My colleague Rod Dreher is getting cranky:
That was what was so exciting to me as a young writer and filmgoer about reading Kael. You always had the sense that she deeply felt the connections between art and life. The movies weren’t just about the movies, and aesthetics, and entertainment. They were about, well, everything. Kael’s judgment, as James points out, was often flawed, but overall she was so good at what she did that you wanted to read her reviews even of movies you had never seen and probably never would, just to see what she had to say about it.
James is surely correct to say that a Pauline Kael isn’t possible today because movies don’t hold their place at the center of our popular culture that they once did. I rarely go to the movies anymore, and can’t say that I care about them. I can’t think of a single film I’ve seen in the past five years that had the human depth and emotional resonance of the television series “Friday Night Lights.” I find that I don’t even want to go to the movies anymore, because it’s such an effort, and the movies have disappointed me so often that I have ceased to care. It’s like all of Hollywood has become Woody Allen’s career: rolling on, even though there’s no apparent vision, spirit, or point to the work.
Well, I’m not going to defend the big Hollywood studios, which have mostly decided video games are better business than movies. And I’m not going to knock on some of the great television that’s out there. But if what you go to the movies for is “human depth and emotional resonance” than there is no reason for you to stay home.
Indeed, I would argue that there’s a whole generation of rising writer/directors who are particularly attuned to those most central aspects of storytelling. Who are centrally interested in telling stories about people, deep and serious stories. I am acutely interested in seeing the next movie that Derek Cianfrance or Sarah Polley or J. C. Chandor or Jeff Nichols or Sean Durkin make – or, if you want to go with folks who are a bit more seasoned, Noah Baumbach or Richard Linklater or Steven Soderbergh or Ang Lee or Alexander Payne. These are just people off the top of my head, who have made movies in the last five years that I thought were worth recommending people see. The common thread between them is that they care about getting the interiority of their characters right, and having this interiority drive their stories. Which, for me, is pretty much what narrative art is about.
Are their movies “events” in the way that movies were in the past? No. That’s partly because the place of movies in our culture has changed. The only “event” movies that remain are entirely phony artifacts of marketing. In a very real sense, as the movies have gotten bigger (noisier, more expensive, aimed at a global audience), movies that care about “human depth and emotional resonance” have gotten smaller, more domestic. The moviemakers I have the most respect for these days are trying to make the cinematic equivalent of Joyce’s Dubliners rather than the cinematic equivalent of Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, but Dumas’s work has unquestionably garnered a larger audience, both in its time and since. I don’t think that’s a knock on Joyce or Dumas, nor is it a knock on either the monumental work of the past or some of the great work being done today in cinema. It is a difference with both economic implications and implications for cultural impact, but it’s not a reason to avoid the movies.
If you’re looking for movies that are “about everything” in an explicit sense, there have been at least two in the last five years that are (in my opinion) emphatically worth giving a place of honor in your cinematic library: “Synecdoche, New York” and “Tree of Life.” (One of Rod’s commenters mentioned the same two films.) But those kinds of movies have always been rare. “The French Connection” wasn’t about “everything.” “Taxi Driver” wasn’t about “everything.” Heck, “Singin’ In The Rain” wasn’t about “everything” – not in that sense.
And one more thing, about movies that are “about movies.” I’m as annoyed as Dreher is about movies that are only about other movies, but not, I suspect, for the same reason. The problem isn’t that this is some kind of self-referential inside game – that’s a game great art frequently plays. Shakespeare’s plays are almost always, on one level, about the theatre itself; great novels from Don Quixote to Ulysses and beyond have frequently been, in part, about the novel itself; and you wouldn’t want to have to count the number of great poems that are at least partly about poetry. But when art is only an inside game, that means it isn’t about anything real, and, specifically, it isn’t about emotional reality. And at that point I lose interest in it. The Coen brothers make movies that are substantially about their cinematic heritage, and when they are at their best or even just very good, their movies beat with a human heart. I don’t really feel that’s the case with the work of, say, Quentin Tarantino, which is why I don’t much care for his work.
“Movies” have changed since Kael’s day, inevitably, and they will continue to change. But the recorded image isn’t going away, and neither is narrative art, and movies (and television) are where these two things come together. So they aren’t going away either. And so those of us who care about either or both of those things shouldn’t give up on them.
(Postscript apropos of the title: I actually thought “The Kids Are All Right” was just okay, but it was good enough for me to care what Lisa Cholodenko gets up to next. But, in a larger sense, it’s a reasonable synecdoche for what movies can, and still do, do well, and that is tell stories about people.)