Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

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tavernier
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#101 Post by tavernier » Thu Oct 18, 2007 1:15 pm

Or Armond White, yo yo yo.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#102 Post by Numero Trois » Sat Jul 20, 2013 11:41 am

Pauline Kael speech from 1968

Nothing surprising here. Exactly what you'd expect from her for better and for worse. Excellent putdowns of Lelouch and Stanley Kramer. I agree with a lot of what she said, but then there's statements like "I only watch movies once." :roll:

I'm surprised how "mid-Atlantic" her voice sounds. Her voice is so mellifluous it'd fit right into something like Grand Hotel without missing a beat.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#103 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Jul 20, 2013 2:46 pm

That's a great find!

Kael is approaching film viewing in that section from the perspective that "if you don't understand the movie, it is the movie's fault, it is a bad movie and therefore you don't need to go back to watch it". That is an interesting point to make from the point of view of good filmmaking, and what makes a good film, in the sense that a filmmaker might want, and fail, to make their film accessible to a wide audience (although I would suggest that the creation of a sense of audience confusion might possibly be an legitimate aesthetic choice!)

I do have sympathy with the comments that Kael makes about needing to review on deadline and not wanting to have your initial take on a film changed by other critic's opinions, but Kael's approach seems to be an attempt at overstating her own professionalism: if you need to return back to watch a film again it can only be because you don't remember it or couldn't understand it, which seems to be suggested to be a failing of other, less professional critics, or of mass audiences, or filmmakers themselves. That does not seem to acknowledge the sense that an audience's relationship to a film can develop and change over time, and re-viewings. Kael's first response to a film is suggested to be her only response to a film, as if changing attitudes over time could be a source of weakness rather than one of the most fascinating and nourishing aspects of film viewing.

That speech really shows though that a great film critic is someone with an unique personality and approach to what is essentially the same material that is being covered by many other people at the same time. So while Kael is suggesting that films are stable, fixed, easily graspable and understandable in a single viewing pieces of work, she is beautifully illustrating with this speech that everyone can come away with different perspectives around that fixed, central piece of work - a very different relationship from the one that audiences and critics can have with theatre.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#104 Post by Mr Sausage » Sat Jul 20, 2013 10:08 pm

colinr0380 wrote:Kael is approaching film viewing in that section from the perspective that "if you don't understand the movie, it is the movie's fault, it is a bad movie and therefore you don't need to go back to watch it". That is an interesting point to make from the point of view of good filmmaking, and what makes a good film, in the sense that a filmmaker might want, and fail, to make their film accessible to a wide audience (although I would suggest that the creation of a sense of audience confusion might possibly be an legitimate aesthetic choice!)
I've always disagreed with her on this. A movie ought to be pleasurable the first time around but there's no reason why it ought to be totally (or at least entirely) comprehensible, too. No one serious about art glances at a painting or a sculpture only once and then declares it never needs to be seen again. They take in the whole on a first glance, after which they let their eyes range over it, studying and restudying its various parts. Yet only watching a movie once is exactly the above: a first glance, the moment when you take in the whole. After you have the whole in mind, then you should go back and study the various parts. There's no reason to demand that you know exactly what you're looking at on first glance. (I owe Nabokov for this comparison/argument).

Some movies just plain aren't understandable until you've come to a solid grasp of how all the pieces are working, and that takes a number of viewings just in order to catch everything. I don't see any reason to demand that movies should be otherwise. If it's complex enough it's going to have to be wrestled with, and you can't do that on one viewing alone.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#105 Post by knives » Sat Jul 20, 2013 10:12 pm

To even further that what is the proper equivalent time in watching a painting compared to the length of a film? Just the time it takes to process the image? Until you blink, etc? Hell she isn't even consistent on this mentioning listening to Talking Heads over and over again.

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#106 Post by Cremildo » Sat Jul 20, 2013 10:56 pm

justeleblanc wrote:Her hatred of Clockwork as a piece of misogeny, I still find it inconsistant with De Palma, who for the most part is one of the most misogenistic directors out there.
The writer-director of Femme Fatale, Casualties of War and Redacted is mysoginistic?

