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.