Saturday, November 1, 2008

Pauline Kael - 1

Read the comments on this thing. A lot of people are making good points and I'm realizing I failed to communicate my point properly. Once I read more of her and I get some solid quotes down, I'll make a better case. For now, I've made a few minor tweaks to prevent further confusion. 11/4/08

I’m progressing through Pauline Kael’s ‘I Lost It At The Movies’ and have been having mixed feelings about her. She’s sharper than Bangs was…but then again Lester was dealing with a centuries old medium and she only had a few decades to juggle. It’s not that she makes fun of other critics excessively, although such conduct would not survive long on the internet I appreciate the need for spectacle, it’s that you get the distinct impression she is telling you why other critic’s suggestions are wrong. Which is a ludicrous criticism to make about a critic because that’s exactly what we do, sit down and make the case for a piece of work or make the case against it. The line she crosses is thinking that she is somehow doing something more than making an eloquent recommendation. Judging by her obituary maybe she was, a few directors claimed she ruined their careers by ripping them apart. I’m not sure how I feel about a critic developing that kind of power and, should they possess it, then proceeding to use it in such a manner. To be honest though, I think it’s mostly a delusion her fans and students of her philosophy developed.

As with Bangs I’m studying Kael in a void. I only recognize about a quarter of the films she’s discussing and am purely studying her craft as a critic. I am and will always be a disciple of Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold, their schools of thought and criticism dominate my work and that’s a fact I’m proud of. However, it is incredibly helpful to improving my work as a game critic to study other people and so far Kael has certainly delivered. She’s damn good at razoring in on themes and ideas and communicating them eloquently. My Netflix queue continues to have additions added based on her sterling recommendations. Which is where Kael is at her absolute best: finding old films and explaining why everyone should care about them. This was an era before videotapes so her work was especially important for the art houses showing old movies. She used to work in one herself and you can see that side of her coming out constantly. One would half expect her to start each of the essays with a marquee and ticket price she is so adamant in selling them. In the era of insta-downloads and home theaters though, her criticism takes on a decidedly odd shift. I can watch any of these movies at anytime with a few clicks on the internet. The amount of force involved in coercing a person to try something in this environment is decidedly less than Kael’s campaign to get the film in an art house theatre and then get people lined up and buying tickets. I say this because I’m struggling to define what it is that bugs me about her.

I certainly appreciate the need to shit talk another critic. Kael shifts between being hilarious and savage in diluting and destroying other interpretations of a film. My personal favorite thus far was tearing into a critic who loved the same film as her, but found it to be a drama while she thought it was a comedy. She pointed out how out of touch the critic was with their audience when they believed a certain Paul Newman film (Hud for those who recognize it) was anything more than a jokey take on a Hemingway short story. My favorite part was when she talks about how outraged and prissy critics were when Paul Newman’s character attempted to “rape” the lead actress. Kael argues that rape isn’t the right word for the scene, considering the female character clearly needed a good lay and few would protest Newman being the person to break their sexual drought. R.I.P., by the way, he still makes the best Caesar dressing. Anyways, I deeply admire a critic who recommends people extract their head from their assess once and a while and remember that not all films are making bold artistic statements.

Yet she also tears into movies for not making comments precisely of that nature. That sword she uses to great effect on some films that have been given unfair billing gets applied to films that have been excessively praised. Indeed, her obituary made note that she eventually lost her job at The New Yorker because the editor was sick of her refusal to ever give a mainstream film a decent review. Feeding people the gushing message that life is hard, we will overcome, or…oh, I don’t really know what her ethic is in the end. I’m not far enough in to know if Kael has some ethic that she expects movies to rise to, but I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that she was operating on an Orwellian ‘Animal Farm’ set of rules where they change when the mood suits her. Maybe that’s what it is that bugs me about her. She reminds me of a Literary Grad. Student I made friends with a few years ago during a summer job. After thoroughly quizzing me on every aspect of ‘Middlemarch’ and a few other novels, he was satisfied that I wasn’t a heathen and promptly went to work destroying my liquor cabinet every night when we were off duty. To be honest I usually helped but literary geeks are a peculiar breed of academic scum and we tend to speak in metaphors. When we got into a particularly nasty fight with the administration over handling the students my friend just ripped into them with every argument imaginable. Later on he was stunned that I was offended by his conduct. “Why the Hell are you shooting cruise missiles at a bunch of poor saps in cardboard boxes? For Christ’s sake one of them is a Dance Instructor, what did you expect her to say when you started posing Socratic questions? Use that big brain of yours for something besides talking shit to people just trying to get through the day.”

