Are Movies Going to Pease

Author, lecturer, and an authority on films, PAULINE KAEL has been manager of an art cinema and has worked on experimental films. A native of California,she is currently studying on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her collection of criticism, I LOST IT AT THE MOVIES, will be published next spring by Atlantic-Little, Brown.


One evening not long ago, some academic friends came to my house, and as we talked and drank, we looked at a television showing of Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula. Dwight Frye’s appearance on the screen had us suddenly squealing and shrieking, and it was obvious that old vampire movies were part of our common experience. We talked about the famous ones, Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyr, and we began to get fairly involved in the lore of the genre — the strategy of the bite, the special earth for the coffins, the stake through the heart versus the rays of the sun as disposal methods, the cross as vampire repellent. We had begun to surprise each other by the affectionate, nostalgic tone of our mock erudition when the youngest person present, an instructor in English, said in a clear, firm tone, “The Beast With Five Fingers is the greatest horror picture I’ve ever seen.” Stunned that so bright a young man could display such shocking taste in preferring a Warner Brothers mediocrity of the forties to the classics, I gasped, “But why?” and he answered, “Because it’s completely irrational. It doesn’t make any sense, and that’s the true terror.”

I was upset by his neat little declaration — existentialism in a nutshell — by the calm matter-offactness of it, and by the way the others seemed to take it for granted. Yet this evaluation, which had never occurred to me, helped to explain some of my recent moviegoing experiences.

Last year I went to see a famous French film, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, which had arrived in San Francisco in a dubbed version called The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and was playing on a double-horror bill in a huge Market Street theater. It was Saturday night, and the theater, which holds 2646, was so crowded that I had trouble finding a seat.

Even dubbed, Eyes Without a Face, which Franju called a poetic fantasy, is austere and elegant: the exquisite photography is by the great Shuftan, the music by Maurice Jarre, the superb gowns by Givenchy. It is a symbolist attack on science and the ethics of medicine, and though I thought this attack as simpleminded in its way as the young poet’s usual denunciation of war or commerce, it is in some peculiar way a classic of horror.

Pierre Brasseur, as a doctor, experiments systematically, removing the faces of beautiful young kidnapped women and trying to graft them onto the ruined head of His daughter. He keeps failing, the girls are destroyed, and yet he persists — in some terrible parody of the scientific method. In the end, the daughter, still only eyes without a face, liberates the dogs on which he also experiments, and they tear off his head.

The movie is both bizarrely sophisticated and absurdly naïve. Franju’s style is almost as purified as Robert Bresson’s, and although I disliked the mixture o austerity and mysticism with blood and gore, it produced its effect: a vague, floating, almost lyric sense of horror, an almost abstract atmosphere, impersonal and humorless. It has none of the fun of a good old horror satire like The Bride of Frankenstein, with Elsa Lanchester’s hair curling electrically instead of just frizzing as usual, and Ernest Thesiger toying with mandrake roots and tiny ladies and gentlemen in glass jars. It is a horror film that takes itself very seriously, and even though I thought its intellectual pretensions silly, I couldn’t shake off the exquisite, dread images.

But the audience seemed to be reacting to a different movie. They were so noisy that the dialogue was inaudible; they talked until the screen gave promise of bloody ghastliness. Then the chatter subsided to rise again in noisy approval of the gory scenes. When a girl in the film seemed about to be mutilated, a young man behind me jumped up and down and shouted encouragement. “Somebody’s going to get it,” he sang out gleefully. The audience, which was, I’d judge, predominantly between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, and at least a third feminine, was pleased and excited by the most revolting, obsessive images. They had gotten what they came for; they had not been cheated. But nobody seemed to care what the movie was about or to be interested in the logic of the plot, the reasons for the gore.

