Trash, Art, and the Movies
By Pauline Kael
This essay was originally published in Harper's magazine in February 1969. It is a key text for those wishing to understand the essence of movies -- and therefore also, ultimately, that of videogames.
Like those cynical heroes who were idealists before they discovered that the world was more rotten than they had been led to expect, we’re just about all of us displaced persons, “a long way from home.” When we feel defeated, when we imagine we could now perhaps settle for home and what it represents, that home no longer exists. But there are movie houses. In whatever city we find ourselves we can duck into a theatre and see on the screen our familiars—our old “ideals” aging as we are and no longer looking so ideal. Where could we better stoke the fires of our masochism than at rotten movies in gaudy seedy picture palaces in cities that run together, movies and anonymity a common denominator. Movies—a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry corrupt world—fit the way we feel. The world doesn’t work the way the schoolbooks said it did and we are different from what our parents and teachers expected us to be. Movies are our cheap and easy expression, the sullen art of displaced persons. Because we feel low we sink in the boredom, relax in the irresponsibility, and maybe grin for a minute when the gunman lines up three men and kills them with a single bullet, which is no more “real” to us than the nursery-school story of the brave little tailor.
We don’t have to be told those are photographs of actors impersonating characters. We know, and we often know much more about both the actors and the characters they’re impersonating and about how and why the movie has been made than is consistent with theatrical illusion. Hitchcock teased us by killing off the one marquee-name star early in “Psycho,” a gambit which startled us not just because of the suddenness of the murder or how it was committed but because it broke a box-office convention and so it was a joke played on what audiences have learned to respect. He broke the rules of the movie game and our response demonstrated how aware we are of commercial considerations. When movies are bad (and in the bad parts of good movies) our awareness of the mechanics and our cynicism about the aims and values is peculiarly alienating. The audience talks right back to the phony “outspoken” condescending “The Detective”; there are groans of dejection at “The Legend of Lylah Clare,” with, now and then, a desperate little titter. How well we all know that cheap depression that settles on us when our hopes and expectations are disappointed again. Alienation is the most common state of the knowledgeable movie audience, and though it has the peculiar rewards of low connoisseurship, a miser’s delight in small favors, we long to be surprised out of it—not to suspension of disbelief nor to a Brechtian kind of alienation, but to pleasure, something a man can call good without self-disgust.
A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense. Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theatre or in this city, surely in other theatres in other cities, now, in the past or future, who react as you do. And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable. The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.
There is so much talk now about the art of the film that we may be in danger of forgetting that most of the movies we enjoy are not works of art. “The Scalphunters,” for example, was one of the few entertaining American movies this past year, but skillful though it was, one could hardly call it a work of art—if such terms are to have any useful meaning. Or, to take a really gross example, a movie that is as crudely made as “Wild in the Streets”—slammed together with spit and hysteria and opportunism—can nevertheless be enjoyable, though it is almost a classic example of an inartistic movie. What makes these movies—that are not works of art—enjoyable? “The Scalphunters” was more entertaining than most Westerns largely because Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis were peculiarly funny together; part of the pleasure of the movie was trying to figure out what made them so funny. Burt Lancaster is an odd kind of comedian: what’s distinctive about him is that his comedy seems to come out of his physicality. In serious roles an undistinguished and too obviously hard-working actor, he has an apparently effortless flair for comedy and nothing is more infectious than an actor who can relax in front of the camera as if he were having a good time. (George Segal sometimes seems to have this gift of a wonderful amiability, and Brigitte Bardot was radiant with it in “Viva Maria!”) Somehow the alchemy of personality in the pairing of Lancaster and Ossie Davis—another powerfully funny actor of tremendous physical presence—worked, and the director Sydney Pollack kept tight control so that it wasn’t overdone.
And “Wild in the Streets?” It’s a blatantly crummy-looking picture, but that somehow works for it instead of against it because it’s smart in a lot of ways that better-made pictures aren’t. It looks like other recent products from American International Pictures but it’s as if one were reading a comic strip that looked just like the strip of the day before, and yet on this new one there are surprising expressions on the faces and some of the balloons are really witty. There’s not a trace of sensitivity in the drawing or in the ideas, and there’s something rather specially funny about wit without any grace at all; it can be enjoyed in a particularly crude way—as Pop wit. The basic idea is corny—It Can’t Happen Here with the freaked-out young as a new breed of fascists—but it’s treated in the paranoid style of editorials about youth (it even begins by blaming everything on the parents). And a cheap idea that is this current and widespread has an almost lunatic charm, a nightmare gaiety. There’s a relish that people have for the idea of drug-taking kids as monsters threatening them—the daily papers merging into “Village of the Damned.” Tapping and exploiting this kind of hysteria for a satirical fantasy, the writer Robert Thom has used what is available and obvious but he’s done it with just enough mockery and style to make it funny. He throws in touches of characterization and occasional lines that are not there just to further the plot, and these throwaways make odd connections so that the movie becomes almost frolicsome in its paranoia (and in its delight in its own cleverness).
If you went to “Wild in the Streets” expecting a good movie, you’d probably be appalled because the directing is unskilled and the music is banal and many of the ideas in the script are scarcely even carried out, and almost every detail is messed up (the casting director has used bit players and extras who are decades too old for their roles). It’s a paste-up job of cheap movie-making, but it has genuinely funny performers who seize their opportunities and throw their good lines like boomerangs—Diane Varsi (like an even more zonked-out Geraldine Page) doing a perfectly quietly convincing freak-out as if it were truly a put-on of the whole straight world; Hal Holbrook with his inexpressive actorish face that is opaque and uninteresting in long shot but in close-up reveals tiny little shifts of expression, slight tightenings of the features that are like the movement of thought; and Shelley Winters, of course, and Christopher Jones. It’s not so terrible—it may even be a relief—for a movie to be without the look of art; there are much worse things aesthetically than the crude good-natured crumminess, the undisguised reach for a fast buck, of movies without art. From “I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf” through the beach parties to “Wild in the Streets” and “The Savage Seven,” American International Pictures has sold a cheap commodity, which in its lack of artistry and in its blatant and sometimes funny way of delivering action serves to remind us that one of the great appeals of movies is that we don’t have to take them too seriously.
“Wild in the Streets” is a fluke—a borderline, special case of a movie that is entertaining because some talented people got a chance to do something at American International that the more respectable companies were too nervous to try. But though I don’t enjoy a movie so obvious and badly done as the big American International hit, “The Wild Angels,” it’s easy to see why kids do and why many people in other countries do. Their reasons are basically why we all started going to the movies. After a time, we may want more, but audiences who have been forced to wade through the thick middle-class padding of more expensively made movies to get to the action enjoy the nose-thumbing at “good taste” of cheap movies that stick to the raw materials. At some basic level they like the pictures to be cheaply done, they enjoy the crudeness; it’s a breather, a vacation from proper behavior and good taste and required responses. Patrons of burlesque applaud politely for the graceful erotic dancer but go wild for the lewd lummox who bangs her big hips around. That’s what they go to burlesque for. Personally, I hope for a reasonable minimum of finesse, and movies like “Planet of the Apes” or “The Scalphunters” or “The Thomas Crown Affair” seem to me minimal entertainment for a relaxed evening’s pleasure. These are, to use traditional common-sense language, “good movies” or “good bad movies”—slick, reasonably inventive, well crafted. They are not art. But they are almost the maximum of what we’re now getting from American movies, and not only these but much worse movies are talked about as “art”—and are beginning to be taken seriously in our schools.
It’s preposterously egocentric to call anything we enjoy art—as if we could not be entertained by it if it were not; it’s just as preposterous to let prestigious, expensive advertising snow us into thinking we’re getting art for our money when we haven’t even had a good time. I did have a good time at “Wild in the Streets,” which is more than I can say for “Petulia” or “2001” or a lot of other highly praised pictures. “Wild in the Streets” is not a work of art, but then I don’t think “Petulia” or “2001” is either, though “Petulia” has that kaleidoscopic hip look and “2001” that new-techniques look which combined with “swinging” or “serious” ideas often pass for motion picture art.