To put the sentiment into video game terms, I don’t like Super Mario Galaxy. My reaction to playing the game was much like Agent Smith when he grabs Morpheus’s face in the first Matrix movie and explains that he can’t stand the fake world. Rather than create a perfect Utopia that would appease Agent Smith’s aesthetic sensibilities, they instead have to make the world flawed so that normal people will like it. That’s how I feel about Super Mario Galaxy, it’s this giant artificial zoo of game mechanic after perfectly tuned game mechanic that gets fed to me in cute little portions. There is no chaos, no critical message or concept occurring. The experience it delivers is as meaningless as collecting the Stars and items in the game. It is a perfect video game and deserves the ten my editor gave it, but that very perfection is also what makes me hate it. What’s the point of a video game that is so neatly organized that I cannot even properly fail? That I cannot even engage with on any level except the cute and fun way that the game wants me to? Now there's nothing wrong with me making this argument, but the problem is not recognizing that I'm the odd man out here. What bugs me about Kael is that she doesn't give any credit to the people who did like the film. Whether you loved or hated Super Mario Galaxy, a ton of people loved it. I try to respect that fact.

Which is going to sound utterly bonkers to a normal person. And like Agent Smith, I’m ultimately the villain in this scenario. What the majority wants may not even remotely coincide with my own tastes, but you have to accept that there is an independent merit in what everyone likes. So even though I collected my 75 stars and promptly sold the game back to Gamestop, I don’t go around telling people who loved the game that in two years we’ll barely even remember that it existed. I don’t explain why Super Mario World was vastly superior and that ultimately the game was the artistic equivalent of changing the background on the Mona Lisa. Well, okay I did a few times, but I certainly wouldn’t bother writing a blog about it. Which is why I find Kael’s butchering of popular films and opinions to be somewhat grotesque. Like her, I have very deep convictions about video games and I fully promote those views. The difference is that I don’t do it by ripping into games and critics that have different opinions. Instead, I focus on games and topics that push the medium in the direction I think it should go and make that case. That’s what the ZA Critiques are for and that’s why I write about indie games or the art games when I see one that merits a full analysis. The most good that you can do as a critic is to point out the games left behind or praise the ones that accomplished what you believe to be what games can do. The fact that there are games out there that don’t coincide with that vision should not, just by their mere existence, require some withering assault. In the end if what I believe video games are capable of proves true, then it won’t matter because I’ll still be vindicated. If it does not, then my opinion never mattered all that much anyways.

Put another way, there was a literary critic by the name of Achebe who wrote a controversial essay about how Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ was racist. It’s a withering essay and the man rightly goes through each and every awful flaw in Conrad’s view of the world. The reaction from fans of the book was mostly outrage since even a freshmen highschooler can appreciate the book’s dark message about evil and going too far. Since the essay did not actually engage in how well that theme was communicated, but rather opined that to communicate the theme it did so at the expense of black people, critics had a hard time saying it was wrong. They also, many years after publication, have gone back to not caring. People like ‘Heart of Darkness’ and the fact that its message has been reinterpreted to Vietnam and now the videogame Far Cry 2 demonstrates that even this enormous flaw in the original work could not hold it back. So, the question is whether it was worth it for Achebe to endure that shitstorm to point out why something was wrong with a book that everyone liked? Probably not. That doesn't render his point moot, it raises the question of what the best way to point out that flaw really is. Shredding into an author and accusing the fans of being racist is probably not a good start.

