The Good Dinosaur
A film that has some promising elements and which often seems as if it is on the verge of evolving into something wonderful but never…
"People who are just getting 'seriously interested' in film always ask a critic, 'Why don't you talk about technique and "the visuals" more?' The answer is that American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn't very interesting. [...] The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made --which is more or less implicit." -- Pauline Kael, "Trash, Art and the Movies" (1969)
"By neglecting to analyze technique, Miss Kael can do no more than assert that a given film is new, or beautiful, hoping that her language will provide the reader with something parallel to the qualities implicit in the work of art." -- Charles T. Samuels, reviewing Kael's 1970 collection Going Steady (which includes "Trash, Art and the Movies") in the New York Times Book Review
"It is this implacable ignorance of the mechanics of filmmaking that prevails in all Kael's books. Yet she is never called on it. The reason, of course, is that her audience knows even less of these mechanics than she does, and professional film people do not wish to incur her displeasure by calling attention to it. She seems to believe that films are made by a consortium of independent contractors -- the writer writes, the cutter cuts, the actor acts, the cameraman photographs. In effect she is always blaming the cellist for the tuba solo." -- John Gregory Dunne, reviewing Kael's Deeper Into Movies (1973) in the Los Angeles Times Book Review
"To me, a good review, good criticism -- whether it's in the Cahiers du Cinema or Film Comment -- would be trying not to say, 'I don't feel,' or 'I don't see it the way you saw it,' but, rather, 'Let's see it. Let's bring in the evidence.'" -- Jean-Luc Godard, debating Kael in 1981 and challenging her approach to criticism
"Listen, you miserable bitch, you've got every right in the world to air your likes and dislikes, but you got no goddam right at all to fake, at my expense, a phony technical knowledge you simply do not have." -- director George Roy Hill in a letter to Kael (quoted in Brian Kellow's biography, "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark")¹
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In her 1969 Harper's essay "Trash, Art and the Movies," Pauline Kael made her case for trash, saying semi-famously: "Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them." But what separates "art" from "trash" (whatever she means by those labels) and is it really an either/or question? What if the differences have something (or everything) to do with "technique" (by which Kael, depending on which sentence you cite, might mean anything from technology to professional craftsmanship to directorial style)? After all, her favorite filmmakers (Altman, Peckinpah, De Palma, Godard, Spielberg) are stylists whose artistic vision (trashy vision?) is inseparable from their distinctive techniques. Even at a glance, you're not likely to mistake these auteurs' films for anyone else's.
So, I'd like to look into how the term(s) "technical" and "technique" are used by Kael (mostly in "Trash, Art and the Movies") and in those cherce quotations above. Way back when, Sidney Lumet said he considered Kael one of the most "perceptive and articulate" reviewers to come along in years, but that, like most critics, she lacked "any technical knowledge of how a movie is made." That mattered to him -- maybe especially after she said in his presence (after many spirited libations) that her job was "to tell him which way to go."²
Dunne, the occasional screenwriter, observed: "Few critics understand the roles of chance, compromise, accident and contingency in the day-by-day of a picture."³ I'd add that a failure to recognize the collaborative back-and-forth of the creative process -- and the industrial process -- of making movies (including contractual measures and union guidelines) also contributes to embarrassing critical misunderstandings that regularly find their way into print.
Let's get technical, technical
For example, I read several reviews of "Moneyball" that contained something along the lines of: "Screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin have adapted Michael Lewis's best-selling book..." The implication is that Zaillian and Sorkin wrote the screenplay together, which isn't exactly the way it went down. If you look at the credits (or the poster or the ads), you'll see that those two names are not linked with an ampersand but with the word "and," which means they did not collaborate, and usually means that the second writer re-wrote the first. Stan Chervin gets a "story by" credit, so he may have done the most work on the narrative structure. There's no telling how many other writers worked on the project, or how much of their contributions were used (not enough to earn credit in the estimation of the Writers Guild, evidently) or if there was a WGA arbitration to determine the final screen credits.
