June 28, 1998

Stanley Kauffmann: A Steady Critical Eye on Film's Shifting Currents


Sixteen years into his marathon run as the film critic for The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann sat down in 1974 to write an essay to answer the two questions he was most often asked: How many films do you see in a week? And don't you get bored?

Zero to 12 and no, Kauffmann answered in that essay, "Why I'm Not Bored." A film may be boring, but the idea of going never is. Boredom is incompatible with hope, Kauffmann wrote, and hope is more of a constant in film than in virtually any other art in America.

"No matter how much I know about a film's makers or its subject before I go, I never really know what it's going to do to me," he wrote. "Depress me with its vileness, or just roll past, or change my life in some degree, or some combination of all three, or affect me in some new way that I cannot imagine."

Twenty-four years later, Kauffmann is still at it. At age 82, he is celebrating his 40th anniversary at The New Republic this month, still trotting off to screenings and filing his literate, independent-minded, intelligent if not entertaining, very grown-up brand of reviews almost weekly.

A lot has happened in film during Kauffmann's time as a critic -- the advent of the French New Wave and the rise of the great Italian, Scandinavian and Japanese directors, the flourishing of American movie-making in the late 1960's and 1970's, the onset of the blockbuster, the dying of cinephilia.

Film criticism, too, has been transformed. Andrew Sarris imported the auteur theory from France.

Pauline Kael emerged as the first critic-celebrity. Wars between critics broke out. Broadcast film reviewers entered the game and changed it. Now, in the "Armageddon" age, gloom engulfs the field.

Some critics, like David Denby of New York magazine, feeling drowned out by the din of the Hollywood marketing machine, seem despondent to a degree verging on despair. Column inches dwindle while movies multiply. Worthwhile films cannot get distributed. What can be worth saying, some critics wonder, about "Lethal Weapon 4"?

Yet Kauffmann carries on, seemingly unfazed, immune to both pessimism and hype. In an era of "blurb whores," his hyperbole-resistant style is rarely quoted in movie ads (a point of perverse pride for his editor). He remains afloat, buoyed by an old-fashioned commitment to the art, not the business, of film.

Not long ago he chose to review a film he figured almost no one would see: "Chronicle of a Disappearance," by a Palestinian director, Elia Suleiman. It appeared fleetingly in a small film museum in lower Manhattan. It reminded Kauffmann of Ionesco. He thought it was one of the best films in years.

The lot of the film critic has also changed in Stanley Kauffmann's 40 years.

"I thought, I'm derelict in my function if I don't record that that film passed through," he said in an interview in the penthouse apartment in lower Manhattan where he has lived with his wife, Laura, for 31 years. "Utility is not the only criterion. Otherwise, I'd be writing about 'Deep Impact.'"

"Highfalutin as it sounds, there's a point at which your obligation to the art must come into play, or else you're just a reporter," he said. (Then he added gently, apparently in deference to the delusions of the reporter in his living room, "Forgive me.")

Unlike many of today's film critics, who started young, Kauffmann began reviewing movies in middle age. Born and reared in Manhattan, he had majored in dramatic arts at New York University and had spent 10 years as an actor and stage manager with a repertory company that specialized in Shakespeare.

He had published extensively -- 40 one-act plays, 7 novels, articles for magazines. And he had worked as a book editor; he discovered and edited "The Moviegoer," by Walker Percy, while working at Knopf. In 1957, a friend moving out of the country handed over to Kauffmann an opportunity to write film reviews for a magazine called The Reporter. Thus Kauffmann became a film critic.

One day early on, he sent off a review to The New Republic. Two weeks later, a check and a copy of the magazine with his review in it arrived in the mail (followed, two days after that, by a letter from the editorial secretary: Thanks for the offer but we cannot use your review).

"I said, 'This is for me!'" Kauffmann recalled gleefully. Six months later, he was the magazine's regular film critic.

His timing was excellent. American movies were uninspired in those days, but European cinema in particular had entered a period of brilliance. Kauffmann became one of a handful of critics in the early 1960's who helped convince educated Americans that they could take film seriously as art again.

He especially admired the Italian directors. He championed Michael angelo Antonioni for "making a new art form." He called Federico Fellini "incapable of committing a stale or careless shot to film" and Vittorio De Sica "perhaps the outstanding example of the wedding of theatrical and cinematic mastery."

He also wrote about the likes of Akira Kurosawa in Japan and Satyajit Ray in India; he described Ingmar Bergman's films as ambitious, stimulating failures. "The Swedish director is now established as a Divine Amateur: enormously gifted, often technically dazzling, essentially undisciplined," Kauffmann wrote in 1959.

He mocked the French New Wave. In a review of Agnes Varda's "Cleo from 5 to 7," he parodied the New Wave style: "Use freakish faces for minor characters (this is candor). Use a little nudeness (this is maturity). Include long walks through a city, preferably Paris; just long, pointless walks."

After admiring "Breathless," he turned against Jean-Luc Godard's later films. He made fun of Godard's admirers (who happened to include Sarris and Ms. Kael), calling Godard "a magician who makes elaborate uninspired gestures and then pulls out of the hat precisely nothing."

