Northrop Frye, the great Canadian literary critic, wrote this in his essay “The Road of Excess,” printed in his collection THE STUBBORN STRUCTURE:
All the [pure] storyteller wants to do is to keep the attention of his audience to the end: once the end is reached, he has no further interest in his audience. He may even be hostile to criticism or anti-intellectual in his attitude to literature, afraid that criticism will spoil the simple entertainment that he designed. The lyrical poet concerned with expressing certain feelings our emotions in the lyrical conventions of his day often takes a similar attitude, because it is natural for him to identify his conventional literary emotions with his `real’ personal emotions. He therefore feels that if the critic finds any meaning or significance in his work beyond the intensity of those emotions, it must be only what the critic wants to say instead. Anti-critical statements are usually designed only to keep the critic in his place, but the attitude they represent, when genuine, is objective, thrown outward into the designing of the continuity. It is the attitude that Schiller, in his essay on Naive and Sentimental Poetry, means by naive, and which includes what we mean in the English by naive. Naive writers’ obiter dicta are often repeated, for consolation, by the kind of critic who is beginning to suspect that literary criticism is a more difficult discipline than he realized when he entered into it. But it is not possible for any reader today to respond to a work of literature with complete or genuine naivete. Response is what Schiller calls sentimental by its very nature, and is hence to some degree involved with criticism.
This whole passage by Frye (especially the parts I bolded) I think illuminates what sort of writer Kael was. Her response to art was “naive,” and she distrusted the “sentimental” mode. What Schiller meant by “naive” is what we’d mean by “naive,” but what he meant by “sentimental” is not what most people would infer; he seems to have meant something more like “self-conscious” or “self-aware” or even “intellectualized.”
Schiller meant to refer these categories to poets, but Frye applies the terms to critics as well. I think if we follow Frye’s lead, we can categorize Kael as a “naive” critic, and a writer like Durgnat or Frye as “sentimental,” and the writers who wrote the lengthy Antonioni pieces I linked as “sentimental” as well. Sentimental critics may start off with a pure flood of emotion, but then they start thinking about why a movie engaged their emotions and about what “the movie is trying to say.” They quickly move to the level of close interpretation and analysis, whereas a naive writer like Kael prefers to remain on the level of pure unadulterated emotion, and values emotional intensity far more than intellectual rigor.
I have a pretty low opinion of that kind of critical writing, and I think Northrop Frye was quite right to insist on the self-deception involved here, and to aver that “it is not possible for any reader today to respond to a work of literature with complete or genuine naivete. Response is what Schiller calls sentimental by its very nature, and is hence to some degree involved with criticism.”
Sailor — You drag in poor old Northrop Frye to set up some kind of obscure, wobbly, unstable distinction between types of criticism, and — surprise, surprise — you discover that the people who disagree with you on Antonioni are the wrong kind of critic and the people who agree with you are the right kind. Or, to put it more simply, you prefer boring, bland academic criticism to intelligent, personal writing with zip and zest.
Well, I don’t buy it. I do not accept the lame, shoddy idea that Kael was unanalytical simply because she was passionate, popular, and knew how to write a decent sentence. I don’t think her writing can be written off that easily — although, God knows, everyone in this forum does it, if only because it’s so fun. Her writing can be quite analytical, although you may not notice it because it’s not boring, and because she didn’t go for the type of frame-by-frame adulation of this David Saul Rosenfeld character. I did not and likely will not read Rosenfeld’s book-length deconstruction — or at least, not anytime soon. It’s not my thing — this may suggest a great divide between you and I.
@ Rodney Welch Her writing can be quite analytical, although you may not notice it because it’s not boring…
Jonathan Rosenbaum: 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.
“Frame-by-frame adulation” is nothing more nor less than what literary critics would consider the ordinary practice of close reading. You’re disparaging Rosenfeld for, in effect, doing what intelligent literary critics have done from time immemorial. Congratulations, you prove my point: Kael’s main influence was to freeze taste at a certain crude, anti-intellectual, nakedly emotional level, and to prevent film criticism from generally attaining the same sort of depth, precision, and richness as the best literary criticism.
