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In response to: The Pauline Kael essay “Circles and Squares” originally published in the journal “Film Quarterly”
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
The doctrine of the auteur as established by American film critic Andrew Sarris was literally lambasted by another American film critic who I think is an “auteur” in her own field – Pauline Kael. Although I didn’t always agree with her insights, being generally fond of the vim and vigor of her writing style and how she provided a voice addressing such a male-dominated lens in describing and discussing films, filmmakers, and everything in between, the way she passionately discussed Sarris’ three circles on “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” helped in somewhat balancing both people’s reverence and disdain for the auteur theory. Her spicy tongue rallying against Sarris’ joy on the elan sparked more lively discourse about the topic – and for me, this is the more important thing.
Early on in the reading, Kael believed that applying theories, while clearly significant in film criticism, does not necessarily make a good critic. A good critic can be someone who can “perform critical function to the limits of one’s tastes and powers” with honest means of good articulation. This actually reflected how she generally worked on her own critiques of films throughout her career. I get her point that “a theory becomes a rigid formula” (as per Kael, what was then happening among auteur critics) – criticizing Sarris of “simply using formula instead of using his full range of intelligence and intuition,” the way the great critics including the French Andre Bazin and the American James Agee did. She further explained how criticism is an art, not a science, which means following strict rules “will fail in one of his most important functions: perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see.”
In denouncing Sarris’ first premise of the auteur theory, Kael, in my understanding, found it a problem boxing up a director to be competent in the technical aspect of production, saying that there are cases where “the greatest artists in a medium by-pass or violate the simple technical competence that is so necessary for hacks.” While she made a point, I can only agree with the luck on encountering “happy accidents” and moments of what is called “blessings in disguise” happening during the course of a production that a technically incompetent director would still succeed in telling the story – probably with much gratefulness to his or her team’s expert or not so expert contributions. Once again, let me reiterate what I said before, how I have a firm stand that a director should have a credible vision for the film, and very importantly, should be able to effectively communicate this vision to his or her entire team. For a director, it is very important to know film language and the various elements in a production, alongside knowing how to make each production team member understand the project’s vision by being on the same page when conversing about photography, editing, and acting – all these require thorough knowledge from the part of the director. I am with Sarris on this. I would go as far as saying it should not be “technical incompetence” but more like “technical limitations” and “uncontrollable technical adjustments” in the production that would prompt significant changes in a film project, which could either turn out good or bad for the final film. Standards of prior described as “an artist who is not a good technician” is a different thing – a director doesn’t necessarily have to be a good technician – a director should be able to tell a good technician, say the cinematographer, what he or she needs to do to effectively tell the story. Kael mentioned, “an artist who is not good technician can indeed create new standards, because standards of technical competence are based on comparisons with work already done.” I would say, I agree with this in the line of thought that cinema’s development, whether creatively, thematically, and/or technically, changes through time. What seems like a film of poor taste now may eventually be described as a film of sophisticatedly trailblazing style in the future.
As Kael moved on castigating Sarris’ middle circle, she imposed how the director’s personality in his or her body of work wouldn’t equate to whether one particular film of his or hers is actually good. I concur with this, but I believe that knowing the personality of the director allows for another level of reading a film and there is joy in that. It doesn’t always have to be that way, but willingly doing so prompts discourse to thrive in one way or another. Again, I am not into boxing up things too much, I am more geared towards allowing films and film criticism to soar high beyond the confines of a single theory. I would also go back to what I previously said about Sarris’ essay on the auteur theory that the way I take his words on a director’s “personality” translates far beyond the physical and the psychological. For me, it deals with the director’s stamp – his thumbmark, his signature. At some point, the beating heart of his personality is found on the abstract and not on the technical or visual parts of the work.
In Sarris’ inner circle, Kael described it as a remarkable formulation being “the opposite of what we have always taken for granted in the arts, that the artist expresses himself in the unity of form and content.” Unlike the first two premises, she explained that this third one “clarifies the interests of the auteur critics. If we have been puzzled because the auteur critics seemed so deeply involved, even dedicated, in becoming connoisseurs of trash, now we can see by this theoretical formulation that trash is indeed their chosen province of film.” For them, the “ideal auteur” seems not far from the current directors in Hollywood mainstream cinema: “signs for a long-term contract, directs any script handed to him, and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots.” Think Zack Snyder’s success in “300” repeated over and over again in movies he directed and/or produced from then on – “Sucker Punch,” “Watchmen,” “Man of Steel,” among others – all projects with his name need that “no quiet, no non-action moments” rule, plus the signature speed-ramping requirement every few scenes or sequences. In this case, I find it a win for the mainstream essentials for cash-cow productions, but definitely a loss on the value of storytelling because not all scenes and/or stories would require such maximalist audio-visual flair – doing so becomes a failure to effectively tell stories due to that thing called “style over substance” being the top priority.
Although she was very intense in her choice of words, Kael provided a good objective point on how Sarris’ three premises become questionable for writer-directors who are disqualified by the third premise because they “can’t arrive at that ‘interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema’ because a writer-director has no tension between his personality and his material, so there’s nothing for the auteur critic to extrapolate from.” She thought that the auteur theory is “a dangerous theory because it constricts the experience of critics who employ it” and it “offers nothing but commercial goals to the young artists who may be trying to do something in film.” She strongly suggested that there is something immature or juvenile about utilizing the auteur theory as how she elaborated it as “an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence – that period when masculinity looked so great and important but art was something talked about by poseurs and phonies and sensitive-feminine types.”
It is important to see the beauty in theories, including the auteur theory, but as how Kael cited some of its key limitations, just like other theories having their own ones, it is also important to understand how to aptly apply these theories to one’s line of work – one’s writing or one’s film. As she pointed out, using “the film medium for personal expression” should thrive in cinema. I agree with her explanation of eclecticism as “the selection of the best standards and principles from the various systems of ideas.” For her, criticism requires no strict formula, as having such would be like asking a chef for “one magic recipe that could be followed in all cooking.”
For her, in criticism, a critic “uses everything you are and everything you know that is relevant, and that film criticism is particularly exciting just because of the multiplicity of elements in film art.” Critics should not be fixated in theories, as other moments of insights, including that of experience, are also important. It is worth quoting her saying, “The role of a critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see themselves; he is a great critic, if his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgement. He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the art to others.”
On whether or not agreeing with Sarris’ premises on the auteur theory or Kael’s countering of these premises, my take on the main issue here is, the application of the auteur theory should be a matter of seeing through a particular lens of choice and allowing myself to effectively craft something with due guidance. I wouldn’t say I am completely agreeing with Sarris or Kael or dismissing their contributions in the so-called “politique des auteurs,” but I definitely find value in using their key points in film criticism and scholarship, or even cautioning myself from overly consuming the idea of being an auteur as a filmmaker. I am happy to learn more about film theories, but I am definitely not a film theorist who would be hardwired by whatever I postulated. I am happy to be a filmmaker and a film critic who can use these theories to my joy and advantage without necessarily boxing myself to a single one.
Braudy, Leo and Cohen, Marshall. “Andrew Sarris: Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.
Kael, Pauline. “Circles and Squares,” Film Quarterly, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1963.