Commentary Magazine


Film 67/68, edited by Richard Schickel and John Simon; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, by Pauline Kael

Movie Criticism

Film 67/68.
by Richard Schickel and John Simon.
Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $6.95.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
by Pauline Kael.
Atlantic-Little, Brown. 370 pp. $7.95.

Film 67/68 is an anthology of reviews from the past year by the members of the National Society of Film Critics, an organization characterized on the dust jacket as consisting of “the nation's most perceptive movie reviewers.” It is an appalling book, and, being so, an instructive one.

The National Society of Film Critics is composed of most of the people writing about films on a regular basis for the New York-based weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly magazines. Its members are Philip T. Hartung (Commonweal), Arthur Knight and Hollis Alpert (both of Saturday Review), Brad Darrach (Time), Joseph Morgenstern (Newsweek), Richard Schickel (Life), Brendan Gill (the New Yorker), Wilfrid Sheed (Esquire), John Simon (the New Leader), Stanley Kauff-mann (the New Republic), Andrew Sarris (the Village Voice), and Pauline Kael (formerly of the New Republic and now with the New Yorker). Implicit in the founding of the society is the laudable goal of providing some alternative or corrective to the deficiencies of the New York (newspaper) film critics, and, acting as a body on majority vote, the society undoubtedly accomplishes that aim. Still, this does not make the selected reviews of Philip T. Hartung, Arthur Knight, Hollis Alpert, and others, even in a bound volume, any more interesting to read than those of Bosley Crowther; and (though here I speak from only the slightest familiarity) they are probably less interesting than those of Crowther's successor, Renata Adler. In fact, I do not see how, from any viewpoint, reading the reviews of any of the first seven members of the society I have listed could be considered an edifying experience; even if they held interesting views as individuals, they would be defeated by their media, as, in the pages of Time, even James Agee was rendered faceless. Perhaps it can be argued that the “serious” critic working within the mass media is helping to elevate the public taste and not merely serving as a functionary of popcult aggrandizement (unless, like Pauline Kael, he remains intransigent and gets fired); yet, heartening as it may be to see Luis Bunuel praised in the pages of Life for being uncompromising, neither does the particular article itself tell us anything new about Bunuel (“I don't think, however, that sweeping interpretations of Bunuel's meanings are essential to your viewing pleasure”), nor has there been any evidence of mass conversions.

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Among the first seven critics I have named, there are differences, but they are the differences less of men than of magazines. (From these remarks—as from those to follow—I'd like to except Wilfrid Sheed, with whose work, alone among the others, I was unfamiliar before reading Film 67/68, and who I suspect is somewhat unfairly represented by the editors largely as a New Yorker-ish wit, disdainfully ticking off the Hollywood product; even in these performances there are suggestions of an intellectual firmness and individuality behind the humor.) Thus, be it Knight or Alpert, the Saturday Review is avuncular and more than mildly sedative; the New Yorker, urbane and glibly knowing; Newsweek, concise; and Time, Time-styled. Connoisseurs of meaningless distinctions may wish to note that the Saturday Review takes honors for fatuity with its attempt to make, of some disagreement over a three-minute excision between the studio and the producer of In Like Flint, a classic confrontation between crass commercialism and creativity; or Life for the facile deployment of the greatest clichés of our time (“in our fragmented and alienation-prone times”; “modern man—fragmented, alienated, restive, and full of moral doubts,” etc.), and their final reconciliation in sunny affirmation (“I do have, at bottom, a faith in the ability of this nation to grow and to change. I know that is not a very fashionable belief at the moment . . .”).

As one turns to the remaining members of the society, individual features begin to assert themselves. John Simon is more clever by half than any of the first seven, and yet I must admit there is no one writing about films for whom I feel such extreme distaste. If there is Time-style, no less is there Simon-style. A fair example: “At a time when the whole English-language theater is in one of its periodic stages of infancy, and the nursery is full of goody-goody toddlers, bawling brats, and burbling tykes, Pinter is just plain precocious.” Or: “There is so much straining for comedy and significance that one wonders how Lester and his scenarist . . . escaped without herniotomies.” (Hernias for herniotomies wouldn't spoil the joke, but might seem too cheaply accessible.) Like Dwight Macdonald, Simon has cast himself in the role of defender of high culture against encroachments of the low; the scenario for this consists almost exclusively of the ritual flailing of the benighted, and no doubt there are some for whom the rewards provided by this spectacle will suffice. But, like Macdonald, Simon is betrayed in this charade finally by lack of taste: The critical faculty that permits his prose style, on the one hand, eventuates in his gush in behalf of Closely Watched Trains, on the other.

