Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pauline Kael - 4

To begin this conclusion, I asked an older friend about Pauline Kael. She told me she loved her work and had read her all throughout the sixties. I asked why and she said that she always had such a sharp personality. That she always had something different to say than everyone else. I asked how she felt whenever Kael had despised a film that she liked and the friend told me that had never happened. That is what you’re dealing with when you deal with Pauline Kael.

Her obituary at the New York Times quotes Louis Menand, “She made it possible to care about movies without feeling pompous or giddy by showing that what comes first in everyone's experience of a movie isn't the form or the idea but the sensation, and that this is just as true for moviegoers who have been taught to intellectualize their responses to art as it is for everyone else.'' Indeed having now finished the book I think what Kael accomplished during her moment with Bonnie & Clyde (along with several other films) was to withdraw the large stick up everyone’s asses back then. Going back to her review of Hud, the principle message she is communicating as she tears into critics is that the movie was supposed to be a comedy, not a drama. West Side Story is a half-baked version of Romeo & Juliet, not a great musical, and so on. The reason it’s important for someone to do this was that you had people selling intellectualism as a standard way to view films back then. The notion, which is hard to believe even existed, was that critics expected their audiences to always engage with the film on some higher intellectual level. The auteur theory, structural reality, on many levels Kael is constantly just tearing down attempts to shoehorn movies into some neat category. Kael writes, “Criticism is an art, not a science, and a critic who follows rules will fail in one of his most important functions: perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see.” The problem that erupts when you engage with everything intellectually is that you increase the risk of missing things outside your range of experience. When a piece of art comes along that you cannot engage with mentally, a good critic has to at least check themselves by trying to look at it from a different perspective. Kael, with her frankness about sexuality and violence, was able to engage with the films of the late sixties and seventies in a way that most people were missing as they whined about lack of structure or intellectual stimulation.

On some levels, you could almost say it’s the exact opposite problem that we have with video games today. The idea of a critic marching about shredding into people’s reviews and critics with this goal is ridiculous because the vast majority of writers are already engaging with their games on a sensual level. We don’t call it this, we call it fun, exciting, a great thrill, or really scary. I don’t think someone has to go into lavish detail about enjoying shooting an NPC to understand that they are discussing the emotions the game created. The issue with this approach that people seem to be complaining about, whether it’s through the symposium or posts on how to improve reviews, is the lack of any intellectual discourse. We have all become so familiar with these games and their genres that a more finite understanding is being requested. The stick, to put things sexually, has been requested.

What does Kael offer us, as a critic doing the opposite of what our own medium could use, in terms of style? Many people praise Kael for the same reason’s that my friend did, that she had a sense of personal style that people found engaging. She did not actually make money as a critic until she was in her 40’s, meaning that for about ten years she simply wrote whatever she wanted. For ten years she developed a sense of style and passion that was uninhibited by worrying about what people wanted to read. Whether it was running an art house theater or a small radio show, Kael put in the time. She explains, “The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in his judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others.”

This brings up a problem that I noted with Lester Bangs and the whole “There is no “insert famous critic” in Video Game Criticism.” If, as Kael herself defines it, all she does is communicate a knowledge and enthusiasm for the medium of film then there are plenty of people who do this for video games. If you want to talk about music in games, check out Ben Abraham’s blog. If you want to read an intense analysis of the types of gamers, read Mitch Krpata’s A Taxonomy of Gamers. If you want a clear and well-written explanation of game technology, check out Magical Wasteland. Games that aren’t always hyper-masculine or a female opinion? Sexy Videogameland or Acid for Blood. If I haven't mentioned yours then I'm sorry but the internet is vast and impossible to keep track of. You'll go mad waiting for comments or expecting a response to everything on Twitter. But those are just a few examples of people merrily doing what criticism should be doing.

THAT is the problem with game criticism. That is the problem I have with the Symposium. That’s the problem with every person who says there is no good game journalism or that no one is doing this right. People are so absolutely certain that there is something wrong with video game criticism that they never stop to question the realities of the situation. What the Hell do you think a critic like Pauline Kael is going to sound like in action? Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai? How could there ever be an official, acceptable way to review games? Is there going to be a manual of style that we all follow? If we all follow each other’s ideas, even a conglomeration of those ideas, then we’re still going to be up shit creek when a game comes along that doesn’t comport with them. And even when those people existed, do you really think there was some kind of recognition that they were the greatest critic of their time? By the time people started to recognize that Kael was a great critic she was 60 and rapidly becoming a bad one. Bangs was dead of a heart attack after 8 years of writing about music, leaving an untarnished legacy that he was busily driving into the ground. They’re so busy worshipping a bunch of corpses that they have forgotten that when a person, a critic, is writing in the flesh then it tends to not have quite the same ring. At times I wonder if what the people bitching about video game criticism really want is for one of us to drop dead so we can all commence to worshipping them.