Then, all it takes is a Google search to find, if you don't remember, that Steven Soderbergh replaced David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") as the director of "Moneyball" in 2008. Soderbergh re-wrote Zallian's script to reflect the semi-documentary approach he wanted to take to the material, but in 2009 Sony shut down the project three days before it was to start filming. Brad Pitt stayed attached and Sony hired Sorkin to re-write Zaillian's script, while adding Scott Rudin to the list of producers on the project. The director of the movie released 2011 was Bennett Miller ("Capote"). (BTW, does nobody read press kits anymore?)
Movies can (and often do) spend years in development, so this kind of thing, while it can get complicated, is not all that unusual. (Also, the DGA guarantees the director's right to present a "first cut," but few have the contractual right to determine the "final cut," the release version of the picture.) So, yes, critics often blame the cellist for the tuba solo -- most often because they try to attribute motive or blame or brownie points to an individual rather than simply noting what's there in the finished movie. That's usually just a matter of language. It's smarter and safer to say "The movie does this..." rather than to guess about who (if anyone) was responsible for a particular decision or effect.
It Ain't the Meat (It's the Motion) -- a double entendre not used as a Kael anthology book title
More important to criticism than "technical" acumen, I'd argue, is the critic's ability to illuminate how "technique" (when used as a rough synonym for "style") shapes, informs, expresses what the movie is. That wasn't exactly Kael's style, though. She thought technique (the means through which style is expressed) was too technical for her average reader:
If a movie is interesting primarily in terms of technique then it isn't worth talking about except to students who can learn something from seeing how a good director works. And to talk about a movie like The Graduate in terms of movie technique is really a bad joke. Technique at this level is not of any aesthetic importance; it's not the ability to achieve what you're after but the skill to find something acceptable.
Really? What about "The Wild Bunch"? "McCabe and Mrs. Miller"? "Masculine Feminine"? "Carrie"? You want to talk about those movies without mentioning, say, how Peckinpah fractures time and space in the shootout sequences, or how Altman (and Vilmos Zsigmond) use filtered light and telephoto lenses and color desaturation to create the "pipe dream" texture of a wilderness town on the edge of the frontier? A discussion of lens lengths or film speeds might, technically, be "technical"; but how they shape what you see in the movie (technique) determines the actual experience. That needs to be taken into account. Obviously, I take issue with that first sentence because I'd rather see a movie for its "technique" -- the distinct look and feel and sound of the world it creates -- than almost anything else. It's what puts the "movie" in "movies." (Without it, you only have an "s"!)
I don't know what Kael means by that vacuous sentence about the technique of "The Graduate" being of no "aesthetic importance." Well-used or not, technique is always present, unavoidable, in all forms of motion pictures -- TV commercials, documentaries, propaganda films or features. What is this technique that focuses only on finding "something acceptable"? And how and to whom? Examples, please.
As for "The Graduate," whatever you make of the movie, Mike Nichols' youthful technique undeniably made the movie what it is, and accounted for its status as a popular phenomenon, at least as much as the story or the acting or the dialog: the lengthy, uncomfortably static close-ups of Dustin Hoffman, as deadpan funny as his performance (indeed, they are inextricable from it); the alienating widescreen zooms that make you feel like you're observing the characters through the glass of an aquarium; the flash-cuts of Mrs. Robinson's anatomy in the first seduction scene (after Godard and "Bonnie and Clyde," before Roeg and Cammell); the comically flat, pastel-colored vision of Los Angeles in Robert Surtees' cinematography; the breezy use of Simon & Garfunkel pop songs, and the strikingly unsettling and unconventional near-lack of scoring (apart from a few widely-spaced guitar chords) in Benjamin's final run to the church, which sets up the "What have we done?" awkwardness of the ending... Surely any critic would find those kinds of things worth noting, whether she liked them or not. Kael writes:
I don't mean to suggest that there is not such a thing as movie technique or that craftsmanship doesn't contribute to the pleasures of movies; but simply that most audiences, if they enjoy the acting and the "story" or the theme or the funny lines, don't notice or care about how well or how badly the movie is made, and because they don't care, a hit makes a director a "genius" and everybody talks about his brilliant technique (i.e., the technique of grabbing an audience).