Even Simon's cleverness does not save him, however, in his attempt to cope with the questions which are posed to the book's contributors in a concluding symposium, from whose general foolishness only Andrew Sarris manages to escape by ironically deflecting the questions, and from which only Pauline Kael and the man from Time had the good sense to abstain. “Do you regard film as the most relevant art of our time . . .?” Simon asks himself, and answering, without even bothering to wonder relevant to what, immediately hits his stride. “Film is clearly the most relevant art of our time; only television may be more relevant, but it isn't an art. . . .”

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Stanley Kauffmann, appropriately the chairman of the NSFC, is the elder statesman or gray eminence among film critics, and in this, like the first seven, an apt reflection of the magazine from which he presides: liberal, reasonable, earnest, sober, dull. Witnessing his would-be lyrically soaring panegyric to The Graduate (omitted from this book) come thudding back to earth is to experience profoundly the true meaning of middle-age as a state of mind. Yet it must be said that occasionally Kauffmann can respond to a film maker, usually one for whom he has some high regard, to produce a piece that is worthwhile, as in the past he has written sympathetically on Antonioni. In Film 67/68, alone of those critics whom I approached with a previously developed aversion, he retained some capacity to surprise me, and I think his articles on Bonnie and Clyde and How I Won the War are among the best in the book; the latter, especially, presents an interesting case for seeing a film I had avoided. Yet I feel that on principle one must resist the temptation to be generous to Stanley Kauffmann. One reason for this is that Kauffmann is himself so little prone to generosity toward others, and, beyond this, as capable as Simon of writing in malice; his attacks, in the past, on the motives of the late Robert Warshow and on the limp-wristedness of the director of the New York Film Festival remain in mind as particularly vicious instances of ad hominem argument. But, more important, it is necessary to reject Kauffmann because of the extent of his influence; Simon is flagrantly self-convicting, but Kauffmann's patronizing curatorial tones all too often pass for the sound of authority both among those who know no better and are cowed by the simulated expertise of others, and those, as the praise by Eric Bentley on the dust jacket of Kauffmann's own book saddeningly attests, who could know better if they cared to but do not care.

Richard Schickel, in his introduction to Film 67/68, offers his prescription for being a good film critic with a final warning that he who does not take it “will be such a poor one that he will have little influence.” The members of the National Society of Film Critics may not, in most cases, be “the nation's most perceptive movie reviewers,” but, in many cases, they are among the nation's most influential ones, and they are poor. Kauffmann, a stolid, moderately intelligent and immoderately pontifical critic whose collected work (apart from the anomaly of Antonioni) constitutes some sort of imposing record of insensitivity to anything of imaginative audacity and true originality in films, is probably the most intellectually influential of them all. My quarrel with Kauffmann is not primarily one of particular differences of opinion over individual films; though we have enough of these, they would require separate articles in themselves for me satisfactorily to argue my own opinions against his. But I don't, in any case, ask of a good critic that he invariably be right (whatever that might mean), only that his criticism provide a framework of ideas against which one can fruitfully argue and test one's own ideas and responses; that it should, in other words, be consistently stimulating to one's own critical faculties, whereas the effect of reading Kauffmann is benumbing.

