She may be the fairy godmother of all film criticism, but the work of Pauline Kael (1919-2001) went over like a lead balloon as we began our sequence of classes on criticism/reviews. (Let me just say: I remember having pretty much the same reaction when I had to read her as a college sophomore in 1987, and that was when she was still alive and crankin’ it out.)
Perhaps I had subconsciously set her up for failure, by picking two of her reviews of films that I thought the class at least has a chance of having actually seen. I confess that I honestly don’t know where to begin in trying to teach what it means to be a critic and what value criticism can have — and do it in two-and-a-half classes instead of a whole semester. In addition to assigning students to read Kael’s long (her usual length, actually) January 1974 takedown of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” in the New Yorker, I also read aloud her two-paragraph review of “Star Wars” (that’s all she wrote!) from September 1977:
“The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head; for young audiences ‘Star Wars’ is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. … An hour into it, children say they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts — it has no emotional grip. …”
I picked this because what we have here, on one level, is a then-58-year-old woman — believed by a wide segment of the cultural literati to be the authority on whether or not a film is any good — grappling with this monstrously successful movie that has eaten the world alive. Her review is three months late (“late” by our measurements) which speaks to a whole other era of movie marketing, distribution, criticism and media mania. It was impossible to be alive in the summer of 1977 (I turned 9) and not notice “Star Wars,” yet with this dismissively short review, Pauline Kael is telling us it’s not worth the time to notice it too closely. Imagine where she was at, and where culture was at — already grappling with the emerging idea of a blockbuster, which would change the way popular culture makes and anticipates movies. (“Jaws” had come two years earlier, which she sort of liked.)
“[‘Star Wars’] has no emotional grip,” she wrote.
Well, we all know different now. There’s only an entire warehouse full of what people have written about the emotional grip of “Star Wars.”
So she might have missed the boat, but was she so wrong?
Thus began our discussion. What is a review for? Do you read reviews? Do you deliberately avoid them? If you read them, why? Whose reviews do you read? Has a review ever made you really mad? What do you say to your companion when you leave the theater? Do you talk about the movie a lot, or do you let broad and general abstractions do it for you? (“That was okay.” “That was so awesome.” “That sucked.”) Why do people hate critics? Why are critics so darn critical? What makes a good review? Why should anyone care what a critic has to say? Is this a worthy job? Is it journalism?
Gratifyingly, the class’s answers to these questions identified and affirmed many of the points and guidelines raised here by Chris Klimek, a writer and critic (and boxer!) who lives in Washington, DC. Invited to speak to high-schoolers during a Shakespeare Theater workshop, Chris gathered his thoughts on the whole reason for criticism and what makes reviews worth reading. Then he shared it on his blog back in May. He doesn’t present this list as an original divination, but I think he nailed the basics really well. Please read the entire blog post, but here are the steps he outlined for the reasons for writing sturdy criticism and what to keep in mind while you’re doing it:
1. What is criticism for? (Helping readers decide whether to spend their money and time on it; creating a record for posterity; “keeping tabs” on what’s going on in our world; reviews see, go and do so you don’t have to — the surrogate experience.)
2. Objectivity? Fuggedaboudit.
3. Research will save you time.
4. The Three Questions. (Click the link above to find out what they are! They’re important!)
5. It’s a big language. Learn it and use it.
6. Be funny …
7. … but never be mean
8. Show your work
9. Anything is more interesting than a plot summary
10. That marker is permanent.
If you can understand this list, you begin to see the journalistic value in reviews. If you insist that reviews serve a Yelp-like function, good only for a consumer-oriented “thumbs up or thumbs down” purpose, then you might not ever see the value.
We talked about Anthony Lane’s 1999 review of “The Phantom Menace” in the New Yorker. Here, 22 years after his predecessor grappled with her distaste for “Star Wars,” Lane takes apart the highly-anticipated prequel. This time, “Star Wars” is a tsunami for which the entire global village is well prepared. Reviewing it then becomes a high-wire act. What will Anthony Lane say about it? the crowd asks.
