Friday, October 22, 2004


Carney on Kael

This is old stuff but still:

RC:....the Times's restaurant reviewer should forget about La Grenouille and Aureole and start covering the local Pizza Hut and McDonald's outlets. The art critic should make sure he writes up the black velvet Elvis paintings. The book review editor better not miss a Tom Clancy or Stephen King novel. All kidding aside, shouldn't the film reviewer take his job at least as seriously as the restaurant reviewer? At the very least, shouldn't there be one reviewer at each major publication assigned to covering the real works of art in film–no matter how small their budgets or limited their releases? There's no one at any major publication I know of doing that now.

VISIONS: Doesn't Pauline Kael's promotion of the early work of Coppola, Lynch, the Coen brothers, Toback, and DePalma disprove that?

RC: (Laughing) You're asking the wrong person about Pauline Kael....Kael wasn't interested in art; she was a connoisseur of kitsch. As far as I'm concerned, she was the single most unfortunate influence on the last thirty years of American film reviewing–stylistically, intellectually, and aesthetically. OK, so she went out front and championed certain filmmakers' work before anyone else did. But doesn't it matter that she was wrong about each and every one of them? Have any of them produced a major work?

Kael was the Michael Milken of film reviewing–she had a genuine flair for rhetorically inflating the value of a worthless stock and creating a stampede on the part of others to buy into it based on the inflated value. Look at how it worked in practice: Kael canonized The Godfather, Dressed to Kill, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fingers, Blood Simple, and Blue Velvet as masterworks. Since most critics, like most stock market investors, are more or less sheep, they followed her lead. Once they jumped on the bandwagon, the fiction acquired a life of its own, and she seemed astonishingly prescient. Reputations were made, canonical oeuvres were established based on one or two works, careers were avidly tracked, with the critics wagering on each of the successive works. The only problem is that it was all a shell game. A few years went by and the initial offering inevitably went back to zero, since there was no intrinsic value to start with. Subsequent works (not surprisingly) failed to live up to the "promise" of the director's previous work. The six movies I named were eventually perceived to be merely quite ordinary or worse than ordinary. (Most people seem to have realized this about the DePalma, Spielberg, Toback, Coen, and Lynch movies, though there are those who have invested so heavily in Coppola that they still can't admit that they are holding worthless promissory notes.)

VISIONS: But it's always said that she was a great writer.

RC: Doesn't great writing have something to do with being smart, being perceptive, being critically "right" about a work or a career? Is it great writing if you're consistently stupid and wrong? Are we in such an alexandrine age that great writing has become nothing more than jazzy metaphors, panting exclamations, the snap, crackle, and pop of adverbial self-stimulation? But what's even worse is that the awfulness lives on in all of the Kael-clones she spawned over the past twenty years. You come up against her lamentable legacy every week in the Village Voice, New York, and the Boston Globe–both in the schlock sensibility and in the costume-jewelry glitz of the writing itself.


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