And audiences have seemed indifferent to incomprehensible sections in big expensive pictures, for example, how is it that the immense audience for The Bridge on the River kwai, after all those hours of watching a story unfold, failed to express discomfort or outrage or even plain curiosity about what exactly happened at the end — which through bad direction or perhaps sloppy editing went by too fast to be sorted out and understood? Is it possible that audiences net longer care if a film is so untidily put together that information crucial to the plot or characterizations is obscured or omitted altogether? What Ever Happened to Baby Fane? was such a mess that Time, after calling it “the year’s scariest, funniest and most sophisticated thriller.” got the plot garbled.

In recent years, largely because of the uncertainty of producers about what will draw, films in production have shifted from one script to another, or have been finally cut in such a way that key sequences are omitted. And the oddity is that it doesn’t seem to matter to the audience. I couldn’t tell what was going on in parts of 55 Days at Peking.

I was flabbergasted when Cleopatra, in the movie of the same name, with net hint or preparation, suddenly demonstrated clairvoyant powers, only to dispense with them as quickly as she had acquired them. The audience for The Cardinal can have little way of knowing whose baby the priest’s sister is having, or of understanding how she can be in labor for days, screaming in a rooming house, without anybody hearing her. They may also be puzzled about how the priest’s argument against her marriage, which they have been told is the only Catholic position, can, after it leads to her downfall and death, be casually dismissed as an error.

It would be easy to conclude that people go to see a show and just don’t worry if it all hangs together so long as they have something to look at. But I think it is more complicated than that. Audiences used to have an almost rational passion for getting the story straight: they might prefer bad movies to good ones (the Variety list of “all-time top grossers” such as The Greatest Show on Earth and Going My Way indicates that they did), but although the movies might be banal or vulgar, they were rarely incoherent. A movie had to tell some kind of story that held together: a plot had to parse. Some of the appreciation for the cleverness of, say, Hitchcock’s early thrillers derived from their ability to conceal the loopholes, so that afterward one could enjoy thinking over how one had been tricked and teased. Perhaps now “stories” have become too sane, too explicable, too commonplace for the large audiences who want sensations and regard the explanatory connections as mere filler.

IT is possible that television viewing, with all its breaks and cuts and the spinning of the dial to find some action, is partly responsible for destruction of the narrative sense — that delight in following a story through its complications to its conclusion, which is perhaps a child’s first conscious artistic pleasure. The old staples of entertainment — inoffensive genres like the adventure story or the musical or the ghost story or the detective story — are no longer commercially safe for moviemakers, and it may be that audiences don’t have much more than a television span of attention left. Something similar may be happening to reading tastes and habits: I find teen-agers who oftentimes have read Salinger, some Orwell, Lord of the Flies, some Joyce Cary, and sometimes even Dostoevsky, but they are not interested in the classic English novels of Scott or Dickens. What is more, they don’t read the Sherlock Holmes stories or even the modern detective fiction that in the thirties and forties was an accepted part of the shared experience of adolescents. Whatever the reasons — and they must have to do with modern life and the sense of urgency it produces — audiences can no longer be depended on to respond to conventional forms. They want something different. They are too restless and apathetic to pay attention to motivations and complications, cause and effect. They want less effort, more sensations.

A decade ago, The Haunting, an efficient, professional, and to all appearances commercial genre film, might have made money. By the end of 1963, its grosses in the United States and Canada, according to Variety, were $700,000. This may be compared with $9,250,000 for Irma La Douce, $4,600,000 for The Birds, $3,900,000 for 55 Days at Peking — all three, I think, terrible movies and in varying degrees pointless and incomprehensible. A detective genre piece, The List of Adrian Messenger, also incomparably better than the three films cited, and with a tricky star-selling campaign, grossed only $1,500,000. It is easy to imagine that Robert Wise, after the excesses of West Side Story, turned to The Haunting for a safe, sane respite, and that John Huston, after wrestling with Freud, turned to an intriguing detective story like Adrian Messenger for a lucrative, old-fashioned holiday. But what used to be safe seems now to be folly. How can audiences preoccupied with identity problems of their own worry about a case of whodunit and why and how? Following clues may be too much of an effort for those who, in the current teen-age phrase, “couldn’t care less.” They want shock treatment, not diversion, and it takes more than ghosts to frighten them.

