Monday, February 13, 2006

Room For Squares (and Circles)

We began here at Termite Art with various definitions of film criticism. Here are two more :

Criticism is an art, not a science, and a critic who follows rules will fail in one of his most important functions: perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see.

The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn't be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?)...The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others.

Those definitions come from Pauline Kael's 1963 essay "Circle and Squares," her very famous response to Andrew Sarris' "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962." I found the essay in Kael's collection I Lost It At The Movies, which I purchased after reading several of her pieces over the last year and finding myself quite taken with Kael's writing. This does not mean I necessarily agree with her; rather that, regardless of my opinion, I delight in reading hers.

Sarris' formulation of the auteur theory at this point had three elements (what Kael calls three circles): that a director's technical competence is important to film; that a "distinguishable personality" on the part of said director is also important; and that a film's interior meaning — a.k.a. the tension between the director and his material — creates "the ultimate glory of the cinema." Kael finds all three elements to be bunk, and is not subtle about her distaste. Her piece is littered with words like "nonsense," "pathetic", and "idiocy." She announces that the critical community (i.e. everyone but her) amounts to little more than a bunch of men still consumed with the films of their adolescence, who have crafted a theory not out of intellectual curiosity, but as a means of defending the frivolous action films they adore. She ridicules almost as much as she argues.

Along the way, she makes some good points. Regarding the middle circle, which says that observing a director's distinguishable personality over the course of a career is a criterion of value, Kael notes that just because a director repeats himself does not make him talented. And she's right in that regard: consider, for instance, the case of director Uwe Boll who is building a burgeoning career on the basis of some of the most wretched videogame-to-film adaptations ever perpetrated on unsuspecting audiences. We can discern a clear director's personality from his films, from an obsession with needlessly flashy and inappropriately intricate special effects to a strange urge to clothe all his leading men in wife-beater undershirts. Somewhat counterintuitively, then, Boll may be one of the few directors to come to Hollywood in recent years that fully embodies that middle criterion of the '62 auteur theory (even while he fails terribly regarding the outer circle).

I also appreciate Kael's ideas about criticism, particularly her belief in being flexible and eclectic. I believe that in most cases, a film has a singular author, but I don't necessarily agree that said author is automatically the director. Some stars become so powerful they not only chose their assignments, they get to select their co-stars and directors and collaborate in script revisions (primarily to make characters more in line with the star's image). Such was the case with Arnold Schwarzenegger through much of his two decade career as one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Schwarzenegger, it can be argued, fulfills all three of the '62 circles. His very persona of perfect male aggression, of the unstoppable Terminator, is a near personification of technical proficiency. All of his movies exhibit a clear persona; one far more nuanced and complex than the obvious "I'll be back quips." And, of course, a tension between the star and his films exist; for instance, in something like End of Days, the intended appeal of the picture is in watching Schwarzenegger apply himself in a role that contrasts sharply with his image.

Kael dismisses the auteur theory completely out of hand, and thus is not flexible enough to observe that the theory's usefulness in a situation such as the above. She argues for flexibility, yet she herself is equally as rigid as Sarris. Throughout her essay she lists numerous directors whose careers, she argues, merit inclusion in such a evaluation of directors. She adores Preston Sturges, values Carol Reed above Hitchcock, and is completely obsessed with Cocteau. More than once reading "Circles and Squares," I felt the distinct impression that Kael was simply squishing some very sour grapes: not because she doesn't appreciate directors' value, but because she doesn't appreciate the directors Sarris values.

And so it seems to me that the greatest and most public critical debate of the twentieth century largely came down to a matter of taste, less a battle between the auteur theory and circles and squares, than between personal preferences and approaches. Kael dismisses Sarris' favorites as "commercial trash" (although a later essay by Kael, "Trash, Art, and the Movies" will complicate matters) and also belittles his compatriot Jonas Mekas and his ties to the "independent film makers" who "are already convinced about their importance as the creative figures." But there's no denying that her attack on Sarris includes as many substitutions as refutations.

I think time has proven both wrong and both right. The auteur theory is a useful tool, most effective in imagintive, rather than limiting, ways. It was a great way of challening notions of what is good or bad in cinema. Now that it's become part of the vernacular, it is a theoretical tool that could use a new sharpening. And he may not be Hitchcock, but Carol Reed is pretty great too.


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