Presumably, if you find Rosenfeld’s (or Durgnat’s) approach so objectionable, you must find pretty much all literary criticism objectionable, since all they’re trying to do is bring some of the same intelligence to film analysis. I guess you must think literary critics are being stuffy and tedious when they analyze or parse a poem by Keats, a short story by Chekhov, a novel by Jane Austen?
There are only two kinds of critics, really: those who build a strong case for the works they admire (like Rosenfeld), and those who don’t (like Kael). The former are interpreters, exegetes, and explicators, first and foremost, while the latter are confessionalists and autobiographers.
I must say the thing that stands out to me most clearly about Kael’s fervent admirers is their relentlessly shrill, bilious, hysterical, hostile tone projected at all Kael naysayers (even ones like me who concede she had her merits). I suppose they learned this voice from the master herself, since you also find it omnipresent in Kael’s own writing (mischaracterized as “zip and zest” by fanatics who mistake a hysterical, manic-depressive tone for zestfulness and any kind of rigorous analysis and elucidation of themes as “boring, bland academicism.”) The funny thing is I’ve read dozens of thread replies and letters to the editor that are all identical in tone to your posts, Rodney. Kael evidently has that effect on people. Once again: like I said all along: she’s a dangerous influence. And yeah, it is similar to Ayn Rand’s spell over her disciples, who always go into similar hysterics whenever Rand’s writing gets criticized by someone.
“There are only two kinds of critics, really”
To paraphrase Robert Benchley, there are two kinds of critics in the world—those who believe there are two kinds of critics in the world and those who don’t.
Gee, you seem to think you’ve made some kind of point.
If my statement offends you, what are you doing defending Kael, who resorted to dualities and dichotomies (the vast majority of them false) more than any other film reviewer?
At the very least I hope Kael never descended to saying there were two types of critics in the world—that’s way too easy a duality (just as calling Kael a confessionalist and autobiographer—presumably on the basis of the occasional personal anecdote she ornamented a review with—is too easy). I think that if you abhor a critic for certain tendencies, you probably shouldn’t help yourself to those tendencies when they suit your case. I also think Rodney is ill-advised to deride frame-by-frame study of Antonioni, but he doesn’t stand in for everyone who appreciated some aspects of Kael’s work. As a critic she had ample flaws, and they’ve been explicated admirably and at length by the Salon article I linked to earlier.
The amazing thing with Kael and her acolytes is how they are stuck in time. It is 1975 anymore. They are several generations of great filmmakers of which she had nothing to say about. And unlike with great critics such as Bazin or Farber in which we can more or less imagine how they would treat such masters as the Dardennes, Kiarostami and Claire Denis. With Kael, not only can’t we guess we do not even know if she would deign to look at them . A critical filmic practice not based on any kind of Cinephillia or know ledge of film history is a very weak thing indeed.
She lacked judgement in a way that allows her supporters a selection bias.
Yeah, she was incisive, but she couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
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.
In those moments when Kael was being analytical and not merely autobiographical, her writing wasn’t much different from the piece by Rosenfeld that Rodney disparaged (without having read any of it, by his own admission).
What Rodney, and evidently most of her fans, love about Kael is that most of the time, she was all about whipping up emotions, recounting her own exhilaration and trying to create an analogous high in the reader. Insofar as she was analytical and exegetical, she wasn’t much different from those “stodgy,” “dull,” ostensibly “academic” writers Rodney endlessly derides.
The reason for this is that serious, in-depth analysis and interpretation of any work of art pretty much demands that you retain a degree of sobriety, and is not easily reconcilable with the hyped-up tone of most of Kael’s work. Kael, on those infrequent occasions she does become analytical, becomes tonally little different from any other analytical critic. The only difference being, in my view, Rosenfeld’s ideas are more interesting and he does a better job of it than Kael generally did.
