The following is an excerpt from the late, great Pauline Kael’s selected writings in “The Age of Movies,” which will be available starting October 27. In the passage, Kael makes the argument that people who reject movies that “invade the senses” are only masking their fear with arguments of “refinement.” Read on and give your feedback below.
The essay was originally published in The Current Cinema column in the September 25, 1978 edition of “The New Yorker.”
Are people becoming afraid of American movies? When acquaintances ask me what they should see and I say The Last Waltz or Convoy or Eyes of Laura Mars, I can see the recoil. It’s the same look of distrust I encountered when I suggested Carrie or The Fury or Jaws or Taxi Driver or the two Godfather pictures before that. They immediately start talking about how they “don’t like” violence. But as they talk you can see that it’s more than violence they fear. They indicate that they’ve been assaulted by too many schlocky films—some of them highly touted, like The Missouri Breaks. They’re tired of movies that reduce people to nothingness, they say—movies that are all car crashes and killings and perversity. They don’t see why they should subject themselves to experiences that will tie up their guts or give them nightmares.
And if that means that they lose out on a Taxi Driver or a Carrie, well, that’s not important to them. The solid core of young moviegoers may experience a sense of danger as part of the attraction of movies; they may hope for new sensations and want to be swept up, overpowered. But these other, “more discriminating” movie goers don’t want that sense of danger. They want to remain in control of their feelings, so they’ve been going to the movies that allow them a distance—European films such as Cat and Mouse, novelties like Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, prefab American films, such as Heaven Can Wait, or American films with an overlay of European refinement, like the hollowly objective Pretty Baby, which was made acceptable by reviewers’ assurances that the forbidden subject is handled with good taste, or the entombed Interiors.
If educated Americans are rocking on their heels—if they’re so punchy that they feel the need to protect themselves—one can’t exactly blame them for it. But one can try to scrape off the cultural patina that, with the aid of the press and TV, is forming over this timidity. Reviewers and commentators don’t have to be crooked or duplicitous to praise dull, stumpy movies and disapprove of exciting ones. What’s more natural than that they would share the fears of their readers and viewers, take it as a cultural duty to warn them off intense movies, and equate intense with dirty, cheap, adolescent? Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art—of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theatre. So we’ve been getting a new cultural puritanism—people go to the innocuous hoping for the charming, or they settle for imported sobriety, and the press is full of snide references to Coppola’s huge film in progress, and a new film by Peckinpah is greeted with derision, as if it went without saying that Bloody Sam couldn’t do anything but blow up bodies in slow motion, and with the most squalid commercial intentions.
This is, of course, a rejection of the particular greatness of movies: their power to affect us on so many sensory levels that we become emotionally accessible, in spite of our thinking selves. Movies get around our cleverness and our wariness; that’s what used to draw us to the picture show. Movies—and they don’t even have to be first-rate, much less great—can invade our sensibilities in the way that Dickens did when we were children, and later, perhaps, George Eliot and Dostoevski, and later still, perhaps, Dickens again. They can go down even deeper—to the primitive levels on which we experience fairy tales. And if people resist this invasion by going only to movies that they’ve been assured have nothing upsetting in them, they’re not showing higher, more refined taste; they’re just acting out of fear, masked as taste. If you’re afraid of movies that excite your senses, you’re afraid of movies.