Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Fantasies of the Art House Audience

It has been illuminating this dreary wet summer to return to those early books of the collected writings of critic Pauline Kael [1919-2001]. We did not get the "New Yorker" at the time here in the UK, but those early books like "I Lost It At The Movies" and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" were essential early cinema books to cherish.

Her 1961 essay "Fantasies of the Art House Audience" [it was also published in "Sight and Sound"] is interesting now in it's depiction of that new phenomenon: the art house audience and their expectations. Suddenly every city or large town had its local art house where those early Bergmans and Fellinis were watched and dissected. Movie-going was no longer "going to the pictures" but a more rewarding, cultural experience. As Pauline puts it: "in the past few years there has appeared a new kind of filmgoer - he isn't interested in movies but in cinema". She mentions that a doctor friend told her she needn't bother with THE PINK PANTHER as it was just slapstick, when she told him she had had a good time at it "he was irritated and informed her that a movie should be more than a waste of time, it should be an exercise in taste that will enrich your life"!

She details the reverence with which HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR was received: "here was the audience soaking it up - audiences of social workers, scientists, doctors, architects, professors - living and loving and suffering just like the stenographer watching Susan Hayward. Are the experiences involved really so different? (It may be relevant to note that the educated audience which generally ignores Miss Hayward turned out for I WANT TO LIVE in which the character of Barabara Graham was turned into a sort of modern Tess of the D'Urbervilles: not only innocent of crime but horribly sinned against and nobler than anyone else)".

It is this kind of phrase that makes Kael so cherishable. She also says of "High Culture Cinema" that there is "more energy, more originality, more excitement, more art in American kitsch like GUNGA DIN, EASY LIVING, the Rogers and Astaire films like SWINGTIME and TOP HAT, in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, CITIZEN KANE, THE LADY EVE, THE CRIMSON PIRATE, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or more recently THE HUSTLER, LOLITA, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, HUD, CHARADE than in the presumed "High Culture" of HIROSHIMA, MARIENBAD, LA NOTTE, L'ECLISSE - as Nabokov remarked "Nothing is more exhilerating than Philistine vulgarity"!
Well I defer to no one in my admiration of Antonioni and the others, but she does have a point. I had to disagree with her over her demolitions of UN HOMME ET UNE FEMME and BLOW-UP, but she is on the ball discussing films like VICTIM or A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, as well as her notorious reviews of THE SOUND OF MUSIC (MONEY) or the abomination that is THE SINGING NUN.

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" [I still have my penfriend Gary Kendall's copy which he lent me in 1969 on his arrival in London from Australia] also has her terrific piece on "Movies On TV", followed up in her "5001 Nights At The Movies". "Going Steady" is a great collection on late '60s movies, her championing of Stresiand in FUNNY GIRL and as well as her demolition of Julie Andrews in STAR! and Hepburn in THE LION IN WINTER. Throughout the '70s and '80s one had to have her latest writings - titles like "Deeper Into Movies", "When the Lights Go Out", "Reeling" and the later ones like "Movie Love". A great critic should stimulate and make one revise one's own opinions, sometimes one may violently disagree with some trenchant views, but that is the joy of reading and writing about movies. These are tomes for every movie shelf.

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