PAULINE KAEL, PROVOCATEUR

Tom Sutpen, over at Illusion Travels By Streetcar, has recently posted a delightful recording of a talk, with a question-and-answer session, that Pauline Kael gave at UC Berkeley in 1968.  Kael had just been hired as the film critic for The New Yorker and had just published her second book of collected criticism, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and she was full of beans.

The talk is a useful reminder of what good criticism is all about — not being right, or consistent, or even terribly logical, but stimulating, challenging, and sometimes downright infuriating.

Kael is remarkably honest about her ambitions as a critic.  She wants to deflate pretension, shake up the common wisdom and promote the films she likes with polemical verve.  She admits to withholding any negative reactions she might have to films she likes, lest this interfere with her promotion of them.  She makes her critical biases perfectly clear — she is interested in the sociology of the film audience and in the literary qualities of film content, and astonishingly unsympathetic to the visual aspect of cinema.

In the course of a thorough demolition of avant-garde and “underground” films (like Andy Warhol's Empire, above), she remarks that longer films “without synchronous sound” are basically unwatchable — a direct contradiction of her love for many silent films.  She says she has lost interest in Westerns because she's seen too many of them and their plots have become overly familiar.  This is an odd sort of nonsense — rather like an art critic saying she's lost interest in still-lifes because she's seen too many painted apples.  (It must be noted, though, that in passing Kael aims a well-deserved shot at the “socially conscious” Western, which was already a tiresome cliché in 1968.)

At a certain point in the talk you begin to realize that she's trying to make you angry, trying to shake you out of your complacency — demanding that you create higher standards for movies and for your reactions to them.  Even when she's talking nonsense, she gets your blood racing.

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