Monday, November 4, 2013

A World in Print

On further reflection (always a mistake), I find that the words I published two days ago - twenty-two days too late - on the occasion of my learning of the death of Stanley Kauffmann were helplessly inadequate. I was reading a post on John Simon's blog that he published last month, referring to Kauffmann in the past tense. Since I was already sensitive to the man's advanced age (97), I checked and discovered the news of his passing. I seem to have dropped everything since.

I can't properly gauge how much this man meant - and still means - to me, since it had a cumulative effect over most of my life. His writings on film (and it's important to remember that he wrote about much more than just films) are as heartening and restorative to read as it is to watch the films he so brilliantly celebrated, like L'Avventura, about which he wrote in 1960. 

He showed anyone who cared to read his column that, despite all the worthless prattle that about 99 % of film commentary amounts to, some films demand serious consideration. But even when he wrote about utterly forgettable films, like How to Live Forever (2009), he found something beautiful to say (italics mine):

There isn’t much new to be said about death, but that won’t stop us, all of us, from saying it. Hence this documentary—and this review of it.

How to Live Forever was made by the experienced Mark Wexler, who, an affable host, appears in it as interviewer. He visits people all over this country and in a few others who are interested, in their smiling ways, in death. They very rarely mention it: what they talk about mostly is prolonging life or rejuvenation, neither of which would be subjects at all if it were not for death.

The film begins with a visit to a trade show of funeral equipment in a huge exhibition hall through which we are guided by a sexy blonde in a clinging dress who makes winsome faces at us in front of coffins. But Wexler’s tone throughout is not satirical: he is sympathetic as he interviews a guru of calorie-counting-as-life-preserver, one of laughing yoga, one of physical fitness (Jack LaLanne, who did all that fitness could do). He gives us a glimpse of elderly porn performers in Japan. He takes us to visit a 101-year-old man who smokes and drinks, then a 114-year-old woman who did not smoke or drink—on camera at least. We hear the venerable comedian Phyllis Diller, who talks about meeting a man so old that his blood type has been discontinued. There is much, much more.

Through it all we feel a slight bewilderment—that there are so many people who treat death as if it were a problem to be solved. None of the teachers or masters in the film promises immortality, but each of them is proposing—is selling-a means of treating inevitability as questionable. The only memorable comment comes, unsurprisingly, from Sherwin B. Nuland, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine who is also a notable author (and a contributor to these pages). He says he feels that his death is a debt to the past and to the future. We can take this to mean that the past gave him a place in a tremendous procession, that he had a chance to make a contribution, and that now he must make room for those to come. This seems a bit stoic, but it has a ring to it.

Stanley Kauffmann's contribution to the tremendous procession is incalculable.

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