The Haunting is set in that pleasantly familiar “old dark house” that is itself an evil presence and is usually inhabited by ghosts or evil people. In our childhood imaginings, the unknowable things that have happened in old houses, and the whispers that someone may have died in them, make them mysterious and “dirty”; only the new house that has known no life or death is safe and clean. But so many stories have used the sinister dark house-from-which-no-one-can-escape and its murky gardens for our ritual entertainment that we learn to experience the terrors as pleasurable excitations and reassuring reminders of how frightened we used to be before we learned our way around. In film, as in story, the ambience is fear; the film specialty is gathering a group who are trapped and helpless. The action is confined to the house and grounds (the maze); the town is usually far away, just far enough away so that “nobody will hear you if you scream.”

In recent years film festivals and art houses have featured a peculiar variant of the trapped-in-theold-dark-house genre (Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel is the classic new example), but the characters, or rather figures, are the undead or zombies of the vampire movies. “We live as in coffins frozen side by side in a garden” — Last Year at Marienbad. “I’m dead” — the heroine of Il Mare. “They’re all dead in there” — the hostess describing the party of La Notte. Their vital juices have been sucked away, but they don’t have the revealing marks on the throat. We get the message: alienation drains the soul without leaving any marks. Or, as Bergman says of his trilogy, “Most of the people in these three films are dead, completely dead. They don’t know how to love or to feel any emotions. They are lost because they can’t reach anyone outside of themselves.” This “art” variant is a message movie about failure of communication and lack of love and spiritual emptiness and all the rest of that. It is the closest thing we’ve got to a new genre, but it has some peculiarities. The old dark house was simply there, but these symbolic decadent or sterile surroundings are supposed to reflect the walking death of those within the maze. The characters in the old dark house tried to solve the riddle of their imprisonment and tried to escape; even in No Exit the drama was in why the characters were there: but in the new hotel-in-hell movies the characters don’t even want to get out of the maze — nor, one surmises, do the directors, despite their moralizing. And audiences apparently respond to these films as modern and relevant just because of this paralysis and inaction and minimal story line.

Although The Haunting is moderately elegant and literate and expensive, it is basically a traditional ghost story. There is the dedicated scientist, an anthropologist, who wants to contribute to science in some socially unacceptable or scientifically reproachable area — in this case, to prove the supernatural powers of the house. And in the expository style traditional for the genre, he explains the lore and jargon of psychic research, meticulously separating ghost from poltergeist, and so on. In the great tradition of Frankenstein, the scientist must have the abnormal or mad assistant: the role that would once have belonged to Dwight Frye is here modernized and becomes the Greenwich Village lesbian, Claire Bloom. And there is the scientist’s distraught wife who fears that her husband’s brilliant career will be ruined. The chaste heroine, Julie Harris (like an updated Helen Chandler, Dracula’s anemic victim), is the movies’ postFreudian concept of the virgin: repressed, hysterical, insane, the source of evil.

It wasn’t a great movie, but I certainly wouldn’t have thought that it could offend anyone. Yet some of the audience at The Haunting were not merely bored, they were hostile —as if the movie, by assuming interests they didn’t have, made them feel resentful or inferior. I have never felt this kind of audience hostility toward crude, bad movies. People are relaxed and tolerant about ghoulish quickies, grotesque dubbed shockers from Japan, and chopped-up Italian spectacles that scramble mythologies and pile on actions, one stupidity after another. Perhaps they prefer incoherent, meaningless movies because they are not required to remember or connect. I am afraid that the young instructor in English spoke for his times, that there is no terror for modern audiences if a story is carefully worked out and follows a tradition, even though the tradition was developed and perfected precisely to frighten entertainingly.

