It may be that an open puzzle movie like this one, which affects some people very profoundly, permits them to project into it so much of themselves that what they think the movie is about has very little to do with what happens on the screen. This kind of projection ˗ which we used to think of as the precritical responsiveness of the mass audience ˗ is now common in the educated audience. People can be heard saying that they ‘didn’t worry about whether it was good or bad,’ they ‘just let it happen to them.’ And if the educated audience is now coming around to the larger audience’s way of seeing movies, I would suggest that they are also being sold in the same way as the larger audience, that advertising and the appearance of critical consensus it gives to certain movies are what lead people to ‘let’ certain prestigious movies ‘happen to them,’ just as the larger audience lets an oversized musical spoof like Thoroughly Modern Millie happen to them. The idea is that ‘art’ should be experienced, not criticised. There seems to be little sense that critical faculties are involved in experience, and that if they are not involved, advertising determines what is accepted as art.
If what I understand Kael to be saying is correct, it means that much of what is claimed to be 'art' in movies, as in 'art house movies', is merely movies that are 'sold' that way. These movies can be obscure, strange, full of peculiar and unrelated incidents, sometimes badly filmed, and often have next to nothing in the way of a story. There was a great trend for these sorts of movies back in the sixties: Bergman brought the Swedish approach, Fellini and Antonioni the Italian one, and there were a bunch of awful French movies that made virtually no sense at all, such as those by Jean-Luc Godard. They were the 'new wave.'
Some of these directors were masters of cinema-making, but not of story, and they brought oddball movies to the screen that were more about mood and emotion and possibility - or the lack of it. Great actors appeared in them, and sometimes must have wondered what on earth they were supposed to be acting. Certainly audiences must have often wondered what they were watching, but in the mood of the times it was considered trendy to make a great noise about these films often more because of who they were made by than for any other good reason. Viewing Bergman today, you can still get the impression of a great mind at work, though increasingly the films seem to be distant from us. Unlike many films that have endured, they lack the means to affect us emotionally. Watching Fellini's 'masterpiece', La Dolce Vita, we get to the point where we wonder if it's ever going to end, even though a lot of what goes on is very watchable. But there doesn't seem to be anything to really grasp in it, and this became increasingly the case with his movies. Antonioni's films always seemed to be saying something you couldn't hear. Godard's movies were strange radical things in their day, full of unexpected violence, yet even then they seemed to have no heart (Fellini at least had a heart), and Bergman's films can come across as cold (though in some of his earlier movies we can empathise with the characters more readily).
Were these films great or were they sold to us as great? I think the moviemakers themselves were great artists, but they tackled things from a strange mental viewpoint.