The Critics’ Inquisition (11/04/80)

Some people try to pick up girls and get called assholes
This never happened to Pablo Picasso

– Jonathan Richman

Reading Andrew Sarris, film critic for the Village Voice, one might think it never happened to John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles or Raoul Walsh either. Since the publication of “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” in Film Culture, Sarris has written about his director heroes as if his principal task were to lead his readers to recognize the genius of these men and others like them. In the July 2nd Voice Sarris published a long attack on movie critic Pauline Kael—an attack so venal it could, if accepted as legitimate discourse, trash whatever standards of decency and fairness still apply to critical dialogue—and it was not quite another story.

In 1962, Sarris took off from the B-picture discoveries of critic Manny Farber (“Underground Films,” I957) and from the often contorted rationalizations that Fifties French critics like Truffaut and Godard had come up with to make sense of their love of American action movies. He removed the French enthusiasms from their context as a response to postexistentialist intellectual oppression, removed Farber’s assessments of Hawks, Walsh and Sam Fuller from their context of good-cop/bad-cop balance (“These are the man’s limitations,” Farber would write, in essence; “this is what he can do within them”), and added a nearly impenetrable layer of hype, romanticizing the artist right back to the nineteenth century. The result was a formula whereby “interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art,” was “extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.” Mov­ies were to be judged on the basis of “the distinguishable personality of the director.” Thus, what looked like a routine Western or crime melodrama could, by reference to other, similar pictures by the same director, be seen as a work no less “personal” than a film by Ingmar Bergman; thus, the commercial American cinema was redeemed. The question of what a director’s “personality” might be worth pretty much went by the boards.

Because Sarris’ version of the auteur theory (and really, theory is far too grand a word—notion is more like it) was a formula, and because the directors championed by Farber, the French and Sarris had made many remarkable movies that had been overlooked, Sarris’ work made a difference. A lot of films that might have been forgotten were seen and discussed; while one’s idea of the American cinema could then be (and in many cases was) reduced to a set of genre films, much that had been left out was restored. Colleges, under Sixties pressure to be “relevant” and dearly loving a formula, organized film courses and schools. Young American directors, many trained in the new film schools, assumed automatically that they were artists (never wondering if they had anything to say), and were promoted as such. The educated movie audience went along with the promotion.

When Sarris “Notes” first appeared, however, it occasioned a response from another then-little-known critic, Pauline Kael of Berkeley. Writing in Film Quarterly in 1963, she cut the premises of Sarris’ “auteur theory” all to pieces. Sarris’ insistence on “interior meaning,” she wrote, would reverse the basis of criticism per se: the assumption “that the artist expresses himself in the unity of form and content” As to “the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value”: “The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the smell of a rose,” she wrote. “Does that make it better?” If movie criticism meant discovering “crucial links” that revealed the guiding “personality” behind various Raoul Walsh pictures, she wanted no part of it.

Kael, writing since the late Sixties for the New Yorker*, became famous and widely read. She wrote not in the tradition of all-time most-revered American film critic James Agee but of Leslie Fiedler and Norman Mailer; her criticism had nothing to do with a “theory,” though it had everything to do with extending a point of view about the  place of movies in American life. Saris became a professor of film studies at Columbia, continued to write weekly for the Voice and, if he never achieved Kael’s fame or her readership, probably won himself a higher reputation among film scholars and cinephiles. Sarris and Kael define two poles of film criticism, criticism full of rankings and demigods, and criticism in which everything is up for grabs and no one is blessed or innocent. Given that today movie critics have their own followings, that thousands are working to emulate people like Kael and Sarris, and that their work affects not only how people will be educated but how directors will perceive their own work, such an opposition is anything but trivial.

Only when one understands this can one understand perhaps the most bizarre of the many bizarre passages in Sarris’ attack on Kael: “Pauline has never plunged deeply enough into movies themselves to surrender her enormous ego to their magical spell. I have never found in her critical writing the sustained illumination of the true believer.” Now, if one were dealing with an ordinary conflict between approaches to art, one might pause over the weird meaninglessness of “sustained illumination,” and then note that this formulation is fully as odd as Sarris’ redefinition of art in his auteur essay. One might argue that we don’t want critics to be true believers; we want them to respond to what’s new in an artist’s work and to what’s a cheat, to connect a movie to the world from which it comes and to which it’s addressed. The last thing we want is a critic who substitutes one aspect of life—the Cinema, say—for its multiplicity. (You can spot such people at all the campus film societies today; most of them look as if they haven’t spoken to another person for five years.) Certainly Kael is not a “true believer”; Truffaut’s conundrum—“Are films more important than life?”—isn’t hers.

With Sarris’ article, though, such a rejoinder altogether misses the point. True, Sarris does line out a number of dubious but arguable points against Kael: that she’s insufficiently respectful of the elect (“She denigrated even Citizen Kane as a ‘shallow masterpiece,'” he writes, but Kane could be a deep masterpiece only if one were talking about deep focus); that she’s at times been less than forthright about her friendship with people whose work she’s reviewing (true in the case of James Toback, not at all true in the case of Sam Peckinpah); that “she deplores the spread of film studies in academe” (I don’t know if she does or not); and that “she has never admitted a mistake or revised an opinion” (could be). I wouldn’t mind taking up some of these complaints (the spread of film studies is one reason so many college students now graduate without having read anything), but they’re really not relevant. If Sarris were simply tossing arguments at Kael I’d leave it to her to toss them back.

