inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #0 of 62: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 8 Sep 04 11:32
    
I grew up attending movies at the Cinema Guild in Berkeley, California. 
There I learned to love the work of artists from Chaplin to Kurasawa. 
I didn't know then that the woman who ran that art movie house was Pauline 
Kael, and that she would ultimately have an influence on the industry that 
would expand far beyond the boundaries of the San Francisco Bay Area. 
I'll always be grateful to her for introducing me to a world of film
beyond Hollywood blockbusters. 

Therefore I'm especially pleased to introduce our next guest, who's written 
a book exploring a subject so close to my heart.

Craig Seligman, the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract
Me," has been a professional critic for twenty years. He's written book
reviews and movie reviews for a great many publications, including The
New Yorker, The Threepenny Review, Artforum/Bookforum, and The New York
Times Book Review, where he's a regular contributor. Meanwhile, he's made
his living mainly as an editor -- at The New Yorker, Food & Wine, and
Salon.com (where he ran the Books department with Laura Miller). He lives
in Brooklyn with his husband, Silvana Nova.

"Sontag & Kael" is a compare-and-contrast look at two of his favorite
writers. There's an inherent imbalance to the book, since Kael (who died
in September 2001) was a close friend and he's never met Sontag (who's
still writing). Many of the reviews of the book have focused on (and
disagreed as to) whether anybody could be fair under those circumstances.
The book is also a meditation on criticism itself-its purposes, its
potentials.

Leading the conversation with Craig is LA-based film critic Andy Klein. 
Andy is currently film editor of the (relatively) new Los Angeles 
CityBeat ... more or less successor to NewTimes Los Angeles (where he 
was a staff writer) ... more or less successor to the L. A. Reader 
(where he was film editor).  He is thus the only person whose work has 
appeared in the same string of little street boxes all over town for 
thirteen consecutive years, under three successive owners (plus another 
two years under yet one more owner, back in the mid-eighties). Whether 
this is a mark of honor or a badge of shame is anyone's guess. Along the 
way, he has been on staff at several late, lamented publications, 
including the L.A. Herald Examiner and American Film, and has freelanced 
for Salon, Film Comment, Los Angeles magazine, Variety, the Hollywood 
Reporter, and a bunch of other places.  He is, not coincidentally, the 
cohost of The WELL's movies conf and its two neglected spawn, <video.> 
and <videovault.>
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #1 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Wed 8 Sep 04 12:19
    
Thanks, Cynthia. Before the conversation gets going, I'd like to point
out that "Sontag & Kael" isn't really about movies -- it's about
criticism. Obviously Kael was a movie critic and Sontag has written a
lot about film as well, but I'm interested them (at least in the book)
not as movie critics but as critics. And I'm also interested in (and
have my own opinions about) the question of whether criticism, when it
reaches the transcendent levels that Sontag and Kael wrote on, can
itself turn into art.

That said, there's nothing more fun than arguing about movies. Which
is part of what makes these two writers so much fun to read.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #2 of 62: Andy Klein (saiyuk) Thu 9 Sep 04 23:33
    <scribbled by saiyuk Thu 9 Sep 04 23:42>
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #3 of 62: Andy Klein (saiyuk) Thu 9 Sep 04 23:43
    <scribbled by saiyuk Thu 9 Sep 04 23:47>
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #4 of 62: Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Thu 9 Sep 04 23:48
    

And so I start things off with two successive editing errors that needed 
to be scribbled.... 

Hi, Craig. 
  
I want to start by asking the most obvious of questions: Why Sontag? Why
Kael? Why not, say, Kael and Sarris? or Sontag and Dwight MacDonald? or,
god knows, Sarris and MacDonald? Was gender specifically an issue more
than the many other things that Sontag and Kael had in common? Or simply
coincidental altogether?
  