Let’s clear away a few misconceptions. Movies make hash of the schoolmarm’s approach of how well the artist fulfilled his intentions. Whatever the original intention of the writers and director, it is usually supplanted, as the production gets under way, by the intention to make money -— and the industry judges the film by how well it fulfills that intention. But if you could see the “artist’s intentions” you’d probably wish you couldn’t anyway. Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose. This is, indeed, almost a defining characteristic of the hack director, as distinguished from an artist.
The intention to make money is generally all too obvious. One of the excruciating comedies of our time is attending the new classes in cinema at the high schools where the students may quite shrewdly and accurately interpret the plot developments in a mediocre movie in terms of manipulation for a desired response while the teacher tries to explain everything in terms of the creative artist working out his theme -— as if the conditions under which a movie is made and the market for which it is designed were irrelevant, as if the latest product from Warners or Universal should be analyzed like a lyric poem.
People who are just getting “seriously interested” in film always ask a critic, “Why don’t you talk about technique and ‘the visuals’ more?” The answer is that American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn’t very interesting. Hollywood movies often have the look of the studio that produced them —- they have a studio style. Many current Warner films are noisy and have a bright look of cheerful ugliness, Universal films the cheap blur of money-saving processes, and so forth. Sometimes there is even a spirit that seems to belong to the studio. We can speak of the Paramount comedies of the Thirties or the Twentieth-Century Fox family entertainment of the Forties and CinemaScope comedies of the Fifties or the old MGM gloss, pretty much as we speak of Chevvies or Studebakers. These movies look alike, they move the same way, they have just about the same engines because of the studio policies and the kind of material the studio heads bought, the ideas they imposed, the way they had the films written, directed, photographed, and the labs where the prints were processed, and, of course, because of the presence of the studio stable of stars for whom the material was often purchased and shaped and who dominated the output of the studio. In some cases, as at Paramount in the Thirties, studio style was plain and rather tacky and the output—those comedies with Mary Boland and Mae West and Alison Skipworth and W. C. Fields—looks the better for it now. Those economical comedies weren’t slowed down by a lot of fancy lighting or the adornments of “production values.” Simply to be enjoyable, movies don’t need a very high level of craftsmanship: wit, imagination, fresh subject matter, skillful performers, a good idea—either alone or in any combination—can more than compensate for lack of technical knowledge or a big budget.
The craftsmanship that Hollywood has always used as a selling point not only doesn’t have much to do with art -— the expressive use of techniques -— it probably doesn’t have very much to do with actual box-office appeal, either. A dull movie like Sidney Furie’s “The Naked Runner” is technically competent. The appalling “Half a Sixpence” is technically astonishing. Though the large popular audience has generally been respectful of expenditure (so much so that a critic who wasn’t impressed by the money and effort that went into a “Dr. Zhivago” might be sharply reprimanded by readers), people who like “The President’s Analyst” or “The Producers” or “The Odd Couple” don’t seem to be bothered by their technical ineptitude and visual ugliness. And on the other hand, the expensive slick techniques of ornately empty movies like “A Dandy in Aspic” can actually work against one’s enjoyment, because such extravagance and waste are morally ugly. If one compares movies one likes to movies one doesn’t like, craftsmanship of the big-studio variety is hardly a decisive factor. And if one compares a movie one likes by a competent director such as John Sturges or Franklin Schaffner or John Frankenheimer to a movie one doesn’t much like by the same director, his technique is probably not the decisive factor. After directing “The Manchurian Candidate” Frankenheimer directed another political thriller, “Seven Days in May,” which, considered just as a piece of direction, was considerably more confident. While seeing it, one could take pleasure in Frankenheimer’s smooth showmanship. But the material (Rod Serling out of Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II) was like a straight (i.e., square) version of “The Manchurian Candidate.” I have to chase around the corridors of memory to summon up images from “Seven Days in May”; despite the brilliant technique, all that is clear to mind is the touchingly, desperately anxious face of Ava Gardner—how when she smiled you couldn’t be sure if you were seeing dimples or tics. But “The Manchurian Candidate,” despite Frankenheimer’s uneven, often barely adequate, staging, is still vivid because of the script. It took off from a political double entendre that everybody had been thinking of (“Why, if Joe McCarthy were working for the Communists, he couldn’t be doing them more good!”) and carried it to startling absurdity, and the extravagances and conceits and conversational non sequiturs (by George Axelrod out of Richard Condon) were ambivalent and funny in a way that was trashy yet liberating.
Technique is hardly worth talking about unless it’s used for something worth doing: that’s why most of the theorizing about the new art of television commercials is such nonsense. The effects are impersonal -— dexterous, sometimes clever, but empty of art. It’s because of their emptiness that commercials call so much attention to their camera angles and quick cutting—which is why people get impressed by “the art” of it. Movies are now often made in terms of what television viewers have learned to settle for. Despite a great deal that is spoken and written about young people responding visually, the influence of TV is to make movies visually less imaginative and complex. Television is a very noisy medium and viewers listen, while getting used to a poor quality of visual reproduction, to the absence of visual detail, to visual obviousness and overemphasis on simple compositions, and to atrociously simplified and distorted color systems. The shifting camera styles, the movement, and the fast cutting of a film like “Finian’s Rainbow” -— one of the better big productions -— are like the “visuals” of TV commercials, a disguise for static material, expressive of nothing so much as the need to keep you from getting bored and leaving. Men are now beginning their careers as directors by working on commercials—which, if one cares to speculate on it, may be almost a one-sentence résumé of the future of American motion pictures.
I don’t mean to suggest that there is not such a thing as movie technique or that craftsmanship doesn’t contribute to the pleasures of movies, but simply that most audiences, if they enjoy the acting and the “story” or the theme or the funny lines, don’t notice or care about how well or how badly the movie is made, and because they don’t care, a hit makes a director a “genius” and everybody talks about his brilliant technique (i.e., the technique of grabbing an audience). In the brief history of movies there has probably never been so astonishingly gifted a large group of directors as the current Italians, and not just the famous ones—or Pontecorvo (“The Battle of Algiers”) or Francesco Rosi (“The Moment of Truth”) or the young prodigies, Bertolucci and Bellocchio, but dozens of others, men like Elio Petri (“We Still Kill the Old Way”) and Carlo Lizzani (“The Violent Four”). “The Violent Four” shows more understanding of visual movement and more talent for movie-making than anything that’s been made in America this year. But could one tell people who are not crazy, dedicated moviegoers to go see it? I’m not sure, although I enjoyed the film enormously, because “The Violent Four” is a gangster genre picture. And it may be a form of aestheticism—losing sight of what people go to movies for, and particularly what they go to foreign movies for—for a critic to say, “His handling of crowds and street scenes is superb,” or, “It has a great semi-documentary chase sequence.” It does, but the movie is basically derived from our old gangster movies, and beautifully made as it is, one would have a hard time convincing educated people to go see a movie that features a stunning performance by Gian Maria Volonte which is based on Paul Muni and James Cagney. Presumably they want something different from movies than a genre picture that offers images of modern urban decay and is smashingly directed. If a movie is interesting primarily in terms of technique then it isn’t worth talking about except to students who can learn from seeing how a good director works. And to talk about a movie like “The Graduate” in terms of movie technique is really a bad joke. Technique at this level is not of any aesthetic importance; it’s not the ability to achieve what you’re after but the skill to find something acceptable. One must talk about a film like this in terms of what audiences enjoy it for or one is talking gibberish—and might as well be analyzing the “art” of commercials. And for the greatest movie artists where there is a unity of technique and subject, one doesn’t need to talk about technique much because it has been subsumed in the art. One doesn’t want to talk about how Tolstoi got his effects but about the work itself. One doesn’t want to talk about how Jean Renoir does it; one wants to talk about what he has done. One can try to separate it all out, of course, distinguish form and content for purposes of analysis. But that is a secondary, analytic function, a scholarly function, and hardly needs to be done explicitly in criticism. Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole. The critic shouldn’t need to tear a work apart to demonstrate that he knows how it was put together. The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made—which is more or less implicit.