But like I said, when Kael is using that incredible mind of hers for something besides the vain quest to change the world she’s quite impressive. Judging by her obituary it sounds like that mission eventually broke her and made her spend the last ten years of her life not writing about films. Which is a damn shame, because I could know what movies she was talking about more often if she had. Being a critic is ultimately not about controlling what people like or dislike, it’s about framing the discussion and setting the tone for those inclinations. If I’d written a review of Super Mario Galaxy last year explaining why I thought the game was stupid I’d hardly have affected its sales or changed anyone’s mind. I’d just be Agent Smith beating people over the head with his views that are ultimately contrary to what most people want. The fact that a critic like Kael, a program like Smith, or even I have the unique fortune of having a soapbox to stand on does little to change that basic reality. I always think of this anime, Trigun, when questions like this strike me. During the final moments the protagonist and another character are debating what they should be doing with their supernatural powers. On the one hand, they are capable of nuking entire cities with their minds. On the other, they can power entire cities with that same ability. When they inevitably engage in their enormous anime battle, it is on the protagonist’s conclusion that using their ability to destroy “is not what power is for”. One could easily say the same thing about critics.


Hyde said...

You ought to try Manny Farber for an old film critic, that sounds like maybe more your style to me.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Hmmm, I'll pick up his collected works once I wrap up with Kael. I think Greg Costikyan was the one complaining that there was no Pauline Kael of video games, so I thought I'd figure out what qualities she has that he thought critics lacked.

But my complaints aside there is a mountain to learn by studying her. Even by my own argument, millions of people loved her so that warrants investigation no matter what problems I have.

Hyde said...

also, you should probably watch some more old movies! ;)

I like Kael fine, personally, certainly much better than Andrew Sarris--but Farber is better than both. But I think of Farber with respect to you largely because of his idea of "termite art" vs "white elephant art". From the way you write about Super Mario Galaxy, I think you might really want to read his essay to that effect. It is in that recent "Negative Space" collection. There's also a good post on it at Girish Sambu's film blog from a couple years back if you want a taste:

pixelvixen707 said...

Ashamed to admit it, but I've never read Kael.

But L.B., in your post, you seem to suggest that an argument made for the sake of an argument has no merit - and that writing criticism for the sake of a fight is counterproductive. This may not be exactly what you're getting at, but I often see netizens flare up when anyone - especially a paid critic who's on some kind of a pedestal, and could maybe be knocked off - makes a strong and unwavering statement, without admitting it's an opinion. Writers like Nitsuh Abebe have made fun of this tendency - would people rather read something that starts, "You know, this is just me, but like, fwiw ... "? And is that what we pay the best and brightest for?

Critics, like anyone, are flawed and blindered. And it's hard to feel warm about a system where two sides make their arguments and the best rhetoric, rather than the real truth, wins out (a sort of system you know very well).

But especially in gaming, every other facet of criticism has been well supplanted. Information, description, commentary, and even hands-on experiences are cheap and available. The "objective" product reviews that people on forums keep asking for have become a commodity, and the people who assign grades are timid. About the only avenue left for a serious critic is to take bold, sometimes unpopular stands and really let someone have it, simply for the sake of making a great argument (and maybe because they mean it).

If an artist is destroyed at the other end, like one of those directors who got so chafed by Kael, that's probably because nobody else cared enough to defend them.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Well...a lot of the post is a reaction to Kael's style. Looking back on the piece I think next time I'll quote her more so I can get across what she does when she starts getting rowdy.

The problem with Kael is that she will often mock a critic for no other reason than to do it. It doesn't really boost the essay or enhance her point, it just makes note that if you see it differently then you are stupid, like this critic here. The same can be said of when she is trashing a movie. She doesn't just explain why its wrong or a bad direction for films to go in, she parades around its supporters and jeers at them. It's spectacle, not an argument. And it's a line I'm not willing to cross.

