On criticism

I was deep into music criticism when I was a teenager. Shit mattered for me to an extent I couldn’t imagine now; I would read my favourite critics searching not just for information and recommendations but also to hone an ideological system. Part of me, I think, truly believed that fighting the good fight for the Right Aesthetics could lead to some sort of mass awakening, the scales dropping from listener’s ears as they understood how record companies had manipulated and misled them. Failing that — and, having been raised by disappointed marxists, I already knew that the Revolution was always unlikely to happen even though it should — I would settle for a strict policing of the borders of good taste amongst the intellegensia of the music press. Those in the know, at least, should agree with me.

My ideological certainties first collapsed when, at the age of eighteen, I stumbled upon a music forum whose members were by and large smarter than me, did not share much of my taste and were expertly cruel in exposing my bluster. While this eventually lead to a slow conversion to other orthodoxies, the impact of my values collapsing left me forever less certain of the ground I was on. Convictions became less strident, the realisation that art doesn’t really lend itself to ideological rating systems gradually dawned. And music itself started to matter less, too, as I explored new interests — cinema and literature, yes, but perhaps more importantly alcohol and the act of conversing with other human beings.

Perhaps the critical work that most impressed me during my twenties was art critic Matthew Colling’s Blimey, an overview of the British scene of the 90’s that twisted itself into endless disclaimers, sometimes enthusiastic but always acknowledging with a sheepish smile that from another perspective it was all rather shoddy, too. It was a sort of bittersweet, somewhat flippant capitulation to the viewpoint that there is something absurd about the very idea of critical authority, even as Colling’s descriptions implicitly made the argument that there is value to the role of critic, too.

It’s difficult to speak of this evolution beyond generalities: I certainly believe critics have valuable work to do as historians, ethnologists, writers about craft (a term teenage me would have sniffed at, but it is the only part of art that can be described in relatively objective terms) and individuals skilled at teasing out new meanings and new perspectives about whatever they’re focusing on. If you find someone whose tastes align with yours to some extent, that’s good too, though somewhat of a separate concern in the end. But my preferences in criticism still lean closer to Collings than the firebrands I enjoyed as a teen: the last two books of music criticism I loved, for instance, have been Nick Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop and Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah, two histories of Pop written decades apart but which share a convivial tone, signalling personal opinions as such and frequently making allowances that others might feel differently. More of a geeky chat with a friend than an ideological programme.

Pauline Kael’s I Lost It At The Movies is nothing like that. Battle lines are drawn, trends are railed against, heroes crowned, villains shunned. She does not possess the messianic tendencies of the Rock critics of my younger years but she does have very strong opinions, and is unlikely to offer any kind of apologetic shrug to go along with them. Mostly she’s been proven “right” by the current consensus: the directors she championed at the time, from Kurosawa to Truffaut to Satyajit Ray, are still adored, and the self-important prestige studio films she mocked — Marty, Blackboard Jungle, Splendor In The Grass — are seen mostly as historical curios. Her sideswipes at the arthouse cinema of her time are less solidly vindicated, though I do appreciate that she saw in films like La Notte and Last Year At Marienbard above all a trend, something much more to do with superficialities of style than any Deep Thoughts on society (even if she enjoys these trappings less than I do).

She was an amazing writer, first of all, which is always half the battle when you want to be a good critic. She was also someone who thought about things, who decided to delve deeper than the received wisdoms of her time, about movies and (more impressively) about the world, still a rarity in the critical discourse on cinema. She was frequently funny, and often nasty — the first accusation lobbed at criticism by those who dislike it (most people, you may have noticed) and as such frequently downplayed by lovers of the artform but hell, a sick burn from 1954 that still registers in 2017 is something to be cherished for itself.

Her willingness to let her thoughts about movies spread into wider considerations of society at large sometimes give her writing the same sort of qualities I see in Joan Didion: as with Didion, who was diagnosing the dark side of flower power before the movement had even penetrated the mainstream, Kael’s considerations of her times are mostly anything but quaint, they feel modern and urgent, incompatible with the wholesome picket fences mainstream culture reduces the 50’s to. What draws me to them, partially, is the idea that if we figure out where we went wrong in the past, what we have forgotten and what we have glossed over, we might find a key to a better future; it is a lifelong task and doomed to failure, but again, I wasn’t raised to hope for success. And sure, true to her class and time, we get the occasional glimpses of the kind of distasteful flippancy that a person in her milieu would tend to have about matters of race and gender; the Cool Girl syndrome pops up regularly, and Kael’s gushing review of Jules Et Jim is cringeworthy to the modern reader: Kael writes at length about Catherine as an example of the emancipated woman who reclaims her own sexual agency while seeking to control the sex life of her partner. That someone of Kael’s intelligence failed to see, or thought it not worth noticing, that this is what men do almost by default, especially in her time, is mind-boggling.

