File puptcrit/puptcrit.0612, message 171

Date: Mon, 18 Dec 2006 16:19:31 -0600
Subject: Re: [Puptcrit] the most masterful puppeteers

On Dec 18, 2006, at 1:04 PM, wrote:
> Just a thought - when the movie critics judge movies, they see MOST if 
> not
> ALL the movies-

I respectfully beg to differ.
Film critics do not see all or most films produced in a given year.
Like in the publishing biz, only a tiny minority of available "product" 
ever gets wide distribution, even in the big apple sort of places.

"a man watches a movie and the critic must acknowledge that he is that 
man." -Robert Warshaw

To make it even more pointed. Most "critics" are not by any stretch of 
the imagination actual "critics". They are mere, lowly, "thumbs up- 
thumbs down" consumer reporters. Vile reviewers at best. And not very 
good ones at all. Actual criticism is a literary form, an art, perhaps 
lost in this age of TV celebrity critics. Actual critisism is written 
by practitioners deeply educated in the form they write about. My be 
Pauline Kael was a real critic. Certainly Francoise Truffaut was before 
he became a filmaker. As was Jean-Luc Godard. Probably Robert Warshaw 
was the first actual critic I came across, and respected as a college 


Pauline Kael was the recipient of considerable invective in her 
lifetime; attacks which were nor so much the result of her specific 
opinions, but of her enormous impact on film (and cultural) criticism. 
She upset the applecart. She meant to. What she didn't know was that 
there would be no one to put the apples back.

At another time I would have welcomed Artforum's invitation to write 
about Pauline as an opportunity go back through her reviews line and 
verse, as an occasion to reread her work and put it into context. 
Unfortunately, I'm in Los Angeles, far from my film books and notes, 
deeply steeped in preproduction for a film I'm to begin shooting in a 
month. So I'll respond with a series of observations instead.

Pauline changed criticism in a number of ways:

1. She removed pop criticism from the purview of the Eastern 
Establishment (i.e., the Upper West Side Jewish literary world). 
Pauline was a farm girl from Petaluma; there was always something about 
the Trilling crowd that riled her. This lay at the core of her 
objections to "high art." When she came to New York in middle age, the 
feeling was she'd be incorporated or co-opted into that Establishment. 
Instead she created her own Establishment, and generations of younger 
critics still carry her banner. Granted, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, 
Andrew Sarris, and Amos Vogel were all sniping at the Eastern 
Establishment, but it was Pauline who breached the walls. She did this 

2. Taking film criticism to the average filmgoer. She wrote for people 
who went to movies, not for those who read magazines--a technical 
distinction, but an important one. She learned her craft writing notes 
for the Berkeley Film Guild and reviewing on KPFA, the local public 
radio station. She responded to the experience of filmgoing; she had no 
vested interest in a publication "of record." This led to--

3. Personalizing film criticism. Pauline's writing was as much about 
herself as the films. Using the insidious "we" ("We need to respond to 
movies because ..."), she made the reader part of her experience. 
Robert Warshaw once wrote that "a man watches a movie and the critic 
must acknowledge that he is that man." But he never wrote like it. 
Pauline did. Only she was a woman. This led to--

4. Sexualizing film criticism. Critics rarely investigated a film's 
sexual subtext, and, when they did, it was never from the woman's point 
of view. Pauline's voice was not only a blast of fresh West Coast air, 
it was also West Coast feminine air, like that swept in by those other 
western girls, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. (Parker Tyler attempted 
the same thing for pansexuality--more to the point when it comes to the 
movies--but was marginalized by the times, and by his writing skills.) 
Because of these four broad contributions--

5. She validated film reviewing. Difficult as it is to believe today, 
at the height of America's countercultural upheaval movies truly 
mattered: It mattered which movies were made, which movies audiences 
saw, and what they thought of the movies they did see. Godard was 
important, Bunuel was important, Paul Mazursky and Hal Ashby were 
important. Art was not happening in the museums; it was in the streets 
and movie houses. Kael was the pied piper of reviewers who made readers 
believe that movies, even disreputable movies, were important. If 
movies were important, it followed that movie reviewing was important.

A considerable achievement, and I wish I could say a wholly beneficial 
one. Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline. She was able to 
rail against critical snobbery and High Art, defend mass-audience taste 
and extol "trash" because she never feared for culture. She knew that 
there would always be standards. Because she had standards. She 
appreciated great art and literature and opera; no amount of "trash" 
could change that.

Not long before she died, Pauline remarked to a friend, "When we 
championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only 
culture." That's exactly the point. She and her foot soldiers won the 
battle but lost the war. Mass taste has become acceptable taste, 
box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film's worth. The pop 
films Kael most loved, such as Hud (1963), if made today, would be 
considered art-house fare.

Who would have thought the Establishment would crumble so easily? That, 
forty years after Kael began writing, Harold Bloom would be standing 
outside the multiplex like a lonely Jeremiah? It was fun watching the 
applecart being upset, but now where do we go for apples?

Paul Schrader is a film director and critic

Respectfully submitted for your consideration by
Michael John Moynihan
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