Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pauline Kael - 2

Several crashed hard drives and long weeks of studying for law exams later, I’ve decided to scratch this insufferable itch and write about Pauline Kael again. I’m halfway through I Lost It At The Movies, the book I was informed was her best. My initial complaints have grown quite louder and more thorough. To start this piece off, I’m going to do precisely the thing she does not do. I’m going to admit my biases. I said in the last piece that I was an adamant proponent of Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold and I’d like to explain what that means. I base the value of an artistic work on the number of people who like it. More specifically, I base that value on whether people still talk about it well after it has ceased to be financially viable for the author or publisher. There is no marketing sustaining it, there is no consumer zombie purchasing the product because everyone is talking about it. It persists for a reason that defies our conventional understanding of what makes people consume a product and is often still economically viable well after the period it should have faded. I no longer consider my task as a critic to revolve around talking about why I like the product. That’s mostly irrelevant. My task is to explain why the hell this piece of art, this game, persists. I then offer my pithy opinion as to why this is occurring and generally listen to other people bark out their own. That’s what it means to follow their school of thought, roughly (actually very roughly) speaking. Yes, I have opinions and believe me when I say they leak out all the time when I try to do serious criticism, but I also acknowledge that they aren’t very important in the scheme of things when millions of people disagree with me.

Enter Pauline Kael. I noted that I didn’t think a critic like her could survive on the internet and I still stand by that statement. Thanks to the editorial insistence that we all have comment options on our articles and downright encourage it, you can’t just post a mindless opinion piece without suffering the consequences. The intrinsic problem I have with Kael, the question I scream every time I read something by her, is where is the other side’s opinion? The basic tactic she uses is to quote them and then launch into her own opinion. Given the vast amounts of writing power she possesses and the critic's inability to ever fight back, it’s a bit like watching someone create a Socratic dialogue with their friends. She comments about one film review, ”Time put it down more coolly in a single-paragraph review that distorted the plot and missed the point.” She comments about a Variety review, “if someone I knew said of [film name removed] what Variety did, I would feel as if the Grand Canyon had suddenly opened at my feet.” Or at her most charming, “I won’t degrade you and me by attempting to quote the barbarous language of the local critics: they didn’t distinguish themselves any more than usual.” I’m cherry picking and isolating her from the flowing praise she laps on these films, but it’s no worse than what she does to other people. Keep in mind that each time she is naming someone, calling out their magazine, and using that quote to parade about their idiocy, she is never talking about the rest of their arguments or even acknowledging they had one.

Kael eventually lost her job with the New Yorker because the Editor felt she refused to give a mainstream film positive marks. This starts to come up even in her early work here. Her dislike of ‘West Side Story’ is not so much an exercise in logical discourse as it is finding everything possible to complain about the film. I’m not anymore fond of “I Want to Live In America” than the next person, but complaining that the film is butchering ‘Romeo & Juliet’ seems a bit obtuse. It’s a dipshit musical fused with a reliable narrative, I’m not expecting it to jump through flaming hoops. Kael comments, “The irony of this hyped-up, slam-bang production is that those involved apparently don’t really believe that beauty and romance can be expressed in modern rhythms – for whenever their Romeo and Juliet enter the scene, the dialogue becomes painfully old-fashioned and maskish, the dancing turns to simpering, sickly romantic ballet, and sugary old stars hover in the sky.” She complains that the Old Friar has become an Old Jew, she complains that the Puerto Rican gangs aren’t Puerto Rican enough, and she wastes no ink deriding how corny the lines are in the lover’s scenes. Given that the film cleaned house at the Academy Awards and is still shoved down people’s throats to this day…one wonders if what she is complaining about is that everyone likes a film that she did not. The reasons paraded around and the critics mocked are just icing to cover up a very ugly cake.