Just as there are good actors—possibly potentially great actors—who have never become big stars because they’ve just never been lucky enough to get the roles they needed (Brian Keith is a striking example) there are good directors who never got the scripts and the casts that could make their reputations. The question people ask when they consider going to a movie is not “How’s it made?” but “What’s it about?” and that’s a perfectly legitimate question. (The next question—sometimes the first—is generally, “Who’s in it?” and that’s a good, honest question, too.) When you’re at a movie, you don’t have to believe in it to enjoy it but you do have to be interested. (Just as you have to be interested in the human material, too. Why should you go see another picture with James Stewart?) I don’t want to see another samurai epic in exactly the same way I never want to read “Kristin Lavransdatter.” Though it’s conceivable that a truly great movie director could make any subject interesting, there are few such artists working in movies and if they did work on unpromising subjects I’m not sure we’d really enjoy the results even if we did admire their artistry. (I recognize the greatness of sequences in several films by Eisenstein but it’s a rather cold admiration.) The many brilliant Italian directors who are working within a commercial framework on crime and action movies are obviously not going to be of any great interest unless they get a chance to work on a subject we care about. Ironically the Czech successes here (“The Shop on Main Street,” “Loves of a Blonde,” “Closely Watched Trains”) are acclaimed for their techniques, which are fairly simple and rather limited, when it’s obviously their human concern and the basic modesty and decency of their attitudes plus a little barnyard humor which audiences respond to. They may even respond partly because of the simplicity of the techniques.
When we are children, though there are categories of films we don’t like -— documentaries generally (they’re too much like education) and, of course, movies especially designed for children —- by the time we can go on our own we have learned to avoid them. Children are often put down by adults when the children say they enjoyed a particular movie; adults who are short on empathy are quick to point out aspects of the plot or theme that the child didn’t understand, and it’s easy to humiliate a child in this way. But it is one of the glories of eclectic arts like opera and movies that they include so many possible kinds and combinations of pleasure. One may be enthralled by Leontyne Price in “La Forza del Destino” even if one hasn’t boned up on the libretto, or entranced by “The Magic Flute” even if one has boned up on the libretto, and a movie may be enjoyed for many reasons that have little to do with the story or the subtleties (if any) of theme or character. Unlike “pure” arts which are often defined in terms of what only they can do, movies are open and unlimited. Probably everything that can be done in movies can be done some other way, but -— and this is what’s so miraculous and so expedient about them -— they can do almost anything any other art can do (alone or in combination) and they can take on some of the functions of exploration, of journalism, of anthropology, of almost any branch of knowledge as well. We go to the movies for the variety of what they can provide, and for their marvelous ability to give us easily and inexpensively (and usually painlessly) what we can get from other arts also. They are a wonderfully convenient art.
Movies are used by cultures where they are foreign films in a much more primitive way than in their own; they may be enjoyed as travelogues or as initiations into how others live or in ways we might not even guess. The sophisticated and knowledge able moviegoer is likely to forget how new and how amazing the different worlds up there once seemed to him, and to forget how much a child reacts to, how many elements he is taking in, often for the first time. And even adults who have seen many movies may think a movie is “great” if it introduces them to unfamiliar subject matter; thus many moviegoers react as naïvely as children to “Portrait of Jason” or “The Queen.” They think they’re wonderful. The oldest plots and corniest comedy bits can be full of wonder for a child, just as the freeway traffic in a grade Z melodrama can be magical to a villager who has never seen a car. A child may enjoy even a movie like “Jules and Jim” for its sense of fun, without comprehending it as his parents do, just as we may enjoy an Italian movie as a sex comedy although in Italy it is considered social criticism or political satire. Jean-Luc Godard liked the movie of “Pal Joey,” and I suppose that a miserable American movie musical like “Pal Joey” might look good in France because I can’t think of a single good dance number performed by French dancers in a French movie. The French enjoy what they’re unable to do and we enjoy the French studies of the pangs of adolescent love that would be corny if made in Hollywood. A movie like “The Young Girls of Rochefort” demonstrates how even a gifted Frenchman who adores American musicals misunderstands their conventions. Yet it would be as stupid to say that the director Jacques Demy couldn’t love American musicals because he doesn’t understand their conventions as to tell a child he couldn’t have liked “Planet of the Apes” because he didn’t get the jokey references to the Scopes trial.
Every once in a while I see an anthropologist’s report on how some preliterate tribe reacts to movies; they may, for example, be disturbed about where the actor has gone when he leaves the movie frame, or they may respond with enthusiasm to the noise and congestion of big-city life which in the film story are meant to show the depths of depersonalization to which we are sinking, but which they find funny or very jolly indeed. Different cultures have their own ways of enjoying movies. A few years ago the new “tribalists” here responded to the gaudy fantasies of “Juliet of the Spirits” by using the movie to turn on. A few had already made a trip of “8½” but “Juliet,” which was, conveniently and perhaps not entirely accidentally, in electric, psychedelic color, caught on because of it. (The color was awful, like in bad MGM musicals -— one may wonder about the quality of the trips.)
The new tribalism in the age of the media is not necessarily the enemy of commercialism; it is a direct outgrowth of commercialism and its ally, perhaps even its instrument. If a movie has enough clout, reviewers and columnists who were bored are likely to give it another chance, until on the second or third viewing, they discover that it affects them “viscerally”—and a big expensive movie is likely to do just that. “2001” is said to have caught on with youth (which can make it happen); and it’s said that the movie will stone you—which is meant to be a recommendation. Despite a few dissident voices—I’ve heard it said, for example, that “2001” “gives you a bad trip because the visuals don’t go with the music”—the promotion has been remarkably effective with students. “The tribes” tune in so fast that college students thousands of miles apart “have heard” what a great trip “2001” is before it has even reached their city.
Using movies to go on a trip has about as much connection with the art of the film as using one of those Doris Day-Rock Hudson jobs for ideas on how to redecorate your home—an earlier way of stoning yourself. But it is relevant to an understanding of movies to try to separate out, for purposes of discussion at least, how we may personally use a film—to learn how to dress or how to speak more elegantly or how to make a grand entrance or even what kind of coffee maker we wish to purchase, or to take off from the movie into a romantic fantasy or a trip—from what makes it a good movie or a poor one, because, of course, we can use poor films as easily as good ones, perhaps more easily for such non-aesthetic purposes as shopping guides or aids to tripping.
We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art. The movies we respond to, even in childhood, don’t have the same values as the official culture supported at school and in the middle-class home. At the movies we get low life and high life, while David Susskind and the moralistic reviewers chastise us for not patronizing what they think we should, “realistic” movies that would be good for us—like “A Raisin in the Sun,” where we could learn the lesson that a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family. Movie audiences will take a lot of garbage, but it’s pretty hard to make us queue up for pedagogy. At the movies we want a different kind of truth, something that surprises us and registers with us as funny or accurate or maybe amazing, maybe even amazingly beautiful. We get little things even in mediocre and terrible movies —- José Ferrer sipping his booze through a straw in “Enter Laughing,” Scott Wilson’s hard scary all-American-boy-you-can’t-reach face cutting through the pretensions of “In Cold Blood” with all its fancy bleak cinematography. We got, and still have embedded in memory, Tony Randall’s surprising depth of feeling in “The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao,” Keenan Wynn and Moyna Macgill in the lunch-counter sequence of “The Clock,” John W. Bubbles on the dance floor in “Cabin in the Sky,” the inflection Gene Kelly gave to the line, “I’m a rising young man” in “DuBarry Was a Lady,” Tony Curtis saying “avidly” in “Sweet Smell of Success.” Though the director may have been responsible for releasing it, it’s the human material we react to most and remember longest. The art of the performers stays fresh for us, their beauty as beautiful as ever. There are so many kinds of things we get—the hangover sequence wittily designed for the CinemaScope screen in “The Tender Trap,” the atmosphere of the newspaper offices in “The Luck of Ginger Coffey,” the automat gone mad in “Easy Living.” Do we need to lie and shift things to false terms—like those who have to say Sophia Loren is a great actress as if her acting had made her a star? Wouldn’t we rather watch her than better actresses because she’s so incredibly charming and because she’s probably the greatest model the world has ever known? There are great moments—Angela Lansbury singing “Little Yellow Bird” in “Dorian Gray.” (I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend who didn’t also treasure that girl and that song.) And there are absurdly right little moments—in “Saratoga Trunk” when Curt Bois says to Ingrid Bergman, “You’re very beautiful,” and she says, “Yes, isn’t it lucky?” And those things have closer relationships to art than what the schoolteachers told us was true and beautiful. Not that the works we studied in school weren’t often great (as we discovered later) but that what the teachers told us to admire them for (and if current texts are any indication, are still telling students to admire them for) was generally so false and prettified and moralistic that what might have been moments of pleasure in them, and what might have been cleansing in them, and subversive, too, had been coated over.