I guess in general terms what I'm really asking is: how and why did you
come to conceive of this and then to write it?
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #5 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Fri 10 Sep 04 07:51
    
Oh, I think all of those are pairings that make for potentially
interesting books, Andy. They just wouldn't be *my* book. One of my
themes is summed up in Oscar Wilde's observation (in the preface to
"The Picture of Dorian Gray") that criticism is autobiography. Sontag
and Kael have been my cynosures. I started reading Kael when I was
sixteen or so, Sontag somewhat later, and they're both always with me.
I read them, or rather I return to them in a way I don't with most
other critics. Is their gender part of the reason? Perhaps there's
something in their being women that answers some deep-seated
psychological need of mine, but, really, I think I keep coming back to
them because I love the way they write.

The choice to write about them together wasn't just arbitrary, though.
I had been planning to write a profile of Sontag for Salon's
"Brilliant Careers" feature. For various reasons too boring to go into
it didn't work out, but as I was thinking about her one evening it
struck me that, y'know, she's really the opposite of Pauline in the way
that … and then bells went off and lights started to flash and I knew
immediately there was a book there. They really do represent two poles
of criticism in a way that I didn't have to strain at all to
demonstrate; as soon as I had the idea, everything else fell into
place. (And the book I wrote is pretty much the one I envisioned
writing, which I think, on the basis of anecdotal evidence, is rare.)
The idea was to put them across from each other like mirrors, and get
that resonance -- those images reflecting into infinity -- that mirrors
produce. Maybe you could do the same thing with Andrew Sarris and
Dwight Macdonald, but I wouldn't want to be the one to try.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #6 of 62: Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Fri 10 Sep 04 11:38
    

Cynthia makes reference up above to the fact that you were friends with 
Kael. You are upfront about this in the book, of course, and, yes, Kael 
does, I think, come across more favorably than Sontag does. I wasn't 
bothered by this, perhaps because you've been very thorough with sourcing 
and footnoting, but likelier because, doing what I do for a living, Kael 
naturally tends to loom more importantly in my mind than Sontag, even 
though I never met her or spoke to her. 

Still, in the name of full disclosure, could you talk a little about your 
personal contact with each of them? Any qualms that gave you? And how you 
checked yourself for bias? 

Let me add that I felt less concerned about the potential conflict because 
this is not the Olympics. The goal of the book is not to give one writer a 
9.3 and the other a 9.1, with tenths of points subtracted for a bad 
sentence here or a fatuous moment there. 
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #7 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Fri 10 Sep 04 14:33
    
As I say close to the beginning of the book -- in a remark that some
readers have reacted to with skepticism -- it's not a contest. I
certainly didn't intend it as one, although since a large part of
criticism is, obviously and unavoidably, evaluation, I was constantly
evaluating them next to each other. If I'd thought that one or the
other couldn't hold her own, I'd never have sat down to write the book,
and -- forgive me for quoting myself again -- one of the pleasures of
being in my position is that I don't have to choose.

But Kael is way closer to my heart, and that would be the case even if
I'd never met her. That's hardly surprising: I suspect that among
readers who value the two equally (if there are any besides me), Kael
is clearly the friendlier, the funnier, the more approachable, the more
fun to be with as a literary companion. Sontag's austerity is one of
her signal virtues, but it doesn't make her lovable, at least not in
the short run.

I've never met Sontag, though like anybody who lives in New York and
attends a lot of cultural events, I see her all over the place, or at
least I have in the past. We have some mutual friends, and on a couple
of occasions I could have met her through them (i.e., been introduced
to her during an intermission), but since the book is largely about
polarities and I knew Pauline well, I decided it was best to use not
knowing Sontag as another polarity.

Does that mean I'm unfairly biased toward Kael? Some readers have
thought so. There's no question that I find Sontag in many ways more
problematic, and that I say more things about her that could be
interpreted as unkind than I do about Kael. What that means to me is
that it's more necessary (for me) to clear stuff out of the way so you
can get to the greatness with Sontag than it is with Kael. But the
greatness is there, absolutely. I also offer some serious criticisms of
Kael, and I take comfort from the fact that her daughter told me,
after reading the book, "Pauline would have hated this." (That would
have been a critical error on Pauline's part, of course.)

