Calmly Disagreeing: Stanley Kauffmann (1916-2013)

By Phil Dellio

When film critic Stanley Kauffmann died a few weeks ago, Scott was in the midst of a series of posts devoted to rock critics who, at some point in their careers, expressed a declining interest in writing about music. Did Kauffmann ever experience something similar, I wondered? He began at The New Republic in 1957, and he was still at it when he reviewed Our Nixon just prior to his death at the age of 97. That’s 50-plus years of writing film reviews for the same publication—it wouldn’t appear that he ever got bored of seeing and writing about movies, and I don’t recall him ever saying so in any of the interviews I’ve read with him (many of which are collected in Conversations with Stanley Kauffmann). But who knows? He did slow down considerably the past few years, sometimes only appearing in the magazine every couple of months. Maybe there was a moment in there, back when he was still only 93 or 94, where he stopped and thought, “This film reviewing thing, I’m not really sure if it’s for me.”

Kauffmann, as I’ve written many times before, influenced me almost as much as Pauline Kael. Or maybe his influence was every bit as great—it’s just easier to detect Kael when I look at stuff I’ve written. I can pick out little stylistic flourishes here and there, and in terms of her favourite films and directors, there’s overlap with my own favourites all over the place. If Kauffmann had a signature style when he wrote, something as instantly recognizable as Kael’s whirlwind advocacy (I know that’s a simplification, but I think it’s a fair description of the reviews she’s most famous for—Nashville, Last Tango, etc.), I’m not sure how you’d describe it. Whenever I’d mention him on the ILX message board, the general perception seemed to be that he was bookish and a little stodgy. Not John Simon, maybe, but another guy who came from some place that had an inherently supercilious attitude towards film—in Kauffmann’s case, from a background that included theatre criticism, book publishing, and even a few novels. And while there were a few directors he venerated for a time—Antonioni and Bergman in the ‘60s, and Oliver Stone at the beginning of his career, are the first three that come to mind—I don’t associate him with specific directors (Altman, De Palma, Peckinpah) or moments (American film during the ‘70s) the way I do Kael. I almost want to say that he especially kept the latter at arm’s length—as Kael rhapsodized over The Godfather and Jaws and Carrie, Kauffmann would instead devote his reviews to noticing small virtues in the likes of The Hired Hand and Desperate Characters, all the while writing much more skeptically about the era’s defining films—but again, a simplification. Sometimes, as with Close Encounters, Kauffmann rhapsodized, while Kael wrote admiringly of many smaller films.

Desperate Characters
Desperate Characters (1971)

Two paragraphs in, and I’m lost in explanations and clarifications. For whatever reason, I read and re-read Kauffmann’s collections incessantly for a time—he was one of those critics where I reached a point of needing to know what he thought about every film of interest to me. His key work for me is found in Figures of Light (covering the late ‘60s), Living Images (early ‘70s), Before My Eyes (mid-late ‘70s), and Field of View (early ‘80s); there’s also A World on Film, his first collection, where he discovers Bergman and Antonioni, and wades through the dying years of the Hollywood studio system, and Distinguishing Features, devoted to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I just realized now that I don’t own a copy of his final collection, Regarding Film: Criticism and Comment, which came out in 2005. Or maybe I should say latest, rather than final—I expect there’ll be another one collecting his last few years of reviews sometime soon. Anyway, I just put Regarding Film on order.

Back cover of Stanley Kauffmann's Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (1971)
Back cover of Stanley Kauffmann’s Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment (1971)

I never found Kauffmann’s writing bookish or stodgy; there was humour, curiosity, detours into personal anecdote, a thorough knowledge of film history (a history that unfolded right alongside his own life—someone pointed out that he was born the year after Birth of a Nation), an ability to connect film to the other arts that was never pedantic (Kael had that too), an ongoing willingness to re-see and re-evaluate (very different than Kael there), and a way with words that was lucid and spare and, to me as a reader—and I know this sounds odd—comfortable. I had a degree of comfort with Kauffmann’s reviews that I don’t think I’ve ever reached with another critic.