While I'm relieved that Kael refuses to flat-out deny the very existence of "movie technique," and that she's not immune to the pleasures of craftsmanship (what about style?), the rest of this gaseous paragraph strikes me as astonishingly wrongheaded -- more or less a "cultural vegetables" approach to criticism. She says a critic shouldn't address questions of technique because the audience doesn't understand what it is and doesn't care about whether a film is well made or badly made (however Kael would define, or avoid defining, such phrases) because they're only interested in enjoying the acting or the story or the theme or the funny lines? Then what are they doing reading movie criticism? Wouldn't they get more pleasure out of Pat the Bunny?
That might well be the most patronizing critical cop-out I've ever read (unless it's the one at the very top of this page, in which anonymous n00bs pester The Critic with naive questions about "technique" and "the visuals"). But I think Kael means to strike a blow for unpretentiousness, for populism, and Against Seriousness. David Ehrenstein observed of her 1994 "best of" collection (the last Kael anthology until this year's Library of America volume, The Age of Movies):
There's a constant refrain running through "For Keeps"; a hymn of praise directed at films that "don't take themselves too seriously." There's nothing particularly alarming about this notion, when Kael is using it to promote the "vitality and distinctive flavor" of commercial Hollywood films; "the freshness and spirit that make (them) unlike those of any other country." Not unreasonably, she has often found them preferable to the art-house cinema favored by friends of her class; "academic and professional people," whose basic indifference to Hollywood has always annoyed her to no end.... At one level her cavils have consisted of little more than taunting these shrinking violets for avoiding the likes of "Hud," "Convoy," "Eyes of Laura Mars" or the 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" --slickly made products unaccountably praised by Kael to the skies. But there is something else at work beneath the surface, this epater l'academie effrontery: an almost instinctive hatred of seriousness.... Surely a critic capable of appreciating rich, multifaceted, works such as "The Golden Coach," "The Leopard" and "Once Upon a Time in America" knows that quality is scarcely incumbent on cheap, crowd-pleasing gimmicks. Yet throughout "For Keeps," Kael keeps running to the shelter of films she calls "trash"--as if doing penance for ever having had anything nice to say about Ingmar Bergman. This would just be a minor quirk if Kael hadn't lost her bearings when writing about a film that was both serious and full of "vitality and spirit": Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane." "Raising Kane," her two-part 1971 broadside against Welles set off a firestorm of controversy that hasn't subsided to this day. And the heart of that firestorm is Kael's peculiar notion of the value of films that "don't take themselves seriously."
Kael felt the critic shouldn't get too "serious" (or studious), either:
One doesn't want to talk about how Tolstoi got his effects but about the work itself. One doesn't want to talk about how Jean Renoir does it; one wants to talk about what he has done. One can try to separate it all out, of course, distinguish form and content for purposes of analysis. But that is a secondary, analytic function, a scholarly function, and hardly needs to be done explicitly in criticism. Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole. The critic shouldn't need to tear a work apart to demonstrate that he knows how it was put together.
Oh, but she is so wrong about one! One wants very much to talk about what makes Tolstoy uniquely Tolstoy and Renoir uniquely Renoir -- and that's their technique, their vision -- not just their stories or their themes. (Kael's objection to the pretentious use of "one" is why she preferred the presumptuous "you.") You can't "distinguish form and content for the purposes of analysis," because (as we all know) the form is the content, and what the artist has done is how the artist did it. You can't perceive the whole without taking notice of the specifics, any more than you can absorb a novel without reading the words or see a movie without looking at the images.⁴
It seems to me that Kael has got it almost precisely backwards. Conventional journalistic reviewers do tear movies apart for the sake of analysis (or, at least, evaluation) -- separating them into summary-nuggets about the plot, acting, dialog... and, maybe, another sentence or two about the setting and the cinematography, concluding with a verdict about whether the picture was "any good" or not. A more organic approach might be to look in detail at a particular shot or sequence and then pull back to show how the aesthetics and ideas that give shape to a particular piece can be found expressed in the whole. (Fractal criticism?) Roger Ebert is a popular critic, too -- more popular than Kael ever was -- and he likes to remind his readers that a movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. That "how" consists of everything (style, structure, camerawork, lighting, sound, writing, acting, direction, etc.) that can be summarized as "technique."