….in-depth analysis and interpretation of any work of art pretty much demands that you retain a degree of sobriety
Sail — I think it’s closer to the truth to say there are two kinds of critics: ones who write well, and ones who do not.
I have not read Rosenfeld’s book-length analysis beyond a few unencouraging paragraphs. Perhaps it gets better, I don’t know. If I was to read him and dislike him, I can assure you it would not be because of his close reading or analytical insights. I would dislike him if he was unengaging and uninteresting — which is very often a fault of critics who work at that subterranean level of explication; they lose me. Their thoughts become less intense even as they become more meticulous, more specific, or their hero-worship becomes obnoxious and alienating. I’m hardly disparaging literary or film criticism in saying this; I’m simply saying some are better than others.
“Presumably, if you find Rosenfeld’s (or Durgnat’s) approach so objectionable, you must find pretty much all literary criticism objectionable…”
Boy, that is some presumption. You’re saying they are the pinnacle and it’s all downhill from there. I think you may be setting the bar too low. My own preferences among literary critics are F. O. Matthiessen, Harold Bloom, Henry James, Andre Bazin, John Updike, Edmund Wilson, Michael Wood, Camille Paglia, James Wood and Greil Marcus — people who excite the reader about reading, about understanding, about understanding at depth. I like Pauline Kael because she brought that same kind of intellectual energy to film criticism.
As to whether I’m a total Randite zombie — well, you’ll notice I criticized her views on “Citizen Kane” and Godard and Jarmusch, and that I’ve consistently said I didn’t agree with her every view. Many, many is the time I’ve watched a film, dug out my old copy of “Reeling” or “Going Steady” and found — damn, she didn’t like it nearly as much as I did, or at all. But she did offer another way of looking at a movie, maybe one I missed, or she missed it altogether. My defenses have more to do with her style, intelligence, wit and forcefulness.
As for this relentlessly shrill, bilious, hysterical, hostile, fanatical tone — come on, be serious. Most of the posts here are from people who only want to wallow in a kind of mindless group-hate.
Nice fascistic touch at the end: “Once again: like I said all along: she’s a dangerous influence.” Is a re-education camp in my future? Are you now fantasizing about some sort of Abu Ghraib for people who have been caught reading Kael? Shall we be tied up and fed to dogs — or do you have worse tortures in mind, like making me read David Saul Rosenfeld?
I understand your point, but it again seems to rely on another duality, this time between emotionally inflected writing and serious analysis. “Serious, in-depth analysis and interpretation of any work of art pretty much demands that you retain a degree of sobriety” sounds agreeable, but is not, I think, accurate or applicable, to, say, the arts criticism of Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, or Greil Marcus (to take a very random sample). There’s room for all sorts of responses in criticism, provided no one insists that theirs is the only valid way to go. Kael was sometimes guilty of that (though to her credit she said seeing a movie once wouldn’t necessarily work for everyone), and while I wish she hadn’t abandoned Antonioni after sticking up for L’Avventurra, that would involve wishing she’d go against her own taste. I don’t think Kael’s writing neatly divides into analytic and emotional passages—I do think that her writing deteriorated over time as her range of taste shrank, and that she increasingly took refuge in the excesses of her style and rhetoric.
“Serious, in-depth analysis and interpretation of any work of art pretty much demands that you retain a degree of sobriety” sounds agreeable, but is not, I think, accurate or applicable, to, say, the arts criticism of Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, or Greil Marcus (to take a very random sample)."
Bingo — and I should have mentioned Pater, as well as Ruskin — and, while I’m at it, Calvin Tompkins and Jed Perl.
There are a lot of different types of critics: artist-critics, tenure-track critics, bloggers, et al. Sobriety need not be boring.
