Saturday, December 13, 2008

Pauline Kael - 3

I have a confession to make. After writing my review for Sam & Max: Season One, in which I dipped my toe into Kael’s method of assaulting other critics, the urge to do it again has been coming over me. As we all wait for the symposium’s reports, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps one solution would be for critics to start calling each other out. I would suggest padding your sword more than Kael does, I didn’t outright call the two magazines I quoted idiots, and I even agreed with their scores in the end. It just got annoying that they were criticizing the game for stupid reasons instead of pointing out what was actually wrong with it. And it happens all the time. Far Cry 2 isn’t bad because you have to drive around and shoot too many enemies, it suffers because it’s too damn long for the message the game is delivering. Game Informer’s pithy paragraph for Mushroom Men, in which it declares the game is “just another platformer”, fails to ever qualify why this is a bad thing. Super Mario Galaxy is just another platformer. Fallout 3 is just another FPS. Is my analysis helping you yet?

Kael, much like video games today, was faced with a massive philosophical shift in her chosen artistic medium that large quantities of critics were failing to comprehend. Her largest contribution occurred during the 60’s and 70’s when sex, anti-heroes, and films that didn’t mindlessly make everyone happy were being released. That’s a broad generalization for the time period that David Cook in A History of Narrative Film marks with the release of Bonnie and Clyde. If you’ve never seen the film, do yourself a favor and rectify that, its advertising slogan sums it up decently: “They’re young! They’re in love! And they kill people!” Critics, unfortunately, universally panned the film while it went on to become a box office smash. It is the only film the Times has ever posted a retraction for. The problem with the movie is that if you walk in expecting a traditional gangster film it’s not very good. If you walk in expecting a sharp political satire that blends comedy, violence, and sex then it’s brilliant. Kael, at the time of its release, was one of the few who stood up for it. By this point she had been a film critic for ten years, had a decent following and radio show, and was just as witty as ever. If you’ve never seen the woman tear into somebody, I think Pulp Fiction’s ‘Mushroom Cloud Laying Motherfucker, Motherfucker’ sums it up nicely. As Bonnie and Clyde appealed to an entire generation sick of their uptight parents, it was Kael, doing what she always did, who inadvertently became their champion.

I commented before that I didn’t think there was a guiding principle that drove Kael and I think perhaps it’s because she had a guiding instinct instead. She comments after observing an audience that disliked a banal film, “People take from art and from popular entertainment only what they want; and if they are indifferent to story and motive and blank out on the connections, then a movie without physical action or crass jokes or built-in sentimental responses has nothing for them.” What Kael wanted from movies proved to be very different than what the other critics of her time period wanted. Whereas they praised the film Room at the Top, she witheringly pointed out that the hero essentially gives up love for the sake of security and position. The film is a salute to the ideals of the older generation’s morality, and it is Kael who points out what an atrocious message that becomes in the film’s context. Another example is where a critic named Crowther (whom she made a project out of tearing down from his pedestal) destroyed the chances of The Cousins appearing in theaters by panning it. She comments, “Why did American reviewers consider the honest, plodding, unimaginative, provincial cousin the hero? Possibly identification.” In the film, it is the innocent bumpkin who fails miserably at life while the cynical, drunk, nihilist succeeds. Her point is that the film is simply being honest about who survives in a Bohemian city culture. To declare something awful simply because it does not mix with your values does seem to warrant a rebuke.

To gain a better understanding of the culture Kael is waging war with, it helps to remember that this is before videotapes. This is before internet, Amazon, and all the other ways we typically consume our media. Like theater critics beforehand, film critics had an unnaturally large amount of power over their medium because if you were read by enough people and could persuade them, then the film would not be distributed to theaters. When Crowther shot down The Cousins, he completely destroyed its chances of appearing in cinema houses. The people who ran the projectors saw that it was “awful” and thus did not procure a copy and sell tickets. Theater critics worked the same way, the play was only going to run as long as people were going to see it. Once they tore it apart, that was it.

