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May 13, 2009


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unreliable narrator

"...who's kind of doubly fucked in the film snob game, given that he seems to hate both Ingmar Bergman and Ford's The Searchers in equal measure."


Actually I think the sulky-hatred-cum-envy of the cultural critic who has the nerve to be, well, cultured, goes far back beyond even the era of Ms. Kael. You find it in Henry James and as far back as Tocqueville. I don't think it's anything other than the thriving vestiges of good old American class anxiety over not being "European." Which is why (Oxford-educated) Anthony Lane is an especially head-scratchingly weird choice for exemplar populist critic.

unreliable narrator

Also explains why to this day James Agee isn't given what I consider his fair due: too knowledgeable. What did the Oxford, Miss. residents call Faulkner? Oh yes—"Count No 'Count." We're proud of our strange culture-ravenous sons and daughters, but they also alarm us, and we don't want them at the family reunion. Or on the masthead. Besides which, they have a harder time meeting deadlines, because they are actually thinking about what to put in their reviews.


Snob and slob 'critics' are equally insufferable. As with everything, it's not the amount of knowledge you have it's what you do with it (in particular, feeding or starving it) that matters.

unreliable narrator

Well, and yet the biggest problem with the writer of "Thinking on Film" just pointing at Them Fancy-Pants Critics and blurting out SNOB, SNOB! is that it's such an easy way to fill in the big blank which means: I can't understand a word these people are saying, therefore I will blame and taunt them.


I still have a real fondness for John Simon, pissy tude and all.

The Voracious Filmgoer

Sounds like a case of misplaced anti-intellectualism. The next question is, naturally, symptom or disease?


I'm intrigued by this whole "Paulette" thing. I've always been a big fan of hers, but I'm reading more Sarris lately, and today I just read his takedown of her Kane piece (I think she wrote a rebuttal too, but I haven't read it). I hear the recent doc on movie criticism deals with their feud so perhaps I will have to check it out.

But what fascinates me most is Kael's real-world influence and cache in the critical community. I'm used to reading her on my own, years after her reviews were published, communing so to speak beyond the grave. In other words, I'm used to my own (relatively) uncolored observations and appreciations of her prose and perspective. Seeing her as someone who is not just a great writer but also a formidable cultural figure, someone who wields (and abuses) influence and power is rather foreign to me - doesn't seem to gibe with her almost conspiratorial it's-you-and-me-buddy writing style. Naturally, I want to know more.


I visited that site and someone in the comments thread mentioned Armond White. I left this post which I though would be appreciated here, given the occasional head-shaking Mr. White engenders:


Recently, responding to a piece on the best "conservative movies" as determined by National Review, Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running classified the films in several different categories: "Absolute dreck," "Masterpiece," "Lukewarm," etc. The final category, containing just one movie - Red Dawn - was titled simply..."Red Dawn."

That's how I feel about Armond White. He drives me up the wall much of the time and he's about as rigidly ideological as a critic can be, and yet...his ideology is so downright BIZARRE it's almost charming. Films celebrating Middle America...good. Films praised by most mainstream critics...bad. Indie dreck...very bad. Mainstream dreck...good. Any new film with leftist content...bad. Classic film with leftist content...good. Film by black filmmaker (except Spike Lee)...good. Spielberg...super-good. Busta Rhymes music videos...great. Every other critic...very, very bad... (by the way for "bad" in all these categories, you could just substitute "hipster.")

Et cetera.

It helps that I share some of his prejudices (particularly on Spielberg, indie dreck, and nihilist and/or hipper-than-thou movies, though I don't tend to see those monsters under every bed like he does). Anyway, I can no longer take him at all seriously but I can't help reading his reviews when I'm in a place that has the NY Press...



John Simon's pissy tude has always driven me up the wall. Or as Andrew Sarris put it, in an aside while decrying populist anti-auteurism: "I don't even consider such voluntary exiles from the public pulse as John Simon, the greatest film critic of the nineteenth century...")

Today, jammed between commuters on a packed rush hour subway train (or "T" in my present neck of the woods) I read that line and snickered to myself.

OK, last comment, I should go to bed so I can get up in (checks watch) 4 hours...

P.S. the second part of Sarris' sentences goes: "...and Gene Youngblood, the greatest film critic of the twenty-first." Never heard of Mr. Youngblood, but that passage kind of makes me wish I had.


I appreciate Simon's rigorous standards, extreme as they are, and when he's right, nobody is righter. I also love reviews where the critic will bust out a French phrase and insert it without any translation -- John Simon in a nutshell.

