“There is, in any art, a tendency to turn one’s own preferences into a monomaniac theory…” — Pauline Kael, “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism? Or, Some Unhappy Thoughts on Siegfried Kracauer’s ‘Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality'” (1962)
Pauline Kael’s “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?” holds up well for a couple reasons. One, she obliterates Siegfried Kracauer’s bizarre and outdated theory (even for the early 60s) that pure cinema should be natural, like “the ripple of the leaves” or “the indeterminate flow of life.” Kael explains that many moviegoers seek “a distillation” through movies that feel real because of the filmmakers’ directorial form and creative vision. The essay philosophically aligns with modern discussions about Martin Scorsese’s perception of pure cinema and how box office-dominating superhero films affect movie culture. Two, Kael calls out Kracauer for suggesting that progressive filmmakers commit “crimes” against the medium, and that they should be ashamed for daring to explore their options. From Kracauer’s point of view, directors should give birth to an idea and let nature take over. But Kael doesn’t buy his daddy-knows-best idealism:
“There are accidents which look like art and there is art that looks accidental; but how can you build an aesthetic on accident — on the ripple of the leaves?”
My Kael reading last night affected this morning’s viewing of A Sexplanation, Alex Liu’s 2021 documentary about sex education in the United States. As a queer Asian-American, the 36-year-old filmmaker investigates why sex is an “obsession” in America and a “fact” elsewhere. It’s like watching Kael trying to understand Kracauer as the German film theorist walks silently through his self-serving world of cinema, unwilling to talk about the mechanics that move the medium forward, and that allow audiences to have a visceral experience. In A Sexplanation, Liu recalls his upbringing and lack of basic sex knowledge. He admits that suicide crossed his mind when it seemed like being himself was somehow a crime. This moment in A Sexplanation thematically parallels a telling passage in Kael’s Kracauer takedown:
“You can mitigate your crimes against the ‘medium’ if you attempt to influence history — in the direction the critic approves.”
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Liu’s parents — i.e. his first critics — aren’t necessarily Kracauer figures in A Sexplanation, but rather Kael’s curious audience. They listen to and process their son’s words, and complement the film’s central message about the need for “comprehensive” sex education in America. Liu’s documentary premise aligns with Kracauer’s naturalist idealism, but the directorial form supports Kael’s belief that moviemakers should embrace creative freedom. In this case, Liu departs from naturalism by trying to provoke reactions from documentary subjects, whether they are conservative politicians, liberal activists or a Pornhub “data scientist.” Would Kracauer approve of the chocolate penis pastry at the beginning of A Sexplanation? I don’t know. Maybe he would eat it up. After all, the aesthetic design seems to emerge naturally from the premise, like “the ripple of the leaves.” The penis pastry may not be “pure cinema” from a traditionalist’s point of view; however, it’s certainly part of an authentic documentary moment, in terms of Liu’s creative vision for A Sexplanation — a film that pokes and prods the audience with anatomical imagery, all in the name of healthy conversations about sex. As Kael notes in “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?,” “One man’s ‘reality’ is poverty and mass movements; another man’s reality is sex.”
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Much of A Sexplanation involves Liu processing feelings of shame. In Kracauer’s world of cinema, the documentarian might sit with his emotions and converse with whomever happens to come along. But Liu doesn’t accept silence in A Sexplanation; he takes a proactive approach and hits the road. Liu meets with liberals and conservatives; he travels across America for a “WTF tour” to better understand opposing viewpoints. If Kael were still alive, I think she would appreciate the filmmaker’s willingness to depart from a “monomaniac theory” in pursuit of basic truths about sex education in the United States. She might note that “there is nothing un-cinematic about the attempt.” As for me, a Kael devotee, I appreciate Liu’s balance of style and social commentary. A Sexplanation is both timely and hilarious, a big brain event. “There is only one rule,” Kael writes in her aforementioned art-themed essay — “Astonish us!”
A Sexplanation released digitally in June 2022 via October Coast.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.
Categories: 2010s, 2022 Film Essays, 2022 Film Reviews, Comedy, Documentary, Featured, News
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