Leo Charney, "Common People With Common Feelings" : Pauline Kael, James Agee and the Sphere of Popular Film Criticism,
The rhetoric of American popular criticism arises on the shifting sands between authority and persuasion. In contrast to the scholarly discourse of academic film criticism and the reportorial tone of newspaper film reviewing, popular film critics strategically emphasize the personal nature of their responses. Yet they must reach beyond this subjectivity to persuade readers, support evaluative authority, and to catalyze communal response. The critic is one viewer who expresses one opinion, yet film critics aspire to resolve this potentially troubling crisis of authority by foregrounding rather than concealing it."
[..] the critic [of popular film criticism] distances himself from both other critics and the entertainment industry, depicting himself as independent, disinterested, and trustworthy; emphasizes the personal, subjective nature of her responses as one of the "common people with common feelings" who watches movies; and then uses this subjectivity to license a shift from personal to communal response, a shift that converts the critic's subjective opinion into the engine of communal persuasion and the focal point of a public sphere of film response. [..]
Agee disagrees with other critics as a strategy to disavow his own authority. They are the "intellectuals," the ones who determine public taste, while he is a regular guy throwing spitballs. [..] Having placed himself rhetorically as just another guy, Agee goes on to distinguish himself subtly from other members of the mass audience, enforcing his own authority as the critic. [..] But this persona is set against both "every-one," whose opinion Agee judges, and his role as a critic, a "duty" that Agee separates from the "I" who enjoys movies.
The early work of Pauline Kael took Agee's highly personal style one step further, not simply deploying a rhetoric of subjectivity but explicitly privileging subjective response over "objective" standards, which for Kael emblematized the dual manipulations of both other critics and the culture industry. [..]
Kael portrays authority and objectivity as gestures of power, designed to make regular movie-goers feel bad about the validity of their instinctive responses; personal response is all that exists, while critical "objectivity" constructs a scaffolding to justify subjective reactions and bolster the critic's authority at the expense of the viewer's response. [..] Valorizing subjective response becomes, for Kael, an anti-authoritarian gesture, an act of empowerment. Above all in "Trash, Art, and the Movies," she defined "art" as a category of manipulation, a con designed by critics and press agents to keep themselves in power at the expense of movie viewers : it is "preposterous" [..]
Placing herself against the Hollywood industry but also against art cinema ; against other critics ; and refusing to judge films by an invariably applied "standard," Kael emphasized response. She enforced her own authority by placing herself outside the sphere of those authorities she circularly defined as manipulative and untrustworthy. She gets readers to trust her by positioning herself as the only person they can trust. This emphasis both allies her with and aims to articulate a public sphere of film response.
in CiNéMAS, Journal of Film Studies, Vol.6, N° 2-3, Spring 1996 [Official website]
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