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]
(Read/Download the full PDF article online)
Wonderful essay, I really hope there is a continuation on this article examining anti-intellectualism as it exists in today's film criticism and internet culture....
Yes, maybe. that's the purpose of this blog. ;)
Thanks for the kind words.
"[..] des arts moyens tels que le cinéma et le jazz et, plus encore, la bande dessinée, la science-fiction ou le roman policier sont prédisposés à attirer les investissements soit de ceux qui n'ont pas totalement réussi la reconversion de leur capital culturel en capital scolaire soit de ceux qui, n'ayant pas acquis la culture légitime selon le mode d'acquisition légitime (c'est-à-dire par familiarisation précoce), entretiennent avec elle un rapport malheureux, objectivement et/ou subjectivement : ces arts en voie de légitimation, qui sont dédaignés ou négligés par les gros détenteurs de capital scolaire, offrent un refuge et une revanche à ceux qui, en se les appropriant, font le meilleur placement de leur capital culturel (surtout s'ils n'est pas pleinement reconnu scolairement) tout en se donnant les gants de contester la hierarchie établie des légitimités et des profits."
Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinction, 1979
"The Pearls of Pauline (Kael, That Is). The little film critic who could — sort of" By Alan Vanneman in Bright Lights Film Journal, #46, Nov 2004
"Which brings me to Pauline Kael. I also looked up Hellman’s films in her 5001 Nights At the Movies. I can’t provide a direct quote because I threw away my copy of that book years ago, but suffice it to say that she was not impressed. There’s a tiny capsule review of The Shooting that dismisses it as a quasi-exis- “The Cylinders Were Whispering My Name” 167 tentialist exercise that doesn’t merit scrutiny. Even more damning was her pan of Malick’s Badlands with the ultimate putdown – a comparison with “some films made by Monte Hellman”. This is vintage Kael – she takes one look at somebody, they rub her the wrong way, and the game’s over. She skewered any hint of intellectualism in the cinema (sorry – the movies), but the great paradox of her career is that her Movies-Are-A-Popular-Art-Form-And-HaveNo-Room-For-Intellectualism polemic was practised in a magazine whose readership was and remains intellectual, literary-minded Americans. And for someone who supposedly knew movies and what made them work so well, she certainly imposed a lot of restrictions on them. Just like an anxious mother, Kael was always trying to get all her ducks in a row. People often refer to her constant use of the word ‘we’ (as in, ‘We don’t feel anything for these characters because we just don’t like them’) as royal, but to me it sounds maternal. For this mother hen, if you were a Hellman or a Malick, a Rafelson or a postTaxi Driver Scorsese, you weren’t just a black sheep – you weren’t even worth discussing. The kids had strict orders to look the other way if they saw you walking down the street. Kael was once quoted as saying that the 1970s was the golden age of American movies, and I would tend to agree with her, but she was responsible for creating a tone that killed off a lot of possibilities during that era (ironically, so was Andrew Sarris, though to a far lesser extent, with his love for ‘classical’ cinema). It’s largely because of this reactionary tone that spread throughout film criticism that the cinema of the early 1970s, meaning the post-Easy Rider films (Two-Lane Blacktop, The Last Movie, The Hired Hand, the films of Rafelson and Schatzberg, etc.) is still remembered as an aberrant hallucination and that the Spielbergs, the Lucases, the De Palmas represented a glorious return to form. Two brief ironies. Quentin Tarantino, perhaps the ultimate Kael-ite filmmaker (he’s a huge fan of her final, improbable nomination for the pantheon, Casualties of War; I’m told that she was nuts about Pulp Fiction), is a big Hellman fan (Hellman served as an executive producer on Reservoir Dogs). The second irony is that Sam Peckinpah, Kael’s favourite director of the 1970s, went on the Tonight Show in 1973 and announced, for all the world to hear: “The best director working in America today is Monte Hellman”. So what follows, sad to say, is a defence of the work of Monte Hellman in addition to being a brief history of his career. At this late date, it should be a tribute, but the reality is that anything written about Monte Hellman in America must be a defence (the only book ever written on his work, by Charles Tatum, Jr., is in French)."
in The Last Great American Picture Show - New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s, 2004, by Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath and Noel King.
Pauline Kael : "Siegfried Kracauer is the sort of man who can't say 'It's a lovely day' without first establishing that it is day, that the term "day" is meaningless without the dialectical concept of 'night,' that both these terms have no meaning unless there is a world in which day and night alternate, and so forth. By the time he has established an epistemological system to support his right to observe that it's a lovely day, our day has been spoiled." (I Lost It at the Movies, 1965)
Mike Grost (26 Sept 2006) : "[..] Sontag, along with James Agee, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, and a number of other well known movie critics all were personally associated with a group of New York City magazines including Partisan Review.
This was a group of loosely but closely connected group of New York City writers who considered themselves as "intellectuals", and who frequently wrote on politics and the arts for magazines designed to appeal to US readers who also considered themselves intellectuals. ("Intellectuals" was their primary self identifying description. I am not trying to make any commentary on this, just accurately convey the spirit of the group.)
The "Partisan Review crowd", as Andrew Sarris referred to them in his review of "The Group" in "Confessions of a Cultist", was hardly mainly a film only organization. It was much better known for writings on politics and literature. It had a huge and extremely loyal following among educated Americans at one time; maybe still does in some circles.
The prestige of these writers was often linked to the cultural prestige of the Partisan Review tradition as a whole. Vast quantities of Americans in the 1960's who revered Susan Sontag as "one of our leading intellectuals" viewed her as part of a group of "leading intellectuals". Few of these people had ever seen or wanted to see a Bresson film, even though they were reading Sontag's essay "Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson".
Similarly, The New Yorker represented and still represents "culture" to a large American readership. Pauline Kael's prestige was in part her belonging to this broader "leading cultural institution".
Andrew O'Hehir: "Now it would be ludicrous to suggest that Hou Hsiao-hsien or Alexander Sokurov or Kelly Reichardt or whoever you want to pick from world cinema remains totally obscure because of Pauline Kael’s ghost. But I see her populism — which she meant as a rebuke to the wealthy and powerful — increasingly employed after her death as a weapon of reverse snobbery that makes common cause between critics, moviegoers and major media corporations, a weapon used to support a very limited and mainstream vision of cinema and drive all others ever further into the margins."
Pauline Kael: Hero or Hack? (Salon; 27 Oct 2011)
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