasional flashes of insight that one would be a fool to ignore.) For me, her writing is just too caught up in this split between persona and method to make much sense when taken as a whole.
There is a hypocrisy or internal contradiction to her work that may not be intentional but which undermines much of what she says, and indeed it very well may be at least somewhat intentional as she delighted in a sort of faux populist contrarianism that attacked and didn’t take prisoners, so that too is a problem for me. Again though, it isn’t as if she was that much worse than most other critics of the time, different issues bother me with Kael, but Sarris, for example, was worse in many other regards, and much of the same could be said about other competitors. It’s just the over-celebration of Kael that gives me pause as she has had a disproportionate impact on film writing and as she isn’t, to my mind, worthy of so much press as it tends to perpetuate some of the worst aspects of her reign.
There are better critics in the sense of those who actually may help a viewer expand their knowledge of films and to see them in new lights, but they don’t have their writings rereleased or talked about constantly and that is inexplicable to me and to the detriment of criticism overall. Popularity is a tricky thing, on the one hand if people are informed and really do like her writing so much, then by all means they should have access to it, but my concern is that the cult of Kael has served to keep people from being informed as well as they might have been. Not to say they don’t really enjoy her writing, just that they may not have had the chance to read some other writing that may have served to but her work into a better perspective. I simply can’t know the answer to this for anyone but myself, and for me it is definitely the case that Kael isn’t really worthy of the attention.
Raymond Durgnat is worthy of serious etended attention.
I doubt very many who post here have even heard of him.
Durgnat wrote a book on Bunuel, but it wasn’t very good. Just a lot of dull academic analysis and starry-eyed adulation, which is mostly what Bunuel seems to attract.
Sadly, not a whole lot of Durgnat is still in print, but yeah, he’s a brilliant critic.
Durgant wrote TONS of books — none of themacademic. “A Mirror For England” is THE book on British cinema. "The Crazy Mirror " is amarvelous book on comedy. His “Hitchcock’s Films” is a refreshingly Wood-free study of the master as is his posthumously puboijsed "A Long Hard Look At “Psycho.”
In “Movies and Meaning” Ray took on Kael in a great piece entitled “How NOT To Enjoy the Movies.”
Here’s more on Ray
Durgnat on Psycho:
Jonathan Rosenbaum on Durgnat: “he was equally ambidextrous when it came to considering both “high” and “low” forms of art without stooping to either condescension or elitism. Perhaps because he stood alone and tended to avoid whatever fashionable habits of groupthink were current, he was able to move more quickly, intellectually and conceptually, than most of his contemporaries.”
Jonathan, Ray and I once co-wrote a piece for “Film Comment” enentiled “Cary Grant’s Socks.”
Do you have a link to that David? I’d really like to read it, such a good title shouldn’t be just left out there like that without some way to see what it is attached to after all.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Durgnat vs Kael
When Durgnat attacks Pauline Kael’s “Fantasies of the Art-House Audience” (11) at some length in Films and Feelings for its puritan assumptions, one feels the confrontation of two critics on a common turf. Quite simply, Kael and Durgnat are two of the most accomplished sociological film critics since the death of Robert Warshow, and the differences between their approaches are instructive. It is frequently said of Kael that she reviews audiences as much as films; one might add to this that her moral evaluations of each tend to precede her analyses. In Durgnat’s case, analysis of what theoretically takes place between the film and the audience comes first, and any moral evaluation of this occurrence is usually either postponed or suspended. Within the terms of Durgnat’s sociology, concepts of good and bad, right and wrong are relatively non-existent — or at least non-essential.
RD: No, they’re essential, but… no more so than some other non-moral spiritual axes. Does my work really give an impression of amorality? Surely I often talk morally, even in the case of This Island Earth.
This is not to suggest, of course, that Durgnat doesn’t evaluate films, or that he avoids moral judgments: he periodically makes his tastes and preferences known, and some of his judgments – like his notorious dismissal of Godard — are couched almost exclusively in moral terms:
Godard wears dark glasses to hide from the world the fact that he’s in a constant state of ocular masturbation, rubbing himself off against anything and everything on which his eye alights. The flickering glance of his camera is the constant dribble of premature ejaculation. It is an unseeing stare. Godard keeps babbling on about the world being absurd because he can’t keep an intellectual hard-on long enough to probe for any responsive warmth. (12)
RD: This passage of mine was rude so that the reader wouldn’t take it too solemnly as a moral point. At that time, the consensus was taking Godard as a sort of sage of solipsism. I wanted to say that his films weren’t just about triumphs over the medium, but about a predicament too absurdist to be tragic in the traditionally dignified way. And, after all, he did a right-, or rather left-about turn intellectually soon afterwards. This sort of Portnoy’s Complaint of the bourgeois intelligentsia is the shadow side of the ‘reflective hesitation’ I was advocating earlier — hence the suddenly violent metaphor! Besides, those same “Asides” do describe Godard’s first two features as “masterpieces”, which is high praise, surely.
But while Kael discusses contemporary films as interactions and encounters between screen and audience, Durgnat isolates mythic and archetypal structures that bind the two into an indissoluble whole.
RD: The danger is of binding them into an over-schematized, stylized whole — merely a set of conventions. But the alternative sense, of “baseline possibilities” within which each audience reacts differently, is neatly suggested by your “court” metaphor.
If film watching suggests the back and forth movement of a tennis game, Kael’s eye is on the players, while Durgnat’s is on the court.
Yes Matt, it appears that is the piece, and it is a good one. I’m glad it was brought to my attention.
And those reactions Robert pointed to on Kael are fairly close to mine in many ways I think.
