Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ramble on Editing, Petulia and Pauline (Part 3 of 3)

Part III: Pauline Kael.

After watching “Petulia,” I read some reviews by others and ended up tracking down Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Trash, Art and the Movies” which I hadn’t read since senior year of high school. At the time I loved it. It confirmed everything I had ever suspected about movies: that everything I liked was great cinema just by virtue of my liking it. Whenever I didn’t enjoy a complicated, difficult or innovative film it was not because I wasn’t yet ready for it, wasn’t looking into it deeply enough or hadn’t reached the emotional, intellectual or aesthetic maturity to appreciate it. No, it was just that filmmaker had failed at his essential task: to entertain.

In her own word, “…it might be a good idea to keep in mind also that if a movie is said to be a work of art and you don’t enjoy it, the fault may be in you, but it’s probably in the movie.”

It isn’t hard to see why this appealed to movie fans everywhere. It wrote them the intellectual equivalent of a blank check to go on doing what they were already doing. Don’t challenge yourself. Remain passive. Pleasure is king (amusement is prince), and the simpler the pleasure the more pure and honest it rings.

Critics loved the essay even more (percentage-wise, more of them read it), because it freed them of the difficult tasks of analysis and interpretation. Go with your gut instinct, your first reaction! For professionals who often have to submit their reviews within a day or two of the screening, this soothed their worries that further contemplation, a bit of objective distance or, god forbid, a second viewing, might change their opinions. Kael was notorious for never seeing a film twice and I have to wonder if this was just a defense mechanism so that she’d never have to admit to anyone, least of all herself, that film, art and even entertainment is something more than a momentary reflex. It is often only on the second viewing that I learn to really appreciate a film, since I can focus more on the style and form and take the story and dialogue for granted.

Now, of course, I can see how dangerous of an essay “Art, Trash” is, not least because it is so superbly written. Its popularity amongst film critics working for mainstream periodicals has contributed to the sanctioning of anti-intellectual attitudes that only serve to shrink the range of experiences (even pleasures!) that film can provide.

One statement sums up much of Kael’s argument: “Perhaps the single most intense pleasure of moviegoing is this non-aesthetic one of escaping from the responsibilities of having the proper responses required of us in our official (school) culture.”

I have to ask, “Escaping where?” I’m skeptical that people feel trapped in an official school culture, as most people I know are not living in a day-to-day world of inescapable high-culture, or any sort of nefarious web of philosophy and art. We live in popular culture, and the tyranny there is not the schoolteachers Kael is always mocking, but the media and the business community that tries to tell us where to spend our money, time and attention. For me, escapism is a chance to break out of the cheap marketing ploys and blanket conformity that relies on nothing more than the basic pleasures Kael triumphs.

That leads me to the second problem with Kael’s statement. She states that the most intense pleasure of movie-going is the non-aesthetic, but never mentions any of those less-intense pleasures. For me, the variety is important: imagination, admiration, enlightenment, surprise and the recognition of truth. What about the aesthetic pleasures like beauty and innovation? Should we just throw those out? Am I being pretentious by going one step further and suggesting that cinema might offer more to my life than pleasure? Isn’t it worth something if a film is informative, provocative, or moving?

I’m not arguing for less pleasure in cinema, but I can be entertained and still love the mise-en-scene. Why settle for only the simple pleasures?

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to start out a filmgoer just liking good stories and the human interest elements that Kael champions. But after seeing a few dozen love triangles, one will likely start to care as much about the performances as the plot wherein Miss A almost marries handsome B, but realizing that loyal C is more genuine. After a handful of court room dramas, one notices the writing and not just the verdicts. (Not guilty for protagonists. Guilty for giant corporations. There, I spoiled them.) After the umpteenth murder scene, we might take a moment out from our emotional distress and notice the cinematography. I haven’t stopped enjoying these films. Quite the opposite; now I have a richer and deeper enjoyment that encompasses multiple levels at once.

I think most film enthusiasts are not dour gluttons for pretentiousness, but people who have learned to get something out of film that others don’t. I, for one, still love a good story, but give me technical skill, careful craftsmanship and some solid performances and then you’ll earn a standing ovation. Reading the plot summary alone is not going to get me out of my seat.

I can even enjoy what Kael dubs trash (as anyone who reads the Film Walrus can attest) and still analyze, deconstruct, interpret and admire it without “ruining” the experience.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let me tie it back to “Petulia.” Kael singles this movie out in her essay and, along with another one of my favorites, “2001,” utterly savages it:

“I have rarely seen a more disagreeable, a more dislikable (or a bloodier) movie than “Petulia” and I would guess that its commercial success represents a triumph of publicity—and not the simple kind of just taking ads.
“The images of “Petulia” don’t make valid connections, they’re joined together for shock and excitement, and I don’t believe in the brilliance of a method which equates hippies, war, surgery, wealth, Southern decadents, bullfights, etc. Lester’s mix is almost as fraudulent as “Mondo Cane”; “Petulia” exploits any shocking material it can throw together to give false importance to a story about Holly Golightly and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The jagged glittering mosaic style of “Petulia” is an armor protecting Lester from an artist’s task; this kind of “style” no longer fools people so much in writing but it knocks them silly in films.”

Pauline Kael is demonstrating exactly the problem I’m trying to get at: she’s working with an immediate instinctual reaction without rising to meet the challenges that the movie offers. Whenever she doesn’t understand one of Lester’s artistic decisions, she accuses him of lacking any artistry at all. It is the logical conclusion of refusing to partake in deeper meanings and emotions that one sees only the superficial; the jagged glittering mosaic.

It’s all the more a shame since Kael defends another 1968 film, “The Thomas Crown Affair,” which I also love for its editing virtuosity (courtesy of Hal Ashby, who ranks up there with Roeg), amongst other assets. The harmlessness of the genial heist film falls well within her safety zone, but “Petulia,” which dares to be serious and cynical, causes a knee-jerk reaction so violent that she calls the movie bloody (there is really only one scene with blood and that is relatively mild by today’s standards) and shocking (the content and tone are actually quite subdued).

For both “Petulia” and “2001,” she highlights a central criticism meant to delegitimize any proponents. She claims “Petulia” does little more than cash in on the zeitgeist, riding the misanthropy and anti-Americanism that was popular during the Vietnam War era. With “2001,” she dismisses it as only interesting to stoners who use its dazzling imagery to supplement their highs (an accusation recently made by Premier magazine as well).

If she’s right, than I’m wrong about two films I consider brilliant. So I present a succinct counterargument:

I watched “Petulia” in 2008 and “2001” while sober…

and I still think they’re brilliant.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post! I'm trying to catch up on my blog reading so I've been roaming around online and visiting various film blogs. I've wanted to rip into Kael's essay for a long time but you tackled just about every point I would have. Well done.

FilmWalrus said...

Thanks Kimberly! Your approval is quite high praise in my book and your comments are much appreciated, especially considering how quiet this whole ramble series has been. Still, nothing can keep me off of my editing-can-be-interesting soap box.

I'm also glad to hear other bloggers have some healthy skepticism for Kael. I love reading her, but rarely agree and I'm not sure she deserves her place as one of the greatest thinkers on film. Maybe I'd appreciate her more if I'd been into film at the same time?