In a graduate seminar on criticism last week at the New School in New York, one of the readings was the late film critic Pauline Kael's "The Glamour of Delinquency," a piece from 1955 collected in her first book, I Lost It at the Movies, in 1965. She was writing about On the Waterfront and East of Eden, Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause — and in her first two pages, right at the heart of the false drama of the Cold War and the true sitcom of post-war prosperity, she summed up the critical project in about three sentences.
"A 'regular' movie says yes to the whole world or it says not much of anything," was her first line, a gauntlet thrown down at her own subject: anticipating her quoting of Melville on Hawthorne ("He says No! in thunder, and the Devil himself cannot make him say yes") two decades later at the end of her review of The Godfather Part II, it said that a critic had to look for the no in her terrain or she herself would say not much of anything. In the same paragraph, "Even statements that are true seem hypocritical when no longer informed with fire and idealism" was a critical manifesto in 15 words — one that could be used against the critic, should she fail her own test, as surely as it could hold any so-called artist, or any president, to its mark. And in the next two paragraphs —
Our mass culture has always been responsive to the instincts and needs of the public. Though it exploits these needs without satisfying them, it does nonetheless throw up images that indicate social tensions and undercurrents. Without this responsiveness mass culture would sink of its own weight. But it doesn't sink...When the delinquent becomes the hero in our films, it's because the image of instinctive rebellion expresses something in many people they don't dare express
— was both a social theory and an aesthetic theory that rooted both statements in everyday life, and wove her gauntlet into her manifesto: it falls to the critic to say precisely — as clearly, as plainly, and as entertainingly — what many people feel but do not dare to express.
No, she didn't say anything about being entertaining. With sentences like "'Good theater' is an elaborate set of techniques for throwing dust in the eyes of the audience, dust, which to many theater-trained minds, is pure gold," she didn't have to.
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Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010, The Shape of Things to Come, Like a Rolling Stone, and The Old Weird America; a 20th anniversary edition of his book Lipstick Traces was published in 2009. Since 2000 he has taught at Princeton, Berkeley, Minnesota, and the New School in New York; his column Real Life Rock Top 10 appears regularly in the Believer. He lives in Berkeley.
Books mentioned in this post
Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010