The Age of Movies and The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex

THE AGE OF MOVIES: SELECTED WRITINGS OF PAULINE KAEL
Ed. by Sanford Schwartz
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE MULTIPLEX: WHAT’S WRONG WITH MODERN MOVIES?
By Mark Kermode

When Pauline Kael wrote an essay in 1980 titled “Why Are Movies So Bad?” and Mark Kermode subtitled his most recent collection of essays “What’s Wrong With Modern Movies?” neither was doing anything out of the ordinary. They are both, after all, film critics and complaining is part of their job. Not all of their job – see Kermode on The Exorcist, for example (“I really do think The Exorcist is the very best thing produced by the first century of cinema”), or Kael on the 1978 re-make of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (“it may be the best movie of its kind ever made”) – but a good part of it. And what’s more, it’s the easy part.

It’s a truism that most of everything is shit. Most painting is shit, and most books are, too. But there aren’t, relative to other forms of art, that many movies being made, in large part because they’re so expensive to produce. In addition, the production of even a low budget film (which is still likely to cost a million dollars to bring to screen) involves a great deal of talent and labour, while the marketing of movies sucks up a disproportionate share of the media oxygen. For all of these reasons we should expect movies to be better. That they are not is all the more disappointing, especially to cinephiles like Kael and Kermode.

The answer provided by Kael to her own question has to do with “the numbers”: film-making by accountants with both eyes on the bottom line. Kermode, for his part, also tilts against “the foul financial imperative that turns undiscerning ticket-buying into an act of casual cultural vandalism.” This is a familiar complaint (though Kael’s concerns about the influence of television deals have dated), and it’s both easy and fair to take the side of art over commerce, especially when commerce is seen to fail. (An aside: Kermode has a chapter explaining how movies rarely do fail, but I found this to be the least convincing part of his book. One thing in particular he doesn’t address is the amount of public subsidy the film industry battens on – the sort of thing detailed in Edward Jay Epstein’s The Hollywood Economist. While it’s true that even very bad, very expensive movies still make money, a lot of this has to do with the fact that the game is rigged.) On the other hand, Kael and Kermode both have populist tastes, and genuinely like popcorn movies such as Jaws and Star Wars (the two blockbusters most often arraigned for having ruined creative Hollywood). Yes, the money-grubbing, especially in theatres, can be a bit much. And no, there’s no excuse for Sex and the City 2 except as a quick cash grab to take money from suckers. But that’s show business.

In any event, Kael and Kermode have bigger fish to fry. Kael is first and foremost a moralist. The violence, the irresponsible violence, of Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange put her off, as does The Deer Hunter’s lack of “moral intelligence.” This further linking of stupidity with horror, “cinema du zap” (“irrational and horrifyingly brutal”) is frequently made, with The French Connection being just one example of “what we once feared mass entertainment might become: jolts for jocks.” We see Kael here in full highbrow mode, though it’s important to note that her scorn isn’t only directed at lowbrow fare. Kubrick’s 2001 seems to have made her mad enough to spit, and in “Trash, Art, and the Movies” we see her calling it “dumb,” “idiotic,” and “stupid” all in one paragraph.

It’s often said that critics today don’t have the same cultural authority as they used to. That may be true, as it’s hard to think of a critic today so sure of their own authority as Kael was of hers. Again and again she launches attacks on other (mostly nameless) reviewers. Not content to stop there, she also drags in audience members, holding their overheard opinions up to ridicule. I think some of these are straw men, if not entirely fabricated, but they help her hammer home her point: there is only one proper response to any film and that is her own. Does the airhead amateur critic sitting at Bonnie and Clyde think that it’s a comedy? The fool deserves to be slapped! Conversely, do you not see that Invasion of the Body Snatchers really is a comedy? You’re insensible!

It’s usually fun imagining getting into an argument with a critic over likes and dislikes, but I came away from The Age of Movies thinking that it would be no fun at all to disagree with Kael, and that she was probably someone I would never have wanted to meet in person. What I respect the most in a critic is a core integrity, a feeling that, while not being closed-minded, they hold true to certain aesthetic principles. With Kael these seem too personal and idiosyncratic. Her admiration for the hack director Irvin Kershner (she even lauds the laughable thriller Eyes of Laura Mars) must, I feel, be based on friendship, just as her insistence on viewing Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a satire on the Bay area no doubt comes from her own familiarity with the place. As a result, while her general essays still maintain interest, her reviews are now mostly expendable footnotes in the history of taste.

Where Kael is fiercely judgmental and moralistic, Kermode is comic and unabashedly nostalgic. He’s also delightfully British, so you get your film crit sprinkled with the odd “bollocks,” “strop,” “grot,” and “blag” (only the first of which meant anything to me). The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex doesn’t contain any reviews but rather offers up a range of perspectives on what ails the movie biz: from the popcorn, to the producers, the public, the politicians, and even the press. Suffice it to say that, while not believing in a Golden Age of cinema, Kermode does think things are in decline. In particular, being a film purist, he doesn’t like 3-D, shoddy projecting standards, and price gouging at the concession stands.

While Kermode is a great storyteller, and a sensible and sensitive critic (the sort of critic I think I really would enjoy arguing about movies with), I found myself unengaged by a lot of what is upsetting him. I’ve always despised 3-D, and see the current, Avatar-led interest in it as just a fad. In fact, as I write this I’m pretty sure it’s already run its course. As for getting projection ratios right and pricey popcorn, it’s been nearly ten years now since I set foot in a theatre and I have to say I don’t miss the experience a bit. Yes, I cheered seeing the shark in Jaws and the Death Star in Star Wars being blown up back when I was a kid, along with everyone else sitting around me, and those are fond memories. But at the same time I don’t want to go back to watching movies that way. While I know it’s not the same thing, I prefer watching movies at home on DVD.

That may be just because I’m getting old, but there is perhaps a point there as well. Of course one does become jaded. Kael is at her best doing this kind of self-analysis:

When you’re young the odds are very good that you’ll find something to enjoy in almost any movie. But as you grow more experienced, the odds change. I saw a picture a few years ago that was the sixth version of the material that wasn’t much to start with. Unless you’re feeble-minded, the odds get worse and worse. We don’t go on reading the same kind of manufactured novels – pulp Westerns or detective thrillers, say – all of our lives, and we don’t want to go on looking at movies about cute heists by comically assorted gangs. The problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions fulfilled again. Probably a large part of the older audience gives up movies for this reason – simply that they’ve seen it before.

Today I would want to go further. Movies now are almost exclusively a youth phenomenon. It’s telling that the anecdote that gives Kermode his hook to attack multiplexes involves him taking his eleven-year-old daughter to see a Zac Efron movie. Good for the kids, I guess, but I draw the line at adults lining up to see (or read) the latest installment in the Harry Potter franchise, or Toy Story, or Shrek. I feel a little sick when told how this animated baby formula is really “fun for grown-ups too!” In fact, many of these “kidult” movies are actually made for grown-ups. Meanwhile, it’s not that I’m bored by these films and feel like I’ve seen them all before, so much as I feel that I’ve outgrown them. Retreating into my private home theatre to watch the classics seems a better option for me than retreating into a second childhood. The “jolts for jocks” that Kael so feared turned out not to be the nadir of mass entertainment after all. Instead we got stuck with toons for tots.

Notes:
Review first published online December 19, 2011.