On a whim I picked up the recent Library of America publication The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (edited by Sanford Schwartz), deciding it was finally time to fill a major gap in my film education. Don't get me wrong: I still have no interest in the vast majority of the 70s and 80s American films that were Kael's main reviewing fare, including the few I've seen, which is why I'm largely unfamiliar with Kael's writings although I of course knew who she was from the time I was a budding cinephile in my early teens. It's Kael's writing itself that's the gap.
And she didn't disappoint. In my first week with the book I read 25 of the 97 pieces included by editor Sanford Schwartz, and portions of as many more. My first impression was of Kael's extraordinary, and extraordinarily readable, invective, which lives up to the legend and then some. Her long essay on Cary Grant, for example, although not an attack, devotes more space and energy to criticizing Grant's failings as an actor (and even his appearance in some movies) than it does to celebrating his strengths. Kael takes us through Grant's fascinating pre-fame years as a music hall performer up to his flourishing on the screen in the screwball comedies of the 30s and then, instead of describing or analyzing Grant's performances in these films, detours into a (wonderful) two-page digression on the genre. Grant's Hitchcock roles are merely mentioned in passing, whereas we do get to hear about the ways he was “awful” in a number of films I've never heard of for a reason, and Kael's long consideration of his only serious acting role, in None But the Lonely Heart, finds more good things to say about Ethel Barrymore than about Grant. Despite the celebration of what we'd later learn, from Camille Paglia, to call Grant's “sexual persona” that ends the piece, I came away from it wondering if I'd ever be able to admire a performance by Grant again.
It's not just Kael's invective (combined with dazzling intelligence) that makes her so readable. Plenty of film critics like to rant when they hate a movie. But Kael, as Andrew Sarris put it in his understandable butthurt fanboy response to Kael's notorious essay on Citizen Kane, “Raising Kane,” takes a movie apart. Her negative reviews reveal the closest possible attention to what she thinks is not working in the movie, a degree of attention that critics normally reserve for movies they like. It's not exactly that she makes a convincing argument that a movie (say, Raging Bull or Blow-Up) is bad; her reactions are subjective, and she gives them point by point, without building a case. What's fascinating in her negative reviews is, perhaps, just that one rarely gets to see such a detailed analysis of how an artwork has failed, whether or not one agrees with Kael's assessment of a particular film. The analysis of what has gone wrong in a work is a lesson in aesthetics all its own, and it seems to have been Kael's peculiar gift as a critic. And it is a peculiar one. Woman or no woman, feminism or no feminism, as a writer Kael is undeniably aggressive, and sadism seems to energize her, as it did her contemporary, fellow Jewish-American critic Leslie Fiedler, and her spiritual heir, Camille Paglia (all three fascinated by sex and violence and all three admirers of Freud). (This is only one Kael, though: as the movies get worse in the 80s, Kael turns to pure gush, at least in the selections here, and it's much less readable. In the CityLights interview that's the only full interview with her I've found on YouTube Kael complains about Katharine Hepburn going soft in On Golden Pond, but that seems to be exactly what she did – although one of the movies she praises is Blue Velvet.)
In a New York Review of Books article on her self-curated book of selected writings, For Keeps, Louis Menard tried to address what he calls the “highlow problem” central to Kael's importance as a critic. Menard, writing in 1995, gives the example of a professor performing a semiotic analysis on a Superman comic, and then says: “The professor may go on to compare Superman comics favourably with Homer, but that is simply a failure of judgment. It has nothing to do with the difference in brows. You can make a fool of yourself over anything.”
This seems like a caricature: how many professors have ever compared Superman comics favourably with Homer? The central fact about semiotic analysis is that it ignores aesthetics. It was the perfect way to get popular culture into academia: based on its sociological rather than its aesthetic interest. Soon English departments would be following the Cultural and Media Studies model. The literary canon had already been attacked as politically incorrect, aesthetics a bunch of smoke and mirrors that served the vested interests of the dominant culture. Once the canon had been put on trial for the harm it had done women, colonial subjects, and minorities, it was difficult to justify why the standard works of Anglo-American literary studies should still be taught. The Cultural Studies approach took care of that: high culture, like pop culture, was significant for sociological reasons. Really, though, the canon is just a relic of the old way of doing literary studies: for the purposes of semiotic analysis, one text is as good as another. Courses in genre and popular fiction have already been introduced, and the logic of Cultural Studies dovetails beautifully with the new corporate-capitalist model for universities, in which students are simply consumers. Mostly they're going to pay to take courses in the sciences that may lead to careers, but a few might pay to study the things they love: pop culture and new media. To, basically, get an education by being entertained. Which isn't necessarily far removed from the attitude of the first students to take literary studies. I remember reading somewhere, probably on the internet, that when the novel was first introduced as a subject of university study, the old guard was appalled, since the novel had been considered a form of entertainment.