Because of the photographic nature of the medium and the cheap admission prices, movies took their impetus not from the desiccated imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip -— from what was coarse and common. The early Chaplin two-reelers still look surprisingly lewd, with bathroom jokes and drunkenness and hatred of work and proprieties. And the Western shoot-’em-ups certainly weren’t the schoolteachers’ notions of art -— which in my school days, ran more to didactic poetry and “perfectly proportioned” statues and which over the years have progressed through nice stories to “good taste” and “excellence” —- which may be more poisonous than homilies and dainty figurines because then you had a clearer idea of what you were up against and it was easier to fight. And this, of course, is what we were running away from when we went to the movies. All week we longed for Saturday afternoon and sanctuary—the anonymity and impersonality of sitting in a theatre, just enjoying ourselves, not having to be responsible, not having to be “good.” Maybe you just want to look at people on the screen and know they’re not looking back at you, that they’re not going to turn on you and criticize you.
Perhaps the single most intense pleasure of moviegoing is this non-aesthetic one of escaping from the responsibilities of having the proper responses required of us in our official (school) culture. And yet this is probably the best and most common basis for developing an aesthetic sense because responsibility to pay attention and to appreciate is anti-art, it makes us too anxious for pleasure, too bored for response. Far from supervision and official culture, in the darkness at the movies where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses. Unsupervised enjoyment is probably not the only kind there is but it may feel like the only kind. Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize. I don’t like to buy “hard tickets” for a “road show” movie because I hate treating a movie as an occasion. I don’t want to be pinned down days in advance; I enjoy the casualness of moviegoing—of going in when I feel like it, when I’m in the mood for a movie. It’s the feeling of freedom from respectability we have always enjoyed at the movies that is carried to an extreme by American International Pictures and the Clint Eastwood Italian Westerns; they are stripped of cultural values. We may want more from movies than this negative virtue but we know the feeling from childhood moviegoing when we loved the gamblers and pimps and the cons’ suggestions of muttered obscenities as the guards walked by. The appeal of movies was in the details of crime and high living and wicked cities and in the language of toughs and urchins; it was in the dirty smile of the city girl who lured the hero away from Janet Gaynor. What draws us to movies in the first place, the opening into other, forbidden or surprising, kinds of experience, and the vitality and corruption and irreverence of that experience are so direct and immediate and have so little connection with what we have been taught is art that many people feel more secure, feel that their tastes are becoming more cultivated when they begin to appreciate foreign films. One foundation executive told me that he was quite upset that his teen-agers had chosen to go to “Bonnie and Clyde” rather than with him to “Closely Watched Trains.” He took it as a sign of lack of maturity. I think his kids made an honest choice, and not only because “Bonnie and Clyde” is the better movie, but because it is closer to us, it has some of the qualities of direct involvement that make us care about movies. But it’s understandable that it’s easier for us, as Americans, to see art in foreign films than in our own, because of how we, as Americans, think of art. Art is still what teachers and ladies and foundations believe in, it’s civilized and refined, cultivated and serious, cultural, beautiful, European, Oriental: it’s what America isn’t, and it’s especially what American movies are not. Still, if those kids had chosen “Wild in the Streets” over “Closely Watched Trains” I would think that was a sound and honest choice, too, even though “Wild in the Streets” is in most ways a terrible picture. It connects with their lives in an immediate even if a grossly frivolous way, and if we don’t go to movies for excitement, if, even as children, we accept the cultural standards of refined adults, if we have so little drive that we accept “good taste,” then we will probably never really begin to care about movies at all. We will become like those people who “may go to American movies sometimes to relax” but when they want “a little more” from a movie, are delighted by how colorful and artistic Franco Zeffirelli’s “The Taming of the Shrew” is, just as a couple of decades ago they were impressed by “The Red Shoes,” made by Powell and Pressburger, the Zeffirellis of their day. Or, if they like the cozy feeling of uplift to be had from mildly whimsical movies about timid people, there’s generally a “Hot Millions” or something musty and faintly boring from Eastern Europe—one of those movies set in World War II but so remote from our ways of thinking that it seems to be set in World War I. Afterward, the moviegoer can feel as decent and virtuous as if he’d spent an evening visiting a deaf old friend of the family. It’s a way of taking movies back into the approved culture of the schoolroom —- into gentility -— and the voices of schoolteachers and reviewers rise up to ask why America can’t make such movies.
Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so. It’s the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings. At best, the movie is totally informed by the kind of pleasure we have been taking from bits and pieces of movies. But we are so used to reaching out to the few good bits in a movie that we don’t need formal perfection to be dazzled. There are so many arts and crafts that go into movies and there are so many things that can go wrong that they’re not an art for purists. We want to experience that elation we feel when a movie (or even a performer in a movie) goes farther than we had expected and makes the leap successfully. Even a film like Godard’s “Les Carabiniers,” hell to watch for the first hour, is exciting to think about after because its one good sequence, the long picture postcard sequence near the end, is so incredible and so brilliantly prolonged. The picture has been crawling and stumbling along and then it climbs a high wire and walks it and keeps wanting it until we’re almost dizzy from admiration. The tight rope is rarely stretched so high in movies, but there must be a sense of tension somewhere in the movie, if only in a bit player’s face, not just mechanical suspense, or the movie is just more hours down the drain. It’s the rare movie we really go with, the movie that keeps us tense and attentive. We learn to dread Hollywood “realism” and all that it implies. When, in the dark, we concentrate our attention, we are driven frantic by events on the level of ordinary life that pass at the rhythm of ordinary life. That’s the self-conscious striving for integrity of humorless, untalented people. When we go to a play we expect a heightened, stylized language; the dull realism of the streets is unendurably boring, though we may escape from the play to the nearest bar to listen to the same language with relief. Better life than art imitating life.
If we go back and think over the movies we’ve enjoyed—even the ones we knew were terrible movies while we enjoyed them—what we enjoyed in them, the little part that was good, had, in some rudimentary way, some freshness, some hint of style, some trace of beauty, some audacity, some craziness. It’s there in the interplay between Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis, or, in “Wild in the Streets,” in Diane Varsi rattling her tambourine, in Hal Holbrook’s faint twitch when he smells trouble, in a few of Robert Thom’s lines; and they have some relation to art though they don’t look like what we’ve been taught is “quality.” They have the joy of playfulness. In a mediocre or rotten movie, the good things may give the impression that they come out of nowhere; the better the movie, the more they seem to belong to the world of the movie. Without this kind of playfulness and the pleasure we take from it, art isn’t art at all, it’s something punishing, as it so often is in school where even artists’ little jokes become leaden from explanation.
Keeping in mind that simple, good distinction that all art is entertainment but not all entertainment is art, it might be a good idea to keep in mind also that if a movie is said to be a work of art and you don’t enjoy it, the fault may be in you, but it’s probably in the movie. Because of the money and advertising pressures involved, many reviewers discover a fresh masterpiece every week, and there’s that cultural snobbery, that hunger for respectability that determines the selection of the even bigger annual masterpieces. In foreign movies what is most often mistaken for “quality” is an imitation of earlier movie art or a derivation from respectable, approved work in the other arts—like the demented, suffering painter-hero of “Hour of the Wolf” smearing his lipstick in a facsimile of expressionist anguish. Kicked in the ribs, the press says “art” when “ouch” would be more appropriate. When a director is said to be an artist (generally on the basis of earlier work which the press failed to recognize) and especially when he picks artistic subjects like the pain of creation, there is a tendency to acclaim his new bad work. This way the press, in trying to make up for its past mistakes, manages to be wrong all the time. And so a revenge-of-a-sour-virgin movie like Truffaut’s “The Bride Wore Black” is treated respectfully as if it somehow revealed an artist’s sensibility in every frame. Reviewers who would laugh at Lana Turner going through her femme fatale act in another Ross Hunter movie swoon when Jeanne Moreau casts significant blank looks for Truffaut.
