Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Either Orr or...

America has always been luckier in its film critics than in its films. Harry Alan Potamkin, Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Robert Warshow, Dwight Macdonald - where were the brilliant American films on which these brilliant Americans could comment? The profoundly misleading auteur revisionism was still decades away when they were filmgoers, and the often surprising news that people like Leo McCarey and Raoul Walsh were, whether they knew it or not, "authors" of the films they were assigned to direct, was yet to be invented.

By the time I discovered film in the early '70s, there was still an unprecedented selection of commentators of the medium to choose from: Pauline Kael at The New Yorker, Vernon Young at The Hudson Review, John Coleman at New Statesman, Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice, John Simon at The New Leader, Charles Thomas Samuels at The American Scholar, and Stanley Kauffmann at The New Republic. I am saddened to observe that there will never again be such a variety of distinctive and intelligent voices talking about film all at once. Nearly forty years later, only Sarris, Simon, and Kauffmann are still around, although Simon gave up film criticism in 2001 and now only writes about theater. Andrew Sarris is hanging in there, at 81, like a fifty pound booger. He gave up criticism at The New York Observer last year, but teaches at Columbia University. And Stanley Kauffmann, who will be 94 next month, celebrated his 50th years at The New Republic in 2008.

Though Kauffmann was never my favorite film critic, he has always been one of the finest in English, and his writing can stand proudly beside volumes of Agee, Ferguson, Warshow, and Macdonald. Where he has sometimes floundered, with a few notable exceptions, has been in front of films from abroad. When the Englishman Vernon Young (who is my favorite film critic), reviewed Kauffmann's first volume of criticism, A World on Film (1966), the title of his piece was "Somewhat Less Than a World." Young pointed out that misjudging foreign films has always been a failing of American film critics, but he quickly asserted that Kauffmann was easily the most judicious critic of the American film scene, and a particularly insightful critic of the films of Antonioni.

Reading Kauffmann today is like going back, if only for a thousand words, to a time when film commentary was as serious and rewarding as the films themselves. Nobody seems to recall, for instance, that Dwight Macdonald was Esquire's film critic from 1960 to 1966 - or, indeed, that he was succeeded by Wilfrid Sheed. It is not simply that Esquire was a different kind of magazine then, or its readers any smarter. It was that there was a different level of engagement with film forty years ago.

At the bottom of every one of Kauffmann's columns, past and present, at The New Republic can be found the words "Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic." For the past two years, however, he has not been TNR's only film critic. Christopher Orr, a senior editor, has been given space online to review films - not the sort or films to attract Kauffmann's eye, which is kind of the point of Orr's column. Kauffmann is in the enviable position of only writing about what interests him. After fifty years of having to write a weekly column on matters at hand - whatever films were in theaters in any given week - Kauffmann is at last free to write exclusively about films that matter.

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