In “Notes on Heart and Mind” (1971), Kael was writing at the Pop moment that would lead to the present situation, against the Pop movement. She saw that intellectuals and even the “schoolteachers” whose idea of culture she'd rebelled against in her own youth with the help of the movies were buying into the notion, the creation of youth and marketers who were each following the other's lead, that Pop was art, and that the result was the destruction of literary culture: the loss of a sense of shame for not reading, for only loving Pop. Nowadays we might long for a time when intellectuals and college students still approached the “highlow problem” in aesthetic terms. I have long thought – from the time I was reading Paglia in the early 90s, when I was still in my teens – that the real reason liberal arts education abandoned aesthetics had nothing to do with political correctness: it happened because there was no way to do what Paglia suggested and take pop culture seriously while retaining aesthetic distinctions. There is simply no aesthetic theory that will cover both the high and the low, both the traditional arts and new media. To try to determine the aesthetic status of each new genre and medium, and each new member of it, except relative to other members, is a hopeless project, exhausting even to think about. And so academics, wisely, gave up and stopped talking about aesthetics.
But to stop talking about aesthetics is obviously unsatisfactory. On the one hand, it leads to the conclusion that we might just as well study Harry Potter as Shakespeare, comic books as Homer, movies or video games as literature. And as Kael insists in “Notes on Heart and Mind,” pop culture is not an adequate substitute for literary culture. “What must it be like for those who know and love only movies, and not literature as well?” she asks. “Even if they don't consciously miss it, surely the loss of the imaginative ranging over experience is irreparable.” It's a question I often asked myself while I was giving myself an education in film in my early 20s and grappling with the question of the relative merits of movies and books. The cinephiles I knew were extremely well-read, which is perhaps what prompted me to do the thought experiment. It seemed to me that while reading enhanced my experience of movies by deepening my understanding of human nature, the reverse wasn't necessarily true: watching movies didn't make me a better reader. Kael elaborates, “Movies are good at action; they're not good at reflective thought or conceptual thinking.... Movies don't help you to develop independence of mind. They don't give you much to mull over, and they don't give you the data you need to consider the issues they raise.”
On the other hand, semiotics is an inadequate substitute for aesthetics because it ignores the dimension of pleasure. Fan culture arose on the internet to fill that gap. It reintroduced the idea of pleasure in media while neatly sidestepping the question of aesthetic value. To call yourself a fan of a type of media, a genre, or a particular show, game, movie, or book, is to say something about the value of the work to you and nothing about its objective value. I think this is also why the term “cinephile” has gained such currency in recent years, as a way to describe people who may or may not be film critics, theorists, historians, or academics, but who, in any case, take a passionate interest in the medium. Kael was a pioneering media fan: passionately devoted to movies as a whole, not just a few good ones, with a passion exceeding her assessment of their aesthetic value. In contrast, Andrew Sarris, Kael's opposite number and frequent nemesis among great movie critics of the era of great movie criticism, used what he called “auteur theory” to take the line that the best movies of classical Hollywood cinema were artworks, electing a small handful of American directors and directors who'd worked in America to his “pantheon.”
