Declaration of Principles

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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 until relatively recently I thought of myself primarily as a playwright, I’ve spent a large part of my creative energies in the past — and, increasingly, in the present —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 brain-rotting 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 (if any) in other literary areas.

While I don’t regard criticism itself, as Kael did, as an art-form (although, as John Simon always maintained, it might be an important branch of literature) that may be because it has created so few artists; usually, those who best practice the craft are already artists themselves: Musicians, composers, poets, novelists and dramatists who quite literally practice what they preach. Still, art or not 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 needed, 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 politics 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.

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 brain-rotting 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.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross [Revised, February 2020]


Post-Script, September 2019
Re-reading this today, I feel I should amend one claim: It may be true, as I wrote above, that Kael “was never dull”… but she could be boring. (The two are not necessarily the same.) Her writing on Goddard bores me to such a degree my eyes glaze over just thinking about it. But then, I suspect Godard himself would bore me even more.

 

2 thoughts on “Declaration of Principles

  1. To tell you the truth, Kael scares me when I read her. I see someone at the formal family dinner opening up her mouth to show it full of partially masticated food simply for shock value. But nobody cares and she is 47 years old. Kael is the only person I can think of who is wrong about so many things without being a registered republican.

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