Nonsense.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#107 Post by knives » Sat Jul 20, 2013 11:00 pm

It does seem very silly to suggest De Palma as misogynistic. He certainly uses a lot of the language of exploitation cinema, but I don't think that means he's ever exploited any of his characters which is the only way I could see misogyny applying to him especially in the face of films like Sisters and Obsession which present their female characters complexly.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#108 Post by matrixschmatrix » Sat Jul 20, 2013 11:21 pm

Transphobic wouldn't be too hard a charge to make stick, though

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#109 Post by knives » Sat Jul 20, 2013 11:38 pm

Actually this one Trans person I dated a while back absolutely loved Body Double and a few other De Palma's. Doesn't excuse him of course (and not having seen Body Double I don't know how it would apply), but I'm sure even that is a bit more complex. In stuff like Raising Cain for instance it always struck me as an example of cinephilia.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#110 Post by swo17 » Sat Jul 20, 2013 11:48 pm

Mr Sausage wrote:A movie ought to be pleasurable the first time around
I don't even know if this is always true. Some of my now favorite things (not just films) are ones for which I initially had a strong negative reaction.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#111 Post by matrixschmatrix » Sun Jul 21, 2013 12:07 am

knives wrote:Actually this one Trans person I dated a while back absolutely loved Body Double and a few other De Palma's. Doesn't excuse him of course (and not having seen Body Double I don't know how it would apply), but I'm sure even that is a bit more complex. In stuff like Raising Cain for instance it always struck me as an example of cinephilia.
I was thinking specifically of Dressed to Kill, which we had a whole long discussion about at some point, but there I'd say his Psycho variation winds up being pretty cruel and problematic, albeit probably not intentionally.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#112 Post by knives » Sun Jul 21, 2013 12:52 am

That's one of the other De Palma's she liked actually (the other two big ones were Casualties of War and Sisters). She wasn't really a movie person, but liked his 'weird way of explaining characters'.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#113 Post by Mr Sausage » Sun Jul 21, 2013 6:46 am

swo17 wrote:
Mr Sausage wrote:A movie ought to be pleasurable the first time around
I don't even know if this is always true. Some of my now favorite things (not just films) are ones for which I initially had a strong negative reaction.
It's not always true, but I think it's reasonable to demand it.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#114 Post by colinr0380 » Sun Jul 21, 2013 8:51 am

Well, there are different types of 'pleasure', from "what is going to happen?" excitement by the narrative, to "whoa!" spectacle, to engagement with an upsettingly non-pleasurable but fascinating story (as in say David Lynch, or something like Dancer In The Dark) and entertainment by the acting, directing, editing, aesthetic, etc style on display as much as by a plot.

My big example of that at the moment would be Cloud Atlas, where I never really felt much of an engagement with any of the individual storylines for many of the characters but the film was highly entertaining and fascinating due to the intricate editing patterns on display.

This is the beauty of re-watching films though, since you can have that, entirely legitimate, visceral/emotional response to a first viewing of a film, but later viewings can be just as interesting as, with a grasp on where the film is taking you, you are in some ways freed up to notice how the various component parts (the editing, the costumes, a particularly good performance or section of the film, and so on) are working to achieve the whole. That is one of the most fascinating aspects of film, and is something I have found can even save films that I do not particularly like as a whole, as there is often an interesting moment, performance, costume, camerawork, even previously unseen real-life location or interestingly designed set, etc, etc to make that experience worthwhile.
Mr Sausage wrote:Yet only watching a movie once is exactly the above: a first glance, the moment when you take in the whole. After you have the whole in mind, then you should go back and study the various parts. There's no reason to demand that you know exactly what you're looking at on first glance. (I owe Nabokov for this comparison/argument).

Some movies just plain aren't understandable until you've come to a solid grasp of how all the pieces are working, and that takes a number of viewings just in order to catch everything. I don't see any reason to demand that movies should be otherwise. If it's complex enough it's going to have to be wrestled with, and you can't do that on one viewing alone.
I do have some sympathy with Kael on the point she was making, in the sense that a first reaction is a legitimate one. There is also the issue of needing to keep up with a regular critic's schedule of viewing all of the latest releases, which I guess must tempt critics into making quick thumbs up or thumbs down judgments to simply get through the number of releases they have to review (this ties into another section of that talk where Kael talks of having a harsher judgement of films which have the same stars or storylines in them, leading up to a dig at Bunuel, where she trashes Exterminating Angel because of it not taxing Bunuel, and just seeming to go over old ground. Kael is rather scathing about a calcified Bunuel-style at that point, but on the other hand that does not acknowledge that recognising themes and tropes of a director can be a source of pleasure rather than of despair at when they will do something new!) Talking of thumbs up or thumbs down, there is also that media pressure on even the most successful critics to move away from longer considered pieces into making quick and snappy yay or nay judgements for an audience about to go to the movies that evening to quickly check - an approach which inevitably makes its mark on critics, and likely encourages new entrants into the critical sphere to see that as their main job goal, rather than understanding and/or appreciating a film, or trying to describe where it may appear to fit into the culture. We can see that going on in the "film critics get the axe" thread, as critical judgements (whether glowingly positive or scathingly negative) based more on an individual critic's personality are replaced with bland, interchangeable almost corporate sponsored reviewers re-presenting the same few studio-approved facts about the film's plot and actors and so on.

My bigger problem with the Kael quote is that she is standing as a figurehead for a problematic system, which has gotten worse in some ways, as the rather over-inflated critic with a presumption that they are going to make or break a film purely based on their review is giving way to reviews in the printed media that often present details about a production with no sense of personality at all, to the extent that you could get exactly the same details from looking at imdb stats!