Good piece from The Awl:
The Cordial Enmity Of Joan Didion And Pauline Kael
Ruskin is probably the worst example you could use, Rodney, since he’s at the opposite pole from Kael. Ruskin proves my point about the importance of rigor, “high seriousness,” and a certain level of objectivity (which does not equate to po-faced humorlessness).
Greil Marcus is not anywhere close to being a great critic, and Walter Pater is appreciated more as a prose stylist and a general theoretician of aesthetics than for any particular reading of any particular work of art. I suppose you could defend a few of Kael’s general think pieces by recourse to Pater, but that’s about it.
This is typical Pater:
To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the sense, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.
This is not, strictly speaking, a piece of arts criticism. It’s a general statement about life, and has more in common with a generalist-essayist like Emerson or Montaigne, or a philosopher like Nietzsche, than with arts criticism. And Kael’s writing isn’t near that caliber, anyway. Pater wrote scintillating prose-poetry, Kael didn’t.
Now here’s some Kael, from her scathing review of HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR in her "Fantasies of the Arthouse Audience:
The picture opened with those intertwined nude bodies – this could be symbolic of a true intermingling, but it irresistibly set off some lewd speculation about just what was going on. And what was that stuff they were covered with? Beach sand? Gold dust? Ashes? Finally, I accepted it as symbolic bomb ash, but I wasn’t happy with it. (Later I discovered that it was supposed to be “sweat, ashes and dew.”) Then the French girl said she had seen everything in Hiroshima, and the Japanese man told her she had seen nothing in Hiroshima. Then they said the same things over again, and again, and perhaps again. And I lost patience. I have never understood why writers assume that repetition creates a lyric mood or underlines meaning with profundity. My reaction is simply, “OK, I got it the first time, let’s get on with it.” Now, this is obviously not how we are supposed to react to Marguerite Duras’s dialogue, which is clearly intended to be musical and contrapuntal, and I was going to try to get in the right, passive, receptive mood for a ritual experience, when some outright fraud made me sit up and pay attention. The action – or inaction – in bed was intercut with what purported to be documentary shots of the effect of the bomb on Hiroshima. Only I had seen some of the footage before in a Japanese atrocity movie that was about as documentary as Peyton Place. This clumsily staged imposture made me suspect that the Japanese man didn’t know Hiroshima either, and I began to look askance at the truth he was supposed to represent. Where did he get this metaphysical identity with Hiroshima?
Now here’s an excerpt from the second, shorter essay about L’ECLISSE I linked to:
Vittoria is visiting a colonialist friend of hers, a woman who is back from Kenya. This friend shows Vittoria a book of photographs of Africa; there is a photograph of a baobob tree. She explains: “Kenya has everything: Jungle, snow, savannah.” Something is missing; once again, there is a particular absence. This friend of Vittoria’s doesn’t mention Kenyans, that is to say, Native Africans. By contrast, it is the photographs of black Africans that draws Vittoria’s attention as she peruses her friend’s book. Such people in Kenya were not a part of the colonialist’s life; we find here the tragic circumstance of the West’s failure to recognize, let alone embrace, its human connections to the rest of the world—a theme that Antonioni would bring to fruition in the film known in the U.S. as The Passenger (1975), where a reporter in Africa at a time of political upheaval fails to recognize any connection between himself and the people and events he is reporting on. In L’eclisse, the white European who has lived in Kenya is certain that no such connection exists. Vittoria, bless her, is not so sure; she is adrift between the moorings of Western culture and something else as yet undefined on the other side. In the ferociously nondocumentary-like moment to which I referred, she acts out her problem of identity; she does so at her friend’s party, in pseudo-tribal dance. The electric moment is complex. This extreme performance of hers redresses the imbalance created by her friend’s exclusion of African humanity from her experience and thoughts despite the time she spent living in Kenya. In a way, the get-up and the dance are a slight mockery of her friend’s disposition and stance, that is to say, of the polite Europeanness that covers a basic inhumanity vis-à-vis “Europe’s backyard.” (Kenya was granted, first, internal self-government and, second, complete independence from British rule the same year as L’eclisse.) But, however unconsciously perhaps, Vittoria is also mocking herself, her performance of African tribal identity a reflection of her uncertainty as to who she is—this, an extension and reflection of Europe’s uncertain identity that came about with the end of war, the turning of its back on its recent political storms, the confrontation with new economic hardship, and the African independence movements that further eroded its sense of control, superiority and destiny. Antonioni isn’t resorting to literary allegory here; Vittoria comes to embody current European uncertainty and disarray from the inside out. Indeed, in this light (or dark), her friend and she seem to reflect a European attitude and counter-attitude, an insistence on past prerogatives and an embrace of the dashing of those prerogatives. Antonioni finds a gripping way to express this: at night, the two women venturing out into the streets to gather up the colonialist woman’s fleet of escaped dogs—a scene lent a touch of the surreal by its association with a terrifying passage from Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1959), a masked assault on reactionaryism. (Please see my essay on Franju’s film.)
