Wednesday, April 24, 2013

From the Golden Age to the Golden Years

In so many ways, Stanley Kauffmann is an astonishment. One of them is that he turns 97 today. Another is that he continues to comment on films for The New Republic, which he has done since 1958. The New Republic has a history of giving space to quality film criticism, going all the way back to Gilbert Seldes and Otis Ferguson. It took a little time for them to settle on Mr. Kauffmann. How do I know this? It may simply be an editorial trifle, but it is significant. You can see for yourself at the bottom of each of Kauffmann's columns. Of the articles to which I have access from 1961, there is a subtle change - a single word - that indicates TNR's official acceptance. At the bottom of every column are the words "Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic." One of his greatest essays, "Arrival of an Artist," from April 10, 1961, which celebrates Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura,  closes with that line. A month later, at the bottom of his essay, "A Catalogue of Deadly Sins (celebrating Fellini's La Dolce Vita), it reads "Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic".

Hard as it may be to believe for someone who wasn't alive at the time, but there was a genuine Golden Age of American film criticism in the Sixties. The critics who were historically associated the age were Dwight Macdonald, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, John Simon, and Stanley Kauffmann. Though sometimes mis-identified as "mainstream," none of these critics were mere movie reviewers - the ones who wrote for the dailies and who fulfilled the lowly capacity of consumer advocates, informing the mass of moviegoers of what would supply them with the biggest bang for their hard-earned buck. There were a lot of people writing about film, but these five were the major figures on the subject of film as art. They were neatly divisible into two camps, even if they may not have felt comfortable with their association. Macdonald, Simon, and Kauffmann were known, contemptuously by some, as "literary" critics, since they were first and foremost writers, who also wrote literary and/or theater criticism. It was also because they would not accept the notion that films are created in a vacuum. Andrew Sarris introduced the so-called "auteur theory" to American film criticism, which opened the door for some of the most preposterous re-evaluation of Hollywood movies in terms normally reserved for art films. Kael seemed to resist the urge to take film too seriously and attacked filmmakers (like Antonioni) when their work made too many demands of her.

Macdonald stopped writing about film in 1966 because of a chill he perceived in the climate of international film. He died in 1982. Kael retired from writing full-time in 1991, and died from complications associated with Parkinson's Disease in 2001. Sarris passed away last June.

That leaves two of the originals still around. John Simon quit his film criticism post at The National Review in 2002, but continues to write theater criticism for Bloomberg News. Since late 2010, he also writes on many subjects on his blog, Uncensored John Simon.

Stanley Kauffmann, who was sometimes enlisted by his colleagues in some film fracas or another, has always seemed the most gentlemanly of them all. The late Roger Ebert called him "The most valuable film critic in America, and the one I turn to with the thought that, if we disagree, I may very well be wrong."(1) There have been enough occasions when I disagreed with Kauffmann ( Le Samoura├» , Berlin Alexanderplatz, Philadelphia, Reds, Amistad, Vanya on 42nd Street) for me to know he isn't - thank God - infallible. Not surprising to me, those films were all failures in my estimation, praised by him. Like all good critics, Kauffmann spent most of his time explaining why he didn't like a film. My only quibble is that I wish he'd done it more often.

In 2008, The New Republic celebrated his 50 years of writing for the magazine with tributes and testimonials. He doesn't go out to see films any more, but the studios send him dvds, and he continues to write about them - some of them, the ones he thinks are worth writing about. He's certainly earned the enviable right (for a film critic) to pick and choose.

Despite enjoying the luxury of living in New York, where it's possible to see every film released in the U.S., Kauffmann has always been aware of the problems of his readers, especially those living in the Sticks. A reader from the Pacific Northwest asked him in a letter if he invented some of the films he wrote about, since they were never shown in his area. "In terms of filmgoing possibilities," Kauffmann wrote, "this country is schizoid. I, in New York, confront a fairly full range of available films. Only in a few large cities is anything like that range available; and those cities are only a small slice of this country's possible audience. Most people, like that reader, have the chance to see only the major Hollywood products--not even all the American films, let alone foreign ones.

"This dismal fact ought not to make us romanticize. If Kiarostami and Tavernier and Zhang Yimou were as widely available as The Lord of the Rings, they would not attract a sliver of the same attendance, which is obviously why they don't have the same distribution. But doesn't that sliver deserve nourishment? The possible nourishment exists. Year after year films are being made for more people than have the chance to see them. And if the whole idea of film-making is as serious as some of us take it to be, this gap between film and viewers is a cultural crime.

"Why, then, do critics--at least on some magazines and newspapers--continue to review films that will probably not reach wide audiences? For myself, it is partly because, as a democrat, I believe that the rights of the minority must be respected, including the filmgoing minority. It would be an offense to that minority, whether or not they knew it, to omit reviews, positive or otherwise, of films that are part of contemporary culture and of value to their cultural conspectus ... Equally importantly, it would be an offense to the art of film to ignore those who, often through much travail, keep reaching upward. I don't think that seriously intended films will save this sorry world, but I do think that their absence, even ignorance that they exist, would make it sorrier."

Whatever else you may say about George Burns, he had balls. At the age of 87, he wrote a book called How to Live To Be 100. He made a reservation at the London Palladium for his 100th birthday party. And he made it.(2) Kauffmann, who never planned his longevity, admitted recently that people ask him how he "did it," how he managed his longevity. His response was, "I didn’t know I was doing it."

(1) Speaking of being gentlemanly, Ebert also said, "I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can't help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat." I always regarded Ebert, R.I.P., as a movie reviewer, not a film critic.
(2) Actually, Burns made it to 100, but didn't make the party at the Palladium.

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