Kael couldn't and wouldn't engage with "technique" because she didn't have the knowledge or the vocabulary or the taste for it. Her approach to movies and criticism was focused on her gut reaction -- the way she thought audiences and readers should respond. (This is why she said she didn't like to see movies more than once -- she prized remaining true to her first impressions above all else.) That visceral (or "knee-jerk," if you prefer) instinct seems to have gone viral in the early years of the Internet. As Kent Jones observed of movie writing on the Web in a recent Film Comment:
What is interesting is the impression of a giddy, widespread abdication of all time-consuming enterprises, from building an argument to watching a movie, and the accompanying implication that anything beyond an immediate gut-level response is suspect.
Sound familiar? Kael's friend, the fine former Salon movie critic Charles Taylor, said in a 2006 interview with Jeremiah Kipp at The House Next Door ("Against consensus") that Kael wasn't as authoritarian (or "fascist," to use one of her favorite terms?) about her opinions as some of her readers felt she was:
She wanted people to be honest. Art should be pleasure, not work. You have to bring your life experience to it, your experience of the other arts to it, you have to be well read, and no one should tell you what you have to like or what you should be interested in. The job of the critic is to help you formulate your own thoughts. Articulate them. Not to tell you what to think, but to get you to think. There was a freedom in her.
That freedom, as we can see from the declarations above, didn't always extend to her feelings about criticism and scholarship, however, which most often came down somewhere between the prescriptive and the dictatorial. In a 1965 speech at Dartmouth (under the title "It's Only a Movie") she announced: "Teaching a course in film studies goes against the grain of everything I feel about movies, and against the grain of just about everything I believe about how we learn in the arts." Too serious, perhaps. Kael saw movies as a popular form of entertainment that needed to be kept away from Ivory-Tower intellectual notions of "art": "When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable."
She was especially contemptuous of popular art-house films ("La Dolce Vita," "La Notte," "Last Year at Marienbad" -- her "Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe-Parties") that she felt were driven by snob-appeal and museum cocktail-reception chatter. She loved the image of herself as the irreverent, iconoclastic West Coast broad shaking up the stolid, calcified attitudes of the New York establishment. The New Yorker, home of dandyish dilettante Eustace Tilley, was a famously frumpy and snooty magazine, but it had a large circulation even outside the metropolis, and in its pages she got away with contrarian strikes and vulgar puns (usually sexual ones) like nobody else. She wanted to shake things up, provoke arguments, challenge orthodox tastes.
Reading Kellow's biography, and re-reading many of Kael's reviews and essays in the past couple weeks (especially "Trash, Art and the Movies," from which most of the quotations here are taken), I realized that the premium she placed on writing from her own first impressions, her gut (or knee-jerk) responses, gave her (as her own daughter said in her eulogy) "supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice." That's one way to write about movies -- and the only way Kael was interested in -- but despite her pronouncements about what she thought was "important" or "a bad joke," there are so many other approaches, from consumer guide blurbs to dissertations on Grand Theory, and all sorts of criticism and analysis in between.⁵ (See David Bordwell's Film Comment piece on "Academics vs. Critics.")
In an essay for Dissent ("The Problem with Film Criticism," Fall 2011 -- free registration required), Charles Taylor took a somewhat Kaelean view, criticizing film scholar Bordwell for a blog post in which he:
... trotted out the work of a psychological researcher to show, in Bordwell's words, "how a director can subtly guide our attention without cutting, camera movement, or auditory underlining."
Can these critics hear themselves? Imagine someone who has never seen a movie by Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Apitchatpong Weerasethakul reading that cognitive theory is the key to unlocking its seemingly unyielding surface. Faced with that, who wouldn't mutter, "Screw it" and head for the multiplex?
I don't understand this line of reasoning at all. Is that quotation from David Bordwell (a film academic who, with Kristin Thompson, also writes a most engaging and enjoyable blog -- I quote from it all the time -- and is a swell and fun-loving guy, besides), really so off-putting or difficult to understand? He was referring to research tracking viewers' eye movements as they watched a shot/scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," to which he had devoted a previous post. (And it's the site's most popular entry!) The result, he wrote, "is almost unprecedented in film studies, I think: an effort to test a critic's analysis against measurable effects of a movie. What follows may well change the way you think about visual storytelling."
