Arts Commentary: Pauline Kael’s Critical Influence — Revisited

The Hub Review features a perceptively waspish consideration of Pauline Kael’s unhealthy influence on film reviewers, taking scathing aim at a couple of her jittery heirs, A.O. Scott of the NYTimes and  Ty Burr of the Boston Globe.

I particularly like Tom Garvey’s concluding paragraph:

But if the Paulettes have all repudiated their maker, where’s her baleful influence to be found, you may ask? Well, perhaps it lies in the fact that it’s too late for her apostles’ re-appraisals to have any real power; their twinges of regret about pop culture violence are utterly undermined by their very embrace of said culture. They can’t imagine life outside it, in fact – because what Kael accomplished, above all, was a shift in the terms of published intellectual debate from individual artworks to pop culture itself – thus unintentionally shutting out the sources of real cultural ferment. Sure, she bet on low, not high, and had a great early run, but eventually she came up a cropper (this is the part Scott leaves out); high, oddly enough, turned out to be more important than low over the long term, and her heirs simply can’t seem to figure that out. Today, critics like Scott and Ty Burr ponder directors like Tarantino, or Wes Anderson, or even Eli Roth, as if their derivative work was in some kind of line with that of Kieslowski or Haneke; it’s as if Bonnie and Clyde were, indeed, the original, the source, rather than Breathless. It’s not the artwork that counts anymore, but its position in “the entwined histories of Hollywood, American film criticism and postmodern popular culture.” And criticism simply can’t survive like that; indeed, Scott and Burr and the rest have long since succumbed to writing a kind of high-toned, self-aware publicity; they’re not really critics in the time-honored sense of the term – and funny, movies aren’t really movies anymore, either.

Kael didn’t just bet on low versus high art and win for a while. She neutered her criticism by never wanting to admit she lost, which explains why, once Kael raved about the brilliance of minor directors such as Brian De Palma, she kept enthusing about her chosen ones well after what little facility they had was long gone.

Ironically, after making her mark in the 1960s attacking traditional distinctions between high and popular art, Susan Sontag made a successful about-face, becoming the high priestess of “difficult” modernist art. But Sontag was always open to foreign influences, while Kael purposely insulated herself by dismissing the value of European movies. (Would she have gone gaga over Last Tango in Paris if Marlon Brando hadn’t starred?) Kael largely ignored the beneficial foreign influences because her goal was to agitate for an American cinematic revolution whose roots were in homegrown pop culture. To that end, disguised by the hypnotic zest of her prose, she never wavered from celebrating a narrow, no-merit-without-entertainment aesthetic. Moral seriousness and formal complexity marked the highbrow taste of Old World farts.

That is why her followers are in an anti-intellectual pickle – revisionism about Bonnie and Clyde and other of Kael’s shaky cinematic landmarks means adopting the sophisticated critical vocabulary and nuanced sense of film history that Kael dismissed as retrograde party pooping. Dwight Macdonald (a better film critic) reflected that the critical boosters of middlebrow and mass culture did violence “to the historical sense…that feeling for the special quality of each moment in its historical time which, from Vico to Spengler, has allowed us to appreciate the past on its own terms.” Kael rewrote the past to fit her evangelical vision of American film.

This irony undercuts Louis Menand’s best-case defense of Kael: “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 predicated on the notion that modern culture is fluid and promiscuous and therefore nothing is gained by foreclosing the experience of it – especially if you are a critic.” But, as Garvey points out, Kael was never open-minded –- she was rigid about what she demanded from a cinematic work of art. She was not a relativist of the “anything is a work of art if you think it is” school. Kael was an absolutist who had no problem “foreclosing the experience” of art to mature critical and moral considerations that countered her unshakable biases.

Finally, by making critical discrimination pop, Kael helped open the floodgates for the reigning pseudo-sociological approach to film reviewing. Admirer David Thomson gushes that Kael “established something that had not been true since the impact of television – that the movies were “ours,” that they spoke to and for society and were the most telling, deeply felt impression of who we were and might be. That may never come again.” In the mainstream media those days never stopped – it would have been bad for business. Reviews and think pieces dedicated to what the movies say about “us” still roll off the journalistic assembly lines. Kael redefined the reviewer’s job in a way that snugly fit the commercial demands of the mainstream media: rather than judge a film’s aesthetic value, the critic could speculate about the movie’s value as a mirror of America’s troubled psyche. This way, reviewers comfortably side step making tough calls; instead, they can safely bloviate about what inane movies purportedly have to say about “us.”

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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