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Circles and Squares (excerpts)

by Pauline Kael

Joys and Sarris

...It takes extraordinary intelligence and discrimination and taste to use any theory in the arts, and that without those qualitites, a theory becomes a rigid formula (which is indeed what is happening among auteur critics). The greatness of critics like Bazin in France and Agee in America may have something to do with their using their full range of intelligence and intuition, rather than relying on formulas. 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 Outer Circle
...the first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.

‘A great director has to be at least a good director.’ But this commonplace, though it sounds reasonable and basic, is a shaky premise: sometimes the greatest artists in a medium bypass or violate the simple technical competence that is so necessary for hacks. For example, it is doubtful if Antonioni could handle a routine directorial assignment of the type at which John Sturges is so proficient (Escape from Fort Bravo or Bad Day at Black Rock), but surely Antonioni’s L’Avventura is the work of a great director. And the greatness of a director like Cocteau has nothing to do with mere technical competence: his greatness is in being able to achieve his own personal expression and style.

An artist who is not a good technician can indeed create new standards, because standards of technical competence are based on comparisons with work already done.

[from Cocteau] ‘The only technique worth having is the technique you invent for yourself.’

I would amend Sarris’s premise to, ‘In works of a lesser rank, technical competence can help to redeem the weaknesses of the material.’

The Middle Circle
...the second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value.

The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better? Hitchcock’s personality is certainly more distinguishable in Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Vertigo than Carol Reed’s in The Stars Look Down, Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, The Third Man, An Outcast of the Islands, if for no other reason than because Hitchcock repeats while Reed tackles new subject matter. But how does this distinguishable personality function as a criterion for judging the works?

Often the works in which we are most aware of the personality of the director are his worst films - when he falls back on the devices he has already done to death. When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not much else to watch.

It is an insult to an artist to praise his bad work along with his good; it indicates that you are incapable of judging either... It’s like buying clothes by the label: this is Dior, so it’s good. (This is not so far from the way the auteur critics work, either.)

[Sarris] wants to see artists in a pristine state - their essences, perhaps? - separated from all the life that has formed them and to which they try to give expression.

The Inner Circle
The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.

These critics work embarrassingly hard trying to give some semblance of intellectual respectability to a preoccupation with mindless, repetitious commercial products.

‘Interior meaning’ seems to be what those in the know know. It’s a mystique - and a mistake. . . They’re not critics; they’re inside dopesters. There must be another circle that Sarris forget to get to - the one where the secrets are kept.

Outside the Circles, or What Is a Film Critic?

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?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others.

I daresay... the new breed of specialists know more about movies than some people and could serve at least a modest critical function if they could remember that art is an expression of human experience. If they are men of feeling and intelligence, isn’t it time for them to be a little ashamed of their “detailed criticism” of movies like River of No Return?

Those, like Sarris, who ask for objective standards seem to want a theory of criticism which makes the critic unnecessary. And he is expendable if categories replace experience; a critic with a single theory is like a gardener who uses a lawn mower on everything that grows. Their desire for a theory that will solve all the riddles of creativity is in itself perhaps an indication of their narrowness and confusion; they’re like those puzzled lost people who inevitably approach one after a lecture and ask, “But what is your basis for judging a movie?” . . . They want a simple answer, a formula; if they approached a chef they would probably ask for the one magic recipe that could be followed in all cooking.

And it is very difficult to explain to such people that criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you are and everything you know that is relevant, and that film criticism is particularly exciting just because of the multiplicity of elements in film art . . . they seem to view movies, not merely in isolation from the other arts, but in isolation even from their own experience . . . And if they don’t have interests outside films, how can they evaluate what goes on in films? Film aesthetics as a distinct, specialized field is a bad joke.

Some Speculations on the Appeal of the Auteur Theory

Vulgar melodrama with a fast pace can be much more exciting - and more honest, too - than feeble pretentious attempts at drama - which usually meant just putting ‘ideas’ into melodrama, anyway.

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