The same, at least, could hardly be said of Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, the only contributors to Film 67/68 who are always instantly identifiable by the distinctiveness of their individual voices, and whose writing I find almost always of interest. Andrew Sarris, especially in the context of this volume, offers clear demonstration of the virtues of a “movie man,” one who has some solid idea of what is going on technically inside a film and of some historical tradition existing outside it. The “auteur theory” with which Sarris has been notoriously associated is not much more than a truistic insistence on a film's authorship allied to some highly questionable taste in individual preferences, yet it has probably had a salutary effect in noisily calling attention to the fact that some excellent film makers have long languished in intellectual disrepute.1 This point having been made, Sarris's own writing seems lately to have undergone a relaxation of ideological rigidity and a catholicization of taste, to the degree that, given an alert sensitivity to the vestiges of party line, I would not hesitate to recommend his column in the Village Voice as one of the few intelligent guides to current moviegoing. He is finally too much given to mandarin assertions and a certain glibness of style to be, for me, a major critic, but he remains a film commentator of great value.

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Pauline Kael virtually demands to be judged in her uniqueness, and, as it happens, most of her contributions to Film 67/68 are contained also in her own recent collection, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Reading Pauline Kael is alternately to feel exhilaration and exasperation. The former feeling predominates, of course, as it must before the spectacle of so much impassioned intelligence, but, in part because her best is so good, one is rarely far from some sense of nagging frustration. Thus, it has become something of a fashion among certain critics of refined sensibility to speak deprecatingly of Pauline Kael as not-really-a-film-critic, as they ready their exegeses of Blow-Up for the quarterlies. She is instead, it is said, a sociologist. Yet it should be clear to anyone who has read all of her work and especially to those who have heard her engage in debate, that, if she is not the analytic critic that her detractors demand, it is not for lack of the intellectual equipment.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is, like Miss Kael's previous collection, I Lost It at the Movies, a non-book, whose parts retain their segregation from each other in the differences which occasioned them. The parts of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang conclude with a section entitled “Notes on 280 Movies,” a selection from the many brief program notes Miss Kael has written to accompany various film showings, and, pleasurable as I found these in prospect, they soon began to pall in actuality. It is not that they are uninteresting; Miss Kael is virtually incapable of being this, and the “Notes” do provide a useful index to her opinions. But, read cumulatively, they give the impression of a breezy expertise which can attain such maddening proportions that, by the time one has reached Oedipus Rex (“Unwittingly, he has killed his father and married his mother”), one begins to wonder if there is not indeed a kind of madness in thus perpetuating this allotment of twenty-two lines to Blood of a Poet, seven to The Gold Rush, and sixteen to A Man Escaped (“It's a marvelous movie”). And by the time I reached The Rules of the Game (which gets two and a quarter pages though The Loved One breathes down its neck at just under two), I felt prepared to contend that no one could do justice to a work so complex on any two pages. And yet Renoir is probably the film maker Miss Kael admires most, although one would have to go through both of her books to put together a dozen disparate pages on him. This discrepancy isn't confined to the section of “Notes”; elsewhere in the book, though the piece on Bonnie and Clyde runs upward of sixteen pages, one on Before the Revolution, a film which I'm sure Miss Kael regards more highly, gets a scant page and a half. Of course, the latter appeared in Life where intelligent praise for so radical and obscure a work seemed positively breathtaking in its daring (Miss Kael and Life separated soon after; perhaps her editor got to see Before the Revolution); and, if it could not exceed the allotted space, perhaps, at least, it brought the film's existence to the attention of an audience which might never have heard of it.

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For Pauline Kael is, in what I believe is a wholly serious and responsible way, intensely concerned with her audience, with the education of popular taste and with reaching the greatest numbers so as to direct them to worthwhile films and combat the rubbish which passes for film criticism in most of the magazines and newspapers. Miss Kael rarely discusses a film apart from its relationship with its audience, and the finely detailed delineation of the work in its context which her best writing achieves can yield remarkably revealing results; I had dismissed Morgan! for instance, simply as another modishly bad movie, but, in her treatment of it as a symptom of certain popular attitudes in which lack of artistic control is taken as the sign of some deeper honesty, it takes on an interest as the subject of criticism that it does not begin to possess inherently as a work of art. Less persuasive is her essay on Blow-Up, in which the style that served so brilliantly in the piece on Morgan! and most of the others in the book's first section on “Trends” breaks down; Blow-Up is less than my favorite Antonioni, but one would hardly be able to reconstruct a trace of the film itself from the ruins that are left once Miss Kael has done her demolition job on the excesses of audience response and critical opinion that it has inspired.