But the fact is Saris has produced an attack to which Kael cannot reply. Despite its hook as a review of When the Lights Go Down, Kael’s most recent collection of reviews, Sarris’ piece isn’t criticism and it isn’t polemic. It’s an attempt at character assassination—a cruelly hysterical screed powered by gossip, long-harbored envy and resentment, out-of-context quotes and repulsive sexism.

Saris begins his assault by going hack to 1963, when Kael, who had just rebutted Sarris’ auteur essay, called Saris with an invitation to get acquainted. “Her voice was aggressive,” Sarris writes of Kael’s phone call, “insinuating, crackling, if not cackling, with good cheer.” Sarris’ own out-of-the-blue insinuation that Kael is some sort of witch (“if not cackling”) is known as the “some people say he’s a pig fucker, but I wouldn’t know” mode of argument—and it’s just a warm-up. We soon learn that Sarris finds Kael less than pretty; that she’s a closet fag-baiter (this on the basis of Sarris’ own paranoid fantasies, a story he heard, the determined misconstruction of a few quotes, and the assertion that it’s “dirty pool” for a woman to use any sort of sexual imagery when characterizing the work of a man); that she’s old; and that “while she appeared in her prose as a model of maturity and stability” (when not, apparently, writing in the “precociously schoolgirlish” tone Sarris also identifies) she struck “the disinterested observer” (who, I wonder?) “as a walking nervous wreck.” No one, so far as I know, has ever attempted to discredit James Agee’s film criticism because of his looks, his use of “virility” as a criterion of value, the contradiction between his unrelievedly stable and mature voice and his alcoholism, or because he’s dead. It’s the sort of stuff one uses against a woman—just imply she’s neurotic and you’re halfway home.

Sarris’ sexism is most subtle, but perhaps most offensive, in his description of Kael when she arrived in New York after leaving California: “Imagine Susan Sontag and Sue Mengers in the same person.” I don’t know much about Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers (I suppose the comparison is meant to suggest a fang-toothed hustler, more witch talk), but I do know that there are few if any writers with whom Kael has less in common than Susan Sontag. What does Sarris mean? That they’re both well read? Or, simply, that they’re both “lady writers,” and can thus be plugged into a snappy line, without concern for what they think or how they write?

Kael, it seems, is a woman in a man’s job. Almost all movies are made by men; a woman who writes as a woman, and who has always made a point of questioning the male fantasies purveyed in movies, can hardly be expected to view films with requisite sympathy, let alone to “surren­der her enormous ego” (and where—and I don’t mean in Sarris’ piece—have we heard that before?) “to their magical spell.” Certainly, women can function as film critics—if they know their place, and don’t bother John Wayne.

If sexism is the ugliest subtext of Sarris’ attack, however, it’s not the most pathetic: that has to do with money. Early on, Sarris notes that Kael’s demolition of his auteur essay “seemed all out of proportion to the influence and income of her targets”—surely the first time it’s been suggested that a poor credit rating bestows immunity on impoverished ideas. Saris follows with this amazing passage: ‘Anyone with Pauline’s degree of clairvoyance [about how movies are made and understood ] would have been rich and famous much sooner in life.” That, in the end, is what Sarris’ criticism reduces itself to: “If you’re so smart why aren’t you rich?” Vox populi, vox veritas. * *

Since the one thing in Sarris’ piece I liked was his implicit assertion that a critic should always make clear his or her relationship to his or her subject, it should be noted that Pauline Kael is a friend of mine, albeit a mostly long-distance one. On the other hand, since her writing was vital to me long before I ever met her, I like to think I would have written this column if we had never met.

* Kael spent the last year working as a consultant to Paramount and returned to the New Yorker this spring.

* * As opposed to Sarris’ abuse. Renata Adler’s “The Perils of Pauline,” which appeared in the August 14th issue of the New York Review of Books, just as this piece was going to the printer, might seem like the rational no vote on Kael. Adler focuses on certain stylistic problems that have cropped up in Kael’s writing in the Seventies; Adler scores in terms of prose and misses when she tries to use stylistic excesses to discredit (and avoid considering) what Kael has had to say. But Adler is no less venal than Sarris, only more sophisticated. Her piece isn’t an assessment of Kael, it’s an attempt to destroy her—and it reads like the sort of brief that’s used to get a senile supreme court justice off the bench. Dismissing Kael’s new book as “worthless,” Adler prefaces her essay with the claim that regular criticism (as opposed to the productions of the “serious intermittent critic,” which sounds like a fancy way of saying “gentleman critic”) “is not a day’s work for a thinking adult”—apparently someone like Adler, whose books include an unreadably pedestrian collection of film crit and a quaint novel—and closes with the arch comment that Kael was “taken back”‘ by the New Yorker only because “nobody at the New Yorker wanted to be the staff movie critic.” One need only compare the movie reviews, some of them by Adler herself, that the New Yorker ran last fall—when Kael was off and Penelope Gilliatt, the magazine’s alternating reviewer, was cased out after an episode of plagiarism—to those by Kael that are running now to judge Adler’s crack for what it’s worth. Save for the pieces by Veronica Geng, those reviews died on the page. And while Adler tries hard to wipe out Kael’s reputation as a thinking critic (if not an adult) by pointing up the “coarse” and “vulgar” strain in Kael’s writing—again, such writing from a man would go unnoticed, here it’s perverse—Adler shows what she really thinks of vulgarity by dignifying Sarris’ attack as a “personal statement.” Maybe Adler needs a new dictionary.

 Rolling Stone, September 4, 1980


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