And this new critic documentary strangely does not include Simon at all, which is a rather large deliberate omission given how visible he was in the 70's. He was particularly scathing towards Pauline Kael's favorable review for James Toback's FINGERS and basically said it was only because she was dating the guy. I miss all those New York critics going at it toe-to-toe. It was sure more heady than the blog battles between say, Wells and Poland. I re-read Simon's 60's/70's reviews often merely for his clever wordplay or to chuckle at his snobbery. But hey, he even gave a grand review to THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.


BTW, movieman, as for the "Paulettes," you can spot a disciple anytime somebody uses a phrase like "This is why we go to movies, to get that crazy buzz from a fine actor or great scene; nobody really likes good taste. We want to get turned on." Or any variation on that awful, eternal "WE" -- which only Kael can get away with. Stephanie Zacharek at SALON.COM is a definite Paulette as her overuse of the royal "WE" proves...

Account Deleted

The critical reception of the new STAR TREK tells me that:

a) Most film critics swim as a school of fish.

b) Mainstream film criticism involving any kind of analysis of form is all but dead.


Christian, is your beef with Paulettes or with Pauline? (The former is implied by the phrase "which only Kael can get away with".) I enjoy Zacharek, despite all her detractors, but she does overdo the Kael bit, doesn't she? As for the original article, I admit I love her - not, of course, for her rigorous critical standards, but for her intoxicating writing...including the arrogant authority of it. I love her classification of a great movie as (and here I'm paraphrasing as I don't have time to look it up at the moment) the pleasures of trash but deepened and sustained - which puts a nice twist on that philistinism you cite in her supposed adherants. I don't feel that I've changed from the kid who liked adventure movies, just that I've found that same kernel of pleasure transformed, played with, stretched, mutated in all kinds of forms, genres, eras, and so forth.

Anyway, I had no idea she dated Toback - is this true? Wouldn't she have been about 50 when he was 25?

Lawrence Levi

It's Levi, Mr. Kenny. With an i.

Glenn Kenny

Fixed, Mr. Levi. Apologies.

Steven Hart

I don't read or speak French, but thanks to my interesting sensibility I have some thoughts on French literature I'd like to write up. Maybe J-Pod will publish them in the magazine his daddy gave him.

Nelson Parker

Uneducated people hate it when they are reminded they are not as smart as they pretend to be. I imagine Podhoretz thinks of himself as thet smartest person he knows, except if that's true, then how come he has so much trouble w/ subtitles? Because it's not him and his flappy cinema-brain muscles. It's everyone else. Since no one could possible be smarter than him, those who claim to like what he cannot understand must be pulling some kind of prank. And thus, we have a country that elects Bush, it's mirror image. It all goes together. I swear.

Tom Russell

@MovieMan0283, apropos Kael-Toback: I have no idea if they dated, but as far as the age difference goes, you say that like there's something wrong with it. What's the what?

Personally? Kael just makes me angry, almost instantly red in the face, any time I read her criticism. It's not just that I disagree with some of her opinions-- I still read Ebert, even if there are movies that I think he's astoundingly wrong about (Fight Club, for one).

It's that Kael's entire approach is, to be frank, retarded. The woman who never understood why anyone would see a movie a second time? Who chastised actors for losing themselves into their characters instead of winking at us? Who more or less made shit up wholesale in her Kane essay in a half-assed attempt to take down auteurism? *This* is the critic that's so often extolled above the rest?

It's not enough that a person can write passionately or with an interesting sensibility; that person must also write with taste and intelligence. And that doesn't necessarily mean that they have to go to school to major in film studies, or that they have to be employed by a newspaper. All it means is what it means: you have to have some iota of what you're talking about.

And to my mind, Kael didn't. And-- it should go without saying-- neither does Podhoretz.


Movieman, I'm a huge fan of Kael's writing. Own all her books. I can disagree with an opine and still enjoy or understand her take on the film. Kael's "problem" is that she despised high-falutin' ART in favor of pop trash, which means she rips ZABRISKIE POINT a new asshole (as did others) but adored THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT. But her writing is fuckin' sharp, man. Her famous review of BONNIE AND CLYDE is truly great, and the one essay she wrote about the making-of-a-movie (Sidney Lumet's THE GROUP) would never be allowed today.

Go dig up John Simon's review of FINGERS for his take on Kael-Toback. It would explain her consistent raves for his kinda awful films. Tho I'd rather see a movie about Toback than one by him...


