PRINT March 2002

Annette Michelson

Ten years ago, the film industry launched a marketing campaign of maximal intensity for the rerelease of Casablanca on its fiftieth anniversary. Hollywood and the film-critical establishment joined in the lyrical evocation of the film’s universal appeal, its casting, the chemistry of its stars, its humor, and its richly textured, enveloping atmosphere. The encomiums were informed, nonetheless, with a sense of the problematic; the festivities were marked by a shadow of doubt. Indeed, the film’s very success was held to be puzzling, and the celebrants confronting this issue appeared paralyzed by the enigma of the film’s reception. They now wanted to account more fully for that success; they were eager to understand what had made Casablanca “a true classic of the silver screen.”

The questions then generated were of the following order: What is the source of this film’s power? How and why has its interest or fascination endured over five decades? How can we account for a “universal appeal” that defies cultural and generational boundaries? What, finally, is the secret of its magic?

The conclusion, almost unanimously expressed, was that this “magic” was fundamentally inexplicable, that the whole was so very much more than the sum of its parts, that analysis could never do it justice. And the general consensus on this verdict indicated that it was not merely satisfactory but welcome—presupposed, even, as the sole reply to a question that had in any case been merely rhetorical.

But a complete and wholly satisfying explanation did exist, had someone in the industry and its subservient critical establishment wished to acknowledge it: the remarkable essay by Umberto Eco, available in English since 1986 as “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.”

In this text, directed at a general spectatorship and readership, Eco first unpacked the nature of the Cult Film as the category or genre into which Casablanca had over the years made its way. With characteristic perspicacity, grounded in a deep and sympathetic interest in the products of mass culture, and with a delicious wit, Eco then proceeded to lay bare the “secret” of Casablanca’s “magic.”

Eco’s conclusion, supported by a detailed reading, was that this film had become a Cult Movie “because it is not one movie. It is ‘movies.’” It then followed that “this is the reason it works, in defiance of any aesthetic theory.” Having demonstrated the massive proliferation within Casablanca’s narrative structure of existing filmic archetypes, stereotypes, and stock situations, Eco went on to claim that, “When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity. Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.” The reader is then given to understand that the spectator, in joining that celebration, submits to its “magic.” It is as though “the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime. . . . Nobody would have been able to achieve such a cosmic result intentionally. . . . It stages the powers of Narrativity in its natural state, before art intervenes to tame it.”

One might well ask why I choose this text by Eco to introduce my contribution to Artforum’s “roundtable” on the critical legacy of Pauline Kael. The reasons are several. They may be subsumed in a fairly succinct exercise in comparison and contrast through which, I believe, one can begin to assess the strength and limits of Kael’s contribution to our film culture.

What, then, are the points of contact between and common concerns of these two writers? First, there is the concentration on narrative rather than on the work of camera, of mise-en-scène, of lighting, etc.—although Eco’s technique of segmentation obviously differs from Kael’s critical outlines of plot and action. They share, as well, keenness of observation, and they display wit in their affection for work that cannot be termed a summit of artistic practice in film. For although Kael seems not to have devoted more than a few paragraphs to Casablanca in her collection 5001 Nights at the Movies, she was a frequent and staunch defender of the “good bad movie,” of the “hack job,” of the pleasures afforded by what she termed “trash.” There are also the brief references to the conditions under which the film was shot and their epitomization of the film itself. All these qualities and interests we find in both writers, although Kael’s massive historiographic exercise, “Raising Kane” (reprinted in The Citizen Kane Book)—one of her significant contributions to film culture—is unique for its time in the scale, detail, and contextualizing of the film’s production history and for its resurrection of the contributions of writer, producer, cinematographer, and staff to Welles’s great work. We can now read the essay as an early instance of the problematization of the Author.

The very obvious difference of approach lies in Eco's conviction and Kael's denial (both were veterans of journalistic practice for a general audience) that the infusion and support of an evolving body of theoretical effort will work to the advantage of communication with a readership that is literate, and not necessarily academic. Thus Eco's essay is a virtuoso exercise in textual analysis, seductive in its clarity and forthrightness. It benefits from the past few decades of intellectual history to which Eco has been a major contributor. For, the ways in which we may receive and think about cultural production in general, and film in particular, have been enriched, even transformed.

I want, then, to say that Kael’s intransigent resistance to the theorization of the subject of her life’s work progressively inhibited her ability to account for film’s impact in terms other than those of taste and distaste, expressed with increasing vehemence. To have continued to write into the ’90s with no account taken of the advances made in our ways of thinking about spectatorship, perception, and reception meant that she ceased to renew her intellectual capital, to acknowledge and profit by the achievements of a huge collective effort. And so her writing, unrefreshed, grew thinner, coarser, stale. It is this that was ultimately responsible for Renata Adler’s punishing assessment of her work, published in the New York Review of Books in August 1980.

To recall Adler’s argument: It was directed generally against the deadening or corrupting of the staff critic, obliged week after week, year after year to provide a specific consumer service, and “who, in doing so, begins to inflate the importance, to dramatize the nature of, each professional encounter or task.” Kael was diagnosed as a case study of this process, and the relentless examination of her rhetoric was submitted in what appeared to me at the time a convincing demonstration of the vehemence of the protests in response to Adler’s attack on Kael, though it was a diagnosis performed by one who had begun as a sympathetic reader of her earlier work. I did not understand the anger—which generated a real levée de boucliers—directed at Adler’s analysis, so plain did the demonstration seem in its careful detail and accuracy of quotation and analysis.

And I was not fully to understand until Kael’s death, when the chorus of mourning reached me. Rereading, rethinking the work collected in the successive volumes of the ’60s and ’70s, one sees clearly the manner in which a generation of fairly casual filmgoers were inducted by her into a literate cinephilia, through work infused with energy, courage, enthusiasm, and an informed intimacy with her chosen field.

Although formed in a developing tradition of a very different sort, I can wholly share the admiration for the many instances of her crusading mission. My own list would include her sustained enthusiasm for the work of Welles (not only for the early work, but involving, as well, an unusually perceptive review of Chimes of Midnight); her valiant and effective championing of Godard (in contrast with her wholly unreasoned dismissal of Kubrick); the shrewd appraisal of Brando’s career as he contended with the industry’s constraints; her delightfully canny and unorthodox consideration of the Western’s role in the film industry, of its geriatric dimension—and of what it must mean for John Wayne at sixty or more to have gone on mounting a horse to earn his living. In contrast, there was her delight in young bodies at play (that of John Travolta in particular). One recalls, too, her review of a mediocre film on Billie Holiday that revealed Kael’s deep love of jazz. She was expert in the assessment of a career, sensitive in the discernment of subtlety in performance, impatient with unsupported claims to profundity, explicit or merely implicit. And, of course, she was proficient in the ax job. Her definitive demolition of Stanley Kramer’s role and work is a superb example of the genre.

Reading, or rereading these pieces, one sees clearly what bound her readers to this writer; she had instilled a sense of what was at work, and what was at stake, in the cinema as an industry and as an artistic practice. This—despite the narcissism, the frequently complacent subjectivity of judgment, the hysteria, the insistent denial of alternative methods of approach—has sustained the fidelity of her readers. That fidelity is easily understood. Indeed, during my ten years as Artforum’s editor for film and performance, I was proud and happy to welcome as a regular contributor another master of the vernacular. This was the first film critic (discovered long before in the small periodical section of a storefront branch of the Brooklyn Public Library) who had shown me that in challenging canons of achievement and taste one could think seriously and write convincingly about films—a critic whose project was both more modest and more rigorous: Manny Farber.

Annette Michelson is professor of cinema studies at New York University.