Culturally, critics today no longer possess this degree of power. Roger Ebert’s column about the death of the film critic curiously seems to miss the point for why he is no longer needed. People can just go check it out for themselves. Netflix, Youtube, and good old fashioned digital piracy mean I can get access to any show or film and see it for myself. There may be a delay with the box office, but I’d hardly compare that to the same destruction a critic was capable of wielding back before technology rendered them irrelevant. The parallel between this and video games is simple: the exorbitant cost of a video game means that the critic wields a sliver of power on that scale again. The parallel continues because that sliver is rapidly fading away. Downloadable content is going to eventually destroy the cost barrier in games because they’re just going to start selling it in ten dollar chunks. The recent release of a 70 minute Force Unleashed level demonstrates how people are already experimenting with this. Leigh Alexander’s post about no one knowing who she was at Gamestop is equally indicative of the rental and used-game culture removing this barrier. The reason anyone gave a damn about a critic was not because they were some silver tongued saint, it was because they were a trustworthy person for knowing whether or not to bother with something. The more you remove the difficulty with the actual bothering part, the more the critic and reviews aren’t really important. People will just go try it for themselves.

Kael, back in the days where critics were in their prime, used her abilities to wage a fight with other critics about which films made it into theaters and which didn’t. One critic commented that a film is intrinsically “not pictorial”. Kael dryly asks what story is intrinsically pictorial? And furthermore, why are movies just a pictorial medium when there is sound, acting, emotion, camera, and lighting all in play as well? When dealing with an international love story that won rave reviews, she complains that she doesn’t see why love fading is such a tragedy. She argues, “Isn’t it rather adolescent to treat the failure of love with such solemnity? For whom does love last? Why try to make so much spiritual desolation out of the transient nature of what we all know to be transient, as if this transciency somehow defined our time and place?” When a film tries to do anything that isn’t the same old crap we’re always being handed in a new skin, she is there to point out that something is going on. She sums up the entire critical bias quite nicely in her essay on Shoot the Piano Player, “They[Film Critics] want unity of theme, easy-to-follow transitions in mood a good, coherent, old-fashioned plot, and heroes they can identify with and villains they can reject.”

I’m also not the first person to take umbrage with her attitude, although after a lot of research I started to appreciate why she had to elevate it to the level of nastiness that she took. Kael is a single mother in the 1960’s. One angry reader snidely comments that Kael isn’t married because she’s so hateful and brags about her husband. She gamely responds that heaven forbid a woman ever behave any other way except submissive, happy, and desperate to please her man. Another acidly declares that she should make a film of her own before she trashes them so extensively. She comments that one does not have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good. One reader cannot believe that she didn’t like The Parent Trap and that all she ever does is praise indie films while ignoring ‘name’ movies. She does not disappoint, “What makes a “name” movie is simply a saturation advertising campaign, the same kind of campaign that puts samples of liquid detergents at your door. The “name” pictures of Hollywood are made the same way they are sold: by pre-testing the various ingredients, removing all possible elements that might affront the mass audience, adding all possible elements that will titillate the largest number of people… Was it popular in any meaningful sense or do we just call it popular because it sold?” She even handles men like me, cheerily replying that she does not mind the dog comparison so long as I don’t start insinuating that she actually wants a penis as well. You have to hand it to someone who can write a witty retort from the grave.

As it stands now, I should warn anyone that starts studying Kael or samples the art of attacking other critics that it is a dangerously pleasant feeling. That Sam & Max essay, despite the 7/10, is posted on TellTale’s website and praised because I argued that if you stop expecting it to be a video game and treat it like a comedy then it works just fine. I wrote about those other reviews because they kept complaining that there wasn’t any action and that modern gamers wouldn’t like it. Right now we are currently facing the exact same wave of cultural change that Kael faced. As video games diversify, as games that no longer offer the typical victory porn and self-congratulating game design become popular, we are reaching a crossroads. People who want them to stay the same and people who are interested in change are both speaking up. One of the popular comparisons to our current cultural crisis is to comic books. When faced with The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns critics dropped the ball and kept promoting the violence and nastiness instead of the wit, satire, and innovation. Their Bonnie and Clyde arrived, their comic book that everyone loved, and their critics went right back to business as usual after it was done. What’s our moment? Is it the Wii? Countless critics and gamers bash the console because of its bizarre line-up. The critics who pan it typically prefer single-player games, which the console distinctly is not about. Perhaps if we stopped expecting it to be an Xbox 360 we might appreciate it a bit more. Is it Braid? The incessant complaints of it being tricky to play despite the fact that it features an unlimited rewind mechanic is a wee bit silly. The fact that the narrative employs time travel by even having the prose reflect that may not be easy to follow, but it is certainly innovative. And the more you become distinctly aware of people pushing video games in one direction, you will feel the same temptation to do as Kael did. To just start calling people out on it. To start naming them, not because you dislike them, but because they are driving the medium into the ground. Like I said about Kael in another piece, she loved the medium and fought for it so much that they eventually ended her career for it.

