A Steady Gaze
Stanley Kauffmann is part of the venerable generation of American film critics who came to prominence during the 1960s, riding on a wave, a New Wave, of film by groundbreaking French filmmakers, many of whom were themselves once critics like Truffaut and Godard. Since the 60s were considered by many critics of the time to be a lackluster period for American film, it was on international, especially European, cinema that critics like Kauffmann and his contemporaries—Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris being the better known among them—cut their critical teeth. Kauffmann himself got his big break by sending in an unsolicited review to The New Republic, which got accepted (how things have changed). For nearly half a century since, he has been writing reviews and essays about film for that magazine, periodically reprinting them in book-length compilations, of which Regarding Film is the latest.
Regarding Film covers the years from 1993 to 2000 and is divided into four sections: the self-explanatory “Reviews” and “Books,” “Reviewings,” which covers re-released films, and “Comment,” a motley assortment of editorials and miscellany. Among these pieces—whose lengths vary considerably, with the review for Fargo requiring but a single page while Eyes Wide Shut spans six pages—one is sure to find the kind of pithy passages that elicit a grin of shared opinion. I came across several myself, like this passage from the review for Pulp Fiction: “What’s most bothersome about Pulp Fiction is its success. This is not to be mean-spirited about Tarantino himself; may he harvest all the available millions. But the way that thispicture has been so widely ravened up and drooled over verges on the disgusting. Pulp Fiction nourishes, abets, cultural slumming.”
Due to his personal background in drama, Kauffmann is especially adept at analyzing performances. Vanya on 42nd Street is a film that depends entirely on its acting, and Kauffmann’s review reveals the pulse of a critic whose heart beats in syncopation with that of the actor’s: “The [Andre] Gregory productions that I saw some years ago were radical in the immediately obvious sense, disruptive of convention in several ways. Now that theatre fashions have turned that sort of radicalism almost into the norm, Gregory has become radical again imply by returning to tradition—by concentrating on actors and fidelity to text. This bare-bones production isn’t a stunt, it’s an economic necessity . . . this mode of presentation helps to throw the emphasis on the quintessential: acting. Real acting.”
In many of these reviews, Kauffmann takes care to impart his attention to each of the other major elements of film besides acting: writing, editing, camerawork and direction. He claimed not to subscribe to the auteur theory that his peer, Andrew Sarris, championed and popularized in the U.S. And his effort to avoid the myopic approach that many of us have by focusing inordinately on directors shows in reviews like the one for American Beauty,/I>, where he rightfully credits the film’s vision to screenwriter Alan Ball, and only mentions the director, Sam Mendes, at the very end by simply acknowledging his competence.
An unexpectedly moving piece in this collection is a eulogy to Jimmy Stewart in which Kauffmann illustrates the dictum, “Less is more.” Taking all of a single paragraph, Kauffmann marks the passing of the great actor not by recounting his entire resume or by harping about how he changed movies forever, as other eulogies did at the time of Stewart’s death, but by recounting a single, brief incident in Kauffmann’s own life in which his path happened to cross with Stewart’s.
Although Kauffmann’s own tastes are fairly highbrow, his tone isn’t elitist and his prose is mostly free of purple prose or academic jargon. It’s even disarmingly conversational at times (from the review for Saving Private Ryan: “[Tom Hanks’] dialogue is a bit starchy—because he was a schoolteacher in civilian life, I guess!”). Still, whereas “art” has become a moot point in much of today’s popular criticism, Kauffman is very much preoccupied with it on a philosophical level. Because of this, he remains of primary interest to film students, scholars and devoted cinephiles (which may partly explain why
Regarding Film was published by a university press). But he truly deserves his readership, however small compared to that of Roger Ebert’s, because while his writing is not as entertaining as what one might find in the larger consumer magazines or the hipper, youth-oriented fanzines, the erudition and sincerity that he brings to the table is nonpareil.
In his introduction to Regarding Film, Michael Wood explains his reasoning for Kauffmann’s importance. “[Kauffmann] is that almost obsolete creature,” he writes, “the critic as moviegoer (or the moviegoer as critic).” I say exactly the opposite. With the advent of the VCR, cable, DVD and the Internet, film is the most accessible medium next to television. As a result, a lot of the “critics” out there are but glorified fanboys (and I don’t necessarily discount myself from this group), and anyway these days everyone’s a critic, everyone from film school freshmen to work-at-home mom and pops. The “moviegoer as critic” is not an obsolete creature. It is swarming with overabundance—outside of megaplexes, in video stores, on sidewalk cafes. Hence, the real value in reading deeply probing critics like Kauffmann is that their work takes superficial, post-moviegoing chatter to the next level, for those who want to take that leap.
Having now paid my respects to Kauffmann, I must say that I do find his style a bit antiquated at times for my own tastes, and he is not one of the critics whom I regularly read. While his critical eye is indeed keen, it is mostly concerned with pure aesthetic truth. A reader who is also (or only) concerned with cultural politics may find something wanting in these essays. For instance, Kauffmann’s writes of his disappointment with Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth over its plot structure only.
He apparently does not feel, as some do (and I do), that the film’s greatest flaw is the very patronizing way in which it purports to speak for disenfranchised blacks. Or consider his praise of Titanic. No one would argue that James Cameron’s blockbuster is an impressive technicalachievement. But this is so typical of Hollywood’s approach to filmmaking, and hence so banal, that it seems superfluous to give special recognition to it. But Kauffmann does anyway, writing that “with the ship, with its totality of people, Cameron is wizardly, creating an entire society threading through the various strata of a world that has been set afloat from the rest of the world.” Then he gushes on about the “dexterous” editing. Well, gee, the movie only cost about 200 million freakin’ dollars. With that kind of budget, if the editors couldn’t even have done a “dexterous” job it would’ve constituted such blasphemy that they should’ve all been hung until dead, dead, dead. And the excerpt, “creating an entire society threading through the various strata,” seems to be praising the film’s watery class dynamics, but I’m puzzled as to why Kauffmann is so impressed by this.
It doesn’t take a sociology major to see that the depiction of class hierarchy in Titanic isn’t terribly profound. I offer this caveat because this is PopMatters and I’m presuming that a fair number of its readers are burning radicals (or something close to it). Just note that Kauffmann has a very old-school sensibility; he’s no bell hooks, if that’s what suits your fancy. But if you can look past that, this volume comes recommended as a tonic for the hollow breed of film writing that takes up so much space on newsstands and bookshelves these days. Anyone interested in serious film criticism, in particular, would do well to become at least familiarized with Stanley Kauffmann’s longstanding contribution to the field.