He was both a participant in the great film-critic free-for-alls of the 1960s—I always thought of him, Kael, Andrew Sarris, and John Simon as the epicenter of those battles, probably because of their ubiquity, with Manny Farber and Dwight Macdonald and everyone else kind of buzzing around at the edges—and also slightly removed. He didn’t snipe away with great glee like Simon (who has now outlived the other three, presumably good karma for a lifetime of gentle collegiality), but there are allusions to Kael and Sarris in his reviews—when he refers to “all the advance fuss” over Last Tango in Paris, he’s surely looking in one direction—and discussions of auteurism here and there. (Kauffmann wrote a review of Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies for Harper’s in 1965, but I’ve never read it, and it isn’t collected in any of his books.) He was hardly oblivious to the surrounding din, nor were the other three oblivious to him. Kael talks about Kauffmann a few different places; she seemed to be a little perplexed by him, and he and Macdonald and Simon represented one kind of film criticism she took on in the early ‘60s. (“I always thought that the reason Stanley Kauffmann and I so rarely agreed on things was clear if you looked at his measured walk versus my incautious quick steps”—which is probably just a nice way to say stodgy. Sometimes I like quick and incautious, more often I gravitate towards measured.) Somewhere, I can’t remember where, I recall reading Kauffmann taking a second look at auteurism—he was always taking a second look at things—and giving it credit for bringing to the fore certain films and directors that might otherwise have been forgotten; he’s also on record as saying that he missed the boat with the ‘60s great critical lightning rod, Godard. As acrimonious as the ‘60s and ‘70s could get among film critics, Kauffmann kept that acrimony out of his own reviews, and he didn’t seem to come out of that period with calcified views.

Stanley Kauffmann, Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (1975)
Stanley Kauffmann, Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (1975)

In trying to assemble a few excerpts that will capture Kauffmann at his sharpest, the challenge is that he doesn’t have those (in)famous reviews that Kael had, where you can go and immediately find what you’re looking for. Also, I internalized those aforementioned books long ago—I still refer to Kauffmann frequently, on ILX and elsewhere, but the only time I take him off the shelf these days is to see what he thought of some film I’ve caught up with for the first time.  So, with his books beside me, I’ll flip through and try to refresh my memory—starting, though, with the opening lines of one review I remember very well.

“I like sequels. At the end of Riders of the Purple Sage (1925), when Tom Mix and the girl were sealed up in the canyon, we were told to watch for the sequel, The Rainbow Trail. I did, and was glad of it.”
(The Godfather, Part II, 1975, which he liked a little more than The Godfather—but not by much.)

“Antonioni, however, seems to be making the miracle: finding a way to speak to us about ourselves today without crankily throwing away all that went before and without being bound by it. He is reshaping the idea of the content of film drama, discarding ancient and less ancient concepts, redirecting traditional audience expectations toward immersion in character rather than conflict of character. He is reshaping time itself in his films, taking it out of its customary synoptic form, wringing intensity out of its distension, daring to ask us to ‘live through’ experiences with less distillation, deriving his drama from the very texture of such experiences and their juxtaposition, rather than from formal clash and climax and resolution.”
(La Notte, 1962. I’m still finding my way with Antonioni, making progress here and there; I had read Kauffmann’s reviews many times before I saw most of the films.)

“Usually letters that disagree with my reviews do so in pretty angry and direct terms. I got a number of such letters about 2001, but I also got a quite unusual response: about two dozen very long letters, from four to eight typewritten pages, calmly disagreeing, generally sad but generally hopeful that I would eventually see the light. They came from widely scattered parts of the country, from students, a lawyer, a clergyman, a professor, and others. Most of those letters must have taken their authors a full day to compose and to type, and I felt that this disinterested, quite private support (none of the letters was sent for publication) was the best compliment that Kubrick could have been paid.
(Postscript to his review of 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968. I thought of this passage when one of ILX’s best film posters tried to reason with naysayers a couple of years ago over The Tree of Life—there was that same feeling of patient resignation verging on sadness.)

“Imperfections in Persona are few and therefore obtrusive. The moment, after the twice-told tale of the actress’s son—when half of one woman’s face is matched with half of the other’s—is heavy, superfluous. A photograph of German soldiers and Jewish civilians falls quite fortuitously out of a book to remind the actress of the world’s horror. The film is so fine that the fingers itch to tear out these and a few other blemishes.”
(Persona, 1966. As someone who once made the focus of a ten-favourite-albums piece my least favourite songs on each album, I can relate; interesting, too, that he chooses what is Persona’s single most recognizable image as one of its flaws.)