Both of those systems are commercially focused on the 'here and now' - what's out this weekend/this week/this month/a few months from now after our film festival screenings at the cinema/on home video. There isn't really a commercial impetus to go back and re-tackle already digested works - why go back and re-watch Iron Man 2 when Iron Man 4 will be out in a few months? - unless for certain big screen reissues or on special 'retro' sections.

Yet both of these aspects are where film criticism really comes into its own: distinctive personalities giving their own, maybe crazily idiosyncratic, take on the same pieces of work, and with the ability to focus on different eras, or genres (or whatever they find interesting) of film. Reviewing and re-appraisal of work can be absolutely crucial to that approach.

Then we have the (post-the Kael interview, though TV was around) home video era where filmmakers now know that any film that they make is going to get re-seen numerous times in more intimate surroundings, and can be 'owned' by audiences to view and re-view, ignore or keep their attention fully on, watch in full or just in part, repeat a section over and over, cut up and manipulate into (copyright infringing :wink: ) YouTube tributes or strange avant-garde art objects to show what that original film made them think about. Inspired by the filmmaker's set series of fixed images but able to manipulate into new and unintended forms. That's a whole new relationship with imagery than Kael had in the screening room having the latest film products projected onto her, and with her only reaction to them allowed to be through a positive or negative printed reaction.

That new relationship is perhaps less respectful (though I am sure that we will always need filmmakers to create a vision which can then be critiqued and manipulated, almost as if they are creating the raw material that can be further shaped after they have put their preliminary interpretation on it), but more complex and exciting in some ways. A relationship that might not just be one-way, and which might ask as much from audiences as it does from filmmakers in some ways, from which hopefully the whole culture of film can be enriched. And of which the least taxing, and most entertaining, element would be re-viewing a film over time to see how a reaction to it has changed or evolved.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#115 Post by Mr Sausage » Sun Jul 21, 2013 11:46 am

colin wrote:I do have some sympathy with Kael on the point she was making, in the sense that a first reaction is a legitimate one.
Admittedly, Kael's attitude is a product of film being a public performance much as plays are. Unlike a book, painting, ect., films were given limited public performances that made it hard for the medium to be treated as an object of study for anybody for whom criticism was a regular job. The home video age has, thankfully, changed that and really opened up film to sustained critical study. So I see where the position comes from, it's the position of a theatre critic. What irks me I suppose is the dogmatism: that not only is it this way, but it must be this way and ought not to be changed. She doesn't even seem to wish for film to become a more closely studied medium.

There is legitimacy in a first reaction, but it's the least stable reaction given how easily it's superseded. The assumption behind her position is the existence of a stable, unchanging critical self. But of course people change drastically from hour to hour let alone from year to year. So that first viewing, as much as anything, is a snapshot of who you were at that particular moment and not necessarily who you are now. Rewatching a film means dialoguing with the various permutations of yourself and grappling with your own mutability and how that affects the act of watching a film. Kael's position essentially brushes that struggle aside and implies the critic remains unchanging: she is right now exactly as she was and always has been.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#116 Post by swo17 » Sun Jul 21, 2013 12:12 pm

Mr Sausage wrote:
swo17 wrote:
Mr Sausage wrote:A movie ought to be pleasurable the first time around
I don't even know if this is always true. Some of my now favorite things (not just films) are ones for which I initially had a strong negative reaction.
It's not always true, but I think it's reasonable to demand it.
Yeah, it's certainly fair to hold not being the least bit pleasurable against something, but I just wouldn't rule out giving that thing another chance at some point down the line.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#117 Post by Mr Sausage » Sun Jul 21, 2013 1:26 pm

I wasn't trying to rule out giving a film a second chance, that would be silly of me given my most recent post here. All I was trying to do is separate two Kael-ish demands from each other and assert that, while pleasure is an acceptable demand, immediate and total comprehension shouldn't be the make-or-break criteria for it and is an unreasonable demand besides.

Reevaluating movies you initially disliked is another question, and a more personal one that I don't think is part of any critical "ought."

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#118 Post by matrixschmatrix » Sun Jul 21, 2013 1:34 pm

I was and am a huge Pauline Kael fan, but I always assumed that part of being a fan of hers was accepting certain idiosyncrasies, among them that for whatever reason she appeared to believe she had perfect recall of every film she'd ever watched- and honestly, given the way she quoted movies, I don't doubt that she was remarkable in that respect. Obviously, that must have affected her feelings about rewatching movies; for me at least, part of the appeal of a rewatch is to renew the sensations I originally felt when watching something, which I later lost touch with, and if one can maintain one's connection to those sensations indefinitely, rewatches must seem infinitely less important.

