I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets. — Pauline Kael, Replying to Listeners, KPFA. January 1963
By Scott Ross
Although I think of myself primarily as a playwright, I’ve spent a large part of my creative energies over the years in criticism of various kinds: literary, musical, theatrical and cinematic. It doesn’t make one wealthy, but it puts a few bucks in the kitty… or used to, before the advent of wire-service copy as ubiquitous substitute for the local critic. It can also, when one isn’t forced to sit through too much garbage, be a useful intellectual exercise that, if properly performed and with the requisite seriousness of purpose, improves the writer’s mind and, possibly, his innate talents in other literary areas. If any.
While I don’t regard criticism itself, as Kael did, as an art-form (or as does John Simon, as an important branch of literature) there are few pursuits quite so pleasurable to me as reading — or even better, writing — a cogent, perceptive review that calls forth everything of value from its author. In this vein, I esteem Pauline Kael, for all her flaws, as ideal. Woody Allen famously said of her that she had everything a great critic needs, except judgment. There may be some truth to that, in the aggregate. At her best, however, there was no American movie critic more engaged, and engaging, than Kael even if, or when, you found yourself arguing with her vociferously. Because her interests were so varied and intelligent, she brought a great deal more to bear on her movie writing than merely a passion for the medium. Kael’s love for, and interest in, opera, philosophy, theatre, literature, music, social thought and political theory informed every critique she wrote. As wrong as you might have thought her, she was never dull, and seldom less than intellectually bracing.
Apropos Kael’s remark, above, which gives my blog its title, James Agee is the only major American movie critic who was also a poet… and a minor one.
That’s something in my case about which you need never concern yourself.