So what exactly happened to Kael? How did this all-star critic that we all wish we had around finish up her career? She was there to change the nature of criticism and make it adapt to the new films of the 60’s and 70’s. She did so with sarcasm, crudity, and praising films that explored darker themes. The book review that I originally thought took Kael down did not actually accomplish this. She continued to write for eleven years afterwards. But Renata Adler’s takedown of Kael may perhaps be the best shred session on another person I’ve ever read. It’s only 3 bucks. Adler begins the essay by pointing out that essentially a critic either writes about a work in a medium that has moved them or does so on a consistent basis to produce a consumer guide. The problem is that large amounts of commercial product don’t actually require a high-powered critic to explain them. For example, you don’t need someone analyzing the plot of Halo 3 because it’s pretty easy to follow. Like I said in the first and second essays on Kael, she uses a ton of power to rip apart silly, inconsistent films. Another issue with one person writing about any artistic medium consistently for long periods of time is that they get tired of it. It’s natural, it’s okay if it happens, if you actively study every single film released in the year 2008 you’d be pretty damn sick of movies by the end of it. By the end of her career Kael watched 2 films a day, 4 days a week. She wrote about movies for 37 years.

With all the complaints I’ve lodged about the trash talking it isn’t a shock what happened: she started writing jokes and making fun of people for their own sake. She stopped using them to accomplish a goal or communicate a point and instead just wrote a long string of jokes and insults. Adler notes, ““[She is] an extreme case of what can go wrong with a staff critic. Prose events that would, under ordinary circumstances and on any subject other than movies, have been regarded as lapses—the sadism, slurs, inaccuracies, banalities, intrusions—came to be regarded as Ms. Kael's strong suit. Ms. Kael grew proud of them.” You can see it happening in her work with I Lost It At The Movies such as her takedown of Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film. By the end of the essay I have no idea what it is that Kracauer said that was wrong or what Kael thinks the solution is. I re-read the essay a few times and all I can gather is that Kracauer really liked authenticity in movies when actors had real moments. Kael is so busy bashing his sentences and quibbles that you can scarcely follow what he was saying anymore. Nor does she even offer an alternative. She ends with beautiful prose, the proud declaration that the goal of art is to astonish us, and yet if her goal was to annihilate a rule system’s restrictions she would have been better off explaining why his system cannot astonish us. Adler, in her shred on Kael, explains, “Over the years, Ms. Kael's quirks, mannerisms, tactics, and excesses have not only taken over her work so thoroughly that hardly anything else, nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility, remains; they have also proved contagious, so that the content and level of critical discussion, of movies but also of other forms, have been altered astonishingly for the worse.” It’s a rather frightening assertion to say you’ve lost your touch, it’s another to say you set a bad example that has infected everyone else.

Where does this leave us? What does Kael’s impeccable ethics of what a critic should be and her eventual downfall because of what a critic inevitably becomes truly mean? Let’s talk about the ‘Louder than Words’ piece for a minute. The biggest flaw with my argument is that the level of criticism I’m crying out for does not typically sell. The ZA Critiques, as much as I dearly love them, do not generate clicks. The Monkey Island piece is doing well but let’s face it, everybody likes Monkey Island. When I post my column comparing Far Cry 2 to Heart of Darkness I doubt huge groups are going to flock to it. This lack of profit actually led to a pretty funny exchange of e-mails with me and another writer. He pointed out that until people would actually pay for high-end game criticism, no one was going to bother writing it. I pointed out that I work for no pay. He quoted The Dark Knight and said that if you’re good at something you should never do it for free. I reminded him that when they paid the Joker, he also covered it in gas and threw a lit cigar on it. The writer dryly replied that he’d be impressed when I lit a pile of money someone paid me on fire.

Which puts me into perspective a little bit and should also put the people I called out in that post into perspective. I’m just some dipshit escaping from his dull life by writing about games. A large quantity of bloggers are as well. The Journalists, the ones in that symposium who have a career and their integrity to keep in check, can’t just merrily start writing whatever they want. At least not until some kind of massive demand starts to form for it, in which case I have no doubt they will deliver in spades. The thing you’ve got to remember about the kind of criticism I was asking for is that, like Adler’s critique of Kael outlines, it isn’t a 24/7 thing. There s no need for it. You cannot possibly expect brilliant, enlightening essays on every single game because, let’s face it, most of them don’t merit that kind of work. So you’ve got the consumer report end of the review spectrum and then you’ve got the occasional, hey this one was actually really good kind of essay. That’s what a regular critic actually does. The ones that are still alive, anyways. The ones who make a living on it and are going to stick with this medium for years to come. And that’s all I wanted out of that post, was to see a bit more of the thoughtful analysis and less rambling about how it should be done. And true to my own complaint, I’m the asshole for claiming it didn’t exist. IGN has created a thoughtful section for game reviews. EDGE does a monthly breakdown of an older game that goes in-depth. Hell, just start checking around the blog world.