I fail to see how Kael, when she stoops to perform an actual analysis of a scene, is any more “fun” to read than the ostensibly “dull,” dreary “academic” criticism about Antonioni. It seems to me Kael’s writing could only be considered lightyears more “fun” and full of “zest” and “energy” is if you associate these things with mean-spiritedness and sarcasm. I didn’t find the HIROSHIMA analysis more “fun” than the L’ECLISSE analysis; in fact I found it far less “fun,” since the L’ECLISSE analyst obviously loves the film and is trying to open up the film’s depths and dimensions to the reader.
I suppose Kael could be a lot of fun to read when it’s a movie she loved, like BONNIE AND CLYDE. But I see no evidence of greater vitality, excitement, or flair for language in Kael than any of the critics mentioned in this thread, from Rosenbaum to Rosenfeld.
So why this sudden explosion of media interest in Pauline Kael? When this thread was started a few years ago, nobody was talking about her anymore. Suddenly, she seems to be absolutely everywhere.
Sure, there’s the 10th anniversary of her death, a biography, and reissues of her work but usually this kind of flurry ties into some kind of zeitgeist moment. What is it?
The only thing I can guess is – film critics who have been recently pondering the “death” of film criticism in the printed media and its traditional outlets are now nostalgic for the moment when film critics were like rock stars.
Zeitgeist or poltergeist?
If I was to read him and dislike him, I can assure you it would not be because of his close reading or analytical insights. I would dislike him if he was unengaging and uninteresting — which is very often a fault of critics who work at that subterranean level of explication; they lose me.
In other words, you don’t read criticism for insights and illumination into the artwork being discussed. You just want a vivid, larger-than-life personality to leap off the page. You read because you like the critic as a person, not because they have anything particularly perceptive, or even half-way accurate, to say about the novel or film they’re ostensibly discussing. You care about the critic, whereas I care about the artist and the art.
Your list of favorite literary critics gives the game away: Harold Bloom, Edmund Wilson, Camille Paglia, James Wood. Paglia and Bloom can be brilliant when it’s a writer they’re fundamentally in sync with. If their sympathies are engaged, they can write well and illuminatingly. But they both have egos the size of the sun. Bloom’s writing is simply terrible when it’s a writer like Dostoyevsky, T.S. Eliot, Celine, or Poe whom he loathes. (In that sense, he’s a lot like Kael: his ego and his whims get in the way of his abilities, or his capacity for truthfulness.) James Wood is, if anything, even worse. They all want to be celebrities in their own right, and care more about being famous than being illuminating, honest, or fair. And they all have a tendency to declare art good or bad by fiat, instead of by providing a worked-out, detailed exegesis. They all belong to the “It’s good/bad because I say so” school of criticism. Nothing could be easier to write, and nothing is more deserving of dismissal on the basis of superficiality.