One hears people talking about "objectivity" in criticism in a
legalistic way that I believe is meaningless. What's objectivity, and
who's objective? Generally I think it's a good idea to avoid reviewing
the work of your friends (though Kael did it on a number of occasions
-- and lost a number of friends). What I think *is* important is to
make your biases clear, so that the reader can decide for herself or
himself whether they've swayed you. Probably every sentence I've ever
published has belonged to the project of making my biases clear, and I
don't think anybody could come away from "Sontag & Kael" bewildered as
to what they are. But as much as I adore Kael, I'm loath to make the
claim that she's a greater writer than Sontag.

And thank you all for your patience with my long-windedness.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #8 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Fri 10 Sep 04 15:04
    
Thanks for doing this, Craig, and thanks for hosting this, Andy.

Speaking of Kael reviewing her friends' work, a related thought
occurs to me.  In the early 80's, her pal Warren Beatty offered 
her a production consulting gig at Paramount.  (I don't recall
you mentioning this in the book, though Biskind talks about it
at some length in *Easy Riders*.)  You discuss the tension between
Sontag's fiction and her essays, and I wonder if you've given any
thought on how Kael's brief excursion into the production side
influenced or was a counterpoint to her criticism?  I do believe 
you mention that Kael's reviews got a bit softer, in the 80's,
for example, and I wonder if part of that's a function of her 
visit to the sausage factory.  Did she talk about her job at 
Paramount with *you*?

Lotta questions there, I realize, feel free to bite off all or
just nibble some.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #9 of 62: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sat 11 Sep 04 08:04
    
I agree about the importance of makings one's biases clear. Readers who care
about (the evaluation of) the objects of criticism need more than one
critic, so as long as readers cna understand critics' points of views they
can prosper. (And you're right that you're doing it for us here, too.)
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #10 of 62: Mary Mackey (mm) Sat 11 Sep 04 10:57
    

I enjoyed you book a great deal Craig. I wonder if you might comment on what
you think the lasting influence of Sontag and Kael will be. In other words,
fifty years from now will anyone be reading either writer? Will their work
have changed criticism and writing in some important way or do you think
they will be relegated to some obscure province of academics who study the
20th century.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #11 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Sat 11 Sep 04 15:28
    
Kael didn't talk a lot about her excursion into the sausage factory.
Other writers have, and haven't hesitated to ascribe the worst motives
to her for leaving The New Yorker and going to Hollywood. Obviously
part of the reason was financial: the offer was attractive. And part of
the reason was that she'd become frustrated in her dealings with the
magazine's editor, William Shawn. But I do know (because I heard her
say it) that she missed writing, and was happy to return to it, and I
also know -- though whether I heard her say it or read it in an
interview I'm not sure -- that the glacial pace of getting a picture
OK'd and made didn't fit her personality. She liked to get things done
and move on.

I'd beware of Peter Biskind's take on her. I was at Kael's house when
she was reading Biskind's book, and she was appalled and angry at just
about everything he said about her (and everybody else). I've only
dipped into the book, but what I read seemed to justify Ray Sawhill's
objection, in Salon,to "Biskind's cynical insistence on interpreting
his subjects as exclusively driven by money, power and image ….
Biskind's get-the-goods approach ensures that nearly everyone in his
book comes across as scum. It leaves him at a loss to account for
talent and generosity and incapable of discussing whatever nonscummy
side of these people their sometimes wonderful work emerged from."

I don't think the experience changed her writing that much. If her
writing did change in the '80s, the change had more to do with her
aging and changing herself (and with changes in the movies) than her
Hollywood experience.

As for your question, Mary, about lasting influence: Literary tastes
go through permutations we can never predict, and so predicting makes
me nervous. But certainly one of my motives in writing the book was to
say: When the literary history of this period is written, hey, don't
forget these two writers! They're not merely commentators  on the
period -- they're right there at the center of its achievements. Kael's
influence is pretty obvious already, and I imagine we'll still feel it
fifty years from now, in the colloquial human-voice tone with which
critics now write about culture, and not just pop culture. From that
standpoint, I think most younger (nonacademic) critics have been
influenced be Kael, whether they know it or not. She really changed the
tone of the conversation, and I don't see any moves to change it back.
(Certainly they're not coming from academic criticism.)

