Friday, 13 April 2012

…it’s such a drab and limited piece of realism that it makes Zola seem like musical comedy

Pauline Kael wasn’t keen.  She can see its strengths all right – the character studies, some of the imagery, the film’s seriousness –; however, they are not enough to capture her consent.  The famous critic doesn’t like Wanda.  The character is too dumb and passive; the towns too ugly; the film’s atmosphere too grim, too monotonous.  Two hours in America’s backwoods is far long for Pauline Kael; she wants to be back in New York, with the beautiful people; always charming and sophisticated, and perpetually stimulating.

What she sees is not that different from what I see; she even picks out for approbation the cinema scene, but on the whole she gives them a different value.  Why?  Wanda’s character irritates her.

Wanda is a passive, bedraggled dummy.  We’ve all known dumb girls, and we’ve all known unhappy girls; the same girls are not often, I think, both dumb and unhappy.  Wanda is a double depressant – a real stringy-haired ragmop.  That makes her a sort of un-protagonist; generally you’d have to have something stirring in you to be that unhappy, but she’s so dumb we can’t tell what has made her miserableWe don’t know why she has become a drifter instead of staying at home….  (Deeper Into Movies.  My emphasis)

Later she writes of the “artistic” nature of the film’s realism, and argues that the scenery is too monotone in its ugliness to be really convincing – it needs more light and contrast -; although at the same time she accepts that both main characters are true to life: there are no false notes in their performance.

I think Kael is reacting to a number of things here.  She is unhappy that Loden is not telling her anything at all about Wanda’s experiences.  She wants a steer.  Rather than be immersed inside the contingent world of this woman Kael wants to stand outside it; expecting the director to give it shape and meaning; with signposts showing how to get in.  The critic wants these experiences properly bottled and labelled, so that she can make some intellectual sense of them.  This is captured quite nicely in her following comments:

A social-minded realist of the old school might have explained how Wanda’s spirit was crushed and why the crook is a reject from the middle-class life he aspires to, and we would have experienced the forces that destroyed them.

But that’s looking at Wanda’s world from atop a skyscraper; creating patterns out of the barely controlled chaos below.   It is about adding causes, and providing our own meanings; just the kind of stuff that hardly exists in such lives as these – Wanda’s understanding of what’s going on will be much more inchoate than this.  It is the typical approach of a critic - of film, of politics, of life -; where raw experience must be encapsulated inside ideas; the only way to pattern it onto the page.  The depiction of those experiences, their texture manipulated by artistry, is not enough; they are too evanescent to write about.  Yet Loden wants to capture something about this world; a world where ideas play no part at all; except for a few clichés picked up along the way - the nearest these people will come to a concept.  This is hard for a critic to accept, in part, I suspect, because it makes writing about the work that much more difficult: we have to recreate it within our own minds if we are to understand it.  There will be no pre-existing formula, handily provided by the director, for us to manipulate.  How frustrating! (Liberating too….)

But there is also something else.  Kael doesn’t like the character.  Indeed, she pretends such a person doesn’t exist.  However, her later comments on Loden’s performance belies this view: something so authentic is unlikely to be a fantasy.  Is Kael overly influenced by the times, refusing to accept such characters because she doesn’t want them to exist – is she too influenced by feminism, still “hot” and “raw” when she was writing?  Is she a little too desperate to believe that dumb and passive women are make-believe; or at best the creations of a patriarchal society (notice how the article shifts: one moment Wanda is unreal, the next Kael wants the director to explain her fall)?  This critic not wanting to accept the existence of such people because they undermine the new spirit of the age?  Essentially activist and middle class; and conveniently underwriting her own professional life...  She thus misses the very point of this film – look! Look at this strange place!  Kael prefers to turn away….

There are no reasons for Wanda’s behaviour.  It arises naturally out of her personality; and from the situation in which she finds herself; permeated by the class culture in which she lives.  Loden wants to show this world; perhaps she wants us to understand it too.  However, such a truth is too painful, and understanding dangerous, in a period when women were on the ideological attack, denying the existence of this kind of innate passivity; preferring instead to condemn the injustices and oppression of the male order.  How dare Loden blame the woman!  You can almost hear it, in Kael’s prose.  Of course, there is no value judgement in this work – this is its art.  She is neither praising nor criticising this life; she is just laying it out for us to see.  However, few people can be so dispassionate: always, it seems, we must be judged by what we do.  Only philosophers, and then rather unnaturally, can separate facts from values. So we condemn what we don’t like; rather than taking the time to comprehend it.

There is also something else.  Class.  Kael deals with this very easily – she rejects it completely.  The film, she writes, little more than an art house product.  How simple!  How convenient!  If you don’t like something, are afraid of its truth, call it high art.  How quickly it disappears!  Poor Loden.  Poor Wanda.  They give the American poor a moment of fame; but the sassy New York critic knows how to get rid of them – they are just creations of the bourgeoisie. Class, it seems, is an American myth.

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