A cinema of uncertainty

The degree to which Antonioni remained in intellectual vogue in the U.S. during this period fluctuated wildly. The original defenders of L’avventura were mainly literary types like Dwight Macdonald and John Simon, both of whom turned against Eclipse only a year or so later, as did a rising star named Pauline Kael (who had also championed L’avventura). Andrew Sarris, who later came back in force to defend Blowup, was already cracking jokes about “Antoniennui” in the early 60s. Many American critics tended to be scornful of Antonioni’s continuing use of Monica Vitti (in four features in a row) because of her limited technical range as an actress, much as Godard was criticized concurrently for repeatedly using Anna Karina. And the fact that Antonioni’s concentration on the idle rich in L’avventura and La notte coincided with the milieus of such contemporaneous movies as La dolce vita and Last Year at Marienbad was enough to make Kael ignore the radical formal differences between Fellini, Resnais, and Antonioni and link them all together in an otherwise amusing broadside called “The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties.”

The problem was, many of these people were already starting to adopt a critical attitude that assumed it was possible to know immediately and without a doubt what was good and bad in a movie the precise moment it appeared — an attitude that Kael’s disciples have subsequently adopted with even more shrillness and impatience. Intricate, melancholic mood pieces like Antonioni’s, which invite and reward — and occasionally even require — weeks of mulling over, could find no place at all within this approach, so fewer and fewer critics wound up dealing with them, seriously or otherwise. Better to come up with a clever quip about them right away than continue to think about them for a week or two, or even revise an opinion about them when the review got reprinted (which Kael has never done about a single movie in any of her 11 books — confidence with a vengeance, and one that necessarily rules out a whole cinema of uncertainty). In a marketplace virtually predicated on planned obsolescence, movies that stick in one’s craw rather than speed through the digestive system are bound to cause trouble.

From the classic "A Cinema of Uncertainty" by Jonathan Rosenbaum, first published in 1993. First time I'd read this specific critique of the Pauline Kael school of criticism, the first person instinctive reaction, never to be repeated. Perhaps there are two modes of criticism, fast and slow, and perhaps those have parallels in movie watching, too.

As much as people lament the future of the mid-budget thinking adult's movie, I'm much more surprised when I go to the symphony or even more so the opera and find a packed house. That seems like an art form whose continued survival is even more of a miracle. I suppose I'll look around and puzzle at how the aged audience will replenish itself until the day I'm one of the elderly and genteel patrons that a few younger audience members will look at as the last of a dying breed.