From what I've read, Toback often accompanied Kael to movies, since she hated going alone and liked to take friends with her, but they weren't an item. Toback
While Kael can and should be criticized a great deal, equating her with Podhoretz is going too far. She just as frequently praised actors for losing themselves in character (her beef with Streep was that she really didn't do so). Her immediate-reaction/one-viewing-only approach is one few of us would take, but you can read her heat-of-the-moment approach as an interesting contrast to one's own without feeling the need to ape it, as so many Paulettes did. The problem with her Kane book is not so much making things up as sloppy research, though I'm reminded that Kael made clear in several passages that Kane simply would not have been a great film if Welles hadn't been there to spearhead the production and encourage everyone involved to contribute more than they ordinarily would. In any case, as Glen says, it's been nearly 20 years since Kael retired from the scene, and we're at liberty to look at her in a dispassionate manner.

Tom Russell

@IA-- you're right that Kael & Podhoretz shouldn't be equated, and I didn't mean to say Kael = Podhoretz. But I find certain aspects of their "critical appratus" to be lacking and there are certain similarities-- both of them, for example, seem to enjoy sneering at "high art" cinema, both of them (in my opinion) tend to look at certain films from an ideological basis. And while art is subjective and no reviewer/critic can really claim to be objective, when you fault De Niro for losing himself in a character and fault Streep for not doing the same, there's something wrong there.

I guess my major beef with Kael is that she wasn't really very reflective or consistent; the heat-of-the-moment approach doesn't really hold up when the moment has passed. It's an approach that inherently deems film unworthy of serious consideration: it's just a larf, just a movie!

That being said, I've *got* to work on phrasing things more carefully here and elsewhere, as a number of times when I draw comparisions, both positive and negative, between two people/artists/critics/etc. I give the impression that I am equating the two and that's not my intention.

And, as both you and Glenn said, it has been twenty years and, yes, that's a little long for one to keep bitching about it.


For me, as both a filmmaker and bloviator on movies, my standard's pretty much entirely "What does this movie set out to do and does it achieve that aim?" That strikes me as a fair standard; why beat "Transformers" with "Discreet Charm" or vice versa? I remember reading our host's review of "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" where he enumerated a number of pretty valid points about the film artistically speaking, and then said "But none of that matters because I laughed until my face hurt."

Also, yes, I would pay money to see an art-house filmmaker tackle the giant robot movie. Wong Kar-Wai's "Go-Bots" would be amazing.


Here's John Simon versus Siskel & Ebert on RETURN OF THE JEDI.

Simon never had a chance in the 80's. Not in the era of TOP GUN.


Herman Scobie

The Podhoretz/White perverse populism recalls Andy Griffith's Lonesome Rhodes when he teaches the senator, played by the silent film director Marshall Neilan, how to communicate with "the folks" by learning not to use them big words.

Say what you will about Pauline, but she was never boring, something that will never be said about Denby/Lane.

Scott Nye

@MovieMan - Only thing I know about Youngblood is he recorded a commentary track for the Criterion L'Avventura that's probably the best commentary for a film I've ever heard. It didn't just deepen my appreciation for the movie, it deepened my love for film.


I'm just still trying to get over the fact that he hates The Searchers.

I was all set to dissect JP's thesis but then I thought, the hell with it. What can you add to an essay that ends with JP's primogeniture-derived job description blowing dirt in your face, like the cloud of dust trailing the banker as he drives away from a foreclosed farm. Besides, Roy Edroso summed up with perfect concision: "As someone who has read their reviews I am not surprised to learn they now disdain the craft, as they showed little interest in it when they were practicing."


Tom, we are getting into some interesting conversations here across the blogosphere!

As for Pauline, I have to say I think you have to "get" her before you can judge her. If she drives you up the wall, I'm not sure you're on her wavelength (not to sound insulting, I'm not saying she's above or below, just tuned to a different frequency). As others indicate, whatever intellectual objections one can lodge against her, that prose sweeps one up. Sarris called her more of an entertainer than a critic and, actually, I don't quite disagree - nor do I necessarily think that's such a bad thing. Anyway, if your initial reaction to her is fury I'm not sure you can see what we're getting at it with our praise of her.

I suppose you can knock her - to a certain extent - for her taste (God knows, generations of critics and critics of critics have made hash of her affection for a certain brand of kitsch, particularly that which starred Striesand) but you really can't knock her intelligence; she was exceptionally sharp and quite lucid for someone who writes so passionately. In fact, I'd say her writing was as much marked by a lucidity as a passion.


That was Youngblood? I could quote the rest of your passage and claim authorship, our view on that matter concurs so thoroughly.