I’m just catching up with the recent posts. I’ve been too busy reading about Kael in the New York Times (a dialogue on her in last Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section and a page one book review of the two new volumes about her/her essays in the Oct. 30 Book Review section). The latter mentions the Howard Suber incident, which I introduced early on in this thread. The links should be easy to find on the TIMES Web site.
Regarding the sidebars about Ray Durgnat: his writings were a formative influence on me in my early days as a film scholar, particularly his book FILMS AND FEELINGS. His deep analysis of several “ordinary” films made me realize that there was often more than meets the eye in mainstream movie “product.” As for his Bunuel book, like Robin Wood’s Hitchcock volume, the time period was ripe for directors’ studies that cheerled for the auteurs. Even so, I’d say (as I may have mentioned on MUBI before) that the chapter in that Bunuel book on UN CHIEN ANDALOU is one of the clearest explications of that film that I have ever read. Durgnat uses a Freudian-Marxian analysis to at least open the door of interpretation of a surrealist classic. I assign it whenever I teach that movie and it always sparks debate and discussion about “symbolism,” even though Bunuel denied that there was an symbolism in the film. (What a kidder he was.) :-)
Does Howard Suber claim ownership to the theory that Herman Mankiewicz wrote ever word of “Citizen Kane”? It was not a convincing theory as Kael presented it. She didn’t mention that Welles had previously written a play titled “Five Kings,” telling Shakespeare’s history plays from multiple perspectives — which certainly suggests he had a hand in the shaping of the “Kane” script. (Forgive me f I’m dredging up something we’ve already discussed.)
More press clippings, this time from Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe. He quotes a line from Kenneth Tynan’s diaries: “I invent a nice rumour: that Pauline Kael nowadays refuses to review movies unless she has final cut. (With new directors she also insists on a solo credit: ’Reviewed by Pauline Kael.)”
Yep that’s the piece.
I wish there was a link available to “Standing Up For Jesus” — a piece he wrote for “Motion” attacking Richard Roud’s attack on “la politique des auteurs” in Sight and Sound. It has a lot in it about Nicholas Ray (who’s on everyone’s lips these days.
@Rodney Welsch: To the best of my knowledge, Howard Suber did NOT subscribe to the theory that Herman Mankiewicz wrote ever word of “Citizen Kane”? In fact, her CITIZEN KANE BOOK distorted many of Suber’s conclusions, which may explain why the essay “Raising Kane” is not very convincing to either one of us — nor to Peter Bogdanovich, Welles, and most film scholars.
It is interesting that “Raising Kane” which no one defends is by far her longest piece. It is not in the new collection allegedly because of length but none of the reviewers seem to believe that. It has been criticized for Forty years even by detractors of Welles. What does this tell us about Kael that the longer she wrote the worse she was? She was not a scholar? And she needed to be edited but somehow became editor proof at the New Yorker. But no one in this endless discussion is really making a case for her as a master of the short form either. What is her mystique? Is she the Ayn Rand of film criticism?
The theory behind “Raising Kane” was questionable, to say the least; other than that, there was a lot to like about it. It wasn’t, so far as I know, shoddy through and through; it’s very informative about Mankewicz’s rise in Hollywood, how he came to know Hearst and how he used that information against him, and it paralleled the movie against the real story involving the Susan Alexander character, among other things. It was one of the first articles that brought the whole Kane back story to the reading public. And of course it exhaustively examined the movie from Kael’s perspective.
In the end, it would have been a lot stronger if Kael hadn’t so doggedly and absurdly latched on to the idea that Welles didn’t write one single word of the script. Given the way scripts mutate between page and screen, then and now, where lines may be cut or rewritten on a day-to-day basis, it’s likely an absurd claim to say of any script, that it is solely and completely the work of the credited author.
Her mystique, if you want to call it that, is that, like it or not, she was the one of the great film critics. She was a game-changer. You can argue, certainly, that there were people with finer, more precious, more important insights, but their influence was (and is) restricted to film journals and academic circles, and they weren’t as interesting to read, didn’t convey as much excitement or zest — and they certainly didn’t have her forum and likely would not have been able to keep it if they had.
Where other critics wrote reviews, Kael from her perch at The New Yorker was able to pronounce lengthy judgments that raised questions about what movies are and how they affect us. The only one that came closest was her hero James Agee, who certainly had a very deeply personal style and wrote some very important pieces, but I don’t think he had the same reach in the 1930s and 1940s that Kael had in the 1960s and 1970s.
When I think of Hollywood in the 1940s, I don’t think of Agee. When I think of Hollywood in the 1970s, I think of Kael as easily as I think of Scorsese and Peckinpah and Altman and Spielberg. She was a major figure.
I saw today in one of the current articles about Kael a comparison to the literary critic Edmund Wilson. I doubt she had his intellectual depth, but she did seemed to have his kind of importance, as well as his occasional foolhardiness. (Wilson seemed at one point to think he knew the Russian language so well he could lecture Vladimir Nabokov on its proper use.) As far as being a critic that a lot of people read, who had a major following, she’s in his class, I think.
You didn’t have to like her, but you couldn’t ignore her. You still can’t — still an amazing feat for a critic who has been dead for a decade.
P.S. Another thing that comes to mind about Kael, which a lot of people don’t like: putting herself in the review. Her own experiences, her own thoughts, how her friends or the audience reacted. You know, Kael flowered at the time of New Journalism: Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese were all writing journalism were the writer was a major character. I think in Kael’s case — and I’ll be interested to see if Kellow addresses this — the influence may have been Henry Miller, a writer she greatly liked, and Miller’s criticism is basically about Miller.