So I've got this twitter-feed, and — what can I say? — I kind of dig it. It's not something I devote more than ten minutes of my day to. I don't have it synced to a phone or anything like that, so I don't catch more than a short burst of other people's on-line chatter. It's the equivalent of wandering into Fran's for a cinnamon bun and coffee, and eavesdropping on the young hipsters before they butt out and trudge off to their dead-end jobs.
Do hipsters have those conversations anymore, those wry back-and-forths that aspire to Oscar Wilde and his salon-set? I haven't been to Fran's in ages, but I sure don't hear that kind of chatter when I step into That Corporate Espresso Outlet. In fact, those places are usually pretty quiet, because everyone is taking advantage of the free wireless — hipster-yakking on-line, I'm guessing.
It almost beggars the imagination, but day-to-day living once defied attempts at quip-like summary. Cafe-talk consisted of a rough feeling-around for a shared DMZ that could withstand another volley or two of good-natured ideological cross-fire. When a subject completely foreign to you rolled around, you shut up and listened, asking the occasional question, and venturing forth an opinion only when you were certain the ground had more or less returned beneath your feet.
That's how we approached the movies, too, in those days. Movies commanded our attention. We sat silently in those cavernous theatres, letting the light and sound wash over us in its attempt to deluge our prepared defenses to the argument being made. And that was the thing: movies were making an argument. Most were modern in their agenda — bourgeois, if not banal — but because the medium was so sensual and the environment so hallowed, the argument was thoroughly revitalized, often flaunting its contradictions with a maddening confidence as it beat the viewer into a defensive rage, or haplessly submissive tears.
In this now-vanished world, we read the critics, the bulk of whom volunteered themselves as the public's first line of righteous defense. This movie was good and sturdy, that movie was shaky, this whole line of movies was little more than a dim shadow of something that had shone masterfully some decades back, etc. It was a rare critic who acknowledged the personal appeal every movie aspired to. That appeal might hold all the comfort and nutrition of Kraft Dinner, or it could be a powerful feast of provocation that demanded a level of attention the viewer was resistant to admit, but either way it was meant to be personal.
No-one took the movies more personally than Pauline Kael, who died ten years ago, and is now receiving her first biography and another culling and collection of her writing. When she critiqued, her launching point was sexual metaphor, after which she explored where a picture's attempted seduction either succeeded or failed. We're told Kael wrote her reviews in longhand, on a lined yellow tablet, more often than not through the night on a tight deadline — sublimation on an epic scale. When the seduction succeeded (Last Tango In Paris being the most notorious instance) her reader could expect to feel the frisson of prurient discomfort; conversely, if the seduction had failed badly, her prose was withering.
Nobody writes like that about the movies anymore, and why should they? These days we can watch movies on our phones, and most of them don't much suffer from the shift in scale. In 1973 a movie that jilted all sensibility to the degree that Blatty's The Exorcist did practically forced the viewer out into the cold, to stumble home, sit down, uncap the pen and write. A movie like 2009's The Human Centipede, on the other hand, begs for — and receives — the South Park treatment: crudely animated circles with a lewd and dismissive point of view. That's the level of argument being made; that's the level of response required.
It's doubtful anyone younger than 45 will find much to take note of in Kael's life and work. It may seem like I'm reminiscing about those heady days when giants walked the earth, but we are living at a time when the attention Kael paid to a movie would seem wildly out-of-place. In a year when Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life is considered the high-water mark for movies, why should a competing flick like Cowboys Vs. Aliens generate anything longer than a tweet? Pauline wouldn't have bothered with even that.