As for Toback & Kael, nothing wrong with it but it would be plenty surprising! (Christian, your comment made me chuckle, particularly as I've currently seen the doc on Toback you did, with Toback appearing afterwards no less, found it thoroughly entertaining, and still have not sought out any of his films. I suppose I should see Fingers, at least.)


As far as Kael's supposed love of trash over art, if anything she was MORE sniffily highbrow than Sarris, seeing art only in relatively sequestered reaches of the cinema. She praised trash frequently, but only while emphasizing, repeatedly, that it was trash and not to be confused with art. One may take issue with this sensibility and many of her judgements, but I really don't think it's fair to keep painting her with the anti-Art brush that so many do.

I'll re-print a comment I left on another blog recently, vis a vis Sarris/Kael and their supposed dichotemy, rather than attempt to rephrase:

I'm currently reading all of the Kael and Sarris collections, beginning in the early 60s, and I must say the distinction made between their thought processes and opinions seems to me vastly overstated. They obviously had personal run-ins, and cults developed around them over the years which stressed certain aspects of their personae, but really their primary difference seems to be stylistic - Kael with the passionate prose tumbling all over itself in excitement, driving forward like a reckless train teetering side to side on the rails as it barrels on, while Sarris' writing floats and bubbles along at a more leisurely pace, crowned with a touch of thoughtful erudition and a democraticizing affection for corny puns. I like both styles - though I tend to prefer Kael's - but beyond this difference, and despite their brush-up over Sarris' early-60s auteurism, I don't see much evidence of a dramatic dichotemy in their writing.

Certainly, Sarris' devotion to the cult of the director seems overstated when looking past The American Cinema at his daily film reviewing, which often celebrates (or scolds) films based on the strength of their screenplay and the conviction of the performance, quite apart from any individualistic directorial touch conveyed therein. As for Kael, she's just as much the proponent of High Culture as Sarris - her famous article on Trash denied the possibility of it being great art even in the process of celebrating its appeal; she knocked early 60s art house favorites like La Notte and Hiroshima Mon Amour but she also celebrated L'Avventura and was possibly more enamored of "high-class" art than Sarris was - in fact this affinity was largely the basis of her attack on his auteur theory.

In other words, to come to the point, it seems that this new documentary continues to overstate and misrepresent the ideological - as opposed to personal - opposition between these two critics.

Again, this is based by and large on a reading of their 60s work, and perhaps ideological divisions grew greater afterwards - but I've read enough Kael to know that she never unthinkingly celebrated trash as superior to High Art in the simplistic terms conveyed and that "Circles and Squares" aside, she was in her own way as much an auteurist as Sarris ("De Palma is a filmmaker by Pauline Kael" etc etc).



2 more points:

1. I just read Kael's "The Group" essay for the first time the other week. Wow. I felt sorry for Lumet, and yet at the same time so elated by the sharpness of Kael's skewering. My favorite passage:

"I had asked him during one of our first talks why he had given up acting and he had begun a long explanation about how acting was a faggot's career and how he knew that if he was ever going to give a woman a real human relationship, etc., and I had simply jotted down 'too short for acting career.'"

I really would like to know the coda to this. Did Lumet ever strike back? Could he possibly? Did he see it coming, even in its vague contours?

2. Great clip from You Tube. It's a bit startling for me actually, because I like Star Wars, I like Siskel & Ebert (particularly Ebert), and I thought I didn't like John Simon. Yet I found myself nodding in agreement watching and listening to him. If I think he was a bit harsh towards the original trilogy, his withering critique of "robots fighting robots" more than applies to the prequels and just about every other CGI-infested blockbuster of the past 10 years. And if his use of "Disney" and "cartoon" as epithets is narrow-minded and woolly-headed, I agree with his larger point about live action straying too far from observation until it becomes complete simulation.

By contrast, both Gene and Roger come off as embarrassingly glib - especially when they scold Simon for not liking a movie that a mall audience full of kids adored. Simon's response to the cheesy Yoda question is great.

Perhaps I like the guy better in person than in prose.


Kael never wrote another "making-of" again probably due to that piece (which I believe was rejected by the magazine she wrote it for). It really captures the feeling of what it must have been like to see a mid 1960's film in the throes of production. Lumet was clearly not the right director for that material.

That's the thing about Simon is that he was correct in what he was arguing against was the dominance of special effects over story and character. I just miss that kind of critical thinking and you can see the Reagan era mindset "Just Be Happy" mindset at work in the interview. He even admits Yoda is cute but Koppel, Siskel, and Ebert all come off rather silly. I mean, RETURN OF THE JEDI is nobody's favorite STAR WARS...

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