In American movies what is most often mistaken for artistic quality is box-office success, especially if it’s combined with a genuflection to importance; then you have “a movie the industry can be proud of” like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or such Academy Award winners as “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” or “A Man for All Seasons.” Fred Zinnemann made a fine modern variant of a Western, “The Sundowners,” and hardly anybody saw it until it got on television; but “A Man for All Seasons” had the look of prestige and the press felt honored to praise it. I’m not sure most movie reviewers consider what they honestly enjoy as being central to criticism. Some at least appear to think that that would be relying too much on their own tastes, being too personal instead of being “objective” -— relying on the ready-made terms of cultural respectability and on consensus judgment (which, to a rather shocking degree, can be arranged by publicists creating a climate of importance around a movie). Just as movie directors, as they age, hunger for what was meant by respectability in their youth, and aspire to prestigious cultural properties, so, too, the movie press longs to be elevated in terms of the cultural values of their old high schools. And so they, along with the industry, applaud ghastly “tour-de-force” performances, movies based on “distinguished” stage successes or prize-winning novels, or movies that are “worthwhile,” that make a “contribution” -— “serious” messagy movies. This often involves praise of bad movies, of dull movies, or even the praise in good movies of what was worst in them.
This last mechanism can be seen in the honors bestowed on “In the Heat of the Night.” The best thing in the movie is that high comic moment when Poitier says, “I’m a police officer,” because it’s a reversal of audience expectations and we laugh in delighted relief that the movie is not going to be another self-righteous, self-congratulatory exercise in the gloomy old Stanley Kramer tradition. At that point the audience sparks to life. The movie is fun largely because of the amusing central idea of a black Sherlock Holmes in a Tom and Jerry cartoon of reversals. Poitier’s color is used for comedy instead of for that extra dimension of irony and pathos that made movies like “To Sir, with Love” unbearably sentimental. He doesn’t really play the super sleuth very well: he’s much too straight even when spouting the kind of higher scientific nonsense about right-handedness and left-handedness that would have kept Basil Rathbone in an ecstasy of clipped diction, blinking eyes and raised eyebrows. Like Bogart in “Beat the Devil” Poitier doesn’t seem to be in on the joke. But Rod Steiger compensated with a comic performance that was even funnier for being so unexpected—not only from Steiger’s career which had been going in other directions, but after the apparently serious opening of the film. The movie was, however, praised by the press as if it had been exactly the kind of picture that the audience was so relieved to discover it wasn’t going to be (except in its routine melodramatic sequences full of fake courage and the climaxes such as Poitier slapping a rich white Southerner or being attacked by white thugs; except that is, in its worst parts). When I saw it, the audience, both black and white, enjoyed the joke of the fast-witted, hyper-educated black detective explaining matters to the backward, blundering Southern-chief-of-police slob. This racial poke is far more open and inoffensive than the usual “irony” of Poitier being so good and so black. For once it’s funny (instead of embarrassing) that he’s so superior to everybody.
“In the Heat of the Night” isn’t in itself a particularly important movie; amazingly alive photographically, it’s an entertaining, somewhat messed-up comedy-thriller. The director Norman Jewison destroys the final joke when Steiger plays redcap to Poitier by infusing it with tender feeling, so it comes out sickly sweet, and it’s too bad that a whodunit in which the whole point is the demonstration of the Negro detective’s ability to unravel what the white man can’t, is never clearly unraveled. Maybe it needed a Negro super director. (The picture might have been more than just a lively whodunit if the detective had proceeded to solve the crime not by “Scientific” means but by an understanding of relationships in the South that the white chief of police didn’t have.) What makes it interesting for my purposes here is that the audience enjoyed the movie for the vitality of its surprising playfulness, while the industry congratulated itself because the film was “hard-hitting”—that is to say, it flirted with seriousness and spouted warm, worthwhile ideas.
Those who can accept “In the Heat of the Night” as the socially conscious movie that the industry pointed to with pride probably also go along with the way the press attacked Jewison’s subsequent film, “The Thomas Crown Affair,” as trash and a failure. One could even play the same game that was played on “In the Heat of the Night” and convert the “Crown” trifle into a sub-fascist exercise because, of course, Crown, the superman, who turns to crime out of boredom, is the crooked son of “The Fountainhead,” out of Raffles. But that’s talking glossy summer-evening fantasies much too seriously: we haven’t had a junior executives fantasy-life movie for a long time and to attack this return of the worldly gentlemen-thieves genre of Ronald Colman and William Powell politically is to fail to have a sense of humor about the little romantic-adolescent fascist lurking in most of us. Part of the fun of movies is that they allow us to see how silly many of our fantasies are and how widely they’re shared. A light romantic entertainment like “The Thomas Crown Affair,” trash undisguised, is the kind of chic crappy movie which (one would have thought) nobody could be fooled into thinking was art. Seeing it is like lying in the sun flicking through fashion magazines and, as we used to say, feeling rich and beautiful beyond your wildest dreams.
But it isn’t easy to come to terms with what one enjoys in films, and if an older generation was persuaded to dismiss trash, now a younger generation, with the press and the schools in hot pursuit, has begun to talk about trash as if it were really very serious art. College newspapers and the new press all across the country are full of a hilarious new form of scholasticism, with students using their education to cook up impressive reasons for enjoying very simple, traditional dishes. Here is a communication from Cambridge to a Boston paper:
To the Editor:
“The Thomas Crown Affair” is fundamentally a film about faith between people. In many ways, it reminds me of a kind of updated old fable, or tale, about an ultimate test of faith. It is a film about a love affair (note the title), with a subplot of a bank robbery, rather than the reverse. The subtlety of the film is in the way the external plot is used as a matrix to develop serious motifs, much in the same way that the “Heat of the Night” functioned.
Although Thomas Crown is an attractive and fascinating character, Vicki is the protagonist. Crown is consistent, predictable: he courts personal danger to feel superior to the system of which he is a part, and to make his otherwise overly comfortable life more interesting. Vicki is caught between two opposing elements within her, which, for convenience, I would call masculine and feminine. In spite of her glamour, at the outset she is basically masculine, in a man’s type of job, ruthless, after prestige and wealth. But Crown looses the female in her. His test is a test of her femininity. The masculine responds to the challenge. Therein lies the pathos of her final revelation. Her egocentrism had not yielded to his.
In this psychic context, the possibility of establishing faith is explored. The movement of the film is towards Vicki’s final enigma. Her ambivalence is commensurate with the increasing danger to Crown. The suspense lies in how she will respond to her dilemma, rather than whether Crown will escape.
I find “The Thomas Crown Affair” to be a unique and haunting film, superb in its visual and technical design, and fascinating for the allegorical problem of human faith.
“The Thomas Crown Affair” is pretty good trash, but we shouldn’t convert what we enjoy it for into false terms derived from our study of the other arts. That’s being false to what we enjoy. If it was priggish for an older generation of reviewers to be ashamed of what they enjoyed and to feel they had to be contemptuous of popular entertainment, it’s even more priggish for a new movie generation to be so proud of what they enjoy that they use their education to try to place trash within the acceptable academic tradition. What the Cambridge boy is doing is a more devious form of that elevating and falsifying of people who talk about Loren as a great actress instead of as a gorgeous, funny woman. Trash doesn’t belong to the academic tradition, and that’s part of the fun of trash -— that you know (or should know) that you don’t have to take it seriously, that it was never meant to be anymore than frivolous and trifling and entertaining.
It’s appalling to read solemn academic studies of Hitchcock or von Sternberg by people who seem to have lost sight of the primary reason for seeing films like “Notorious” or “Morocco” -— which is that they were not intended solemnly, that they were playful and inventive and faintly (often deliberately) absurd. And what’s good in them, what relates them to art, is that playfulness and absence of solemnity. There is talk now about von Sternberg’s technique -— his use of light and décor and detail -— and he is, of course, a kitsch master in these areas, a master of studied artfulness and pretty excess. Unfortunately, some students take this technique as proof that his films are works of art, once again, I think, falsifying what they really respond to -— the satisfying romantic glamour of his very pretty trash. “Morocco” is great trash, and movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them. The kitsch of an earlier era—even the best kitsch—does not become art, though it may become camp. Von Sternberg’s movies became camp even while he was still making them, because as the romantic feeling went out of his trash -— when he became so enamored of his own pretty effects that he turned his human-material into blank, affectless pieces of décor -— his absurd trashy style was all there was. We are now told in respectable museum publications that in 1932 a movie like “Shanghai Express” “was completely misunderstood as a mindless adventure” when indeed it was completely understood as a mindless adventure. And enjoyed as a mindless adventure. It’s a peculiar form of movie madness crossed with academicism, this lowbrowism masquerading as highbrowism, eating a candy bar and cleaning an “allegorical problem of human faith” out of your teeth. If we always wanted works of complexity and depth we wouldn’t be going to movies about glamorous thieves and seductive women who sing in cheap cafés, and if we loved “Shanghai Express” it wasn’t for its mind but for the glorious sinfulness of Dietrich informing Clive Brook that, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily” and for the villainous Oriental chieftain (Warner Oland) delivering the classic howler, “The white woman stays with me.”