Kauffmann's strengths as a critic are said by both admirers and detractors to consist of a literate, cultivated approach; a deep knowledge of theater and strong feeling for acting; an economical writing style, and a refusal to conform to anyone else's doctrine.

He never subscribed to the auteur theory promoted by Sarris, who many now credit with changing the way Americans think about film, emphasizing the role of the director above all. ( Kauffmann nevertheless says he learned from it.) Nor did he ever admire film as popular culture, as opposed to art, to the extent that Ms. Kael and her followers did.

<Picture: G>reg Taylor, who teaches film studies at Purchase College, SUNY and is writing a book on postwar film criticism, calls Kauffmann "one of a group of stalwarts whose heyday was the 60's" and who concerned themselves with the esthetics of film.

"Their work was not strictly directed at highbrows but at a broader middlebrow audience," Taylor said, listing Dwight Macdonald and John Simon among the group. "And they really explicitly tried to educate and elevate taste in movies."

Which they and others did. By the late 1960's, American movie making had begun to change. Beginning around the time of "Bonnie and Clyde," in 1967, a group of artistically ambitious directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma began making movies that not only were profoundly popular and entertaining but were also widely seen as more stylish and complex than what had come before.

The climate of filmgoing had changed, too. Richard T. Jameson, the editor of Film Comment, calls the period "an era of enlightened filmgoership." Americans were eager to read in depth about film. Critics became important cultural figures, speaking on college campuses, their work widely discussed.

Bloody feuds broke out in print. Ms. Kael took on Sarris and the auteur theory; there were viciously argued differences over New Wave directors like Godard. Later, John Simon attacked Ms. Kael and Sarris. Sarris, given an opportunity to respond in the pages of The New York Times, fought back, calling Simon "the Count Dracula of critics."

Ms. Kael also took occasional swipes at Kauffmann ("the UnKael," as Louis Menand called him in a 1995 article about Ms. Kael in The New York Review of Books). In reviews of films like Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," she would quote Kauffmann's opinions, then witheringly dismiss them.

(When asked recently about each other, neither Kauffmann nor Ms. Kael would comment. "I think I'd rather not," Ms. Kael said. Looking suddenly distraught, the avuncular Kauffmann said: "I don't want to go into it. It's the sort of thing I disliked so much in the 1960's.")

Out of that period Ms. Kael emerged as the dominant critic, arguing that many American movies of the 70's were art as much as or more than those of the European model that audiences had been taught to respect. As Peter Rainer, the film critic for New Times Los Angeles, puts it, there was value in the subversiveness of those American movies, "not just to thrill us but to take us to a higher plane."

Kauffmann, by contrast, was less than swept away. He was unimpressed by "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II." He compared "Nashville" to "a superior book-club novel." If "Chinatown" were shorter and less paradigmatic, he wrote in 1974, "it would be a good sinister thriller."

The late 1970's and 80's brought another revolution, this time in movie marketing, with the rise of saturation distribution and a growing reliance by studios on television publicity. That, in turn, transformed the experience of being a critic, not to mention the movies themselves.

The industry needed blockbusters that could open in thousands of theaters at once. Studios turned increasingly to television talk shows and other venues to promote them. These days, by the time a movie opens and a print critic weighs in, the studios have already been spreading the word for months.

Most critics feel that good movies are still being made but that it's harder for the films to get the public's attention. Foreign and independent films disappear for lack of publicity or distribution. To write only about small masterpieces that few readers will see strikes some critics as courting irrelevance.

"If you're talking about movies as an art, you're just out of it," complained Denby, who recently wrote an article in The New Yorker bemoaning the dying of the film culture. "The business conversation is the hip conversation, the knowing conversation, the dinner-table conversation."

Some critics have changed their focus. J. Hoberman, the senior critic for The Village Voice, said that he had started out in film criticism much more interested in the esthetics of film but that like others, he had shifted his attention to the sociological, political and historical implications of movies.

But that approach, too, had its drawbacks, said Rainer, who had tried it. "It's just that if that's the only way that you can really sink your teeth into movies time and time again, you become famished," he said.

"Because so much of what brought us into movies as budding critics was the wonderfulness of movies, not the social context."

Kauffmann, meanwhile, has no plans to retire. (He stopped just once, in the late 1960's, to spend eight months as the theater critic for The New York Times.) Some fellow critics say his tastes have grown stuffier over the years. Jameson, the editor of Film Comment, said Kauffmann represented "comparatively speaking, a kind of fuddy-duddyism." But Roger Ebert calls him the best critic working, the only one who makes Ebert reconsider his own view.

And Jon Wilkman, a 55-year-old documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles who first read Kauffmann in the early 1960's at Oberlin College, credits Kauffmann with inspiring Wilkman's own filmmaking, in part by introducing him to the work of the Italian neo-realist director Ermanno Olmi.

"I will go to a movie knowing nothing except that Stanley liked it," said Wilkman, who has never met Kauffmann. "I would say to my wife, 'Stanley likes this, we should go.' And she would laugh at me for my excessive dependence."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

Return to previous page