How does this discourage anyone from seeing Hou or Apichatpong movies? And if somebody was reading a blog called "Observations on film art" -- or a piece by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times that also mentioned current perceptual research, including the fascinating and funny "Invisible Gorilla" test and how it applies to movies -- would they really be so easily dissuaded from seeing films by two of world cinema's most acclaimed contemporary directors?
What would they say if they found out that the same British researcher, Tim J. Smith, also did some work for Dreamworks Animation recently? Check out his blog, Continuity Boy, for a peek at how 16 viewers tracked the "Puss in Boots" trailer. (Research hasn't seemed to have scared people away from that movie.) Smith writes: "By recording the eye movements of viewers as they watch film sequences I have been able to see which cinematic techniques succeed in guiding the viewers to the point of interest in a scene and whether a cut leads to disorientation."
Even more puzzling (to return to Taylor's essay): In what world do one's viewing options come down to a simple choice between Hou/Apichatpong or the multiplex? ("Hmmmm, should we watch 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' on Netflix Instant or go to the AMC and watch whatever came out this week?" "Well, I read that cognitive research has demonstrated how movies can direct our attention." "Screw it! Let's get outta here! 'Jack and Jill' starts every 15 minutes!")
Who says what's "fun"?
Taylor is concerned that too much of movie writing on the Internet (and, he says, there is too much of it for anyone to digest) is narrow and insular, with fanboys and critics (whom he characterizes as another species of fanboy) writing only for those who already share their views about movies. Too many Web critics, he writes
... affect a donnish air ludicrously beyond their years. Whatever movies are for them--objects for analysis or gnostic contemplation -- they don't sound as if they're any fun, and they don't communicate to readers that movies, even difficult or unusual movies, can be a pleasure. A lot of the time they don't communicate to readers at all.
This reminds me of Kael's aversion to "seriousness" and her insistence that movies should be "a good time" -- the trouble being that her idea of seriousness or a good time, and Taylor's or yours or mine, might be quite different. She seems aware of this elsewhere in "Trash, Art and the Movies" when she says it is "one of the glories of eclectic arts like opera and movies that they include so many possible kinds and combinations of pleasure." But I admit I'm suspicious of critics or "fanboys" who would try to insist that something is fun only if they say so.
As anyone who's spent time in academia knows, there are "scholarly" styles of writing that serve insular purposes only. Such "publish-or-perish"-motivated writing is addressed to other academics (though not necessarily intended to be understood by them -- as the Sokal hoax delightfully demonstrated). Academic writing certainly does not need to be dull and impenetrable (i.e., bad writing) -- but it too often is. It's as easy to fall into lazy scholarly writing habits as it is to fall into lazy journalistic ones.
Another difference between academia and criticism has to do with writing. Criticism can only be writing: it may be writing in images and sounds, but it must be conscious of itself as writing -- as being responsible (as Barthes said) to a symbolic dimension, as being capable of irony, and as being based on a certain insecurity, such that it is always coming out of and going toward a place that it knows can't be filled. Not all critics are good writers; but at least the critic has to want to write and has to love writing. This love is more definitive for film criticism than the love of cinema.
Now there is probably no professional sphere in which the lack of desire to write and the lack of interest in writing are more endemic than academia. The system of "publish or perish," together with the reliable assurance that what gets published will remain unread (not infrequently, I imagine, even by those who get paid to edit and review it), guarantees an abundance of terrible academic writing, and though I can't say for sure that, as a group, film-studies professors are worse writers than professors of art history or comparative literature, I suspect this may be the case (Bordwell himself and many others excluded, needless to say).
Taylor is more concerned with writing for mainstream, general-interest outlets:
Anyone who has written film criticism for a large publication⁶ in the past twenty years has been told to assume that readers know nothing (even now when it's easier than ever for them to look up a reference). But reading some of the more earnest Web critics, I get the feeling they don't believe in making any overtures to readers not already novitiates in the order of cinema. All the serious young cinematic men sound as if they're writing for each other. Not showing off, but sealed off. The austere Web critics don't sound as if they're interested in connecting movies to any life beyond the parameters of the screen. Articles that analyze sequences in terms of lighting and editing and even shot length are presented with the deadly seriousness of a doctoral dissertation. Reading long, detailed arguments about a difference of millimeters in the aspect ratio of a new Blu-Ray disc, the only shrinking millimeters I'm aware of are those of my open eyes narrowing.
