The Popist: Pauline Kael 6

One way to think critically about it, the way consistent with modern thinking about the arts generally, is to identify the formal properties of the medium and to judge movies by how fully and in¬telligently they use them. So that the assertion “Stagecoach is a great movie” might be defended against the person who wants to know if that means it is as great as King Lear by replying that Stagecoach is great “in cinematic terms.” This is to defend your judgment with an abstraction; for when you say things like “in cinematic terms,” you are on your way toward developing a theory of film. Kael had de¬voted her entire pre-New Yorker career to demolishing this way of thinking. By 1967, her anti-aesthetic had been completely worked out. She hated theories. She didn’t oppose only auteur theory; she opposed all theoretical preconceptions. “Isn’t it clear that trying to find out what cinema ‘really’ is, is derived from a mad Platonic and metaphorical view of the universe,” she wrote, in an unreprinted es¬say, in 1966, “—as if ideal, pure cinema were some pre-existent en-tity that we had to find? Cinema is not to be found; but movies are continuously being made.” And, more famously, in “Is There a Cure for Movie Criticism?” (1962), an attack on the film theorist Siegfried Kracauer: “Art is the greatest game, the supreme enter¬tainment, because you discover the game as you play it.. . . We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond in a new way. Why should pedants be allowed to spoil the game?”
Kael was the most brilliantly ad hoc critic of her time, and she made it possible to care about movies without feeling pompous or giddy by showing that what comes first in everyone’s experience of a movie isn’t the form or the idea but the sensation, and that this is just as true for moviegoers who have been taught to intellectualize their responses to art as it is for everyone else. The idea that a movie critic needs to work from sensations was not new with her, of course. Agee’s persona in the Nation had been that of the ordinary intelligent guy who just happens to love going to movies (and who also just happens to write like James Agee). Robert Warshow, who wrote about movies for Commentary and Partisan Review in the 1940s and ’50s, warned that the critic who trucks a load of sociology and aesthetics into the movie theater will end up missing the show. “A man watches a movie,” as he once famously, and perhaps a shade sententiously, put it, ‘‘and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.”
When Warshow wrote about Scarface and Agee wrote about Na¬tional Velvet, they didn’t have much trouble being that man. But that is because the high-low problem doesn’t kick in with Scarface and National Velvet. It kicks in with a movie like Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s black comedy about a serial killer, which very few people have patience for anymore, but which Agee and Warshow both went solemnly bananas over. Agee and Warshow thought that Chaplin had Something Important To Say in Monsieur Verdoux, and they therefore bent over backward in their appreciation of the movie in order to give him credit for his good intentions.
Kael never gave anyone credit for good intentions. “Art,” as she put it back in 1956, “perhaps unfortunately, is not the sphere of good intentions.” She wasn’t interested in abstractions like “social sig¬nificance” or “the body of work.” She had to be turned on all over again each time. Her favorite analogy for the movie experience got seriously overworked, and was lampooned as a result, but it does have the virtue of simplicity: a movie, for her, was either good sex or bad sex. For the quality of sex doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the glamour of the partner. The best-looking guy in the room may be the lousiest lover—which is why nothing irritated Kael more than a well-dressed movie that didn’t perform. “If a lady says, That man don’t pleasure me,’ ” she explained to the readers of Holi¬day in 1966, “that’s it. There are some areas in which we can still de¬cide for ourselves.” She thought that people who claimed to enjoy 2001: A Space Odyssey more than The Thomas Crown Affair were ei¬ther lying or were guilty of sex-in-the-head. There were a lot of peo¬ple like that around before 1967. “What did she lose at the movies?” asked a puzzled Dwight Macdonald when he reviewed I Lost It at the Movies, in 1965. Case in point.
Kael’s contention that “serious” movies should meet the same standard as pulp—that they should be entertaining—turned out to be an extremely useful and widely adopted critical principle. For it rests on an empirically sustainable proposition, which is that al¬though people sometimes have a hard time deciding whether or not something is “art,” they are rarely fooled into thinking they are being entertained when they are not. It was Kael’s therapeutic advice to the overcultivated that if they just concentrated on responding to the stimulus, the aesthetics would take care of themselves. What good is form if the content leaves you cold?
The kind of approach Kael promoted is antiessentialist. It is a re¬action against the idea, associated with modernist literature, paint¬ing, and architecture, that the various arts have their own essential qualities—that poetry is essentially a matter of the organization of language, that painting is essentially a matter of figure and ground, that architecture is essentially a matter of space and light. The un¬doing of these assumptions is often taken to have been the work of high critical theory, of semioticians, Derrideans, and postmod¬ernists. And that undoing is associated with highbrow, avant-garde art and literature—it is thought of as a distinctly elitist cultural movement. In fact, the cultural work was done long before “post¬modernist” became a theoretical concept in the academy, and it was done by people whose audience was entirely mainstream. If we need to give it a brow, this reaction against modernist formalism and essentialism was a middlebrow phenomenon. Its champion practi¬tioners were Warhol (in painting), Mailer (in fiction), and Tom Wolfe (in journalism)—all perfectly accessible figures who played to a large, nonintellectual audience. Its “theoreticians” were people like Susan Sontag, who was a freelance writer, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who were architects, and Kael, who never fin¬ished college. For the notion that serious art must be appreciated formally before anything else was actually not so much a feature of modernist art itself—it’s not something most of the major mod¬ernists would have claimed about what they were doing—as it was the result of the way modern art and literature were taught to peo¬ple like the people who read the New Yorker in the 1950s and early 1960s. Formalism was a middlebrow oppression. It didn’t frighten poets; it frightened moviegoers. It made them think there was something they ought to know about called the “grammar of film.” This liberation of art from a priori principles was one of the great achievements of American culture in the 1960s. It has since been at-tacked for encouraging the dangerously relativist notions that “It’s art if I say it’s art” and “Anything goes.” People said those things in the sixties, and I suppose people say them now, but those are not the necessary conclusions of the lesson Kael helped to teach. A dis¬like of formalism does not entail a dislike of form. And openness to mass culture does not entail identification with the mass audience; it doesn’t require an attitude of épater les intellectuels, or a belief that if it’s “of the people,” it must be counterhegemonic. The critical attitude Kael represented only means approaching a work of art without bias about what “a work of art” is supposed to be. It is pred¬icated on the notion that modern culture is fluid and promiscuous, and therefore that nothing is gained by foreclosing the experience of it—particularly if you are a critic. Pauline Kael understood these things, and she consciously built her practice as a reviewer around them. And that is why she is a supremely important figure even for writers who, although they grew up reading everything she wrote, strove, in their own work, never to sound like Pauline Kael.

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