We found a lot that we liked in the review, even those of us (not me) who disagreed with his pan. It’s interesting that in the exact spot Lane could have ended, he goes on for another 600 words or so, bringing in the Reagan era’s “Star Wars” missile defense initiative. Should he have stopped sooner? (Yes, seemed to be the prevailing vote — too long, too much. No! says the professor. Keep it coming!)
Next we talked about two reviews from this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, the Boston Globe‘s Wesley Morris. We read him on “Drive” and on “The Help.” We especially admired the personal and deeply reflective way Morris wrote about the essential heartache of “The Help” in terms of Hollywood, roles for blacks, permanent racism, the South — so much contained in one elegant movie review. What if he’d just given out the star rating and two sentences? A huge cultural loss, that’s what.
Far and away the class favorite: Two great Lindy West film reviews for Seattle’s alt-weekly, The Stranger. We read her now-classic smackdown of “Sex and the City 2” and her painfully hilarious review of “The Eagle.” (“Coffee is for penis-checkers.”) But let us look beyond Lindy’s amazing way of being funny and profane. There is some trenchant social analysis going on here, especially in the “Sex and the City” review’s disdain for the franchise’s warped idea of feminism. Students loved these reviews so much that some said they read them out loud to friends. One announced that she wants to be Lindy West.
Wonderful. But, along with all the vagina jokes, let’s look at these two sentences:
“Sex and the City 2 makes Phyllis Schlafly look like Andrea Dworkin. … In order to escape their various imaginary problems, our intrepid foursome traipses off to dark, exotic Abu Dhabi (‘I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle East—desert moons, Scheherazade, magic carpets!’)” …
Okay, class. Let me ask you. Who here can tell me who Phyllis Schlafly is?
Who here can tell me who Andrea Dworkin is?
Who or what is a Scheherazade?
Shaking heads, no clue.
Now, not to be a bitch, but having anticipated such, I held up printed-out pictures I made before class. One of Schlafly, one of Dworkin and one of Scheherazade, and I explained who each were, direct from the Wikipedia entries.
I hope this is as close as I get to being a scold this semester, but COME ON, PEOPLE. You are laughing your head off at Lindy West’s review but you didn’t even wonder who these names were? Obviously West wants you to know who these names are or she wouldn’t have made the reference. She thinks cool people will know, or at least look it up. It has never been easier to look this stuff up — Google is in the palm of our hands at all hours of the day.
If I had to think of the main quality that separates real reporters and writers from people who just want to be reporters and writers it would be this: When a real writer encounters a phrase or name she doesn’t know, she looks it up. That is how you learn to get better, smarter, quicker. The best writers keep up. The best [insert any profession here] keep up. They live in fear of not knowing something and not getting the reference. End of lecture.
* * *
For Monday, Sept. 17: Deadline for the reported essay (aka “The Thing Itself”). 1,000-1,300 words. Double-spaced, standard margins. Bring TWO printed copies and also email me a copy. And, by gosh, don’t forget your SEOs.
Also on Monday, we have special guest stars! I’m bringing a medium to class and we are going to contact Pauline Kael in the great beyond and get on her case about “Star Wars.”
Not really. No, our guests are Leslie Yazel and Jeremy Egner (and their tot, Jemma), who are coming to talk to us about arts and culture coverage and everything else.
Leslie is deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal‘s “Personal Journal” section. Jeremy is a writer and multimedia producer on the arts desk of the New York Times.
I shared some examples they sent ahead, like this and this by Jeremy. Among other things, Leslie’s going to talk about helping a critic untangle his or her thoughts and seeing a review or essay through to a strong, clear point.
If you know anyone who might like to hear what Leslie and Jeremy have to say, feel free to bring a friend. It’s going to be all kinds of awesome.
See you then.