It was Kael the populist, not Sarris the aesthete, who was the snob: who took a hard line on the distinction between high and pop culture, and saw the false elevation of pop culture to the status of art as striking a blow against aesthetic standards and literary culture. Perhaps she intuited that favouring a pantheon would mean throwing out a whole lot of junk, and therefore a whole lot of pleasure. Certainly the reasons for her defence of the “trash” element in American movies, outlined in “Trash, Art, and the Movies” (1969), were personal and complex. But the personal is the sociological. The young Kael had used movies to rebel against “schoolteacher,” which is to say middlebrow, culture; the grown-up Kael, the famous movie critic in her 40s and 50s, was still rebelling against those schoolteachers, Huck Finn style. In this she resembled other intellectuals of her era who were interested in popular culture, like the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, two years Kael's senior, whose notorious Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) appeared five years before Kael's first book, I Lost It at the Movies (1965), which put her on the map. For Fiedler, trash culture (i.e., mass culture) had more in common with high culture than middlebrow culture did, and it was middlebrow culture that was the true enemy of art. For Robert Warshow, too (the same age as Fiedler; his collected writings appeared posthumously as The Immediate Experience in 1962), trash culture could sometimes express inchoate feelings of popular dissatisfaction that were covered up by the upbeat official culture. All of these intellectuals saw in the trash of mass culture (particularly, perhaps, combined with the still-radical ideas of Freud) an alternative to the stifling, deadening view of art and culture current in official culture, as Manny Farber also did in his famous essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” (1962). Of course this romanticization of mass culture as trash was in some ways as dangerous as its romanticization as art. It meant taking a condescending attitude towards both mass culture and the people assumed to be its audience, and one had the suspicion (Kael all but confirms it) that these intellectuals were using mass culture for the purpose of personal psychosexual liberation. (Then again, why is that not a legitimate use of it?)
Fiedler's infatuation with mass culture was such that in other books (I think it was in What was literature?: Class Culture and Mass Society) he argued that the idea of the “art novel,” as promulgated by Flaubert and adopted by the Modernists, had always been wrongheaded; that the novel was a form of mass culture entertainment, and as such it had been superseded by the movies and newer forms of pop culture. Unfortunately, the critic who takes an interest in mass culture as such inevitably becomes a sociologist: the kind of criticism Fiedler wanted, focused on where mainstream culture is at now, is the kind being practised in Cultural and Media Studies departments, and increasingly in English departments. And when the change occurred, mass culture lost its power as a radical alternative to a false idea of high culture. Now, it was the only culture.
I have sometimes been as hard on reading on this blog as Kael (in her prime) was on her beloved movies. One once thought that the story of the novel's journey from the disreputable upstart form it still was when Austen wrote Northanger Abbey to its current cultural enshrinement was a simple one of the overcoming of snobbery and conservatism, and that movies and other new media would follow the same course. But, in the first place, the piety surrounding reading makes me ill; makes me almost forget that once, as a child, I instinctively considered the intelligence of the reader to be the only worthwhile kind of intelligence – scorning math and science even though I could tell they were more highly valued by my teachers. I blame the drive for universal education for our pious attitude towards reading: children had to be taught literacy so they could get into college so they could get good jobs (back when that worked), and so it was decided that they'd have to be taught to love reading, and that the best way to do that was to encourage them to read fiction. And the more media technologies arose to offer competing forms of entertainment that required no mental exertion at all, the more persuaded we became that for children, or even adults, to read anything was a victory. Meanwhile the distrust of entertainment that had plagued the novel was projected onto electronic media instead. Compared to electronic media, novels had to be good, because they promoted literacy. But there is no virtue whatsoever in the simple fact of reading once you're past the age of, say, twelve, particularly if you're reading fiction. Reading is simply one of many forms of pleasure, no better and no worse than watching movies or watching TV or playing video games. You can congratulate yourself if you're reading something of any degree of literary merit, but not otherwise.
But Kael was right, of course: pop culture is not a substitute for literary culture. As Kael feared it would, and as Paglia, in the 90s, crowed it did, pop culture won: it had youth behind it, and the intellectuals, fearing they'd be left behind, and the marketers. Paglia, too, thought we needed Apollo as well as Dionysus, but she still believed the Humanities could be reformed; she didn't anticipate that the final blow to English departments would be not imported French theory but homegrown corporate capitalism. Bright young people are, I think, drawn to Cultural and Media Studies because it means they can bring together the two sides of themselves: the literary-intellectual side that loves thinking about ideas, characters, structure, conventions, and meaning, and the media fan side. They get to apply their intelligence to the things they most passionately love – exactly as Kael was doing in her criticism. One of the best pieces of criticism I've seen online was an analysis of the player character in a video game. It didn't make me want to play video games, but it was a fascinating read. The division within the individual between the intellectual and the fan within the individual may be part of the modern condition. It's there in Northanger Abbey, in the character of Henry Tilney, Austen's spokesperson for rationality, who believes in acquiring information and knowledge, but who's also a passionate fan of trashy Gothic novels. There are the things that are good for you, and there are the things that are fun; the mature, educated individual tries to strike a balance between them, without turning into either a pedant or an idiot.
