Trash, Art, and the Movies

Your required reading of the week: Trash, Art, and the Movies. This piece from Pauline Kael appeared in Harper’s, February 1969. I found it in the American Movie Critics anthology and couldn’t put it down. It’s a fantastic essay about high art and low art, what makes movies fun and what makes them tedious. Some good bits…

On connecting with like-minded people (It’s more fun to meet someone who also likes Footloose than to meet someone who also likes, I don’t know, Lawrence of Arabia.):

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.

On schooling and aesthetic development (being taught vs. learning to discern):

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.

On “redeeming” pop trash with academic jargon (just enjoy it, folks!):

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.
[…]
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.