What does it even mean when a large quantity of people like something that you do not? Are they stupid and you’re smart? Do you comprehend that something has a massive flaw that millions of people are missing or is there a much simpler solution? Is it possible that it’s just you? Before you have a response to that one way or the other, think about how you’re going to phrase either argument. As I said in the previous essay, another problem with Kael is that she does not seem to operate on any kind of definable logic. Were a game to receive low scores that you personally loved, surely we could at least point to a rational explanation for it? You like FPS games, this is a solid FPS, ergo we all understand your critical tendencies. There is no way to understand what Kael is going to like or dislike. People appreciate their critics being predictable in the sense that they see us as specialized filters. Take me, if a game combines game design, plot, and player input in a coherent way that delivers an interesting experience you’re going to get a good score out of me. My disgust with that experience is irrelevant (you don’t want to know how many games I give high scores that I don’t personally like), I’m just observing how the parts come together and gauging the whole. If I judge the developer’s intent and final product to have succeeded, then that’s all I expect. The rest I leave up to the audience. Kael, on the other hand, is a veritable Animal Farm with her willingness to change standards. She praises the Paul Newman film ‘Hud’ for its course humor, rape scene, and notes how the audience loved it. Yet when the film ‘One, Two, Three’ comes up she derides it’s sexual humor and class jokes as “overwrought, tasteless, and offensive, - a comedy that pulls out laughs the way a catheter draws urine.” Witty, yes. Powerful prose, yes. But there’s a goddamn maniac behind the controls of that power and it’s going left when the last time that same pattern was presented to it she went to the right. To put this into perspective, I hustled up the film student I knew from college who had studied Kael and got his opinion on the matter. He said, “To be totally honest, I never saw much logic to her liking or hating a film either. It just seemed to boil down to what time of the month it was for her.”

I’m not going to name the person who said that nor is it very appropriate that I just repeated it. Such sexist conceptions are as shallow as Kael’s struggle to find something wrong with a film that did not jive with her when there was no intrinsic flaw beyond her own distaste. To believe that either audience or critic has an inferior perspective because of their failure to cohere with your own raises a lot of fundamental issues. Given the number of films that Kael goes to great lengths to embarrass other critics for liking or disliking that I’ve never heard of, I can safely say that getting into an intellectual pissing match with someone over a piece of art is 99.9% of the time a waste. The fact that a film student would say something that nasty about her warrants something else: if you live by the sword then you die by it. For someone who talked as much shit as Pauline Kael does for no reason other than some funky ass like or dislike for a film…perhaps it’s warranted to mock her mood swings. In the last post I had several commenters argue that there is a value in calling out critics for their failures and pointing out that a game everyone is praising is actually not particularly great. Is there value in such discourse? Yeah, definitely. Kael is still a genius and like I said, she’s in command of an awe inspiring degree of power to shape and twist people’s minds. Given her psychotic fan base and the charming inspiration for shit-talking that she created, one might dare wonder how the critical world would go on without her influence. But I still believe that using that ability to talk shit about a bunch of critics that nobody remembers and rip into a film that no one recalls except its adamant fans accomplishes only one thing. You sound like a giant bitch.

There are a variety of reasons for writing these posts about Pauline Kael and there will be more once these damned exams are over with and I’ve got some time to finish her book. The reason I started these posts months ago was because of bloggers yammering about how video games needed someone like this critic and I decided to study what they were talking about. But with Kael…I think her most important lesson to video games is what not to do. This is too diverse a medium, this is art that is principally defined by player input. You cannot become upset at the notion of someone having a different experience from you in a video game, that is intrinsic to the very reason they are video games. Parading about the complaints of other critics without at least exploring their points is not just short changing your argument, it’s short changing the very reason video games are interesting. People can have different experiences with them and those will each be equally valid.