I agree that her position neglects the fact that one's own viewpoint changes over time; I remember her mentioning offhandedly how silly and exaggerated silent films seemed to her as a child, and I can only assume that's the product of seeing with a child's eyes- but broadly speaking, I think her particular makeup may have made it genuinely less necessary to rewatch things than it would for others. And of course, it's an incredibly Kael trait to extrapolate her own way of seeing to all others; it's a little frustrating, but it's part of her critical personality.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#119 Post by kingofthejungle » Mon Jul 22, 2013 1:59 pm

Kael's refusal to revisit films left her with some embarrassing critical blind spots, particularly when it came to subtler directors like John Ford. For instance, here's a snippet from her pan of The Searchers:
Pauline Kael wrote:The film doesn't develop Ethan's macho savagery; it's just there - he kills buffalo, so the Comanches won't have meat, and he shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche. The sexual undertones to Ethan's character almost seem to belong to a different movie; they don't go with the many crude and corny touches in this one.
I can see an inattentive audience member might be mystified about the finer points of Ethan's character upon their initial viewing of The Searchers, but discovering the rich, precise detail Ford lavishes on Ethan's "macho savagery" is what makes revisiting the film such an enduringly fascinating experience.

Here she is again, on The Grapes of Wrath:
Pauline Kael wrote:The movie version is full of the 'They can't keep us down, we're the people' sort of thing, and the viewer's outrage at the terrible injustices the film deals with is blurred by it's gross sentimentality. This famous film, high on most lists of the great films of all time, seems all wrong - phony when it should ring true. Yet, because of the material, it is often moving in spite of the acting, the directing, and the pseudo-Biblical pore-people talk.
To me, this seems an obvious instance of the critic not remembering a film particularly well, consulting a capsule summary (one that mentions the film's final scene) to refresh one's memory, and filling out the rest of the review with assumption and half-remembered tidbits. The last line there is particularly puzzling - the material is moving despite the directing, acting, and script? How does that work exactly?

Then further on, she adds this bit about Jane Darwell's performance:
Pauline Kael wrote:She's impossibly fraudulent, though there's a memorable scene with Ma burning her old postcards
Wouldn't that be an example of the "gross sentimentality" that she claims ruins the film's social effect earlier? To me, it seems that her ideas about the film are more reactive than reflective, and she might have clarified her ideas about the film with a second viewing.

What renders Kael's criticism so tiresome, though, is that she devotes so much space to her apparently losing battle with her own preconceptions. It's clear that somewhere within her resided a cinephile yearning to appreciate film art for it's own sake, and yet her affected air of cultural refinement usually kept her from embracing these affirmative impulses. Her writing is filled with murkily embattled, seemingly paradoxical pronouncements like:

On The Tarnished Angels:
Pauline Kael wrote:It's the kind of bad movie that you know is bad - and yet you're held by the mixture of polished style and quasi-melodramatics achieved by the director, Douglas Sirk.
On Out Of The Past:
Pauline Kael wrote:A thin but well-shot suspense melodrama...It's empty trash, but you do keep watching it.
On Gun Crazy:
Pauline Kael wrote:In its B-picture way, it has a fascinating crumminess.
On Cat People:
Pauline Kael wrote:Lewton pictures aren't really very good, but they're so much more imaginative than most of the horror films that other producers were grinding out at the time that his ingenuity seemed practically revolutionary.
There's just so much pretense to put up with because the author never reconciles her appreciation of film art with the self-conscious cultural disdain she professes for many of the medium's greatest works.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#120 Post by Kinchblot » Wed Jul 31, 2013 7:20 pm

To me, it seems that her ideas about [The Grapes of Wrath] are more reactive than reflective…

While the issue of reactive impulse overriding reflective insight is not an issue exclusive to Kael, it is notable in her case because of how it goes with her dismissal of repeated viewings. It only takes one viewing to shatter or affirm expectations, which Kael had just like anyone else, but it can take more to get past those expectations, which Kael may have had considerable trouble with. Perhaps the contradictory phrases and strange back-handed compliments she wrote were sometimes glimmers of another understanding of the works in question, that never completely shined through the pretense and trappings that made Kael a lot of who she was as a critic.

IMO, the reactive reviewer is the most shallow. And Kael too often was a reactive reviewer.

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Re: Someone please put Pauline Kael out of her misery

#121 Post by ando » Wed Aug 07, 2013 9:24 pm

I did notice recently that the Library of America put together a volume of selected writings of Kael (in ebook form as well). She set me straight with M*A*S*H, a film and television series I'd always disliked. I didn't like them any more after I read her take but I found an appreciation for them, at least. I wonder what and/or if she thought of Seinfeld. Reminds me of someone, who, in a moment from a film based on his (mind ???? - truly awful), asked Derrida what he thought of Seinfeld and deconstruction. There was no reply.

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