As for Sontag's influence, I think it'll be more in a style of
thinking (rigorously serious, unsullied by the kind of irony that now
sullies so much) than in a style of writing. Her critical explanations
are so central to understanding the art of the period she was writing
about that people will probably *have* to read her fifty years from now
to make sense of what was going on.

Is that wishful thinking? Maybe. I have a vested interest in seeing
both of them take their place in the pantheon.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #12 of 62: Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 12 Sep 04 22:40
    

I does not sound like wishful thinking, Craig.
Thanks for the very coherent analysis and response.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #13 of 62: Gary Lambert (almanac) Mon 13 Sep 04 04:16
    

Hi, Craig -- wandering into the conversation a little late, but I'll do
my best to catch up.

First of all, let me say that I really love the book. It would be hard
to imagine a more elegant and engaging meditation on the remarkable
range of responses that art can evoke. There are some particularly
striking resonances in these pages for me, as the relationship to your
two subjects that I've had as a reader for nearly four decades seems
very close to how you describe your own feelings about them: revere
Sontag, love Kael. My discovery of Kael stands as an almost miraculously
pivotal moment in my intellectual life. It happened in 1966, the year "I
Lost It At The Movies" came out in paperback. I was 15, and while I was
already passionately into movies, I hadn't given a lot of thought to the
art of film criticism. The only critics I had read with any regularity
up until then were those who wrote for the daily papers in New York
(primarily Judith Crist and the spectacularly out-of-touch Bosley
Crowther). I think Dwight McDonald was in Esquire back then, and I saw
his work from time to time, and maybe that of a few more writers for
various periodicals. But I had never read or even heard of Kael, and
to this day, I have no idea what it was that compelled me, when I saw a
copy of "I Lost It..." on a bookstore shelf, to pick it up and almost
instantly decide that it was something I needed to buy. Maybe it was the
slightly lurid come-on of the title and cover art, or something in one
of the pullquotes on the back... I still don't know why it happened, but
it turned out to be one of the smartest impulse buys of my life. The
book took hold of my not-fully-formed teenage cineaste's brain and
wouldn't let go. I had never experienced writing anything like Kael's
before --  passionate, combative, funny and brilliantly evocative of the
art it celebrated (or, in the case of lousy movies, lamented). From the
moment I picked up that book, Pauline Kael was (and still is) a profound
influence on the way I think about movies in particular and art and
popular culture in general.

Like you, Craig, I first approached Sontag's work a few years after Kael
first captivated me. But that approach was a lot more tentative, and
more than a little daunting. There was no wondrous book-practically-
jumping-off-the-shelf-at-me moment there. While reading Kael was both
enlightening and a hell of a lot of fun, I soon discovered that the
enlightenment to be found in Sontag was going to take considerably more
rigor to get to, and that the journey might at times seem more a chore
than a pleasure -- the eat-your-broccoli-before-you-get-dessert
syndrome. But the enlightenment was there to be had, and in Sontag's
best work, well worth the effort. But I confess, I passionately prefer
Pauline's view of the world.

Like others here, I don't think your admitted bias toward Kael detracts
from the book in the slightest. Quite to the contrary -- I think it
*makes* the book. The "argument" you posit between Sontag and Kael seems
to be an argument you might have been having with yourself all these
years regarding the relative value of opposing critical sensibilities.
That you admit to a greater sympathy for one of those opposing poles and
have to make a concerted effort to better understand the other is a big
part, I think, of what gives the book its tremendous vitality.

