“Trash, Art, and the Movies” by Pauline Kael

If you don’t know who Pauline Kael was, I recommend giving her Wikipedia page a quick pass. She was and continues to be an incredibly divisive figure, and during her 23-year tenure at the New Yorker, she established herself as one of the influential voices of film criticism to date. Her opinions on movies often went contrary to those of her contemporaries and the general public (for instance, she panned The Sound of Music, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and West Side Story while praising films like The Warriors), and she regularly butted heads with both her colleagues at the New Yorker as well as people in the movie industry. Roger Ebert said of her, “Pauline had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn’t apply her ‘approach’ to a film. With her it was all personal.” While I agree it’s clear that films were deeply personal to her, I would argue that she did have rules, theory, and guidelines behind her opinions. They just might not be what we expect.

Movies are probably the second-easiest media after television to consume. When you watch a movie in a theater, the screen is the only thing you see, the theater speakers the only thing you hear. You don’t so much give it your attention as it is demanded from you, and in return it saturates your senses. This, Kael says, makes movies “the most total and encompassing art form we have,” where “[our] reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable.”

But movies can also be (and to be fair, it’s likely that the majority of movies are) utter trash, i.e. not good.” And “good” means a specific thing to Kael: “a good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again.” Good movies provide escapism. They make use of their inherent totality and immerse their viewers to make them feel something. This definition of “goodness” seems very simple, but the way it’s achieved can be very complex. After all, movies require the careful orchestration of moving picture and sound, and the amount and diversity of work that goes into producing one makes it near-impossible for one person (e.g. the director) to have control over it all. But because of this, movies can become good, or even ascend to become “art,” in any number of ways. One of the most interesting parts of this essay is the ramifications of how Kael interprets movie art.

“Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so. It’s the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings.”

That is, for a movie to be art it must make us feel the things we felt in good movies, but in new ways. It requires a sort of novelty, an addition onto our lives.

This suggests to me that there are two levels of art. There is art on the personal level, where a movie provides us as individuals a new way of seeing or understanding the world. There’s also, for lack of a better word, something of a “cultural” art, the contribution that a movie makes not to a single person but to a larger dialogue around film as a practice. But it’s the personal art that makes us fall in love with the movies, when we watch a movie and feel like we see a part of ourselves that we always knew was there but could never quite articulate, the understanding that someone else out there must feel that same thing too.

The personal understanding of movies as art also leads Kael to express that our definitions of art are malleable. This explains why Ebert also said of her, “She’s accused of being inconsistent and contradicting herself. Directors would fall in and out of favor. With her there was no possibility of inconsistency, because she always wrote about what she felt right now.”

All of a sudden, it becomes clear why Kael was so unconcerned with falling in line with her fellow critics, why her writing style is so raw and unfiltered, why she fought so hard for her opinions to be printed in their unedited and uncut form. If the point of a good movie is to show you something new, how could anyone else do that for you? No two viewings are the same, not even by the same person. There’s no use in trying to coming to agreement on two inherently different opinions.

That doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable to have critics or opinions at all, however. Critics provide invaluable contributions to the ongoing discourse around art. Their role is not to prescribe viewpoints, but to further expand the impact of a work itself and how it changes the way we understand ourselves and our world. Pauline Kael doesn’t care about whether we agree with her because her reviews are not persuasive arguments. They’re a documentation of her experience, not something we should try to match but something we should accept. As long as her work is used as the starting point for further conversations on movies, she has done her job. She’s not looking to project her views onto anyone else. Instead, we should use her writing to keep us thinking about our own relationships with movies, both trash and art.