“The film is a whirlwind, a torrent. Its fierce main current, the Garrison story, sweeps along with attendant swirls and eddies. Stone keeps that story—and its references and hypotheses—as visible as possible, aiming at increased clarity rather than pyrotechnics, yet it is virtuoso work…Throughout the cascading film I kept wanting to see more, more, more—and it runs three hours.
(JFK, 1992. I wanted to quote something from his Nixon review—putting my own wildly varying enthusiasm for Oliver Stone’s work aside, no one wrote better about Stone’s virtues than Kauffmann—but it must be collected in Regarding Film.)

“Finally, Raging Bull is ‘about’ what we see and hear, elevating its rather familiar materials through conviction and the gush of life. After the socio-psychological explanations have limped on, this film, like some (though not most) good art works, is finally ‘about’ the fact that it incontrovertibly exists and, by existing, moves us.”
(Raging Bull, 1980—against interpretation, in other words. Time for a new copy of Field of View, too; I can’t open mine even a little bit without more pages detaching themselves.)

“I saw Close Encounters at its first public showing in New York, and most of the audience stayed on and on to watch the credits crawl lengthily at the end. For one thing, under the credits the giant spaceship was returning to the stars. For another, they just didn’t want to leave this picture. For still another, they seemed to understand the importance of those many names to what they had just seen.”
(Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1978.)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

“Two months ago I was driving down through the Grand Tetons and gave a lift to a young man. He turned out to be a Ph.D. candidate from an eastern university who had just finished his course work and couldn’t get up enough interest to write his dissertation. The whole process had turned futile on him. He had come out to Wyoming to get a job with his hands; he didn’t know how long it would be before he went back. Perhaps never. I thought of him when I saw Five Easy Pieces.”
(Five Easy Pieces, 1970—far and away my favourite review of one of my favourite films.)

I’ll stop there, but only because I’m lazy, and this is getting long enough already. I only occasionally read Kauffmann’s reviews these past few years—he almost exclusively wrote about small foreign films I knew I’d never see, by choice or otherwise. (The reviews were sometimes behind a paywall, too.) When he did write about something I was interested in, I can’t say I always found the results as rewarding as his work 30 years ago—the Our Nixon review consisted of little more than description. But I’m not really sure if you should expect a critic to be topping himself at 97, and there’s no real precedent for seeing how the work of other 97-year-old critics holds up. (George Bernard Shaw? I don’t know.) Maybe that Raging Bull quote provides rationale enough for those later reviews.

Stanley Kauffmann’s 10 favourite films from the 1972 Sight & Sound poll:

The Gold Rush
Battleship Potemkin
The General
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Grand Illusion
Citizen Kane
Tokyo Story

(He again participated in 1982, dropping Citizen Kane and Rashomon for Seven Samurai and The Marquise of O…)

His list for James Monaco’s American Film Now of the best American films from 1968-77:

1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
2. The Conversation
3. Desperate Characters
4. Harlan County, U.S.A.
5. The Hired Hand
6. Midnight Cowboy
7. Mikey and Nicky
8. Payday
9. Wanda
10. The Wild Bunch

Related Links

  • 2002 interview in the Missouri Review
  • The Critic as Thinker: 2007 Roundtable (on YouTube) with Kauffmann, Robert Brustein, and Eric Bentley
  • Amazon’s Stanley Kauffmann page
  • 2 thoughts on “Calmly Disagreeing: Stanley Kauffmann (1916-2013)

    1. Thanks for the tribute to Stanley Kauffmann and the reflections on his long career as a film critic. How lucky we are to have 50-plus years of his work to read and re-read as we discover or revisit the movies he reviewed.

    2. Lovely essay. Kauffman will always be THE film critic for me, too. I started reading him about the age of 12 (1971) because my Dad had a subscription to TNR, and soon turned to his reviews religiously.

      I’ve never forgotten his rave for The Conversation, his sniffing dismissals of Raiders of the Lost Ark and 3 Women, and the utter thrashing he gave to Fritz the Cat. Still later, I learned that years before I started seeing his film reviews, Kauffman had been the in-house book editor for Walker Percy’s debut novel, The Moviegoer, and later was forced out of his job as theater critic for The New York Times not long after getting hired, because Broadway producers complained to his employer that he was too harsh and was killing their business (which tale I think I read in one of Gay Talese’s books — probably The Kingdom and the Power.

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