And after that remarkably windy exposition, my question: Did the process
of writing the book in itself help you toward some reconciliation of
that argument, or to change your sympathies in some significant way?
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #14 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Mon 13 Sep 04 10:12
    
Gary, your experience of discovering Kael sounds so much like mine. (I
suspect the blurb that pulled you in was … "If you care about the
movies, you must read Pauline Kael!") The medium really did seem to
have a magic in the sixties that it's lost today. Not that I don't
still love movies, but we understood what Sontag was saying when she
called film "*the* art form of the twentienth century." I don't think
she'd be so likely to call it *the* art form of the present century.

And while eat-your-broccoli is a fair enough description of coming to
Sontag, it's also true that most of us reach a moment in our adulthood
when we realize -- hey, when did that happen? -- that what we really
crave is broccoli.

Did writing the book change my attitudes? To some extent. I knew that
some aspects of the later Kael made me uncomfortable (though I love the
later Kael); writing the book forced me to put my finger on them and
acknowledge their seriousness (which I found particularly difficult
amid the braying of so many detractors that by the eighties she was
washed up, had betrayed her talent, etc.) With Sontag it was somewhat
different: I knew there was a lot of stuff about her writing that
bugged me, and dealing with it gave me the sensation of hacking through
the underbrush so I could get to the greatness. Now -- even though
some people feel that I've treated her disgracefully -- I feel a lot
less conflicted about adoring her.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #15 of 62: Gary Lambert (almanac) Mon 13 Sep 04 13:16
    

>it's also true that most of us reach a moment in our adulthood
>when we realize -- hey, when did that happen? -- that what we really
>crave is broccoli.

Absolutely true!  The broccoli-first-ice-cream-later model was one that
my late employer and mentor, the legendary impresario Bill Graham, was
fond of using to explain his policy of booking great blues and jazz
artists on the same bills as the most popular rock acts of the day
(all-time favorite example and one I dearly wish I'd seen: The Who with
Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd!). Bill thought it essential that
the kids get turned on to these underappreciated giants, and turned on
they almost invariably were.

I try not to come off like too nostalgic a geezer, but you're so right:
that magic feeling you ascribe to movies in the 60s (and, I would say,
much of the 70s) was undeniably real. It's a feeling that seems
depressingly unlikely to flourish in the barren creative landscape of
the early 21st century film industry. There are, of course, still those
smart, independent artists out there in whose hands the magic can still
glimmer through the fog on occasion -- but still, nothing of the breadth
and depth of that post-Bonnie-and-Clyde period when it seemed as though
that spirit of limitless creative possibility was the industry's
chief animating principle rather than a fringe sentiment. I believe that
Pauline Kael was a heroic figure in helping to create that thrilling
atmosphere, through her passionate and influential advocacy of so many
of the maverick filmmakers who made it happen -- which makes Peter
Biskind's snarky take on Kael all the more mystifying and infuriating. I
will guilty admit that I happily devoured Biskind's book, and found it
an entertainingly bitchy read. I'm sure that there is much truth to his
accounts of the hubris and excess that helped bring the "New Hollywood"
crashing down. But what makes Biskind's achievement an ultimately hollow
one is that in his zeal to assign blame for the industry's great Fall
From Grace, he gives appallingly short shrift to how unprecedented,
exciting and inspiring that period of grace was, and he doesn't come
close to balancing his disdain for those he trashes (Kael included) with
anything approaching appropriate credit for their roles in bringing
about that all-too-brief golden age.

But Biskind's ill-considered fingerpointing aside, that golden age *did*
come to an unfortunate, perhaps inevitable end, and it's hard for anyone
who experienced its creative highs not to lament the opportunity lost. I
got the sense that some of Kael's latest writing reflected that -- not
so much bitterness about her own less-than-satisfactory Hollywood
experiences, but a general feeling of dread about the creeping
Bruckheimerization that engulfed the movies (feel free to substitute
"Eisner," or your favorite industry villain, for "Bruckheimer" there).
To be sure, Pauline could still write with her characteristic edge and
passion when so moved, but the inspiration to do so seemed to me more
sporadic. I don't doubt that age and illness had something to do with
it, but the adjective I would most readily apply to a significant amount
of that later work would be "dispirited." Do you think that's a fair
assessment of her feeling about the state of movies in her final years,
Craig?
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #16 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Mon 13 Sep 04 20:21
    