I still don’t really know what to tell a video game critic about how to approach their medium. I’ve studied a lot of different people crossing multiple artforms now but none of them had much insight on how to handle something like video games. So I just keep figuring it out as I go and mixing up as much old wisdom as I can possibly make fit. I do my little song and dance, but I’m as much a crap shoot as the next blogger. I wish I believed in the critical power that Kael believed in. That what I said was somehow going to change everything and make people start believing in some profound stronger view of what the medium was capable of. I think video games are going to achieve that but I certainly don't believe it's going to be because of me.That I could somehow make some AAA title with millions in marketing fail based on my very word and will. And yet…by achieiving such a goal I wonder if being a cultural guide would just turn into a giant session of ‘Where can we go next?’ By all accounts, Kael became so popular that she destroyed the profit margins of films and ruined several director’s careers. And by all indications from what I read, the logic of that power was so bizarre that she shifted the goal of where films should go whenever it suited her and to the suffering of others. If a critic is just a person coercing an artistic medium they love to achieve a certain potential, what happens to them once that medium has done it? Do you accept the victory or do you keep pushing it until you’ve run out of ideas? I suppose that’s more up to the critic than the medium, if Kael is any indication.


Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hey, I like these pieces on Kael. (I wrote up a piece on her myself, talking about her defense of Trash.)

I think when people demand a critic like Kael I don't necessarily think that we need someone with her kind of idiosyncrasies and critical leverage on the success of individual movies. That's not the point.

What we need is someone who can write that well. It's a big deal. As you note, Kael's not a evenhanded critical thinker but she could write circles around any game critic. that shit matters. Ditto lester bangs, the other famous critic that tends to come up when we talk about games criticism.

Second, we need someone who has a strong viewpoint about what constitutes excellence in the medium. I don't buy Kael's view that movies are, at their best, sophisticated pleasure-producing machines. (Like you, I'm a Matthew Arnold-Lionel Trilling man.) But it's a view. It would be great if we had critics in the video games space who had a view at all, let alone the ability to propagandize for it with Kael's command of prose.

Also: you give good grades to games you don't like? I'm intrigued.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I think I remember spotting that one. For as many pages I marked where she said something obnoxious there are ones where she said something brilliant. When she is in the mood, she can do quite a lot.

It's odd, I was struggling to explain why I found her using her writing abilities for merely insulting other critics in that last piece. Before I wrote this essay, I'd watched a movie that interviewed Alan Moore and was mostly just him explaining his beliefs about shamanism and magic. To him, it has nothing to do with supernatural powers but rather your ability to communicate ideas that are outside the group's normal thought. Magic was simply an unusually sophisticated understanding of issues and the ability to communicate a solution. Ergo, why culturally wizards have to say words to cast spells, etc.

It wasn't so much that I was persuaded by his interpretation of anthropology, but his argument that there is an intrinsic responsibility to being able to wield that power. He pointed out that one of the greatest travesties of society today was that most of our magi just work in advertising convincing us to buy crap we don't need. The others drink booze or take drugs to deny that responsibility. It reminded me of Gnosticism for some reason, but I'm not sure what that meant yet.

With was just my outrage at her using her abilities to trash people. Like you, I'm continually impressed by how good she is. But I just don't get why she's using it for this. The moral question any critic must face is not what their medium can do to fulfill their fantasies. It's how they can help that medium achieve it. The next post I'm going to try to go into what she does right and praise her more.

As for the review scores...ha, I think I'll keep that secret for a bit longer. I'm very lucky that I can read the metacritic response to a game before I write my review, so I get to include a lot more hindsight.

L.B. Jeffries said...

You know, I really ought to clarify that. By hindsight, I mean I read other reviews and listen to people's likes and dislikes. I also check forums and see what people are complaining about. It makes it so I don't just factor in my own opinion, but the reactions of other people as well.

It just seems like the most appropriate way to review a video game.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

That's kind of crazy, I almost never think of measuring my judgment of a game against others' opinions. Maybe it's that I don't write for any legit outlet, so I feel no need to achieve a relative measure of objectivity.

However, I do think I try to keep two issues distinct. On one hand, you can recognize what a game is trying to do, analyze how its various elements work together to create some experience. And on the other hand that experience can appeal to you or not. I think the former is relatively objective, while the latter is not.

this probably ties into your point about Moore-- I really don't think criticism is about persuading someone of my opinion so much as a means of getting insight into some object. Like, you are trying to get someone to think about an object in a certain way but that's not the first-order goal of criticism.