Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On movie technique, criticism and Kael

One wants very much to talk about what makes Tolstoy uniquely Tolstoy and Renoir uniquely Renoir -- and that's their technique, their vision -- not just their stories or their themes. You can't "distinguish form and content for the purposes of analysis," because (as we all know) the form is the content, and what the artist has done is how the artist did it. You can't perceive the whole without taking notice of the specifics, any more than you can absorb a novel without reading the words or see a movie without looking at the images.
Almost dislocated my neck while reading this piece by Jim Emerson, because I was nodding so vigorously. If you're at all interested in films and how to think or write about them, do take the time to read it. Also read the footnotes. And the links to earlier posts he has provided at the end.

[Slightly related: here's a piece I did about Pauline Kael a few weeks ago]


  1. Jai,
    Thanks for sharing the piece. I must agree with you that reading Kael comes with conflicting reactions. Sometimes in just two sentences, but it couldn't have been said any better. Her lucid and perceptive writing is pure fun.

  2. Ashish: thanks, but did you read the Emerson piece in its entirety? He is very critical of Kael and I agree with much of what he says there. But as a friend pointed out the other day, it's interesting that many of Kael's biggest critics today admit that her writing was what got them seriously interested in cinema in the first place - there's no faulting her passion.

  3. I liked this comment by Jason Bellamy on the Emerson piece , probably closest to what I feel -

    "Although Kael was much too dismissive of technical analysis, I think there's some truth to the idea that an appreciation of "technique" is best when it comes in response to and explanation of effect, rather than other way around. Where technical analysis goes bad is when, to keep with the sex metaphor, the critic seems to be saying, "I know this didn't get you off, but in fact this was great sex; the technique is perfect." Put another way, it's possible to get lost in the science of technique and forget what the technique actually achieves."

    Then again, I believe the reaction to a movie can be coached, as in, its possible that if and when you are aware of the technical finer points, you appreciate a piece of movie making more and in a different way.The visceral appreciation to a movie and the appreciation of technique inform and feed off one another.
    But still, a viewer should have faith in their own experience, and that is the ultimate truth of movie watching. If something does not work for them,it doesn't, no matter how technically accomplished it is.