Critics, game reviews, and their arguments piss me off all the time. I just don't see much point in using that unless it boosts my argument. I'm tooling out a ZA Critique on Okami and I take issue with a lot of elements in the game. I'm not going to quote every blog that gushed about it just so I can emphasize how wrong they are. There have been plenty of times I called a critic out for saying something stu-, not very well thought out. I just try to do so politely.

If her obituary is to be believed, what eventually broke Kael was when her newest collection of essays and reviews was panned by other critics. The realization, if I had to guess, was that she found out no one was listening anymore.

You're probably right about the commodity we are all banking on though. I said in a piece on Gameratis that in a couple more months the intellectual pissing matches would be firing up. Someone is going to take a swing at somebody eventually. As far as claiming their stuff was just opinion...I would never trust a game critic who told me that. None of us got into this gig because of an ego deficiency. :p

pixelvixen707 said...

Ah, gotcha. I don't know Kael, and so missed that point and jumped to my own hot buttons. You're right, that kind of arrogant attack is just dressed-up trolling - unless you're English. They do it well.

I agree that someone'll start swinging soon - but right now, the brainy gamers are too tight to start a feud, and the enthusiast press is too neanderthal to sustain one. But it's bound to happen. And it could be helpful.

Spencer Greenwood said...

I can't say I agree with you.

Perhaps it's societal conditioning, and I haven't studied criticism to anything like the extent you seem to have, but, for me, the role of the critic is not just to engage with and encourage - it's to decry and derail where necessary, too. Criticism informs the mind of the reader, and not everyone is as erudite or as capable of expressing themselves as the critic. The layman may be interested in finding out about defects in mainsteam cinema, or gaming. Where would they look for views to inform their own if not to the critic?

To attempt to justify deconstructive criticism in a different way, allow me to bring up last week's Start the Week episode. One of Andrew Marr's guests last Monday was A A Gill, who writes television criticism (okay, yes, I know) for The Sunday Times. While discussing his profession, the group seemed to come to the conclusion that negative criticism was an important form of entertainment. So, while it might not affect viewing habits, it's good writing nonetheless.

You seem to feel that lambastery in any medium is fundamentally unhelpful. Do you really believe that? It strikes me that this makes you inconsistent. You assign games you review scores over at PopMatters, do you not? How could you justify giving a game a bad review low score, then, if it was popular? I think there is a chance that I have misunderstood your post somewhat.

Criticism of other critics is something different. I think it's useful, obviously, but not, as you say, when it exists merely for its own sake, or without justification. Critics are here to forward arguments, and not to have shouting matches. If they complement one another, then good. If they disagree, well, fine. Let's use that to try and home in on the truth, and not to compare the size of one another's genitals.

L.B. Jeffries said...

My essential argument is that Kael makes something I consider to be a fundamental flaw. You're welcome to not agree with this, but basically my point is that writing about why you don't like a game that millions of people love is ultimately going to be blown off by that audience. Aside from reaching the other dissenters who agree with you, it's just Agent Smith wigging out on some dude who isn't even listening.

Now, that's not to say you can't write an article about why a game sucks. Or that you can't explain why you didn't like it. My problem is that Kael fails to give any merit to other people's opinions, whether it's a critic or the masses.

As you say, I rip into games all the time. I also separate the world of reviews from criticism, so I don't actually consider those even related but that's another argument. But when I sit down with a game that I know a lot of people like and I don't, I don't act like Kael and start thinking everyone is bonkers. I accept that I'm the villain and I operate by explaining my argument that way.

Looking back...I don't think I did a good job explaining that it's Kael I'm criticizing, not the act of ripping into people or a loved game. When I said power isn't meant for this, I meant that artistically shredding apart a game that lots of people love isn't going to help. Explaining how the game could've been better will.