IT IS not only general audiences out for an evening’s entertainment who seem to have lost the narrative sense or become indifferent to narrative. Processes of structural disintegration are at work in all types of movies, and though it is obvious that many of the old forms were dead and had to be discarded, it is rather scary to see what is happening, and not only at the big picture palaces. Art-house films are even more confusing. Why at the end of Godard’s My Life to Live is the heroine, rather than the pimp that the rival gang is presumably gunning for, shot? Is she just a victim of bad marksmanship? If we express perplexity, we are likely to be told that we are missing the existentialist point: it is simply fate; she had to die. But a cross-eyed fate? And why is there so little questioning of the organization of My Name Is Ivan, with its lyric interludes and patriotic sections so ill-assembled that one might think the projectionist had scrambled the reels?

The art-house audience accepts lack of clarity as complexity; clumsiness and confusion as style. Perhaps even without the support of critics they would accept incoherence just as the larger audience does; they may feel that movies as incomprehensible as Viridiana are more relevant to their experience, more true to their own feelings about life, and more satisfying than works they can understand.

I trust I won’t be mistaken for the sort of boob who attacks ambiguity or complexity. I am interested in the change from the period when the meaning of art and form in art was in making complex experience simple and lucid—as is still the case in Knife in the Water or Bandits of Orgosolo — to the current acceptance of art as technique, the technique which, in a movie like This Sporting Life, makes a simple, though psychologically confused story look complex, and modern because inexplicable.

It has become easy, especially for those who consider time a problem and a great theme, to believe that fast editing, out of normal sequence, is somehow more cinematic than a consecutively told story. For a half century movies have, when necessary, shifted action in time and place, and the directors generally didn’t think it necessary to slap us in the face with each cut or to call out, “Look what I can do!” Yet people who should know better will tell you how cinematic The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner or This Sporting Life is, as if fiddling with the time sequence were good in itself, proof that the medium is really being used. Perhaps after a few decades of indoctrination in high art they are convinced that a movie is cinematic when they don’t understand what’s going on. This Sporting Life, which Derek Hill, among others, has called the best feature ever made in England, isn’t gracefully fragmented, it’s smashed. The chunks are so heavy and humorless and, in an odd way, disturbing that we can tell the film is meant to be bold, powerful, tragic

In one way or another, almost all the enthusiasts for a film like this one will tell you that however you interpret the film, you will be right. There is not much to be said for this theory except that it’s mighty democratic. Rather pathetically, those who accept this Rorschach-blot approach to movies are hesitant and uneasy about offering reactions. They should be reassured by the belief that whatever they say is right, but since it refers not to the film but to them (turning criticism into autobiography), they are afraid of self-exposure. I don’t think they really believe the theory; it’s a sort of temporary public-convenience station. More and more people come out of a movie and can’t tell you what they’ve seen or even whether they liked it.

An author like David Storey may stun them with the information that This Sporting Life “works purely in terms of feeling. Only frivolous judgments can be made about it in conventional terms of style.” Has Storey discovered a new method of conveying feeling without style? Or has he simply found the arrogance to frustrate normal responses? No one wants to have his capacity for feeling questioned, and if a viewer tries to play it cool and discuss This Sporting Life in terms of corrupt professional football, he still won’t score on that muddy field: there are no goalposts. Lindsay Anderson, who directed, says, “ This Sporting Life is not a film about sport. In fact, I wouldn’t really call it a story picture at all. . . . We have tried to make a tragedy . . . we were making a film about something unique.” A tragedy without a story is unique all right: a disaster.

IN MOVIES, as in other art forms, whether you are interested only in technique or reject technique, the result is just about the same: if you have nothing to express, it is very much like thinking that you have so much to express that you don’t know howto say it. Something related to absorption in technique is involved in the enthusiasm of young people for what is called the New American Cinema, though these films are often made by those who reject craftsmanship as well as meaning, who lend to equate technique with science and with the production of the Bomb. This approach, which is a little like the attack on Scientific method in Eyes Without a Face, is used to explain why film-makers must make movies without taking time to learn how. They are in a hurry, and anyway, technique might corrupt them.

