October 27, 2011, Posted by Richard Brody
What we, thanks to Andrew Sarris, call the “auteur theory” was called by its French proponents (the young critics at Cahiers du Cinéma who would become the New Wave filmmakers) the “politique des auteurs”—not a theory but a policy, or even a “politics.” Jean-Luc Godard has said that people talk about the auteurs and forget to mention the politique; here’s how Godard described the politique to me when I interviewed him in 2000:
We saw that we had to continue the Resistance against a certain type of occupation of the cinema by people who had no business being there. Including, at times, three-quarters of the French [directors].
They were seeking, by means of criticism, to clear space—practical and intellectual—for themselves in the world of filmmaking. They were both pushing their way into the French film industry in order to take it over, and they were priming the public, and critics, to watch the films they’d eventually make. (I’ve written in my book about how it was, ultimately, actual politics—the 1981 election of François Mitterrand, a Socialist, as President of France—that brought about the New Wave’s definitive centrality to the institutions of the French cinema.) This is a circuitous way of saying that criticism—like most public affairs—is not just a matter of ideas but also of power. It’s not an accident that the habitual critical vocabulary calls works of art “powerful,” “convincing,” even “compelling”; criticism, like art, doesn’t seek to describe the world but to change it, and, in considering the legacy of a critic, it’s worth considering the nature of the changes it involves.
Pauline Kael and her legacy have been the subject of a great deal of recent discussion, owing to the publication of Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael, James Wolcott’s memoir (in which Kael figures), and the Library of America selection of Kael’s writings (a trio of books that Nathan Heller reviewed in the magazine). I’ve been calling particular attention to the question of her judgment and taste, but I think it’s also important to consider the political aspect of her career; it’s one of the things I was most eagerly anticipating in Kellow’s biography, and I think that the book somewhat glosses over it. Kellow doesn’t present a sufficiently detailed portrait of Kael’s relationships with younger critics or a sufficient consideration of those relationships as a circle; there’s little about the discussions that took place, the inductions and exclusions, the rivalries and the alliances, the helping and the hindrance, the desire to use her influence to place friends and allies at other publications.
One of the most remarkable and salient aspects of Kael’s career is that she didn’t get a position worthy of her talent (with her hiring at this magazine) until she was almost fifty. By then she had, as Kellow makes clear, known plenty of turbulence and plenty of scuffling, and it’s worth considering that she was self-consciously building herself a fortress of allies and disciples who could serve as a strike force against her detractors and could, in case of disaster, insure an easy landing. Unless, of course, she was just doing what people tend to do everywhere—to help those they like and admire and to foster the talent of up-and-comers they feel in sync with. In any case, Kellow, in his biography, doesn’t go very far into the matter. It would have been of interest from several perspectives—intrinsic interest in Kael’s own activity as it connected with her critical point of view and with her view of the purpose of criticism, as well as how the critical landscape was (and, to some extent, remains) shaped by her influence.
It’s interesting to contrast it with the story of André Bazin, who, as the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, brought in (or let his colleague Eric Rohmer, also an editor there, bring in) the brilliant and passionate young crew of auteurists with whom he openly disagreed—and let them disagree with him openly and vigorously in the pages of the magazine itself. For instance, Godard’s 1952 review of “Strangers on a Train” concludes with a note stating that “the reader will have noticed that all the points of this article are aimed against the editors-in-chief”—in particular, against Bazin, who was a well-known detractor of Hitchcock. Godard aimed barbs at Bazin on the subject of Bazin’s championing of long takes in lieu of editing, and, in 1956, the magazine featured the two of them in a pro-and-con pair of articles—Bazin’s was titled, “Montage Interdit” [Montage Forbidden]; Godard’s is called “Montage, mon beau souci” [Montage, My Fine Care].
Two critics. One influenced the future of criticism; the other influenced the future of the cinema.
- Richard Brody is the movies editor for Goings On About Town and the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”