It is not, however, a lack of wokeness that created the biggest gap between Kael and myself as a reader. What I thought most often, disingenuous as this may sound, was “well geez it’s just a movie”. Teenage Daniel may have thrilled at Lester Bang’s eviscerations of James Taylor or Dave Marsh’s salvos against Art Rock — but somehow, I have lost the appetite. The hoary progressive epics Kael railed against now feel clumsy, didactic, and certainly less interesting than the genre fare she held up against them, it’s true, but the fact that history has vindicated her also removes much of the fire and brimstone: one almost never hears of these movies now, and if I happen across a Martin Ritt film I am seldom angry at it. Good on Kael for recognising the superficiality of all those 60’s European anthems of ennui, too: but divorced from their hype, one can accept that watching gorgeous actors walk sullenly around gorgeous old European streets in gorgeous black and white can be very pleasurable in and of itself. And while her takedown of auteur theory is quite comprehensive and full of strong arguments (identifying common themes within a director’s work is not a surprise and not in and of itself a sign of quality; the theory disregards the complexities of the studio system; there’s no real reason why an individual battling commercial considerations has to come out with better work than someone allowed free reign; and, perhaps most controversially for the modern reader, most of the movies championed by the auteur crowd are entertainments originally directed at children), it doesn’t lessen the movies the auteurs loved in my eyes — so Rio Bravo doesn’t have any great insights on the human condition; it’s still a movie I endlessly enjoy re-watching, and I’m reluctant to call this a somehow lesser pleasure. And sure, as a theory auteurism falls flat, but that doesn’t mean that finding common themes in a director’s work — even in their lesser films — isn’t an intellectually stimulating game, or that directors working against commercial considerations don’t frequently come up with something unique that couldn’t have been created under other circumstances.

But of course, it is not only against the movies themselves that Kael rages: many of the essays in I Lost It At The Movies focus on press reaction to a film as much or more than they do on the works themselves. Somebody coming to West Side Story with the hype of it being a musical that transcends the genre by tackling important social issues can justifiably be distressed by it (as Kael was) more than somebody who, like myself, knew of it as a somewhat corny artefact of its time (I enjoyed it quite a lot). It is certainly a pleasure to see Kael rip through the hacks of her day, and there is something to be said for trying to engage with the public discourse on a piece of art; nothing exists in isolation, and people who make a big deal out of not paying any attention to the reviews always seem needlessly defensive. But there is also a risk to letting criticism of a work impact too strongly on your experience of it: it leads to these situations where one has to have an opinion on something, and positions are taken up — rabid fan, One Sane Person Who Sees Through The Hype, brave populist chastising the contrarians — with such tedious inevitability that there’s little left to enjoy. Worse, it makes actually experiencing something — album, movie, whatever — a total chore.

So there is something that makes me unwilling to follow Kael’s path, something besides the clear fact that I am not half as smart or talented as she was. Much of my disagreement stems from not thinking that a movie should have to conform to any universal standards of quality — and indeed this is quite close to what Kael herself suggested in her takedown of auteur theory. But a critic still establishes these standards, even if unknowingly, a result of their taste and politics and temperament.

Another way of looking at my knee-jerk inner “it doesn’t have to be!” showing up every time Kael chastises something for what it’s not is that I fear she asks too much of cinema. This is a common thread in much criticism — certainly the utopian intoxicated transcendence that critics praised Rock & Roll as a harbringer of was shooting a bit too high. On the other hand, though, these kind of strong convictions are a valuable pushback against art as just another commodity, against the notion that culture cannot interact with the world and, if not change it, at least accompany the right kinds of changes.

Where are my values? Politically, I’m not too confused about them — but also pretty confident that there are better voices than my own to analyse art from that point of view. Is there anything art should have to do, besides acknowledge the humanity of all — an essential value to hold, but also aiming a bit low? Maybe once I figure out the answer to that, I’ll write criticism again

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