Kael in Concert: Circles and Squares


Let me take you down, 'cause we're going to have a glimpse of an interesting moment in our cultural history; a time when that under-developed region of the literary world known as film criticism was just starting to elevate its profile, catching the fancy of cinephiles throughout the western world in a way it never had previously. The great epochal dispute that single-handedly transformed movie reviewing into a spectator sport for intellectuals was over a specific critical construct, popularly known then and now as the Auteur Theory. For the non-cinephile contingent visiting us today, it was a mode of criticism where movie reviewers would mine even the most compromised productions for the signature or the voice or the presence or the shadow or the whatever of their (what else) auteurs, who always tended to sit in the Director's Chair. The rationale behind this has always been elusive; in fact, no one back then or even today has really advanced a coherent explanation as to why this specific system of evaluation should rise above all others. Like Topsy, it just growed.

Conceptually, the roots of the auteur model (I won't use the 'T' word here as it tends to confuse matters) go all the way back to the earliest days of systematized motion picture production. Its adherents then were almost exclusively movie directors, however; covering themselves in a lurid glory that looked suspiciously like mainstream American narcissism on close inspection. Critics didn't join the party in significant numbers until the 1940s, and that was mostly in France. All they did was take the megalomaniacal ravings of directors who each thought they were God's favorite nephew and depersonalize them; filter them and give them slightly more dignified linguistic form. The rise of auteurism in France through the 1950s is a long story, an ugly one, and I won't retell it here; suffice it to say that by the time its French proponents had . . . moved on to other careers, American and British film critics were ready to take up the standard and recast its light magically anew. They found it, in a word, enchanting.

But not everyone perceived its very real wonders . . . my own belief in the construct is, um, complicated: I basically have faith in its applicability, but my level of committment? Let's just say it recedes and surges like the tide . . . and that brings us to today's offering:

As an assault on the auteur model in general and Andrew Sarris's Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962 specifically, this recording of Pauline Kael delivering a talk at (get this) San Fernando Valley State College sometime in 1963 does closely follow her essay Circles and Squares (the Squares being hero-worshipping auteurists, for those of you playing along at home). But even if you're familiar with the work in question, her tone of voice and formal delivery . . . hovering in some demilitarized zone betweeen Edna May Oliver and Victoria Regina . . . make these 55-minutes a genuinely nasty, invective-laden eye-opener.

22 comments:

Flickhead said...

Amazing. I really do miss her.

How can we listen to this with Sarris in the room?

Tom Sutpen said...

Flickhead wrote:

Amazing. I really do miss her.

*****
Same here. Maddening and contradictory as she could be, there was probably no better writer toiling in the fields of regular film criticism.

When she passed in 2001, I wrote a tiny tribute to her (that I admittedly stole outright from something Dizzy Gillespie said about Louis Armstrong):

No her. No me.

How can we listen to this with Sarris in the room?

*****
Ummmm. With great difficulty?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Tom: Thanks so much for unearthing this. I never met Pauline Kael, I never saw her speak, and yet her voice still rings in my head with a clarity that outstrips a lot of the films, good or bad, that she wrote about. And I've often thought of her as a friend with whom I loved to argue, whose observations were wonderful andf maddening, sometimes both at the same time. I miss her too, and this recording is a treasure that I will link to and pass along.

Vanwall said...

I used to think all reviewers were secretly copying each other, except for a certain few, Kael being the major exception. She could scald the flesh right off the bone, that's for sure. This little recording is a nice additon to my Film Critic's Basics file, along with other bits, such as a certain "A Personal Journey With Tom Sutpen Through the Auteur Theory", which was left wrapped on my doorstep with a plaintive note pinned to it. Or maybe not.

I've started my own journey over on Vanwall Land, in bits & pieces, o' course, some being personal, and I'm starting something else filmic there soon, as well.

BCNU

Tom Sutpen said...

Dennis Cozzalio wrote:

Tom: Thanks so much for unearthing this. I never met Pauline Kael, I never saw her speak, and yet her voice still rings in my head with a clarity that outstrips a lot of the films, good or bad, that she wrote about. And I've often thought of her as a friend with whom I loved to argue, whose observations were wonderful andf maddening, sometimes both at the same time. I miss her too, and this recording is a treasure that I will link to and pass along.