Sail — This is getting … bizarre. No matter what I say, you’re going to stand in opposition, and not only that, try to trivialize anything I say, which requires you to twist yourself in all kinds of crazy knots. Basically what I’m saying is I don’t like bad writing, and you’re taking this kind of strange position — a strange and very deeply contradictory position, obviously — that suggests only professional blowhards write well and only saps read them.
“You just want a vivid, larger-than-life personality to leap off the page.” Strange to hear these words said dismissively, as if I’m asking for a circus clown — but who doesn’t want that? Do you LIKE being bored?
You say: “You care about the critic, whereas I care about the artist and the art” — but you don’t care about art or artists; you don’t do vivid or engaging, you don’t respect criticism as an art, because you’ve basically just said, and proceed to say further, that you don’t care about good writing or style. You seem to be going out of your way to make some kind of case that writing intelligent and powerful prose is an affectation that you can’t be bothered with.
Naturally, every single person I mention, as you put it, “gives the game away.” I cited them, therefore they must be deeply flawed, right?
“Harold Bloom, Edmund Wilson, Camille Paglia, James Wood. Paglia and Bloom can be brilliant when it’s a writer they’re fundamentally in sync with.”
Meaning, I suspect, writers whom you are in synch with; I suspect when Bloom is wrong, he’s wrong because you say he is.
“They all want to be celebrities in their own right, and care more about being famous than being illuminating, honest, or fair. And they all have a tendency to declare art good or bad by fiat, instead of by providing a worked-out, detailed exegesis.”
Let me guess: they aren’t illuminating because they didn’t show you something you had already seen, they aren’t honest because they don’t echo your opinions, they aren’t fair because they are tough on your Poe and Dostoevsky and others whose flaws you wish to remain concealed.
I don’t know anything about you personally, but when I read sentences like this — “And they all have a tendency to declare art good or bad by fiat, instead of by providing a worked-out, detailed exegesis” — it suggests a kind of academic bias, a sense of sympathy toward that great class of worker bees who write endless, exhaustive, and impenetrably dense prose for small journals read only by their peers.
“They all belong to the “It’s good/bad because I say so” school of criticism.”
Sort of like the one you belong to?
“Nothing could be easier to write, and nothing is more deserving of dismissal on the basis of superficiality.”
Your post is proof of it.
No matter what I say, you’re going to stand in opposition, and not only that, try to trivialize anything I say, which requires you to twist yourself in all kinds of crazy knots
I suggest you take a look in the mirror, Rodney. You’ve managed to misquote and misrepresent just about every single contributor to this thread at least once. As Frank pointed out many moons ago, you seem to have a major problem with basic reading comprehension, as well as basic courtesy. You’ve yet to reply to a single post of mine without wildly mispresenting, and caricaturing, something I’ve written.
Basically what I’m saying is I don’t like bad writing, and you’re taking this kind of strange position — a strange and very deeply contradictory position, obviously — that suggests only professional blowhards write well and only saps read them
No, sorry, that’s not what I’ve done. You’ve insisted that everyone else from Durgnat to Rosenfeld is an “academic,” jargon-infested bore. I haven’t conceded that at all. The other writer I linked, Grunes, is very obviously no more jargon-inflected than Kael, and writes at least as lucidly as she does, and with far greater penetration and perceptiveness about Antonioni at least. He articulates actual ideas, as Kael does not do.
Why on earth would I be bored? If a critic discusses a great work of art and reveals new things about it that haven’t been said before, why should he or she need a self-aggrandizing, puffed-up, narcissism-laden prose style? You seem to take it as some agreed upon truth that Kael was this incomparable prose stylist and the writers I praised are boring. But why would I be bored with them? They elucidate and explicate all sorts of elements of the movies they discuss. Kael, more often than not, doesn’t. We’re left knowing how much she loved or hated something, but not what the themes and ideas of the movie were.
What you seem not to grasp is that Kael’s egotism and narcissism, ubiquitous in her work, makes her the incredibly boring one in my eyes. I don’t find her personality nearly as engaging and enthralling as she herself, and her fans, seem to find it. I appreciate her writing on movies she loved that I think are great movies, but otherwise, I find her quite tedious and wearisome much of the time.