The final portion of the book is an enormous essay on the state of film criticism, how it should be done, and publicly crucifying a few people in an explanatory fashion. Her obituary, the article that eventually made her quit writing, and a few choice interviews are also on top of my pile of notes. I’ll put them together for a fourth post eventually. After that, I’ll factor in reader responses and organize this into another essay for Popmatters that will be like the Lester Bangs one.


Ben Abraham said...

This was great. The series is coming together nicely.

Michael Abbott said...

Great essay, full of big ideas as usual, L.B. You really know how to fill our plates.

Rather than respond to the whole thing, I'll just focus on one aspect of the Kael approach that troubles me. You suggest that we take our cue from Kael and "just start calling people out on it. To start naming them, not because you dislike them, but because they are driving the medium into the ground."

I'm not sure Kael was ever able to separate not liking someone from disagreeing with their arguments, but I'll give her a pass on that one. Bosley Crowther was a pretty stuffy gatekeeper that probably needed to be taken down a notch or two.

My real problem is that if we argue with each other on the basis of which ideas are driving the medium into the ground, we're bound to generate a lot of heat, but not much light. Such stakes are, I think, artificially high and tend to produce shrill arguments on both sides.

It turns out that Disney didn't kill animation or choke off innovation like its harshest critics said it would. All it took was for Studio Ghibli and others to remind us there's another way. Similarly, all the doomsday arguments about mindless video games are countered by games like Braid that make a strong case for a different way of thinking.

I obviously didn't like Braid as much as some, but I would point to the critical response to that game, mine included, as a positive and generally constructive collective conversation that also happened to include lots of input from the artist himself. I think if we had adopted the aggressive Kael approach ("I don't like this game and here's why you shouldn't either"), we never would have produced the useful discussion that emerged.

I guess a lot of this comes down to our various sensibilities. I personally don't like Kael very much, even when I agree with her, because I think she was too often driven by negative, even hateful motives. I think angry artists can sometimes be driven to produce interesting stuff; but angry critics often cloud their own judgment, even when they make us pump our fists in agreement. I'm not saying we should never get angry or write from that perspective, but Kael sort of lived in that place, and even though it distinguished her, I think it ultimately diminished her effectiveness.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Yeah, I literally sat down and made myself think only positive thoughts about her for this piece. Too many people liked her for me to not focus on the arguments and recognize the good she did. Finding the balance between recognizing her faults and admiring her strengths will be the tricky part of the final essay.

bk said...

In my opinion, video game criticism doesn't need a Pauline Kael, or a Lester Bangs either. What I would be interested in seeing is a critic who took some tips from Manny Farber. Partly this is because I think Farber is by far the best English-language film critic. He's also the primary inspiration behind some of the best film criticism being written today (which is pretty impressive since he stopped writing about movies in 1977 and indeed died a few months ago). There is currently only a single Farber collection out, "Negative Space," though a complete roundup of his film pieces is in the works, to be published by the Library of America. He is not an easy writer, not because his prose is jargon-heavy or "academic" (it's the furthest thing from either), but just because it takes some time and effort to enter into his quicksilver sensibility. If you like, I'll list some of the primary traits that make Farber a worthwhile model for any form of criticism.

pixelvixen707 said...

Hopefully not because it's positive, but I thought this was the best Kael post yet.

I'm tending, maybe as quickly as you're tending, to think we critics should call each other out more aggressively. What did you think of Slate's recent gaming club? Those fellows started to get testy with each other, especially after Seth started bragging that he never has to do interviews or junkets anymore. But they never actually came to blows. Should they have?

bk, thanks for the tip on Farber - I'll admit I've never heard of him.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I read two of the Slate things and never picked it back up for the completion. 4 dudes discussing their favorite game and bickering about how the other is wrong isn't really up my alley.

I suppose the biggest problem I can see, once you get past the initial knee-jerk reaction of "Don't be mean to people", is that tearing someone else apart is not always the most effective style of arguing. It has its moments, particularly when you're fighting for the under dog, but Kael does it every single time. It gets to be like Yahtzee after a while, she's just making a spectacle for its own sake rather than having a point.

It also muddles her message. After reading a 20 page attack on a 300 page book on film theory, the only thing I had learned was that this person was wrong. What Kael thought or what would be a better film theory was nowhere to be found.