I was tempted to end this final essay with the quote, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” The ending conclusion was that Lester Bangs died a hero, Pauline Kael passed that phase and discovered that she had become a villain. Yet I wonder now if that really is the lesson of Pauline Kael. The reality that someday your views and ideas will grow outdated and be surpassed by your medium as a critic is something the world will oblige you with eventually. Rather, I think Kael’s lesson comes from how much she accomplished. She didn’t do this because she was good at sarcasm or spotting brilliant movies, she made mistakes plenty of times. She did it because she had standards and she stuck with them. As nebulous and emotional as her views on film might have been, her idea of the critic and their duties was carved in stone. She had a standard and a quality of writing that she consistently delivered without caving into an audience’s complaints or an editor’s pressures. The better quote comes from the scene where vigilantes have begun to dress as Batman and he is forced to intercept them. When one asks why Batman is any different than the average Joe wanting to help he replies, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.” The distinction between Kael and other writers, as in the film, is purely in the quality of the work.


Graduate School Gamer said...

It is so odd holding Kael in such high regards to Lester Bangs. The realm of pop music is so different in comparison to cinema. But we are definitely regarding the notion of criticism in a different light. Personally, I am tired of pop criticism for video games and the problem isn't just the symposium's comments on "new games journalism" but also the approach gamers are responding to it.

What videogames criticism doesn't have is stake. When "Cahier du cinema" and "Postif" was released the print articles were both extremely philosophical and extremely political in regards to film. These were a band of outsiders that breathed film and loved film in a way that was not experienced before. The camera was God and the cinema was the art of God.

When "L’Ecran Francaise" was released Alexandre Astruc wrote about concept of film style that was entirely new to the audience. When Francois Truffaut wrote “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” it became a diatribe against the French cinema and the necessity for change and experimentation towards the medium. When Georges Franju and Henri Langlois started the first archive they had to illegally sneak films into the country and fight for the right to preserve films no matter how obscure.

The growth of New Wave film theory and criticism was a political and artistic movement where the stakes were high and serious. But gamers don't have that yearning, the desire that the medium is in crisis. In fact, there is a fear of the opposite that if videogame criticism is taken seriously, it was lose the playfulness and the casual nature of the pass time. As long as critics and developers continue to identify themselves with the typical gamer no movement can emerge from this mindset. It must come from a band of outsiders. It must be radical. It must be overtly controversial.

Kirk Battle said...

I like it. Controversy, politics, the exotic and the unknown. I'm having an absolute blast taking part in this movement and I think the pressure is building for it to keep growing.

As I wind down the Kael work, I've decided that this study of criticism is rapidly becoming more interesting than just me yammering about video games. I'll keep doing that, naturally but the comparisons keep shedding such interesting light that I think I'm going to keep pursuing this angle.

After a long brain's time for the Samuel Johnson series.

Ben Abraham said...

I wanted to comment on something you said in the third paragraph...

"...the vast majority of writers are already engaging with their games on a sensual level. We don’t call it this, we call it fun, exciting, a great thrill, or really scary. I don’t think someone has to go into lavish detail about enjoying shooting an NPC to understand that they are discussing the emotions the game created."

The way you paint it seem to me like all reviewers are already aping Kieron Gillen's "New Games Journalism" but as everyone knows he was torn to shreds for that "manifesto" because people couldn't accept not having a score out of 10 assigned to how "fun" the game was. (An oversimplification, but the point stands)

It seems to me that the large majority of reviews (and I must admit that I don't actually read that many reviews) that use words like "fun", "exciting", "compelling" only fail because they don't engage intellectually with that visceral level, and instead resort to the above terminology which is... somewhat vague at best.

So I'm unsure about what to take from this piece then. Should we be criticisng the reviews for being too visceral (I don't think so) or for not being intelligent enough to provide an informed discussion about what that sensuality in the game did for them? I am inclined to think it should be the latter, but what does the Kael comparison say about it? I guess I just lost the thread from about that point on and would love for you to clarify for me.

Kirk Battle said...

All I meant was that some people were engaging with films in an intellectual manner while Kael was a proponent of the visceral, of talking about the excitement and emotion.

So the point I was making was that we technically needed what you're arguing for, more intellect and not what Kael was really about.

The rest of it was just studying Kael and her role as a critic. Even if she was an advocate of a cultural movement that's going away from what video games need, she still had a lot of interesting things to offer.