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Pauline Kael: On art & trash, life & lice

Cannes 1977: Left to right: Dusty Cohl and Bill Marshall, co-founders of the Toronto Film Festival; Roger Ebert, publicist Linda Beath, Billy (Silver Dollar) Baxter, and Pauline Kael, who was on the jury.

It's a notion that takes some growing used to, but Pauline Kael makes her case persuasively: "Almost every interesting American movie in the past few years has been directed by a Catholic." And then she names the three directors she feels are making the most exciting movies right now: Francis Ford Coppola, an Italian-American; Martin Scorsese, who grew up in New York's Little Italy with a Sicilian background; and, above all, Robert Altman, a German-American Catholic from Kansas City.

"Perhaps the Catholics are more in tune with the new mood in America, and the Protestants aren't," she suggests. "Watergate showed us we're no better than others, and the heroes in the new American movies reflect that sensibility, that view of life after the collapse of the Protestant Ethic."

But there's something more, something else the hot new directors may have absorbed with their Catholicism, and Kael believes it may be "a certain sensual richness in their backgrounds" -- a richness, she implies, that may have come partly from the traditional ritual of the Church in the years before Vatican One and Two, and partly from the ethnic and cultural vitality that surrounded them during their childhoods.

"All of the great directors have been extraordinarily sensual directors," she says, "and that was as true of D. W. Griffith as it is today. But as the big studios got control of the movie industry, they forced the directors they hired to become more like stage managers than like composer-conductors, which is what the great directors are. Now the tide is turning again, and the fact that Coppola's 'The Godfather, Part II' won an Oscar as the year's best movie is a sign that Hollywood is now prepared to respect a talent it can't keep under its thumb."

Kael was speaking before an SRO audience the other night at the Arts Club of Chicago, and her thoughts came tumbling out with a tremendous vitality. What became clear was that her admiration for Altman, Scorcese and Coppola is closely related to what she admires about the movies in general, and what she looks for.

"What I like best about the movies," she said, "is the way they can enlarge your experience. When you see movies like Coppola's Godfather films, or Altman's newest movie 'Nashville,' you get the sense of American epics, of directors really dealing for the first time with the American experience, and dealing with it truthfully. It wasn't until 'The Emigrants' (1972) that we got a real view of the American past -- and that was a Swedish film.

"The new protagonists in American movies don't always accomplish what they set out to do, and sometimes they're soiled right from the beginning. They can fail; sometimes they're evil. But in the best new movies we get a real sense of the experiences they're having, and what they mean. We get a more directly sensual experience, and that's what movies are good at. Anthony Burgess came out the other day with a silly article about the superiority of fiction over movies, because fiction is made out of words . . . as if words were more powerful than images."

Kael's articles in The New Yorker develop the same point of view: Her function as a critic is to experience a film as fully, completely and perceptively as possible, and then to record her reactions honestly. The emphasis is on the experience. Although she's done important work in the area of film history, notably in her revisionist. "The Citizen Kane Book," her most vivid writing comes as she records personal, visceral, reactions to movies.

"Responsible artists," she told her Arts Club audience, "try to affect you sensually in a way that enlarges your experience. Altman, for example, has raised the sound track to a whole new level. He hears more perceptively, than other directors. He hears Americans talking, and we talk more than any other nation in the world. When you come out of an Altman movie, you hear your environment in a new way.

"And sometimes directors can achieve a sensual affect that simply can't be explained. In Coppola's 'The Godfather, Part II,' for example, after the scene where Robert De Niro, as the young Don Vito, kills the landlord, the extortionist, he walks down the street in such a way that the scene becomes incredibly moving and powerful -- everyone I've talked to who has seen the movie was affected by that scene, and yet there's no way to explain why. I think Coppola got the power for that scene out of his own unconscious. I don't know if he could explain it, either.

"And Altman's movies are made up of moments that affect us in ways we can't fully understand -- unconscious moments. That's what we want when we go to the movies. Television gives us the bare bones of narratives, and when we go to the movies, we want that larger experience. Perhaps that's why so many of the best, new directors turn out to have Catholic backgrounds. Because there was more sensuality around them in their formative years, because their religion was itself more sensual, more suggestive, providing more material for the imagination."

One of the functions of movie critics, she said, might be to help people understand and more clearly evaluate the ways in which movies work on them sensually.

"There are great differences among the kinds of experiences you can have at the movies, and sometimes people don't really seem to draw a line between the movies that really enlarge their experience, and the movies that simply work them over.

"When a great movie like Altman's 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' comes along, one of the functions I felt as a critic was to discuss the ways in which the movie was new, and the wonderful things Altman was doing in it. But then when people are moved, and deeply moved, by trash like 'The Trial of Billy Jack,' then perhaps the critic can help by explaining the ways in which trash can manipulate your responses, can work over your emotions in unworthy and dishonest ways."

A member of the audience asked what could be done to enlarge the movie audience by including more older people in it, as well as the younger moviegoers who traditionally make up most of the audience.

"Actually, I think that's already happening," she said. "When I go to the movies today, most of the time I'm surrounded by what you might call the 'aging young,' people in their late 20s to their mid 30s. A movie like 'American Graffiti' was such a tremendous hit because it hit that age group right on the nose. It was set in the years when they were going to high school, and they responded to it so strongly they didn't quite see some of the things wrong with it.

"The problem for younger potential moviegoers," she complained, "is that the rating system has meant that kids haven't been free to go to the best pictures, unless their parents take them. How can they develop an appreciation for movies if all they're allowed to see are those dreadful, boring movies that are aimed at them?

"The best pictures are mostly those with the R ratings, and there have been pictures that got the R because of one forbidden word -- when all you have to do is listen to kids talking today and you realize no four letter word is going to come as news to them. In terms of the intelligence and invention that goes into them, the Saturday night shows on TV are a lot better than most G or PG movies."

Miss Kael has often been called America's best movie critic (although there is spirited dissent for that view in some quarters), but she said she felt frustrated sometimes all the same.

"I only have an outlet six months out of the year," she pointed out; she alternates with Penelope Gilliatt at The New Yorker. "Sometimes when a beautiful film comes out and it doesn't get good reviews, I feel almost gagged. But I do feel the critic's power is mostly positive, not negative. We can't stop the expensive trash with the millions of dollars behind it, but what we can do is help a good little film get shown, and direct attention to the best new directors, the ones who are fresh and exciting. John Leonard said the other day that critics were lice on the body of art. But art would never reach the public without the critics. I don't feel like a louse."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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