*****
Thank you, Dennis! I wish I had more in the way of film-related audio apart from film scores to make this a regular feature (if anyone wants to contribute . . . ). I do have one series coming up that the cinephile contingent of Charlie Parker will appreciate . . . I hope . . . but I thought it as good a moment as any to trot out this here recording.

Excellent blog, btw. It shall be linked!

Tom Sutpen said...

I used to think all reviewers were secretly copying each other, except for a certain few, Kael being the major exception. She could scald the flesh right off the bone, that's for sure.

****
Indeed. If nothing else, Kael demonstrated that that it's possible to write well when writing about Cinema; which is something that has to be asserted with no little frequency, you ask me. This has been a major beef of mine with film criticism in general. Apart from the ideas advanced (and even there you get a lot of overlap), it all pretty much reads as though it were written by just a few hands. Now, some would argue (and have) that it's not about the prose style; if you're looking for elegant sentence construction, go read Dubliners. Personally, I find that viewpoint limiting, but I'll not rebut it here and now.

This little recording is a nice additon to my Film Critic's Basics file, along with other bits, such as a certain "A Personal Journey With Tom Sutpen Through the Auteur Theory", which was left wrapped on my doorstep with a plaintive note pinned to it. Or maybe not.

*****
Yike!!

(Ix-nay on that, willya. I'm here fulminating about good dilm writing and you bring that thing up? Jeezuz Christmas, that unfinished trainwreck's gonna haunt me the rest of my life, I'm sure of it)

I've started my own journey over on Vanwall Land, in bits & pieces, o' course, some being personal, and I'm starting something else filmic there soon, as well.

*****
Excellent! I have to come up with a way to promote noteworthy matters on other blogs (such as Flickhead's Blog-a-thon) while not departing significantly from the format. Dunno how. Anyway, keep me posted, Rob. I'll think of something!

Anonymous said...

What a cunt!

Tom Sutpen said...

Wow.

This is remarkable.

I never thought Andrew Sarris would visit this blog.

Can't make it up.

Anonymous said...

When she was around I read her religiously in the New Yorker yet I wasn't a fan. I didn't care for her anti-intellectual bias and her championing of certain directors and stars who took the time to play up to her. I still think Sarris is by far the better film critic but Kael's work is still indispensible as wroingheaded as it often was.

That said, the climate of today where real film criticism has become almost invisible in the mainstream media I enjoyed hearing Kael speak nad it brought back memories of old battles previously fought.

BTW, San Fernando Valley State College is now known as Cal State Northridge.

Anonymous said...

To dissent with most comment here, the lecture recording is to me only evidence of her general nasty personal behavior and recurring aesthetic wrongheadedness and hypocricy. Listen to her happy snideness, the almost masturbatory excitement as she tries to belittle and destroy Sarris and his ilk. And yet Kael would eventually carry on her own similar cults of personality and giddy enthusiasms for H'wood directors she favored, following a course not much different than the auteurists. In her guise as cultural warrior and self-styled hardboiled dame she tries to mete out below the belt insult to Sarris as some kind of nerdy fantasizing adolescent and yet she herself was a ludicrous caricature of a dowdy swinger coming unhinged at "dirty" movies like Last Tango in Paris.
But all that is personalities--the important thing is that history has tended to prove her so wrongheaded in her infamous attacks here and elsewhere, as on Orson Welles later.
Re Sarris, time has proved her here to have possessed more contempt than insight. Yes, Sarris wrote some silly statements, some mistakes, some dithering things in his early ventures into the brave new world of "auteurism" and Hollywood studio directors. But Sarris was exploring, opening new worlds to his readers--think of the people who are now respected masters or at the least distinctive and fascinating figures in film, people like Hawks, and yes, Losey, Fuller, Boetticher and the rest of the gang, and think how much being made aware of those people has enriched movie watching. Certainly this must be worth a few airy remarks about some scene in an old Walsh George Raft movie or the various misuses of the auteur th-- by dim bulb college film students and second rate reviewers. I wonder if Tas wouldn't agree.
Again, on Kael's other big wrestling match--she spent tens of thousands of words on Citizen Kane to prove what? That it was a "shallow" masterpiece? That Herman Mankiewicz was the key to its greatness? In the end, she made no point or a silly point. The same with some of HER "auteuristic" embraces of various H'wood hacks who would prove to be empty vessels in time. As to her vaunted writing--yes, clearly she had literary talents far greater than the usual Ebertian reviewers, but how very much was overblown or embarrassing or both--those joycean fantasy asides about her fellow enthralled moviegoers in an imaginary bijou balcony. Enough already. B.Traven

IA said...