Kael's great common-sense insight in “Trash, Art, and the Movies” is that we don't have to justify enjoying the things we enjoy: certainly not by claiming that they're art. Nor do intellectuals have to justify writing about the things they enjoy. Our enjoyments deserve the application of our intelligence, and our intelligence certainly deserves contact with the things we enjoy. The banishment of aesthetics from literary studies has resulted in an arid dichotomy between intellect and pleasure: I think of the Shakespeare professor who confessed to our graduate class that she was a “fan” of Shakespeare, but that she removed her fan hat when she put on her scholar hat. Pleasure, in this view, is an irrelevance to the intellectual; certainly it conveys no information about the value of the object of study. (Subjective value is no value.) But many bright young people take pleasure in intelligence. They can't turn off their intelligence when they're being fans (and wouldn't want to). Kael's criticism belongs to the ongoing history of the intellectual's pleasure in pop culture, as an intellectual – not as someone who's slumming.
It's a way of healing an internal division that is only felt by intellectuals, including self-made intellectuals like Kael, who was born on a chicken farm and failed to graduate from Berkeley. The alienated intellectual, adrift in a world of popular culture that they're part of and not part of. Perhaps it's especially felt by self-made intellectuals, who grow up immersed in popular culture and only discover high culture later; who are aware of being part of and also apart from mass culture.
Kael wanted to have it both ways, obviously: to be the intellectual who devotes her criticism to pop without taking pop more seriously than she thought it deserved. She opened the floodgates, inspiring, among many others, Greil Marcus, author of Lipstick Traces. We never really came to a cultural consensus about whether pop was art or not; instead, “art” dropped out of intellectual discourse. Paglia brought it back, briefly, but never explained the aesthetic programme that would allow one to make distinctions between the value of art and the value of pop – and it didn't matter, because while she dropped out of sight, more and more books of criticism were published on pop culture that were accessible and non-academic, although doubtless informed in most cases by the writers' higher education. The interest of intellectuals in pop culture sped ahead of our ability, or desire, to figure out its worth. For previous generations of intellectuals, the value of mass culture was its role as the nemesis of middlebrow culture: it had never gotten to the point of middlebrow values that individual artists and intellectuals had gotten beyond. But what value can we claim for mass culture now, when it's the only culture?
Except that of course we can't even speak of “mass culture” anymore, since there is no mass audience. When the high-low distinction could no longer be sustained, we became divided up into loves, into “philias” (of which reading, at whatever brow level, is just another); or in marketing terms, into demographics. (There's a “mainstream audience,” but that, too, is just another demographic.) And in a kind of internal cultural relativism, we try our best not to think about the objective value of what we love or what others love. If in academia, subjective value is no value, elsewhere it's the only value. We get pleasure from identifying as fans of one or another media product as we once did from identifying as members of subcultures. And as it turns out, intellectuals have a particular proclivity towards fandom: as yet another English professor identifies himself or herself as a fan of Tolkien, or, these days, Rowling, all I can think is that there's a geek streak related to the intellectual gene that bypasses literary taste and judgement altogether. (Not to say that Tolkien and Rowling aren't good: I don't know, I haven't read much of either; all I know is that the passionate love of English professors for pop fantasy authors doesn't have a thing to do with their literary merits. I've met graduate students who have this sort of geek-relationship to canonical authors, too, like one student who read nothing except Shakespeare and everything about him. Many cinephiles, most of whom are male in my experience and observation, seem to have such a relationship to Orson Welles; hence my “butthurt fanboy” slur against Sarris above. Online fan culture invented the terminology, but not the phenomenon. A lot of academics and even general readers seem to have such a relationship to Dickens.)