Yes, because of course Harold Bloom, who’s spent his entire life at Yale, is so different. (You want to talk about “impenetrable” prose? Try reading THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE or KABBALAH AND CRITICISM.) The fact is, Rodney, none of the critics whose names have come up on this thread as alternatives to Kael are “academic” writers, in the sense of employing exclusionary, incomprehensible jargon that is the bane of academia. You’re the one projecting that pedantry onto them. This is what I mean about the false-dichotomy mongering Kael was a master of. You act like, because a writer doesn’t use the slangy prose of a Kael, or the syrupy pseudo-lyricism of a James Wood, they must be fusty academics who only write for their peers. That kind of jargon-y “comprehensible-only-to-members-of-the-club” academic style is utlized by none of the writers linked to on this thread.
True, it would be unfair to expect James Wood to produce exegesis-on-demand every time he publishes a review in a magazine. But Wood has also published books. He could easily modify and expand on the ideas in his magazine pieces. He cannot be unaware, for example, of all the wealth of the interpretive, as opposed to simply evaluative or even decorative, criticism published about Don DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD or Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, two novels Wood detests and has written disapprovingly of.
I’m unimpressed by his writing because he’s spent years trashing these writers, yet (much like Kael) evidently refuses to even read the best interpretive essays written in their defense. And I say that as no blanket lover of DeLillo or Pynchon. Not everything they write is good. But Wood is just another pontificator: he writes to declaim, not to weight and consider alternative views.
No, they aren’t honest because when Bloom, for example, declares that Poe meant such-and-such here, and Dostoyevsky meant such-and-such there – even though there are plenty of alternative readings available that he’s perfectly familiar with that are far more interesting, suggestive, and profound – Bloom will stubbornly insist that his grotesquely reductive reading is the only “correct” one. It’s a sign of bad criticism when a critic insists on making a great writer sound like an imbecile even after numerous other critics have produced interpretations that are more rich, exciting, and interesting.
Like I said, Bloom is wonderful on writers he is fundamentally in sync with and ardently loves. He can produce fascinatingly suggestive and original close readings of Shakespeare’s plays, for example. But Bloom likes to complain about “reductive,” “resentment-driven” ideological readings that try to make Shakespeare out to be a shalllow, stupid person advocating a crude, bigoted worldview. This is at the heart of Bloom’s loathing of Gary Taylor, for instance: Bloom rightly took Taylor to task for his insistence that Shakespeare “really” was some jingoistic bigot, in spite of all the deeply humane and humanistic strains a thousand other critics have found in his work. But then Bloom will insist on ascribing the stupidest possible “meaning” and “significance” to writers he doesn’t like – again, despite the existence of far richer and more intellectually stimulating readings of these writers which Bloom has read, but won’t grapple with.
And that’s the same kind of obstinacy I find in Kael all too often. And I don’t think a “lively” prose style makes up for it.
“Greil Marcus is not anywhere close to being a great critic”
What authority is such a sweeping dismissal based on? I think many people in Marcus’s field—popular music and culture—would say the opposite.
“Walter Pater is appreciated more as a prose stylist and a general theoretician of aesthetics than for any particular reading of any particular work of art.”
Besides the fact that Pater’s reading of the Mona Lisa was quoted and praised by Wilde among others, and that Pater is still valued for his writings on Renaissance art, I don’t see the relevance of the statement. Someone who is a prose stylist and general theoretician of aesthetics is still a critic.
“This is typical Pater”
Not really. It’s just the most famous passage of Pater, because it’s the most flamboyant. Read “Studies in the History of the Renaissance,” (where that quote is taken from) and you’ll see that Pater was hardly just making “general statement[s] about life” throughout the book. And arts criticism, which is not a science, has room for that anyway, unless one believes it’s little more than analysis. Kael isn’t on Pater’s level for the simple fact that no one nowadays writes Victorian prose poems. But at her ragged best, she can use evocation of a work as he did.