I have several responses to the above: 1) some movie blogs are indeed primarily written for, and by, "novitiates in the order of cinema" (cinephiles? cinephiliacs?) and good thing, too, because (as Kael's writing shows) not all readers/writers love the same things about movies equally; 2) analyzing sequences in terms of lighting, editing and even shot length is fun, Fun, FUN!!! -- and such accounts aren't taking up valuable space in any "large publication," so you don't have to read them if you're not interested; 3) don't disrespect the aspect ratios! They're not merely technical specs, measured in millimeters, but determine how much of the picture you actually see on the screen, so inappropriate ratios can dramatically -- even catastrophically -- alter the movie.
I like it when people -- whether Kael or commenters -- are up-front and honest about articulating their beliefs (as long as they can "bring in the evidence" to back it up). Nobody should feel under any obligation to share somebody else's views -- particularly if you understand, and can demonstrate, how you came to hold your own. The worst audiences for a critic are insecure readers who can't stand up for themselves and are thereby driven to throw tantrums of anger and hurt feelings when somebody expresses a perception that doesn't conform to their personal experience.
Which is why we need that evidence on which Godard placed such importance.⁷ We may weigh and interpret and evaluate it differently, but opinions don't mean a thing without it.
COMING SOON: Great examples of great criticism that considers the evidence of "technique" -- from Richard T. Jameson, Charles Taylor, Dave Kehr, Kent Jones and others.
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Some related Scanners posts you might find captivating and delightful -- and maybe even trashy:
"How Not to Write About Film" (June 4, 2006)
"Eyeless in Monument Valley" (July 6, 2006 -- I've calmed down considerably since then)
"Eyeless in Monument Valley, Part II" (July 7, 2006)
"Trash and Art: Critics on/of Pauline Kael" (February 19, 2007)
"Pauline and Renata Go Showboating" (February 21, 2007)
"What does a movie mean?" (November 15, 2007)
"Moviegoers who feel too much" (February 1, 2008)
"Are Movies Going to Pieces?" (February 6, 2008)
"Oh dear, who's killed film criticism this week?" (March 2, 2010)
"When "I get it!" means "I don't get it!" -- and vice-versa" (August 31, 2010)
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¹ In her review of Hill's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," Kael had written: "The dialog is all banter, all throwaways, and that's how it's delivered; each line comes out of nowhere, coyly, in a murmur, in the dead sound of the studio. (There is scarcely even an effort to supply plausible outdoor resonances or to use sound to evoke a sense of place.)" That's sounding awfully "technical," but Hill replied:
I fought the studio to the bloody mat in order to get authentic sound.... The picture was shot 90% on location and when it was over and I didn't have all the sound I wanted I took some horses and a couple of guys and on my own expense went out into the hills for two days and recorded the kind of sound I wanted myself. And I resent the hell out of a smart ass critic trying to show off their technical acumen and building up their image for their readers by pretending they can tell the "dead sound of the studio" and that their ear is so marvelously acute that they know that "scarcely any attempt was made to supply outdoor resonances." ... You didn't like the sound, say so, but cut out that bullshit about how you know where it was done and made.
This is a common problem in criticism. Anything that's on the screen (or appears to be missing) is fair game for comment, but critics often ascribe motives to, or excuses for, the filmmakers when they don't really know what happened or why it was done the way it was done. Observation -- even speculation -- is fine, but here, for example, Kael crossed the line by claiming that the filmmakers had made no effort to "supply plausible outdoor resonances." She thought the picture sounded flat, and that's her perception, but as Hill says, she had no right to claim knowledge of how the movie was made.
These writers' presumption to expertise in matters of technique and form actually reveals the opposite of the magisterial objectivity to which they lay claim: they're thinking about their reactions to a movie rather than thinking about the movie. There's no such thing as "bad acting" or "sloppy blocking" or "bad lines"; none of these aspects of a film exist apart from the ideas and emotions, the world view, of the filmmaker.
I think the proper phrase would be "magisterial subjectivity," though.