Who knows why certain art forms flourish in certain periods? Certainly
the movies of the '80s were a disappointment after the excitement of
the '60s and the '70s, and "dispirited" is probably a fair way to
describe one aspect of Kael's work during that period. By the early
'90s, I would have said (I *did* say) that the age of movies was pretty
much over. But then the late '90s came along and, hey, suddenly there
were a bunch of good films. The excitement of the '60s and '70s
probably couldn't be recaptured (and young people no longer had the
same relationship to the movies), but the movies, it turned out, were
far from over.

It's a drag -- as I know from experience -- to write week after week
about stuff you don't think is very good. But that's the critic's lot
(even in a good era). Kael complained about it all the time, not just
late in her life. I think her being dispirited later on is only half
the story, though. Much of Kael's greatest writing -- much of her
greatest *writing* -- is in those final books. I'm not so sure about
those reviews as movie criticism. But as essays, as works of art,
they're superlative. By the end of her career, Kael really had turned
the movie review into an art form, and, quite apart from the films she
was writing about (and whether she was treating them too generously or
too unkindly), those essays are dazzling.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #17 of 62: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Tue 14 Sep 04 11:48
    
I think a strong counter-argument can be made that 80s American
films are better than they're generally remembered, while the 
70s were not as a whole as great as remembered.  (And the image
of the 70s as a golden era is a myth that Kael herself is in 
large part responsible for.)  *Blade Runner*, *Empire Strikes 
Back*,  *Raiders of the Lost Ark*, *Blue Velvet*, spring to 
mind as great 80s movies, then there's the explosion of indy 
films from Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Soderbergh, and so on.  You 
couldn't say any of these rose to the level of a *Godfather* 
or a *Taxi Driver*, except maybe *Velvet*, but they'd certainly 
give the other 70s classics a run for their money.  

The trouble is, these films weren't for the most part made by 
Kael's people, the filmmakers she sort of groomed with her 
criticism, nor the themes of the 70s she championed most, so 
she rather missed the boat, in the next decade.  (Read her
review of *Blade Runner*, as a perfect example of that.)  I don't
think she ever quite *got* what Lucas and Spielberg were doing
with their best movies, either-- they weren't just trying to 
return Hollywood movies to the populist entertainment of the 
30s and 40s, but in my opinion, aiming for something even more 
ambitious, in terms of trying to shape a national sensibility, 
and synthesizing the best of international film and fantastic 
genres into an entirely new American film form.  (The fact 
that she loved *ET* and was just so-so on *Raiders*, Spielberg's 
stronger and more resonant film-- and that's borne out by time-- 
suggests this to me.) 
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #18 of 62: brighter clouds ahead (noebie) Tue 14 Sep 04 13:58
    
great 80s films? how about "the right stuff" -- a movie which has worn
well and which, if i remember correctly, kael loved...perhaps kaufman
was one of "her people"

film is like baseball...every season has its heroes, and we only know
in retrospect how really good they were
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #19 of 62: Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Tue 14 Sep 04 14:30
    

I don't want to sidetrack too much into specific films, but as a data 
point, I'll mention that I *would* have written something similar, James, 
about Raiders, but a recent rewatching has shifted my view. That is, I was 
stunned by how much less exciting it seems to me now, as if it had dated 
badly. This may well be because its influence, particularly in Hong Kong, 
was so huge that it has turned, through no real fault of its own, pale. 