Wow--how did you get your hands on this recording? Unless I downloaded it wrong, it cuts off after about 54 minutes, which is a shame, since I'd love to have heard what she said after finishing her reading of "Circles and Squares."

The anonymous comment about "her happy snideness [and] almost masturbatory excitement" (we obviously heard different recordings) strikes me as wrongheaded in itself because it depends on a reductive set of old ideas about Kael (it's funny how quickly her detractors are prepared to descend to the level they thought she was on). She was often enthusiastic about her favorite directors, but part of her complaint about auteurism was what she regarded as its attempt at turning sow's purses into silk ears, and she was less of a cheerleader for her pets than many play her up to be: she slammed Peckinpah for Straw Dogs, and while she went overboard for Last Tango, her enthusiasm for Betolucci soon cooled.

Sarris was a great critic (now a shadow of himself unfortunately) and we all owe the auteurist project a debt for making everyone look twice at Hawks and other undervalued American studio directors, but his "Notes on the Auteur Theory," complete with its levels of ranking and circles, remains a silly work, though one with applaudable aims, and Kael's attack still stands up because it's not one of Sarris' finest pieces by a long shot.

Having reread "Raising Kane" recently, I'd say that the essay's main point is that Kane remains a great work precisely because it's a shallow masterpiece, whose enduring freshness depends on Welles' theatricality as a director and the distilled spirit of 20s-30s comedies that she believed Mankiewicz gave to the project. (Saying that she thought "Herman Mankiewicz was the key to its greatness" is bullshit--she clearly says that wihout Welles' involvement the whole project would never have gelled as it ultimately did.) Kael's research was sloppy, and her contention that Welles didn't have a hand in the script was disproven. Her standard of research is the biggest black mark against a piece intended as a corrective against the increased valorization of the director at everyone else's expense.

In aesthetics there's no such thing as "rightness" or "wrongness," only the basing of correctness on a general or specific consensus of taste, and in terms of literary talent Kael was second only to Manny Farber and perhaps Agee--if the immediacy and conviction in her work strike some as "overblown or embarrassing," it's their loss, especially since those quoted adjectives could also characterize their responses to her writing.

Anonymous said...

To the comments of the semi-anonymous (?) IA, , your defensiveness seems rather strained. Whatever level of nastiness my comments descend or ascend to yours are clearly in a state of obliviousness if you are denying the belittling, insulting tone of her essay/speech, generally accepted as such--it is a FAMOUSLY mean spirited attack (described most recently for example, by our host here as "genuinely nasty, invective laden.") So perhaps, indeed, you were listening to something else. And I might add, reading something else if all you want to say about Sarris' revolutionary essays and listings (which would include The American Cinema book) is they were "silly"--talk about reductions. Their silliness--and I conceded he could be that at times in my posting-- was profoundly influential to the way of looking at and writing about movies for the next going-on half a century, work cited as major influence by numerous critics, historians, filmmakers.

As to the rest, were I Pauline Kael I'm not sure I would pick you for my posthumous defender--you basically concede nearly every point I made, just with niggling rhetorical excuses added. You parrot what I said about Sarris and the debt film lovers owe him, about Hawks et al...about the absurd Last Tango review ...on Kane you call my intentionally glib assessment (i mean, come on, this is a website comment page not a phd thesis) "bullshit", and yet you parrot my quoting her "shallow" line (part of her rather weird, constant predeliction for making sure no film got too big for its britches) and then you compound my opinion of Kael on Kane saying her..."research was sloppy" "her contention...disproven" "her standard of research the biggest black mark against the piece..." And yet you want to get shirty over my little line referring to her aggrandizement of Mankiewicz as "bullshit"? More to the point I said it was generally wrongheaded and you've supplied some of the reasons why. As to her writing style--I would stand by the phrase "often overblown"--as you say, aesthetics knows no right or wrong. Her "immediacy" I concede, for better or worse (some of those frenzied thoughts of hers I think would not stand the test of time). By the way, is it true that she never saw any film a second time, or is that just one of those reductive old ideas?

