Happy as a clam, rich as a minor Rockefeller, Will Smith turned up recently on a 60 Minutes update of an item from last December. He was there to promote his current movie, Hancock, but his main theme was his huge success and the way he's engineered it. He left me thinking sad and rueful thoughts about, of all people, the late Pauline Kael, the most passionate, stimulating and argument-starting critic in the history of film.
Will Smith has proven himself a talented movie star, no doubt worth the $20-million or so that he receives for a film. His movies have, after all, grossed about $4.5-billion. He's apparently an amiable chap, on-and off-screen. At the same time, he's emerged as the living embodiment of the crass mechanical Hollywood that Kael, by accident, helped to usher in.
Her part in the process began four decades ago when she wrote an article for The New Yorker defending Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 Warren Beatty film that treated two 1930s bank robbers with sympathy and raucous humour.
Most critics found Bonnie and Clyde empty and trashy. The crusty old New York Times guy, Bosley Crowther, then one of the most influential American critics, decided that Bonnie and Clyde failed to meet his narrow, simple-minded, painfully respectable standards. It was too violent, and he thought the love story of its doomed, hare-brained title characters was "sentimental claptrap."
Kael, whose critical reputation was in its early stages, used Bonnie and Clyde as the opening shot in what turned out to be a war against middlebrow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road taste. Her New Yorker piece began: "How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it."
She announced no less than a revolution in taste that she sensed in the air. Movie audiences, she said, were going beyond "good taste," moving into a period of greater freedom and openness. Was it a violent film?
Well, Bonnie and Clyde needed violence. "Violence is its meaning."
She hated earnest liberalism and critical snobbery. She liked the raw energy in the work of adventurous directors such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. She trusted her visceral reactions to movies.
When hired as a regular New Yorker movie critic, she took that doctrine to an audience that proved enthusiastic and loyal. She became the great star among New Yorker critics, then the most influential figure among critics in any field. Books of her reviews, bearing titles such as I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down, sold in impressive numbers. Critics across the continent became her followers. Through the 1970s and '80s, no one in films, except the actual moviemakers, was more often discussed.
It was only in the late stages of her New Yorker career (from which she retired in 1991) that some of her admirers began saying she had sold her point of view too effectively. A year after her death (in 2001) one formerly enthusiastic reader, Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, wrote: "Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline."
Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film's worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. "It was fun watching the applecart being upset," Schrader said, "but now where do we go for apples?"
This brings us to Will Smith, the perfect post-Kael moviemaker. In the 1990s, as he set out to become a big star, he and his manager examined a list of the 10 all-time most popular movies. They discovered that all of them used special effects. Nine out of 10 were special-effects movies with creatures (from another planet, or maybe the future), eight out of 10 were special-effects movies "with creatures and a love story."
As Smith summarized on 60 Minutes, " Independence Day and Men in Black were really no-brainers." This was presented with pride and satisfaction.
A witty script can sometimes bring to life a special-effects movie, like Men in Black. But these films are in essence technical rather than artistic achievements. Under the pressure of the effects, imagination crumples. Last year, Popular Mechanics chose the Top 10 special-effects films, including Terminator 2. One reader responded by claiming to have watched it more than 70 times --but still loved it.
In truth, of course, neither the weird cramping of that fan's taste nor the generalized malaise of the movie houses can be blamed on Pauline Kael. Equally, those of us who read her, quoted her and took what she said seriously have no compelling reason to enter a guilty plea. Kael, an independent spirit if ever there was one, turned out to be part of a much larger shift, which she didn't understand any better than the rest of us.
It was the dynamic that turned most of the slick magazines into abject publicity sheets. It was the same mysterious impulse that drove university professors to write books about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was the trend that made the programs of the CBC sound silly even on the rare occasions when they aren't trying to be.
It was the spirit of the age, that old devil Zeitgeist, unstoppable as always. In 1933, Aldous Huxley wrote, "The Zeitgeist is a most dismal animal, and I wish to heaven one could escape from its clutches." Not possible, as it turned out. Huxley went to Hollywood and wrote films that left him with a sense of shame. Later he became renowned for helping to popularize LSD.
Not long before she died, Pauline Kael remarked to a friend, "When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture." Who did?