On a different point, it's impossible to hypothetically separate a 
writer's work from the times in which it was created, I guess. The 
excitement in Kael's writing certainly related to her excitement -- as 
well as the rest of us -- over what went on in American film in  the late 
sixties to mid/late-seventies. I find her later work generally just as 
good as writing, but I return to it less frequently. I also think the 
deflation of energy in Hollywood in the eighties may have led to one of my 
least favorite Kael traits -- that sense one gets (increasingly often as 
the decade wore on, I think) that she is almost arbitrarily taking a 
contrarian position. I don't think she was faking it in the least: rather 
I've always suspected that she was searching for a new high in Hollywood 
and seizing onto some oddball hopes. But there was so little in the '80s 
to seize onto. When I think back on the eighties, there are of course many 
wonderful films, but little that has stayed with me as somehow "glorious" 
outside of Lynch, the trio of weirdo comedies in the early eighties (Repo 
Man, Buckaroo Banzai, Spinal Tap), and the great glossy action films (Road 
Warrior, RoboCop, Terminator). Of course, Hong Kong was doing incredible 
things, but that didn't show up on the American critical radar till the 
very end of the decade. 

But things *did* get exciting again around the beginning of the nineties 
with the rise of Miramax and the (briefly) genuine indies. And I'm not 
sure -- I don't have the appropriate books  right at hand -- that Kael got 
as juiced by it as I would have expected. 

Am I right about, Craig? 
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #20 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Tue 14 Sep 04 17:40
    
I agree that it's dangerous to get sidetracked with discussions about
specific movies (though everyone is welcome to object to one or another
of Kael's reviews -- I certainly do). I'd say my taste is close enough
to hers, though, to be appalled by the argument that the films of the
'80s were on a level with those of the '70s. (But then I have friends
who argue that the really great decade for American film was the '50s.)
(And, by the way, nobody mentioned the films that immediately jump to
*my* mind as the masterpieces of the '80s -- "The Unbearable Lightness
of Being," "Enemies: A Love Story," and "The Dead." I'm sure there are
more.)

But I think the (bad) films of the '80s were less useful to Kael than
the bad films of the '50s and especially the '60s. Kael wrote (In "So
Off-beat We Lose the Beat"), "Sometimes bad movies are more important
that good ones just because of those unresolved elements that make them
such a mess." The date of that essay, significantly, is November 1966,
and the films she was writing about were "Georgy Girl," "Morgan!" and
"The Red Desert." A decade earlier she wrote a brilliantly perceptive
essay about American society in "The Glamour of Delinquency," a
consideration of "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden," and "Blackboard
Jungles," three films she had severe reservations about. A lot of
terrible movies in those decades (I don't think those six are terrible)
were groping at something, and this groping, I think, is singularly
lacking the films of the '80s (and later). Films were no less a
commercial art then than they were earlier, but they became, somehow, a
more corporatized art. Sure, there were plenty of exceptions, and
there are always writers and directors and actors rising above the
level of garbage that most films float around in. What's different is
that there was something, or at least Kael found something, revelatory
in the garbage of an earlier era, and that's what made her, more than a
film critic, a cultural critic. That she became less of one in the
'80s (though of course we can point to reviews that are exceptions) had
more, I think, to do with a change in films than with a change in her.

Sure, Kael was dispirited about the state of the art by the time she
quit writing -- like most of us -- but she never stopped going to
movies (or watching tapes) and finding movies she loved. She was always
pushing this one or that one in the interviews she never stopped
giving. 
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #21 of 62: mother of my eyelid (frako) Wed 15 Sep 04 14:47
    
Craig, thanks for reminding me of Pauline Kael's essay on "Bonnie and
Clyde." I'm having my students read it next week before and after they see
it and correct their notion that they have to use a "foreign" language in
order to write about films that excite them.

I think Kael's explanation for why the gauzy, "poetic" scene of the family
reunion doesn't work in "Bonnie and Clyde" is great, as well as why the
movie shouldn't be blamed for glamorizing violence.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #22 of 62: Not Jet Li (saiyuk) Thu 16 Sep 04 00:57
    

Boy, it's really easier to discuss Kael than Sontag, largely, I suppose
because I've read (and reread) so much more of her (and much more
recently). You go into some detail about Sontag's fiction toward the end
of the book, and describe her attitude about its quality (or is it,
rather, importance?)  relative to her essays. Her view appears to resemble
the notion that I was raised with: that fiction is Art, and non-fiction,
however good, is something...different. I always held that view, not as a
value judgment, but a matter of formal classification, in which Art was
defined by certain value-neutral characteristics. And my view -- which was
already having trouble dealing with S.J. Perelman and Benchley and Dorothy
Parker's nonfiction/nonpoetry, among others -- deteriorated more with the
"New Journalism." I have no idea how much of Fear and Loathing in Las
Vegas is true, but I have no doubt that it's Art.