If we don’t deny the pleasures to be had from certain kinds of trash and accept “The Thomas Crown Affair” as a pretty fair example of entertaining trash, then we may ask if a piece of trash like this has any relationship to art. And I think it does. Steve McQueen gives probably his most glamorous, fashionable performance yet, but even enjoying him as much as I do, I wouldn’t call his performance art. It’s artful, though, which is exactly what is required in this kind of vehicle. If he had been luckier, if the script had provided what it so embarrassingly lacks, the kind of sophisticated dialogue -— the sexy shoptalk -— that such writers as Jules Furthman and William Faulkner provided for Bogart, and if the director Norman Jewison had Lubitsch’s lightness of touch, McQueen might be acclaimed as a suave, “polished” artist. Even in this flawed setting, there’s a self-awareness in his performance that makes his elegance funny. And Haskell Weller, the cinematographer, lets go with a whole bag of tricks, flooding the screen with his delight in beauty, shooting all over the place, and sending up the material. And Pablo Ferro’s games with the split screen at the beginning are such conscious, clever games designed to draw us in to watch intently what is of no great interest. What gives this trash a lift, what makes it entertaining is clearly that some of those involved, knowing of course that they were working on a silly shallow script and a movie that wasn’t about anything of consequence, used the chance to have a good time with it. If the director, Norman Jewison, could have built a movie instead of putting together a patchwork of sequences, “Crown” might have had a chance to be considered a movie in the class and genre of Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise.” It doesn’t come near that because to transform this kind of kitsch, to make art of it, one needs that unifying grace, that formality and charm that a Lubitsch could sometimes provide. Still, even in this movie we get a few grace notes in McQueen’s playfulness, and from Wexler and Perro. Working on trash, feeling free to play, can loosen up the actors and craftsmen just as seeing trash can liberate the spectator. And as we don’t get this playful quality of art much in movies except in trash, we might as well relax and enjoy it freely for what it is. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t admit having at some time in his life enjoyed trashy American movies; I don’t trust any of the tastes of people who were born with such good taste that they didn’t need to find their way through trash.
There is a moment in “Children of Paradise” when the rich nobleman (Louis Salou) turns on his mistress, the pearly plebeian Garance (Arletty). He complains that in all their years together he has never had her love, and she replies, “You’ve got to leave something for the poor.” We don’t ask much from movies, just a little something that we can call our own. Who at some point hasn’t set out dutifully for that fine foreign film and then ducked into the nearest piece of American trash? We’re not only educated people of taste, we’re also common people with common feelings. And our common feelings are not all bad. You hoped for some aliveness in that trash that you were pretty sure you wouldn’t get from the respected “art film.” You had long since discovered that you wouldn’t get it from certain kinds of American movies, either. The industry now is taking a neo-Victorian tone, priding itself on its (few) “good, clean” movies—which are always its worst movies because almost nothing can break through the smug surfaces, and even performers’ talents become cute and cloying. The lowest action trash is preferable to wholesome family entertainment. When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable.
Does trash corrupt? A nutty Puritanism still flourishes in the arts, not just in the schoolteachers’ approach of wanting art to be “worthwhile,” but in the higher reaches of the academic life with those ideologues who denounce us for enjoying trash as if this enjoyment took us away from the really disturbing, angry new art of our time and somehow destroyed us. If we had to justify our trivial silly pleasures, we’d have a hard time. How could we possibly justify the fun of getting to know some people in movie after movie, like Joan Blondell, the brassy blonde with the heart of gold, or waiting for the virtuous, tiny, tiny-featured heroine to say her line so we could hear the riposte of her tough, wisecracking girlfriend (Iris Adrian was my favorite). Or, when the picture got too monotonous, there would be the song interlude, introduced “atmospherically” when the cops and crooks were both in the same never-neverland nightclub and everything stopped while a girl sang. Sometimes it would be the most charming thing in the movie, like Dolores Del Rio singing “You Make Me That Way” in “International Settlement”; sometimes it would drip with maudlin meaning, like “Oh Give Me Time for Tenderness” in “Dark Victory” with the dying Bette Davis singing along with the chanteuse. The pleasures of this kind of trash are not intellectually defensible. But why should pleasure need justification? Can one demonstrate that trash desensitizes us, that it prevents people from enjoying something better, that it limits our range of aesthetic response? Nobody I know of has provided such a demonstration. Do even Disney movies or Doris Day movies do us lasting harm? I’ve never known a person I thought had been harmed by them, though it does seem to me that they affect the tone of a culture, that perhaps—and I don’t mean to be facetious—they may poison us collectively though they don’t injure us individually. There are women who want to see a world in which everything is pretty and cheerful and in which romance triumphs (“Barefoot in the Park,” “Any Wednesday,”); families who want movies to be an innocuous inspiration, a good example for the children (“The Sound of Music,” “The Singing Nun”); couples who want the kind of folksy blue humor (“A Guide for the Married Man”) that they still go to Broadway shows for. These people are the reason slick, stale, rotting pictures make money; they’re the reason so few pictures are any good. And in that way, this terrible conformist culture does affect us all. It certainly cramps and limits opportunities for artists. But that isn’t what generally gets attacked as trash, anyway. I’ve avoided using the term “harmless trash” for movies like “The Thomas Crown Affair,” because that would put me on the side of the angels—against “harmful trash,” and I don’t honestly know what that is. It’s common for the press to call cheaply made, violent action movies “brutalizing” but that tells us less about any actual demonstrable effects than about the finicky tastes of the reviewers—who are often highly appreciative of violence in more expensive and “artistic” settings such as “Petulia.” It’s almost a class prejudice, this assumption that crudely made movies, movies without the look of art, are bad for people.
If there’s a little art in good trash and sometimes even in poor trash, there may be more trash than is generally recognized in some of the most acclaimed “art” movies. Such movies as “Petulia” and “2001” may be no more than trash in the latest, up-to-the-minute guises, using “artistic techniques” to give trash the look of art. The serious art look may be the latest fashion in expensive trash. All that “art” may be what prevents pictures like these from being enjoyable trash; they’re not honestly crummy, they’re very fancy and they take their crummy ideas seriously.
I have rarely seen a more disagreeable, a more dislikable (or a bloodier) movie than “Petulia” and I would guess that its commercial success represents a triumph of publicity -— and not the simple kind of just taking ads. It’s a very strange movie and people may, of course, like it for all sorts of reasons, but I think many may dislike it as I do and still feel they should be impressed by it; the educated and privileged may now be more susceptible to the mass media than the larger public—they’re certainly easier to reach. The publicity about Richard Lester as an artist has been gaining extraordinary momentum ever since “A Hard Day’s Night.” A critical success that is also a hit makes the director a genius; he’s a magician who made money out of art. The media are in ravenous competition for ever bigger stories, for “trend” pieces and editorial essays, because once the Process starts it’s considered news. If Lester is “making the scene” a magazine that hasn’t helped to build him up feels it’s been scooped. “Petulia” is the come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-America-party and in the opening sequence the guests arrive—rich victims of highway accidents in their casts and wheel chairs, like the spirit of ’76 coming to opening night at the opera. It’s science-horror fiction—a garish new world with charity balls at which you’re invited to “Shake for Highway Safety.
