July 28, 2004

Sontag & Kael & CC

Have you ever finished a book, sighed deeply, put it down longingly and then seriously thought about picking up again to start over at page one? This is how Cinecultist felt upon completing Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman over the weekend. As a personal friend of film critic Pauline Kael's and a long time obsessive reader of both hers and cultural critic/novelist Susan Sontag's work, Seligman sets out to compare them despite their having written at the same time though not ever about each other. What follows is a thoughtful ramble through their writings, not an autobiographical tour or even a strictly plotted argument, but an exploration of some common touch points that illuminates their distinct approaches to the same goal making criticism an art.

What Cinecultist found ourselves responding to the most in this book was Seligman's combination of intellectual inquiry with personal response. A 200 page blogging entry if you will, Seligman begins and ends his argument with his own feelings about reading Kael and Sontag, namely that he admires Sontag's writing but he adores Kael's. Though that's not to say that he bashes Sontag by any means, rather he analyzes her detractors and offers a historiographic approach to her most controversial opinions like the support of North Vietnam and Cuba's socialist regimes. Unlike most books of criticism, Seligman very prominently inserts himself into the accounting, though not in an intrusive or self-aggrandizing way. The book's final chapter catalogues where he was when he read each of the writer's major works and really there can be no more loving a tribute than to imply that reading certain works counted as milestones in your own development.

We'd love to quote for you some of our favorite passages in the book, to whet your appetite but CC didn't take notes or mark up our copy while reading it and without titled chapters or subheadings, it's difficult to find a particular memorable bit in all of that mass of writing. Seligman's ideas flow in an organic way, giving the impression of meandering through his thoughts, which is why on finishing the book we wanted to pick it back up again, to get back on that literal train of thought. While it would probably help to appreciate Sontag & Kael if you've read a little Sontag and Kael before picking it up, CC wouldn't say it's absolutely necessary to enjoying Seligman's work. Though if you've not at least perused I Lost It At The Movies and Against Interpretation, we would heartily recommend them. As Seligman argues, to make criticism a part of your way of thinking is to truly elevate it to an art form. And we think that should be the goal of any person calling themselves a cinecultist.

Posted by karen at July 28, 2004 8:01 AM