It was fun watching the applecart being upset… but now where do we go for apples?
That’s Paul Schrader, screenwriter for Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. The quote is lifted from Robert Fulford’s National Post article surveying the long wreckage left in the wake of Pauline Kael’s reign at The New Yorker. Ever since 1967, the idea goes, when Kael came out swinging for Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde, American film has been steadily vulgarizing.
The trouble with the democratization of taste is that you too often end with something unpalatable. It’s a popular sentiment among the mandarins of culture, as well as the creatively frustrated and underappreciated, and perhaps there’s some truth in it. But it’s not enough to fault the critics for the trend, and Fulford admits Kael can hardly shoulder all the blame. Her career was simply emblematic of her era. Rather than summoning and driving it, Kael too was a victim of that fleeting specter -the zeitgeist- that so single-mindedly set about dismantling bourgeois sensibility and prejudice in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
We all get a little spooked by the zeitgeist. But I wonder if the critic, like the artist, isn’t a little more susceptible to a good spooking than most. Perhaps, like a 19th century medium channeling spirits, a critic who manages to levitate his way to prominence does so by an especially effective channeling of the zeitgeist’s own critical genius. In which case, Kael may have given herself and her colleagues too much credit when she complained:
When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture.
Is it really so bad? Have we fallen so far? Are the Love Gurus, Terminators, Armageddons and Independence Days that have plagued American box offices these past twenty years the truest, best representatives of the age? Was cinema and artistic sensibility prior to the Kaelian Revolution such an unadulterated paradise? Surely, no one who has seen American Pie or Superbad can deny there’s been movement toward greater vulgarity, even compared to the teen movies of my own generation like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club.
But I think there’s something more fundamental at work here, something that trips up all would-be romanticizers of the heretofore. We fall victim to that ruse of perspective by which the far horizon seems full of towering achievements only because its lesser works are rendered invisible by distance. If we’re unable to see any legitimate cinematic achievements in our own age (I nominate There Will Be Blood), it’s because we’re so thickly surrounded by the present undergrowth of lesser works which will, with time enough and distance, find a merciful oblivion.