Pauline Kael is remembered for a great many things – her brilliant prose, her championship of iconic filmmakers like Robert Altman and Brian De Palma, her continuing influence over the entirety of film criticism – yet it often seems, at least among those who don’t read old movie reviews for fun, that she’s best known for a single line. As recalled by the conservative site Newsbusters in October, “the famous quote attributed to Pauline Kael, the late film critic of the New York Times, is along the lines of ‘How could Nixon have won? Nobody I know voted for him.’” New York referenced it in January; that same month, the Washington Examiner wrote of “GOP Pauline Kaelism”; Current Affairs mentioned it just a couple of weeks ago.
The trouble with the quote – as some occasionally, half-heartedly admit – is that Kael never said it, out loud or in print. What she said, at a speech in December 1972 (according to the New York Times – h/t Stephen Silver) was far more nuanced:
“I live in a rather special world,” Miss Kael said, continuing: “I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”
The differences between the apocryphal quote and the real one are minor in terms of semantics, but vital in terms of intention. Ms. Kael was not some clueless East Coast Liberal Elite™ who couldn’t fathom how Nixon won since no one in her social circle voted for him. Quite the contrary – she recognized that there were plenty of people outside that circle who saw the world quite differently than she did, yet she recognized that (for better or worse) the movie theater was where their paths crossed. And I’ve thought of Ms. Kael’s quote a lot these past few months, in its applications to both the worlds of politics and popular culture, and their intersection.
Last week, we (along with many other outlets) ran a negative review of Suicide Squad, the latest attempt by Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment to transform the characters of DC’s comic pages into a film “universe,” along the lines of Disney and Marvel’s superhero franchises. It has, thus far, not landed; Suicide Squad does not alter the course of that endeavor. And when we posted that review to Facebook, a reader responded thus: “Marvel paid review?”
I’ll confess to a bit of a double take at the comment, and then an assumption that he must’ve been joking. I’ve heard about these tinfoil-hat types, who legitimately believe that there is a massive critical conspiracy in which Disney/Marvel pays off film writers to pan DC-based films and praise their own, but I assumed they were sort of like Bigfoots – whispered about, but seldom spotted in the wild. But nope, here was a real live one, and serious too, following up his inquiry/accusation with links to… our mixed reviews of recent Marvel efforts, one of them calling Captain America: Civil War “a totally adequate superhero film” that is “not particularly inspired,” and another in which Avengers: Age of Ultron is deemed “nothing special,” with “an unshakable sense that everybody is just going through the paces.” Gotta say, if Marvel’s paying us off, they’re getting a shitty deal.
But there I go, using facts and quotes and logic to refute a fundamentally illogical argument – the “Marvel paid review” notion is insane not because of the content of our Marvel reviews, but because the notion is fucking insane, full stop. You’ve never met a bigger bunch of gossips and climbers than those who write about movies; if the Marvel payoff scheme existed, Jeff Wells would’ve written a blog post bragging (and probably inflating) his per-review fee before the first checks were cashed, and the rest of us would’ve spent the rest of the day on Twitter wondering why he was getting so much more than everyone else, I mean Jesus Christ, nobody even reads that garbage site.
You get the idea. But the DC fan contingent is so thoroughly convinced of the greatness of these movies (often, it must be noted, before they’ve even seen them) that they’ve convinced themselves the critical reception cannot be a response to poor quality, but the evil workings of a critical cabal – and the propaganda organization that aggregates its dirty work, which should “be shut down because It’s [sic] Critics always give The DC Extended Universe movies unjust Bad Reviews,” according to the anti-Rotten Tomatoes fan petition that went live several days before Suicide Squad’s opening, pinpointing that film’s “unjust Bad Reviews” as a petition-able offense. (It was later re-written entirely, with the provocative announcement that “You may enjoy a movie regardless what the critics say about it.” Well, yes, duh.)
No matter that Suicide Squad’s mudslide of negative reviews didn’t harm the film’s box office one iota; it opened with a record-smashing $135 million, and if anything, the pans may’ve boosted the box office, the result of the kind of “hate-watching” that used to accompany The Newsroom on Sunday nights and Smash on Mondays. But the DC people aren’t satisfied with financial success, or their own happiness; everyone has to like these movies, and since everyone in their carefully cultivated social media circle likes them, then anyone who doesn’t must be lying, or on the take. So they start yelling about payoffs and bias and boycotts, and insisting the entire film criticism apparatus – a wildly dysfunctional and uncontrollably loose assembly of individuals, running the gamut from Times writers to microbloggers – is working against them. Or, as Sam Adams puts it in an excellent rundown over at Slate, “It’s not that the system is rigged: It’s that it isn’t rigged for them.”
And that’s an interesting word choice, since another unruly mob of frothing followers have appropriated it in advance of November’s election. They’re taking their cue from Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump (still hard to type!) who went on official cheerleader Sean Hannity’s Fox show last Monday to make this prediction: “I’m telling you, November 8th, we’d better be careful because that election is going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.”
The actual probability of rigging a Presidential election is next to nil, of course – at least in the way he’s talking about, hahaha… ha – but facts and figures and logistics aren’t what we’re trafficking in here. We’re talking about paranoid bubble thinking (accompanied by winking cues that such theft should be righted by “Second Amendment people”). Trump and his people can’t imagine an outcome where Clinton wins fair and square because they can’t imagine anyone thinking about this election differently than they do, and if you’d like to see a delicious example of that, please enjoy this Trump water-carrier/right-wing radio host’s thoughts on the state of the race:
Read it a few times, because it’s glorious. “Take away the data that tabulates who’s winning. Now show me some data that shows who’s winning!” But that’s the kind of entitled-to-your-own-facts thinking that has become the norm in political conversation, in this post-Fox News world; even polls aren’t to be trusted, as seen by the Romney campaign’s hilariously misguided embrace of the “UnSkewed Polls” numbers back in 2012. How’d that turn out?
Yet this, increasingly, is the culture we live in. What’s perhaps best about social media and online subcultures is there often seem to be no lonely niches; if you like something, or hate something, or believe in something, there’s a very good chance you’ll find a great many people who feel the same way. Such strength in numbers allows us to feel less alone, less bewildered, and often (particularly in the case of voices otherwise underrepresented) more empowered. And yet, they can also allow us to build apparatus that are less social circles and more echo chambers – and the deeper we submerge ourselves in them, the less likely we are to grant that others may feel 180 degrees different than we do about a music genre, or a social issue, or a film series, or a political campaign.
We’re all guilty of it – in fact, we often take comfort in it. But it’s vital to, as Kael put it, “feel them” in the public and online spaces around you, and away from you. As someone who grew up in the Midwest in the Clinton years, I’m well aware of the vitriol that greets that name in certain circles and regions, and I don’t discount the possibility that it runs hot enough for her to lose this election to a vile, arrogant, proudly know-nothing tinpot demagogue like Donald J. Trump. But I also know that if she wins, it will not be because the system is “rigged”; it will be because she got more votes. And I also know, with just as much clarity, that Suicide Squad is getting bad reviews because it’s a shitty, shitty movie. Sometimes in this life, there’s no conspiracy, and they’re not all out to get you. It’s just the way things are.