Lester picked San Francisco for his attack on America just as in “How I Won the War” he picked World War II to attack war. That is, it looks like a real frontal attack on war itself if you attack the war that many people consider a just war. But then he concentrated not on the issues of that war but on the class hatreds of British officers and men—who were not engaged in defending London or bombing Germany but in building a cricket pitch in Africa. In “Petulia,” his hate letter to America, he relocates the novel, shifting the locale from Los Angeles to San Francisco, presumably, again, to face the big challenge by showing that even the best the country has to offer is rotten. But then he ducks the challenge he sets for himself by making San Francisco look like Los Angeles. And if he must put carnival barkers in Golden Gate Park and invent Sunday excursions for children to Alcatraz, if he must invent such caricatures of epicene expenditure and commercialism as bizarrely automated motels and dummy television sets, if he must provide his own ugliness and hysteria and lunacy and use filters to destroy the city’s beautiful light, if, in short, he must falsify America in order to make it appear hateful, what is it he really hates? He’s like a crooked cop framing a suspect with trumped-up evidence. We never find out why: he’s too interested in making a flashy case to examine what he’s doing. And reviewers seem unwilling to ask questions which might expose them to the charge that they’re still looking for meaning instead of, in the new cant, just reacting to images—such questions as why does the movie keep juxtaposing shots of bloody surgery with shots of rock groups like the Grateful Dead or Big Brother and the Holding Company and shots of the war in Vietnam. What are these little montages supposed to do to us—make us feel that even the hero (a hardworking life-saving surgeon) is implicated in the war and that somehow contemporary popular music is also allied to destruction and death? (I thought only the moralists of the Soviet Union believed that.) The images of “Petulia” don’t make valid connections, they’re joined together for shock and excitement, and I don’t believe in the brilliance of a method which equates hippies, war, surgery, wealth, Southern decadents, bullfights, etc. Lester’s mix is almost as fraudulent as “Mondo Cane”; “Petulia” exploits any shocking material it can throw together to give false importance to a story about Holly Golightly and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The jagged glittering mosaic style of “Petulia” is an armor protecting Lester from an artist’s task; this kind of “style” no longer fools people so much in writing but it knocks them silly in films.
Movie directors in trouble fall back on what they love to call “personal style” -— though how impersonal it often is can be illustrated by “Petulia” -— which is not edited in the rhythmic, modulations-of-graphics style associated with Lester (and seen most distinctively in his best-edited, though not necessarily best film, “Help!”) but in the style of the movie surgeon, Anthony Gibbs, who acted as chopper on it, and who gave it the same kind of scissoring which he had used on “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and in his rescue operation on “Tom Jones.” This is, in much of “Petulia,” the most insanely obvious method of cutting film ever devised; keep the audience jumping with cuts, juxtapose startling images, anything for effectiveness, just make it brilliant—with the director taking, apparently, no responsibility for the implied connections. (The editing style is derived from Alain Resnais, and though it’s a debatable style in his films, he uses it responsibly not just opportunistically.)
Richard Lester, the director of “Petulia,” is a shrill scold in Mod clothes. Consider a sequence like the one in which the beaten-to-a-gruesome-pulp heroine is taken out to an ambulance, to the accompaniment of hippies making stupid, unfeeling remarks. It is embarrassingly reminiscent of the older people’s comments about the youthful sub-pre-hippies of “The Knack.” Lester has simply shifted villains. Is he saying that America is so rotten that even our hippies are malignant? I rather suspect he is, but why? Lester has taken a fashionably easy way to attack America, and because of the war in Vietnam some people are willing to accept the bloody montages that make them feel we’re all guilty, we’re rich, we’re violent, we’re spoiled, we can’t relate to each other, etc. Probably the director who made three celebrations of youth and freedom (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “The Knack,” and “Help!”) is now desperate to expand his range and become a “serious” director, and this is the new look in seriousness.
It’s easy to make fun of the familiar ingredients of trash—the kook heroine who steals a tuba (that’s not like the best of Carole Lombard but like the worst of Irene Dunne), the vaguely impotent, meaninglessly handsome rotter husband, Richard Chamberlain (back to the rich, spineless weaklings of David Manners), and Joseph Cotten as one more insanely vicious decadent Southerner spewing out villainous lines. (Even Victor Jory in “The Fugitive Kind” wasn’t much meaner.) What’s terrible is not so much this feeble conventional trash as the director’s attempts to turn it all into scintillating art and burning comment; what is really awful is the trash of his ideas and artistic effects.
Is there any art in this obscenely self-important movie? Yes, but in a format like this the few good ideas don’t really shine as they do in simpler trash; we have to go through so much unpleasantness and showing-off to get to them. Lester should trust himself more as a director and stop the cinemagician stuff because there’s good, tense direction in a few sequences. He got a good performance from George C. Scott and a sequence of post-marital discord between Scott and Shirley Knight that, although overwrought, is not so glaringly overwrought as the rest of the picture. It begins to suggest something interesting that the picture might have been about. (Shirley Knight should, however, stop fondling her hair like a miser with a golden hoard; it’s time for her to get another prop.) And Julie Christie is extraordinary just to look at—lewd and anxious, expressive and empty, brilliantly faceted but with something central missing, almost as if there’s no woman inside.
“2001” is a movie that might have been made by the hero of “Blow-Up,” and it’s fun to think about Kubrick really doing every dumb thing he wanted to do, building enormous science fiction sets and equipment, never even bothering to figure out what he was going to do with them. Fellini, too, had gotten carried away with the Erector Set approach to movie-making, but his big science-fiction construction, exposed to view at the end of “8½,” was abandoned. Kubrick never really made his movie either but he doesn’t seem to know it. Some people like the American International Pictures stuff because it’s rather idiotic and maybe some people love “2001” just because Kubrick did all that stupid stuff, acted out a kind of super sci-fi nut’s fantasy. In some ways it’s the biggest amateur movie of them all, complete even to the amateur-movie obligatory scene—the director’s little daughter (in curls) telling daddy what kind of present she wants.
There was a little pre-title sequence in “You Only Live Twice” with an astronaut out in space that was in a looser, more free style than “2001” -— a daring little moment that I think was more fun than all of “2001.” It had an element of the unexpected, of the shock of finding death in space lyrical. Kubrick is carried away by the idea. The secondary title of “Dr. Strangelove,” which we took to be satiric, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb,” was not, it now appears, altogether satiric for Kubrick. “2001” celebrates the invention of tools of death, as an evolutionary route to a higher order of non-human life. Kubrick literally learned to stop worrying and love the bomb; he’s become his own butt -— the Herman Kahn of extraterrestrial games theory. The ponderous blurry appeal of the picture may be that it takes its stoned audience out of this world to a consoling vision of a graceful world of space, controlled by superior godlike minds, where the hero is reborn as an angelic baby. It has the dreamy somewhere-over-the-rainbow appeal of a new vision of heaven. “2001” is a celebration of cop-out. It says man is just a tiny nothing on the stairway to paradise, something better is coming, and it’s all out of your hands anyway. There’s an intelligence out there in space controlling your destiny from ape to angel, so just follow the slab. Drop up.
It’s a bad, bad sign when a movie director begins to think of himself as a myth-maker, and this limp myth of a grand plan that justifies slaughter and ends with resurrection has been around before. Kubrick’s story line—accounting for evolution by an extraterrestrial intelligence—is probably the most gloriously redundant plot of all time. And although his intentions may have been different, “2001” celebrates the end of man; those beautiful mushroom clouds at the end of “Strangelove” were no accident. In “2001, A Space Odyssey,” death and life are all the same: no point is made in the movie of Gary Lockwood’s death—the moment isn’t even defined—and the hero doesn’t discover that the hibernating scientists have become corpses. That’s unimportant in a movie about the beauties of resurrection. Trip off to join the cosmic intelligence and come back a better mind. And as the trip in the movie is the usual psychedelic light shows the audience doesn’t even have to worry about getting to Jupiter. They can go to heaven in Cinerama.