“It seems to me Kael’s writing could only be considered lightyears more “fun” and full of “zest” and “energy” is if you associate these things with mean-spiritedness and sarcasm.”
Since “fun” and “full of zest” were also adjectives applied to her raves, the statement doesn’t work.
“I suppose Kael could be a lot of fun to read when it’s a movie she loved”
What critic isn’t more fun to read when they’re addressing a movie they love? And what critic is anywhere as interesting when they’re addressing a movie they were obviously bored by? If you focus on a critic’s pans of movies you liked, you’ll naturally be antagonistic toward them.
I suggest you take a look in the mirror, Rodney.
I know, seriously!
I enjoy reading Pauline Kael’s work, as I do with Andrew Sarris. As I own both of their books.
I think I commented on this long ago when it was first posted….and possibly other threads but anyway, I was amused to see the return of this old thread.
Since some have requested some examples of Kael’s own writing to discuss, here’s her famous review of BONNIE AND CLYDE which is now available online in pdf format:
Here’s another of Kael’s most famous pieces, “Fantasies of the Arthouse Audience.”
And here’s Renata Adler’s infamous, mammoth attack, “The Perils of Pauline.”
What stands out to me is that, despite her exaggerations, her over-focus only on Kael’s vices and not her virtues, Adler’s attack is solid in the sense that almost all of what she attacks Kael for truly are Kael’s vices, her tics, her underhanded rhetorical tricks. Kael fought dirty, and Adler justifiably called her on it. People called Adler’s essay a hatchet job, but it’s less of a hatchet job than countless pieces Kael published over her lifetime (and far less of one than Kael’s Citizen Kane piece or her attack on the Mayles brothers, which seems to have been devoid of facts).
“Fantasies of the Arthouse Audience,” for example, is a truly incoherent piece of writing. Almost everything she says in it is a half-truth at best, she’s so humorless, pedantic, and self-righteous, so drearily preachy, and so scattershot in her complaints. Her BONNIE AND CLYDE review is much better, and is compulsively readable, but even here, at her best, she doesn’t make a particularly strong argument in the movie’s favor.
“How Kael could (allegedly) be a lifelong lover of Henry James’ novels, even the verbose experimental novels like The Golden Bowl, yet not be able to bring herself to believe that anyone REALLY liked those artsy-fartsy art films she couldn’t stand?”
Because….Henry James was not verbose, and those “artsy-fartsy” art films are not artistic in the slightest. They are by and large sterile, devoid, dull, pretentious, embarrassing, and infuriating.
“No, they aren’t honest because when Bloom, for example, declares that Poe meant such-and-such here, and Dostoyevsky meant such-and-such there – even though there are plenty of alternative readings available that he’s perfectly familiar with that are far more interesting, suggestive, and profound – Bloom will stubbornly insist that his grotesquely reductive reading is the only “correct” one. It’s a sign of bad criticism when a critic insists on making a great writer sound like an imbecile even after numerous other critics have produced interpretations that are more rich, exciting, and interesting.”
What exactly are you talking about? Bloom has always acknowledged the mythical power of Poe’s nightmarish visions, despite his horrendous diction and his verse being almost entirely doggerel.
I’m in complete agreement with Rodney. Pauline was a very talented writer among a sea of semi-literates, which is ample enough elevation.
Im no expert when it comes to Kael, but it was more her style rather than her opinions that resonated with me. She seemed to dig out the most hidden of weaknesses in a film and has already changed my opinion on several movies. She never seemed to back down from her arguement and had a great way of proving her point (even if she was incredibly wrong), and I think the best critics are the ones that genuinely make you excited to watch a film.
Take Peter Travers for example. I wouldn’t call him one of the best critics who ever lived but he rarely truly loves a movie, so when he gave his glowing review for Drive I was psyched to see it.