Still, barring a rediscovery, it's hard to imagine Sontag's fiction (which 
I haven't read) supplanting her nonfiction in what I'll vaguely call The 
Intellectual Public Consciousness. 

Can you talk about her fiction a little? And did Kael -- who obviously, 
like most critics, lived for Art, and who grew up in the same milieu -- 
take shots at fiction or poetry? 
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #23 of 62: Gary Lambert (almanac) Thu 16 Sep 04 04:19
    

Yeah, I was just gonna say, we *really* should get to Sontag!  I had a
feeling that the conversation would skew heavily toward Pauline -- in
part because we are a big bunch of movie geeks here at the Well, and
while Sontag did a lot of film writing, she isn't nearly as closely
identified with the medium as is Kael. But it also may have something to
do with that daunting, distancing thing, already discussed, that is
inherent in her work.

So to supplement Andy's excellent questions: might it be possible,
Craig, to provide a little Sontag for Beginners, for those who may not
embraced her as avidly as Kael (or read her at all)? Perhaps a pointer
to a few of her absolutely essential works, and some idea of what it is
that you most value in those pieces, might be helpful for folks who are
new to her writing, or only casually acquainted with it.
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #24 of 62: Craig Seligman (craigseligman) Thu 16 Sep 04 06:50
    
We can scratch our heads for weeks over the question "What is art?" In
the visual-arts world these days, the answer seems to be, Whatever I
say it is. I'm not willing to go that far, but I'm also hesitant about
being too quick to dismiss. I think the answer has less to do with the
form than the practitioner. I went to the Schiaparelli show at the
Philadelphia Museum last December, and none of those gowns looked
embarrased to be hanging out in the company of the Old Masters.

Thanks for asking about Sontag. My book, in fact, is intended as a
primer -- an argument about them, yes, but also an introduction for
readers who are new to them. If you've never read her, I'd say dip
around in her first two collections, "Against Interpretation" and
"Styles of Radical Will." And although I say some less than
enthusiastic things in the book about her political writing, the essay
she wrote about the Abu Ghraib photographs for the May 23, 2004, New
York Times Magazine shows how much *I* know. It's brilliant, not least
in its simplicity and directness (qualities that have led some people
to dismiss it -- but they're wrong, wrong, wrong).

But as I look back on this conversation … I'm staring to get a little
nervous that you guys are lobbin' me softballs. Thanks for allowing me
the chance to pontificate, but, c'mon, "Sontag & Kael" is a contentious
book, intended to get dinner plates flying and couples divorcing.
Surely there's somebody out there wants to challenge me? Who thinks
I've headed down a blind alley? Who thinks it's ridiculous to suggest
that criticism can be an art? Who thinks those two were terrible or
irrelevant writers? Who thinks Kael had it all wrong about the auteur
theory or "Citizen Kane" or Sontag about 9/11 or Leni Riefenstahl? Who
can't stand my tone? Or who just thinks I'm generally a jerk? (Which I
may have just proved.)

I realize (and hope) this is asking for trouble …
  
inkwell.vue.224 : Craig Seligman: "Sontag & Kael"
permalink #25 of 62: Gary Lambert (almanac) Thu 16 Sep 04 07:57
    

>Who thinks Kael had it all wrong about the auteur theory or "Citizen
>Kane

OK, I think you may push some buttons there! Not mine, as I mostly side
with Pauline on both, but someone's. I'll just pop up some corn, pull up
a chair, and enjoy the mayhem.
  

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