In his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye anticipated the direction that literary and media studies would go in: he thought that criticism would only become a science (which is to say, a legitimate discipline) if critics devoted themselves to figuring out what literature was by structurally analyzing it. This is the work being carried on, informally and often wittily, by the contributors to TV Tropes.org, who extended Frye's inquiry to electronic media entertainments. Frye thought the critic had no business evaluating literature, but not because he thought that aesthetic values were illusory or that the critic was a sociologist, for whom trash might have more significance than art. The literary critic only worked on art. However, no matter how informed the critic's tastes, they could never be knowledge, and Frye wanted criticism to be a body of knowledge about literature; and also, aesthetic judgements go without saying. “The critic will find soon, and constantly, that Milton is a more rewarding and suggestive poet to work with than Blackmore. But the more obvious this becomes, the less time he will want to spend belaboring the point. For belaboring the point is all he can do: any criticism motivated by a desire to establish or prove it will be merely one more document in the history of taste.” As, for example, with Menard's imaginary professor who claims that the Superman comic is as good as Homer: if Menard is trying to assert with this example the superiority of high culture, it's curious (and insulting), because the aesthetic assumption goes without saying, and if critics were going to spend even the second Menard does making that point, it would be a complete waste of time.
I think what Frye is saying in his section on value-judgements and criticism in the “Polemical Introducton” is not that aesthetics belong to the history of taste, but that the critic, or critical consensus, can always be wrong: there are objective aesthetic values, but although the critic must proceed on the assumption that his judgements are correct, he can never be certain that they will, in every case, coincide with the true value of the work. Perhaps the most generous assumption we can make about our present situation is not that assertions of objective value have disappeared, but that they have become implicit. Academics may have a purely sociological interest in popular culture, but media fans, cinephiles, and popular music fans do not: they love what they love based on their implicit aesthetic judgements of it, although they may be aware that their love exceeds its objective worth. To even bring up the fact that the Superman comic isn't as good as Homer, or the Patti Smith album as good as Beethoven, or Citizen Kane as good as Hamlet, isn't interesting: what's interesting is what's going on in the comic, album, or movie that interests them. More importantly, if you wanted to establish or prove that Patti Smith was, or was not, as good as Beethoven, it would be impossible. And that is where the sense of exhaustion comes from when one even tries to compare high and low culture: there is only private intuition and cultural consensus (or prejudice); there is no way even to begin proving anything.
With pop culture, then, we have nothing to go on but our educated intuitions (educated through experience and knowledge both of the medium and of the traditional arts). This has always been the case with the arts, but we pretended otherwise because our intuitions were institutionally sanctioned, often on a moralistic basis masquerading as an aesthetic one (the Arnoldian influence). Now that academia is no longer in the business of telling us what's great (or telling us that anything's great), we may have to continue to feel our way along this way with popular culture. This is what what so exciting for me about watching movies as a young cinephile: even though I was following a loose canon of sorts, only watching those movies with some kind of critical reputation, each time I watched a new movie I wondered whether I was going to encounter a work of art (what I considered a work of art: whether I would have a profound or simply enjoyable aesthetic or emotional experience) or a piece of garbage. This is not a question that arises for the reader of the works of the literary canon: one does not rely on one's judgement to nearly the same extent; the question is whether I'll like it or not, not what it's worth might be. And even in cinema or pop music, critical consensus exerts its pressure: I won't dismiss a movie or album the critics love unless it's a new work; I will, however, base a defence of a movie that critics don't like on my subjective judgement. (This never happens with pop albums: I'm just not a passionate or knowledgeable enough fan of pop music to assert that it's good if critics don't like it. On the other hand, I don't take pop music criticism as seriously as I take film criticism: if critics don't like an album, I may shrug and go, “Well I do,” but I don't get excited about it.)
If English departments disappear and literary studies become part of Media Studies, and if the sociological approach continues to prevail in the latter, this may be a good thing insofar as it means that canons will no longer be institutionalized; they will remain apocryphal, and therefore ignorable; we will all be thrown back on our own judgements. It would be even better if this new Media Studies adopted Frye's approach (the TV Tropes approach) and made criticism into something closer to a science, which is what English departments have wanted all along anyway, leaving aesthetic judgements to the individual. But that brings us back to the problem Kael raises about pop's replacement of literature: without a traditional liberal arts education, where are we going to get the intellectuals who are capable of making these implicit aesthetic judgements?