Tom Sutpen said...

I'm vastly enjoying the debate that's broken out, and I'll toss my own thoughts into the mix when I've time (in short: Kael could be an extraordinary writer; one who I always loved reading. But I thought much of the criteria she employed as a critic to be wrongheaded, if not downright specious), but I'd like to ask a favor of those who've been participating:

Could you please identify yourselves?

Now, I won't enforce this, and you can continue posting anonymously if you'd like, but a) I'd like to know who is wielding the insight here; and b) When you've got a debate going with two or more people posting anonymously, it's hard to tell who's specifically rebutting whom.

Thanks.

IA said...

As far as identification goes, I don't have a blog or anything similar, so I just go by my initials, IA.
-------------------------------------

On to a response to a response...
"Circles and Squares" is certainly caustic, and she does her best to make Sarris look foolish by dismantling a theoretical framework and casting aspersions on a state of mind she doesn't have much respect for, which not surprisingly occasions her tone. But I don't view the essay as nothing more than one long gratuitous masturbatory insult, which seems to be the extent of your take on it.

I specifically labeled "Notes on the Auteur Theory" as silly, so please don't distort the scope of my opinion on one article to cover the rest of Sarris's writings, even if that might suit your argument. That would not be, to use a word Kael liked, honorable. As said earlier, we all owe auteurist critics like Sarris a debt. If you chose to interpret as meaning that I deny the influence his work had, that is your mistake.

I don't wish to be Kael's posthumous defender, mainly because I'd rather acknowledge and examine her blind spots for what they are, rather than deny them or use them as an excuse to say "enough already" and dismiss any differences regarding their nature as "niggling rhetorical excuses."
I quoted your mention of the Last Tango review to show that even though she could rave about pets like Bertolucci, she didn't give them a free pass with every film, as she was perceived to do with her favorites.

I don't see how I could avoid "parroting" (i.e. quoting) the "shallow masterpiece" line in order to address it--I admit that it's certainly a concession...to what Kael said. For you it's simply evidence that Kael had a weird, constant predilection for making sure no film got too big for its britches (except for films like Last Tango apparently). But Kael called other film masterpieces without calling them shallow, and I've already detailed her reasons for calling Kane a "shallow masterpiece," which revolve around the freshness and theatrical verve she claimed for the film.

I'm not sure how I'm compounding your opinion of Kael on Kane by saying that her research was sloppy. Kael wanted to dispel the opinion of Welles as a one-man band, and wanted to refocus attention on screenwriters like Mankiewicz. She hampered her credibility by not researching far enough into the question of Welles' contributions, but it doesn't negate her motivations or the essay itself, which ultimately says that Welles was the cohesive force behind the project, even if some of the other people involved ended up unfairly shadowed.

Since the vast bulk of your response seemed to be a not-particularly-glib putdown of Kael, I'm afraid I wasn't quite able to tell when you were simply being glib with your “little line.” So you'll have to forgive me for presuming that you meant what you said and wished to stand by it. Your little line was grossly reductive and purports to encapsulate an entire essay--it would be no more defensible than me saying that "Notes of the Auteur Theory" really just meant that the director was God. Of course, I could always cover my behind afterwards by saying I of course was being glib, and anyway, I’m not writing a PhD fer crissakes.

Some of Kael's frenzied thoughts definitely wouldn't stand the test of time. I don't think there's a working critic out there whose thoughts entirely would—that’s part of the tradeoff in achieving immediacy. And while she did see some films a second time (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, etc.), I don’t wish to make that a rhetorical excuse. Her criticism is based almost entirely on first reactions, and it has to be left or taken up with that in mind, along with the realization that there are other critics out there to provide balance. I'm afraid that answer probably doesn't live up to the snideness of your question, but you can still take heart, since by not defending every single facet of Kael's career, I am obviously parroting your every line.

Anonymous said...