It isn’t accidental that we don’t care if the characters live or die; if Kubrick has made his people so uninteresting, it is partly because characters and individual fates just aren’t big enough for certain kinds of big movie directors. Big movie directors become generals in the arts; and they want subjects to match their new importance. Kubrick has announced that his next project is “Napoleon”—which, for a movie director, is the equivalent of Joan of Arc for an actress. Lester’s “savage” comments about affluence and malaise, Kubrick’s inspirational banality about how we will become as gods through machinery, are big-shot show-business deep thinking. This isn’t a new show-business phenomenon; it belongs to the genius tradition of the theatre. Big entrepreneurs, producers, and directors who stage big spectacular shows, even designers of large sets have traditionally begun to play the role of visionaries and thinkers and men with answers. They get too big for art. Is a work of art possible if pseudoscience and the technology of movie-making become more important to the “artist” than man? This is central to the failure of “2001.” It’s a monumentally unimaginative movie: Kubrick, with his $750,000 centrifuge, and in love with gigantic hardware and control panels, is the Belasco of science fiction. The special effects -— though straight from the drawing board -— are good and big and awesomely, expensively detailed. There’s a little more that’s good in the movie, when Kubrick doesn’t take himself too seriously—like the comic moment when the gliding space vehicles begin their Johann Strauss walk; that is to say, when the director shows a bit of a sense of proportion about what he’s doing, and sees things momentarily as comic when the movie doesn’t take itself with such idiot solemnity. The light-show trip is of no great distinction; compared to the work of experimental filmmakers like Jordan Belson, it’s third-rate. If big film directors are to get credit for doing badly what others have been doing brilliantly for years with no money, just because they’ve put it on a big screen, then businessmen are greater than poets and theft is art.
Part of the fun of movies is in seeing “what everybody’s talking about,” and if people are flocking to a movie, or if the press can con us into thinking that they are, then ironically, there is a sense in which we want to see it, even if we suspect we won’t enjoy it, because we want to know what’s going on. Even if it’s the worst inflated pompous trash that is the most talked about (and it usually is) and even if that talk is manufactured, we want to see the movies because so many people fall for whatever is talked about that they make the advertisers’ lies true. Movies absorb material from the culture and the other arts so fast that some films that have been widely sold become culturally and sociologically important whether they are good movies or not. Movies like “Morgan!” or “Georgy Girl” or “The Graduate” -— aesthetically trivial movies which, however, because of the ways some people react to them, enter into the national bloodstream -— become cultural and psychological equivalents of watching a political convention -— to observe what’s going on. And though this has little to do with the art of movies, it has a great deal to do with the appeal of movies.
An analyst tells me that when his patients are not talking about their personal hangups and their immediate problems they talk about the situations and characters in movies like “The Graduate” or “Belle de Jour” and they talk about them with as much personal involvement as about their immediate problems. I have elsewhere suggested that this way of reacting to movies as psychodrama used to be considered a pre-literate way of reacting but that now those considered “post-literate” are reacting like pre-literates. The high school and college students identifying with Georgy Girl or Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin are not that different from the stenographer who used to live and breathe with the Joan Crawford-working girl and worry about whether that rich boy would really make her happy—and considered her pictures “great.” They don’t see the movie as a movie but as part of the soap opera of their lives. The fan magazines used to encourage this kind of identification; now the advanced mass media encourage it, and those who want to sell to youth use the language of “just let it flow over you.” The person who responds this way does not respond more freely but less freely and less fully than the person who is aware of what is well done and what badly done in a movie, who can accept some things in it and reject others, who uses all his senses in reacting, not just his emotional vulnerabilities.
Still, we care about what other people care about -— sometimes because we want to know how far we’ve gotten from common responses -— and if a movie is important to other people we’re interested in it because of what it means to them, even if it doesn’t mean much to us. The small triumph of “The Graduate” was to have domesticated alienation and the difficulty of communication, by making what Benjamin is alienated from a middle-class comic strip and making it absurdly evident that he has nothing to communicate -— which is just what makes him an acceptable hero for the large movie audience. If he said anything or had any ideas, the audience would probably hate him. “The Graduate” isn’t a bad movie, it’s entertaining, though in a fairly slick way (the audience is just about programmed for laughs). What’s surprising is that so many people take it so seriously. What’s funny about the movie are the laughs on that dumb sincere boy who wants to talk about art in bed when the woman just wants to fornicate. But then the movie begins to pander to youthful narcissism, glorifying his innocence, and making the predatory (and now crazy) woman the villainess. Commercially this works: the inarticulate dull boy becomes a romantic hero for the audience to project into with all those squishy and now conventional feelings of look, his parents don’t communicate with him; look, he wants truth not sham, and so on. But the movie betrays itself and its own expertise, sells out its comic moments that click along with the rhythm of a hit Broadway show, to make the oldest movie pitch of them all -— asking the audience to identify with the simpleton who is the latest version of the misunderstood teen-ager and the pure-in-heart boy next door. It’s almost painful to tell kids who have gone to see “The Graduate” eight times that once was enough for you because you’ve already seen it eighty times with Charles Ray and Robert Harron and Richard Barthelmess and Richard Cromwell and Charles Farrell. How could you convince them that a movie that sells innocence is a very commercial piece of work when they’re so clearly in the market to buy innocence? When “The Graduate” shifts to the tender awakenings of love, it’s just the latest version of “David and Lisa.” “The Graduate” only wants to succeed and that’s fundamentally what’s the matter with it. There is a pause for a laugh after the mention of “Berkeley” that is an unmistakable sign of hunger for success; this kind of movie-making shifts values, shifts focus, shifts emphasis, shifts everything for a sure-fire response. Mike Nichols’ “gift” is that be lets the audience direct him; this is demagoguery in the arts.
Even the cross-generation fornication is standard for the genre. It goes back to Pauline Frederick in “Smouldering Fires,” and Clara Bow was at it with mama Alice Joyce’s boyfriend in “Our Dancing Mothers,” and in the Forties it was “Mildred Pierce.” Even the terms are not different: in these movies the seducing adults are customarily sophisticated, worldly, and corrupt, the kids basically innocent, though not so humorless and blank as Benjamin. In its basic attitudes “The Graduate” is corny American; it takes us back to before “The Game of Love” with Edwige Feuillère as the sympathetic older woman and “A Cold Wind in August” with the sympathetic Lola Albright performance.
What’s interesting about the success of “The Graduate” is sociological: the revelation of how emotionally accessible modern youth is to the same old manipulation. The recurrence of certain themes in movies suggests that each generation wants romance restated in slightly new terms, and of course it’s one of the pleasures of movies as a popular art that they can answer this need. And yet, and yet -— one doesn’t expect an educated generation to be so soft on itself, much softer than the factory workers of the past who didn’t go back over and over to the same movies, mooning away in fixation on themselves and thinking this fixation meant movies had suddenly become an art, and their art.
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 material that wasn’t much to start with. Unless you’re feebleminded, 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 and 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. And probably this is why so many of the best movie critics quit. They’re wrong when they blame it on the movies going bad; it’s the odds becoming so bad, and they can no longer bear the many tedious movies for the few good moments and the tiny shocks of recognition. Some become too tired, too frozen in fatigue, to respond to what is new. Others who do stay awake may become too demanding for the young who are seeing it all for the first hundred times. The critical task is necessarily comparative, and younger people do not truly know what is new. And despite all the chatter about the media and how smart the young are, they’re incredibly naïve about mass culture—perhaps more naïve than earlier generations (though I don’t know why). Maybe watching all that television hasn’t done so much for them as they seem to think; and when I read a young intellectual’s appreciation of “Rachel, Rachel” and come to “the mother’s passion for chocolate bars is a superb symbol for the second coming of childhood,” I know the writer is still in his first childhood, and I wonder if he’s going to come out of it.
One’s moviegoing tastes and habits change—I still like in movies what I always liked but now, for example, I really want documentaries. After all the years of stale stupid acted-out stories, with less and less for me in them, I am desperate to know something, desperate for facts, for information, for faces of non-actors and for knowledge of how people live—for revelations, not for the little bits of show-business detail worked up for us by show-business minds who got them from the same movies we’re tired of.
But the big change is in our habits. If we make any kind of decent, useful life for ourselves we have less need to run from it to those diminishing pleasures of the movies. When we go to the movies we want something good, something sustained, we don’t want to settle for just a bit of something, because we have other things to do. If life at home is more interesting, why go to the movies? And the theatres frequented by true moviegoers—those perennial displaced persons in each city, the loners and the losers—depress us. Listening to them—and they are often more audible than the sound track—as they cheer the cons and jeer the cops, we may still share their disaffection, but it’s not enough to keep us interested in cops and robbers. A little nose-thumbing isn’t enough. If we’ve grown up at the movies we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art.