² This story, of an argument with Al Hirschfield at Lumet's place, is told in A Life in the Dark. That line sounds like something Kael might say to bait an opponent, but I don't think you can take it literally. It is a critic's job to point out how and why something works or doesn't work for her in a movie -- even to suggest what might have been done instead (as a positive or negative example). And many filmmakers have said they've (indirectly) learned to better understand how their own work is perceived from reading critics. But I don't recall even Kael saying something like, "Hey, Sidney, you didn't get the right takes." Oh, wait, she say something to that effect in her piece, "The Making of 'The Group'" (1966). I can't find my copy of "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" but biographer Kellow writes that "she believed [Lumet] had a tendency to settle for a take that was only passable."
³ Dunne follows this with a gaffe of his own that shows how little he knows about criticism: "One prominent critic evoked Eric Rohmer when a scene in a picture on which I worked was filmed entirely as a reaction shot. The reason for the reaction shot was that we were behind schedule, the location had to be abandoned and the actor in the scene showed up too drunk to say his lines." Well, that may be all cute and insidery, but if the reaction shot reminded the critic of Rohmer, then that's fair game for comment. How does Dunne know that the director, faced with these multiple crises, wasn't reminded of a shot in a Rohmer movie that provided him with a solution? Filmmaking, like all art, often comes down to finding creative ways to solve problems and overcome obstacles.
⁴ Here's one section of this particular rant, from the many thousands of words I cut from this overlong post (yes, this is the condensed version -- about a quarter of what I actually wrote), because I kept going off on lengthy tangents even more than usual:
Without "technique," Tolstoy isn't Tolstoy and Renoir isn't Renoir; "Anna Karenina" is just a story about a suicidal gal from an unhappy family and "Rules of the Game" is just a movie about a hunting accident during a weekend at a country estate. You can't talk about what Renoir has done without examining how he has done it. They are one and the same. The artistry is in the technique (the "effects," the style), which gives form and meaning to the work. Without it, you've just got a plot summary. How can you study or critique literature without looking at how the author uses language (words, sentences, paragraphs) to create resonances? How can you look at painting if you claim that it doesn't matter how the painter uses paint (color, texture, shape)?
⁵ Kael's objections to auteurism (as explained by Andrew Sarris in "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" in Film Culture) were objections to any kind of theory imposed on movies. As she said in "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris" (1963), "When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don't think about the director's personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there's not much else to watch." By these standards, she memorably wrote, the ideal auteur "is the man who signs a long-term contract, directs any script that's handed to him, and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots."
⁶ In 2003, Taylor wrote a piece in Salon about "The war against movie critics":
In 1975, François Truffaut wrote, "Every person on the editorial staff of a newspaper feels he can question the opinion of the movie critic. The editor in chief, who shows careful respect to his music critic, will casually stop the movie critic in the corridor: 'Well, you really knocked Louis Malle's last film. My wife doesn't agree with you at all; she loved it.'"
Nowadays you'd be lucky to find an editor who knows who Louis Malle is. A critic is more likely to get called into his editor's office because he didn't like "Men in Black II," as happened to a critic I know. Or he's likely to be stopped by an editor who tells him that his 11-year-old daughter thinks "The Sixth Sense" is the best movie she's ever seen, as happened to another critic of my acquaintance.
These are rotten times to be a movie critic. In a bad economy, an independent voice delivering judgments on a multibillion-dollar industry that represents a tremendously lucrative source of ad revenue is likely to be perceived as a detriment. [...]
It risks the elitist label to say that critics should know more than their readers about movies, but it's really just common sense. Don't we expect a foreign correspondent to know more about the Middle East or equatorial Africa than the readers do? Do we second-guess our plumbers about our clogged drains, or our doctor about our clogged arteries? But expertise in an area where everyone assumes they are an expert is assumed to be snobbery. That proceeds from the assumption that a critic is telling his or her readers how to think instead of helping them to think for themselves -- whether or not a reader's conclusions are in sync with the critic's.
⁷ And, yes, I'm aware that, at some time or another, Godard has said just about everything.
Matt Zoller Seitz reviews and reflects upon Jesse Eisenberg's New Yorker piece about film critics.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...