The spokesmen for this New American Cinema attack rationality as if it were the enemy of art. They have composed a rather strange amalgam in which reason equals lack of feeling and imagination equals hostility to art equals science equals the enemy equals Nazis and police equals the Bomb. Somewhere along the line, criticism is also turned into an enemy of art. The group produces a kind of euphoric publicity, which is published instead of criticism, but soon the group may have semiintellectually respectable critics. In the Nation of April 13, 1964, Susan Sontag published an extraordinary essay on Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, in which she enunciated a new critical principle: “Thus Smith’s crude technique serves, beautifully, the sensibility embodied in Flaming Creatures — a sensibility based on indiscriminateness, without ideas, beyond negation.” I think that in treating indiscriminateness as a value, Miss Sontag has become a real swinger. Of course we can reply that if anything goes, nothing happens, nothing works. But this is becoming irrelevant. In Los Angeles, among the independent filmmakers at their midnight screenings, I was told that I belonged to the older generation — that Agee-alcoho! generation, they called it — who could not respond to the new films because they didn’t take pot or LSD and so couldn’t learn just to accept everything. This narcotic approach of torpid acceptance, which is much like the lethargy of the undead in the failure-of-communication movies, may explain why those films have seemed so “true” to some people, and why the directors’ moralistic messages sound so false. The attitude of rejecting critical standards has the dubious advantage of accepting everyone who says he is an artist as an artist and conferring on all his “noncommercial” productions the status of art. Miss Sontag is on to something, and if she stays on and rides it like Slim Pickens, it’s the end of criticism.

At the art-house level, critics and audiences haven’t yet discovered the beauty of indiscriminateness, but there is a lot of talk about “purely visual content” — which might be called the principle of ineffability. Time calls Resnais’s Muriel “another absorbing exercise in style.” Dwight Macdonald calls Marienbad “ ‘pure’ cinema, a succession of images enjoyable in themselves.” And Richard Roud, who was responsible (and thus guilty) for the film selection at the New York film festivals, goes all the way: films like La Notte, he says, provide an “experience in pure form.”

Once matters reach this plane, it begins to seem almost unclean to raise issues about meaning and content and character, or to question the relevance of a sequence, the quality of a performance. Someone is sure to sneer, “Are you looking for a paraphrasable content? A film, like a poem, is.” Or smile pityingly and remind you that Patroni Griffi had originally intended to call Il Mare “Landscape With Figures”; doesn’t that tell you how you should look at it? It does indeed, and it’s not my idea of a good time. After a few dismal experiences we discover that when we are told to admire a film for its pure form or its structure, it is going to exhibit irritating, confusing, and ostentatious technique, which will, infuriatingly, be all we can discover in it. And if we should mention that we enjoy the dramatic and narrative elements in movies, we are almost certain to be subjected to the contemptuous remark, “Why does cinema have to mean something? Do you expect a work by Bach to mean something?”

The only way to answer this is by some embarrassingly basic analysis, pointing out that words, unlike tones, refer to something, that movie images are rarely abstract or geometric designs, and that when they include people and places and actions, they have implications, associations. Robbe-Grillet, the scenarist of Marienbad, may say that the film is a pure construction, an object without reference to anything outside itself, and that the existence of the two characters begins when the film begins and ends ninety-three minutes later, but, of course, we are not born when we go in to see a movie — though we may want to die by the time we leave. And we can’t even leave Marienbad behind because, although it isn’t particularly memorable, a kind of creeping Marienbadism is the new aesthetics of “poetic” cinema. What I am saying can only sound like pedantry to those interested in “pure” art who tend to consider analysis as an enemy.

MOVIES are going to pieces; they are disintegrating, and the something called cinema is not movies raised to an art but rather movies diminished, movies that look “artistic.” Movies are being stripped of all the “nonessentials” — that is to say, faces, actions, details, stories, places, everything that makes them entertaining and joyful. It is obvious that the most talented film artists and the ones most responsive to our time and the attitudes of Camus and Sartre are tending to go in this direction. The others, who are trying to observe the older conventions, are usually (though not always) banal, trivial, ludicrously commercial, and somehow out of touch. It is the highest talents, the most dedicated, who are driven to the dead end of “pure” cinema, just as our painters are driven to obliterate the image, and a dramatist like Beckett to reduce words to sounds.

