- I Learned It at the Movies
The critic Frank Kermode begins his great work The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction by observing: “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives” (3). Writing in 1965, Kermode continues, “I take comfort from the conviction that the topic is infallibly interesting, and especially at a moment in history when it may be harder than ever to accept the precedents of sense-making” (3). This statement readily reflects our own moment as well. I write in praise of Kermode’s “lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.” Kermode was writing in a moment of escalating wars and social unrest under the threat of nuclear war. He begins with an elegant demonstration of a simple claim: fictions of the ends of the world have always been with us. They are themselves a way of making sense of the world, rather than simply marking the unraveling of sense making.
I want to think about this sense making in the context of my current research on film acting, work that seems to stand in some tellingly ironic relation to questions of truth in an age of fake news. My topical concern is also a lesser one, the frequency with which lies are currently being described as fictions. Such fictions are often claimed to be perpetrated by dissembling actors, refitting an old anti-theatrical bias for our ever more mediated age. Kermode, [End Page 6] once again, offers me a starting point, by talking “not only about the persistence of fictions but about their truth, and also about their decay. There is the question, also, of our growing suspicious of fictions in general. But it seems we still need them. Our poverty—to borrow that rich concept from Wallace Stevens—is great enough, in a world which is not our own, to necessitate a continuous preoccupation with the changing fiction” (4). Kermode reminds us that, at its essence, fiction is a human-made thing and thus an artificial one. What I admire most is Kermode’s dedication to the capacity of imagination, its manifestation in form and words, and the insights of its making.
Having started at this canonical high, let me go low to the film critic referenced by my title, “I learned it at the movies”: Pauline Kael. I Lost It at the Movies was Kael’s first book, published in 1965 with the provocative come-on “The films of a decade praised and deplored” inserted between title and author on the cover. This shift from Kermode to Kael gently mocks my own education as a critic. I seem to have repeatedly turned from an aspirational learnedness to things apparently easier, more popular, and, well, more fun. One of Kael’s founding assumptions was that no one makes you go to the movies. In a world of compulsory education, military service, gender roles, etc., the movies were a form of skipping school. “Perhaps the single most intense pleasure of moviegoing is this non-aesthetic one of escaping from the responsibilities of having the proper responses required of us in our official (school) culture” (Kael 214). Kael was writing at a moment when the movies’ unprecedented lock on the audience was slipping—there were other possible entertainments, television most famously. Alongside these mass-media entertainments, print culture thrived, allowing Pauline Kael to make a living as a critic and Frank Kermode’s books to have an audience that extended far beyond an academy that was busily expanding. Kael deplored the close study and abstract theorization of the evolving discipline of film studies. For Kael, “movies” and “discipline” were antithetical. Even so, I believe Kael would agree with Kermode’s definitions of the critic’s role and the nature of fiction. For Kael, movies were a way of making sense of our lives and criticism a way of making sense of that form of...