One would not need to defend Blow-Up to feel that this is the most drastically misconceived essay in the book; here as elsewhere, Miss Kael's preoccupation with the deficiencies of American films, with mass-produced commodities rather than with the creations of individuals, seems to blind her to the fact that not all artistic failure is shabby or disgraceful. (This preoccupation may also account for the rhapsodic vagueness into which she has often lapsed in discussing the films she likes best, as if in admission that her finely developed attitudes for dealing with the inconsistencies of the American film were inadequate for coping critically with an integral artistic conception, whether by Renoir or by Antonioni, as she has been equally weak, it seems to me, on what makes a great film great as on how some serious films fail.) But to dwell on this piece would be unfair to the great majority in which the ephemera of mass entertainment provide occasions for a running commentary on the fate of art in the market place that is full of insights, sharply reasoned argument, and earned anger.

Good as these pieces are, however, they are overshadowed by the accomplishment of Miss Kael's long article on the making of The Group that was commissioned and then rejected by Life. Along with her piece on “Movies on Television,” this is one of the handful of truly indispensable things written about films. Patiently, with a scrupulously nuanced attention both to her own role as a participant-observer and to the characters of the main protagonists, Miss Kael gives us a picture of the complex human situation out of which films are actually made, and from which her argument about the transformation of movies by television is allowed to emerge without the slightest imposition.

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At her best, as in work like this, Pauline Kael is good enough both as a writer and as a critic to raise the question of what a consistently first-rate film criticism ought to be. The special problem of the film critic is that he is expected to range freely in his perceptions from Weekend to Funny Girl; it is as though a literary critic were asked jointly to discuss Kafka's letters and an issue of Look. And yet, given the historical development of the American film in which some extraordinarily talented people have been enmeshed and forced to function in a mass industrial situation, the expectation can be justified (and, as it happens, even Funny Girl involves a director much admired by the important French theoretician, Andre Bazin). The film critic who aspires to any general competence must therefore be able to develop a context capable of encompassing both L'Avventura and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon because, whatever the imperfections of the latter, John Ford is no less an artist than Antonioni, however different in character and circumstances; and, beyond that, a context large enough to manage that vast area extending from The Sound of Music to Bonnie and Clyde in which films, however skillfully they are made, are better seen as cultural symptoms than as individual creations. Of critics writing in America, only Robert Warshow seems to me to have achieved a criticism supple enough to respond imaginatively to works at both extremes as well as all those falling somewhere in between, yet, if there is a principle to be extracted from Warshow's example, I cannot claim to know it. It is not that one need have a method, or proceed from some theory of film, although War-show's work is surely unified by certain organizing ideas. Nor would I wish to require expertise; though the tourism of the English professors has resulted in some of the greatest nonsense ever written about films, the occasional film criticism of non-specialists has also produced such fine things as Eric Bentley's pieces on Chaplin and John Peale Bishop's essay on Blood of a Poet.

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If there is, indeed, any prescription to be drawn from such first-rate film criticism as exists, perhaps it is what one would ask of a good critic in any of the arts: intelligence and openness, of which only the latter can be acquired. Among film critics, Pauline Kael has never suffered from any noticeable lack of the former, and lately, in her pieces in the New Yorker (where, by sheer force of personality, she has managed to shatter that magazine's conventions in film criticism), her writing seems to have taken on a new balance and flexibility; I think especially of her recent writing on Godard in which, unlike the easy pamphleteering—pro and con-one is usually given on the subject, her criticism has the strength of insights hard won from some basic temperamental resistance. When I say, then, that Pauline Kael's most recent work offers us the hope that she may at last become that consistently first-rate critic of film she is by her intelligence eminently endowed to be, I mean the comment to be taken not in depreciation but rather in admiration for what she has already accomplished. What is in any case clear is that, among those now writing regularly on films in this country, of Pauline Kael alone could one seriously entertain such a hope.


Footnotes

1 For an entertaining account of film criticism's great auteur wars, see “Auteur! Auteur!” by Marion Magid, COMMENTARY, March 1964.

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