Give 'Em Enough Trope

Recently, I came across this comprehensive trashing of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael by Renata Adler. It dates from 1980, a time when Kael, long established as the doyenne of Hollywood critics, had settled into comfortable success, and as a result had begun to take her eyes off the road. It's a great piece of demolition from a former admirer, unstinting in picking holes and with a scope that takes in both Kael's general aesthetic worldview, and her attention (or inattention) to individual words. Even if you disagree with Adler partially or profoundly, it's a first-class monograph of close argument.

I pretty much agree with her. I'm not so much against Kael (who, as Adler acknowledges, has written great stuff) as the kind of prescriptive film criticism that sprang up in her wake and, to an extent, in her image. The self-consciously cool, Time Out frown-in-a-greatcoat school of movie reviewing that celebrates the “visceral”, and declares the “visceral” to be “seminal”. The school of Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick, Leone and Lynch, plus maybe De Palma and Cronenberg for the more out-there types, with nods to Welles and Hitchcock on the way. The blokey corner of the film-crit youth club, full of large men in medium-size leather jackets, laying down the law on big, brave, transgressive cinematic spectaculars made by roughshod outlaw mavericks who shepherd their raw, visionary work through a timid, milquetoast studio system and show that film can be art, dammit, but really cool art mind, like Hemingway, not simpering arthouse guff like Proust or something. No prisoners, no PG-ratings, no Barry Norman sweaters. You know, bastard art. Yeah!

Full disclosure: I was a film student once upon a time, and God knows this was me all over. Goodfellas dialogue was learned by heart, recreated shots from The Shining were shoehorned into projects for no reason other than to Show That You Knew, and meals were skipped to pay for dry ice and replica handguns. Towards the end of my student days, the whole thing went full circle as one of our own, Quentin Tarantino, became Hollywood's hottest ticket by observing all of our golden rules to the letter. I don't know what things are like these days – I imagine science fiction is probably the bigger draw for budding auteurs, and there's no doubt less of an obsession with getting to shoot your graduation film on great big 16mm Arriflex cameras than we had – but I'd be pleasantly surprised if the “cool pool” of films and filmmakers has significantly expanded. The intense prescriptivism of the clique is part of its allure.

(Incidentally, TV criticism, as I've mentioned at soul-sapping length, doesn't have this kind of bedrock orthodoxy. This is, in a way, a good thing: whole film genres remain underrated as they didn't fit into the Time Out cinematic canon established in the '70s/'80s. “1940s? That's your film noir there, guv. Fritz Lang, smoky silhouettes and mickey finns all round. That's the stuff. Screwball comedy? What, some twee little romp with Katharine Hepburn falling out of a roll-top desk? Oh, dear. Can't see much of a legacy there, son...” So, when someone does pluck up the courage to write about pre-Sopranos TV, at least they have a clean sheet to doodle on, with no ugly rules of critical thumb scrawled on it: a small mercy.)

The wider problem remains, though. Journalism is an inherently lazy profession. I don't mean that journalists are individually lazy people, in fact the opposite is true: someone willing to devote a Sunday evening to the composition of three different strings of 1,000 words for three different markets about the one cultural artifact is not someone who has chosen a quiet life. The problem is that journalism, like all professional writing, has a path of least effort. In newspapers and magazines, this path is more acceptable than elsewhere, and is frequently codified into a “house style”, be it the “Now those Eurocrats are after our parsnips!” radical pub bore chic of the red tops, the “hail fellow well-met” Rotary Club twee of the Mail diarist or the calculated agglomerations of “ZOMG”, “because reasons” and the like which convince you the broadsheet culture supplements are exploiting fourteen-year-old girls from Pasadena until you clock the byline photo of a white man from Surrey up to his elasticated waistband in middle age.

Similarly, there comes a point where the film critics, having lovingly established their image as the fast-talking, bullshit-detecting, mise-en-scene-dissecting dudes of the Kubrickian composition, the Storaro lighting and the Morricone soundtrack, start to kick back, ease off on the throttle and let the style take the strain. A film swims into their ken that seems little more than a rebadged version of that potboiler from 1982: why waste new words on an old idea? So its up into the attic and out with the Christmas decoration words, the “raw”, the “pretentious”, the “passionate”, the “seminal” and, yes, the “visceral”. Old favourites, dragged out one more time to cover the stifled yawns from our correspondent. Widescreen words disguising pan-and-scan thinking.

Quite often you can't blame them, as deadlines become ever more acute, cinema becomes ever more programmatic and well-chosen words are increasingly ignored in favour of those easy-to-collate star ratings. Journos are forever overstretched and undervalued, it's true. But the more you flip your word processor onto cruise control, the more mannered your writing becomes, and the style starts leading your thoughts. This is why I don't understand the readiness of self-respecting critics to use words like “trope”: aren't you subordinating your own, individual voice and personality to a faceless group-think? What happened to that maverick who made a name for themselves by mathematically proving that They Live! is better than The Magnificent Ambersons?

There's one thing upon which I'm sure all critics would agree: when it comes to critical prose, George Orwell was the man. But what were two of Orwell's golden rules for writing? “Never use a figure of speech you're used to seeing in print.” “Never use jargon when you can think of an everyday English alternative.” You wouldn't catch Orwell using “disconnect” as a noun when he had “mismatch” or “gap” within easy reach. Or “trope” when there are perfectly good “clichés”, “traditions” and “devices” going begging.

He would note that such words, though they may have semi-respectable roots in academe, have really come into the mainstream via the cynical, bloodless spiel of the entertainment corporation boardroom. “Passionate” and “visceral” are thrown about willy-nilly at pitch meetings and AGMs by people for whom actual movies are just a weird by-product of the real world of deals, takeovers and dividend forecasts. Inherit their way of speaking, and by extension their way of thinking, and you run the risk of turning into just another huckster for the big boys, and one with significantly less job security than their corporate cousins, to boot. This ain't rock 'n' roll, this is merchandise.

Underneath it all, a critic is part of the entertainment business like anyone else, of course. They're no more rebel outsiders than Tarantino is an edgy trailer trash ex-con made good. But sometimes it's useful, as well as fun, to do a bit of iconoclastic dressing up. A critic with a platform has weight to his words, so quite why he'd be willing to let others pick them for him is baffling. And it's getting steadily worse: Pauline Kael's shortcomings in this department look tiny when set against today's critical orthodoxy, when everyone knows how awful a word “iconic” is, but so many still use it. So be passionate about your language tropes. Use them viscerally. Because Orwell.

#review #criticism #language #films #PaulineKael #RenataAdler