Cinema, I suspect, is going to become so rarified, so private in meaning, and so lacking in audience appeal that in a few years the Foundations will be desperately and hopelessly trying to bring it back to life, as they are now doing with theater.

When movies, the only art form which everyone once felt free to enjoy and have opinions about, lose their connection with song and dance, drama, and the novel, when they become cinema which people fear to criticize as much as they do a new piece of music or a new poem or painting, they will become another object of academic study and appreciation and an object of excitement only to practitioners of the “art.” Although L’Avventura is a great film, had I been present at Cannes in 1960, where Antonioni distributed his explanatory statement beginning “There exists in the world today a very serious break between science on the one hand,” I might easily have joined in the hisses, which he didn’t really deserve until the following year, when La Notte revealed that he had begun to believe his own explanations, thus making liars of us all.

When we see Dwight Macdonald’s cultural solution applied to film, when we see the prospect that movies will become a product for “Masscult” consumption. while the “few who care” will have their “High Culture” cinema, who wants to take the high road? There is more energy, more originality, more excitement, more art in American kitsch like Gunga Din, Easy Living, in the Rogers and Astaire pictures like Swingtime and Top Hat, in Strangers on a Train, His Girl Friday, The Crimson Pirate, Citizen Kane, The Lady Eve, 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 Mon Amour, Marienbad, La Notte, The Eclipse, and the Torre Nilsson pictures. As Nabokov remarked, “Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.”

Regrettably, one of the surest signs of the philistine is his reverence for the superior tastes of those who put him down. Macdonald believes that “a work of High Culture, however inept, is an expression of feelings, ideas, tastes, visions that are idiosyncratic and the audience similarly responds to them as individuals.” No. The “pure” cinema enthusiast who doesn’t react to a film but feels he should, and so goes back to it over and over, is not responding as an individual but as a compulsive good pupil determined to appreciate what his cultural superiors say is art. Movies are on their way into academia when they are turned into a matter of duty, and in this country respect for High Culture is becoming a ritual.

If debased art is kitsch, perhaps kitsch may be redeemed by honest vulgarity, may become art. Our best work transforms kitsch, makes art out of it; that is the peculiar greatness and strength of American movies, as Godard in Breathless and Truffaut in Shoot the Piano Player recognize. Huston’s The Maltese Falcon is a classic example. Our first and greatest film artist, D. W. Griffith, was a master of kitsch.

I am not suggesting that we want to see new and bigger remakes of the tired old standbys of the film repertory: a new Cimarron, another Quo Vadis. And meanings don’t have to be spread out for us like food on a tree-lunch counter. There are movies that are great experiences like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and just a few years ago there were movies which told good stories such as The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Prom Here to Eternity, and The Nun’s Story.

People go to the movies for the various ways in which movies express the experience of their lives, and as a means of avoiding and postponing the pressures they feel. This latter function of art, generally referred to disparagingly as escapism, may also be considered refreshment, and it may be a major factor in keeping the world sane.

In the last few years there has appeared a new kind of filmgoer: he isn’t interested in movies but in cinema. In the West several of the academic people I know who have the least understanding of movies suddenly became interested in them by reading Laurence Alloway’s piece called “Critics in the Dark” in Encounter. By suggesting that movie criticism had never gotten into the right hands — that is, into the hands of the academics — by indicating projects, and by publishing in the prestigious Encounter, Alloway focused on large vistas of respectability for future film critics. Perhaps, also, the academics were drawn to his condescending approach to movies as a pop art. Many of them have wondered why Agee cared so much about movies. Alloway, by taking the position that Agee’s caring was a maladjustment, re-established their safe, serene world in which if a man gets excited about an idea or an issue, there must be something the matter with him. It’s not much consolation, but I think the cinema the academics will be working over will be the cinema they deserve.