And so we slip tediously into the pit of whining and baiting. Before boredom overwhelms whoever might still be reading this exchange, or before Tas pulls the plug, what the hell I'm game for another round.

You seem deliberately inclined to not hear what others hear, to not read or understand what you've read. I fear that you are not getting enough oxygen from your position somewhere up Ms. Kael's posterior and its compromising your logic. You are irked by what you see as my snideness (tho you don't recognize any in Kael) but show no reluctance to indulge in same yourself (you just don't happen to be any good at it ). Your panties get bunched up over the word "parrot" but as I tried to show, you essentially agreed with all the points I tried to offer from my opinion of Kael's flaws. Fine,we'll let go my snide rhetorical flourish and say you just happen to agree with many of the same points but yours are special and different and have excuses (I'm sorry, I mean context). You hang on my Mankiewicz line like its a smoking gun, but if you read the line in context its clearly offered sarcastically in the context of wondering and questioning what she was going on about--you're simply being dishonest in your argument here--you would seem to know perfectly well what I was referencing and that Kael had over-emphasized Mankiewicz in pursuit of her theory, which you have repeatedly agreed with me was bogus. The final assessment of Kane by Kael is her opinion, of course, and she's entitled to it, and you're entitled to parrot it if you agree with her--but many people through the years have disagreed with "their perception"--we must be on constant guard of your tedious literalness--of her opinion, i.e. that Kane was not merely "fun" or the best '30s newspaper comedy ever made, but profound, complex, dark, etc.etc.
Regarding Sarris' work, you say I "distort the scope" of your opinion. You wrote: "his "Notes on the Auteur Theory," complete with its levels of ranking and circles, remains a silly work." I wrote : "all you want to say about Sarris' revolutionary essays and listings (which would include The American Cinema book) is they were "silly" I concede that I extended your statement to the plural (yes like you I am flawed--just not As flawed)--but I'll still say that it's a revolutionary work, that to call it simply "silly" is, yes, I'm going to label it Snide, and that the "ranking and circles" grew into everything else, American Cinema basically an expansion of the rankings and writings in the auteur material in Film Culture.

IA said...

I'd have to agree that with your latest response this exchange has reached the point of diminishing returns. I'm confident enough in my prevous posts to let them address the reheated concerns of your current one and to avoid repeating myself, which you seem to be doing when not having a go at the invective machine (I can freely admit that you're much better at being snide, if that makes you feel better) or indulging in your own tedious wriggling around with your previous comments.

Since you're convinced that I've played into your hands, and I'm convinced that you've demonstrated you already know what to think, I'll leave it to others to decide who is more or less justified or whether we're simply talking past each other. If a fresh spin on this topic arises I'm game, but for now it looks exhausted.

Anonymous said...

Setting an example for the world's nations to follow, let us then agree to disagree. Inshallah.

Anonymous said...

the only reason you're so fond of kael, slutpod, is because you're a bloody bookworm that, throu fetish has always preferred the book to the medium of film. writing bout film doesnthave to aspire to being good literature at all, which is why if its worth reading at all bout film, meaning the fetish tends towards film, and i'm not saying it is worth it, you're far better off with the likes of nicole brenez or p.a.sitney. your problem, slutpod, is that tom wolfe brainwashed you.

Anonymous said...

''good literature''

Tom Sutpen said...

Juan wrote

the only reason you're so fond of kael, slutpod, is because you're a bloody bookworm that, throu fetish has always preferred the book to the medium of film.

*****
Not that anyone other than me would know this, but that conclusion is unsupported by the facts.

writing bout film doesnthave to aspire to being good literature at all

*****
Why not?

, which is why if its worth reading at all bout film, meaning the fetish tends towards film, and i'm not saying it is worth it, you're far better off with the likes of nicole brenez or p.a.sitney.

*****
Sitney isn't without insight (I don't think I've read enough of Brenez to comment, but as writing goes? Snoresville.

your problem, slutpod, is that tom wolfe brainwashed you.

*****
If that be brainwashing, then make of it what you will!

Anonymous said...

what? no way, you tell me why film should be eaten up by literature. you're the discontent in film, not me. stop whining bout the mooees and promoting shit like kael who contributed fucknothing to film and loads to your lit.

JustGerrard said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.