Film: Criticism and Comment
Foreword by Michael Wood
Baltimore: Performing Arts Journal Books (The Johns Hopkins University
$21.95, 216 pages, ISBN 0-8018-6584-0.
Université de Paris X - Nanterre
In his review of Woody Allens Celebrity (1998), Stanley
Kauffmann evokes a joke about a film critic that is heard in the film:
He used to hate every movie; then he married a young woman with
a big bosom and now he loves every movie. I do not know the
measurements of Kauffmanns wife, but even though he does not
love every movie, this veteran critic is far from being the frustrated
and bitter critic that the joke implicitly describes. For him, as
he wrote in a former book of his, there always is hope
in the film world.
Composed mainly of most of Kauffmanns 1990s reviews and comments,
Regarding Film constitutes more evidence of his great
love of films, and this in spite of his disappointment with the so-called
New Hollywood. His love manifests itself in his acute
analyses which highlight some details that only a true movie lover
can notice and appreciate (and which are sometimes the reasons why
some movies are not complete failures). As soon as he tracks down
an interesting cinematic element, he works it from every angle in
order to bring out its meaning(s). When Kauffmann assesses an actors
performance he does not only speak of the performance itself, he also
strives to situate it in a broader perspective, i.e. to show its place
in the actors career. For example, he thinks Gérard Depardieus
acting strength comes from his prodigality, and even though some of
his works are not always convincingKauffmann refers notably
to his performance in Colonel Chabertsuch works are nevertheless
more beneficial for him than if he chose to pause and to ponder
for long stretches, which would temper with his artistic
metabolism. In other words, Depardieus lesser work allows
him to do his best work. Once again, Kauffmann shows that he knows
how to turn a negative fact into a positive one, how to bring hope
in the film world.
Invariably, Kauffmann refers to such elements as acting and directing,
but he also considers other cinematic elements that are often neglected
by his fellow critics: the score, the cinematography and editing are
hardly ever forgotten. His love of movies also expresses itself in
the way he handles the positive and the negative components. As in
old Hollywood stories, Kauffmanns reviews sometimes conclude
with a kind of happy-ending that makes you forget their occasionally
unfavorable tone. Although his review of Camerons Titanic
is quite severe, commenting on the predictability of the characters
and the dialogue, Kauffmann does not end with a coup de grâce.
Instead, he tries to rescue somethingif I may say so,
praising the way Cameron shoots the sea: the sea, in the hands
of Cameron and his technical associates, becomes hungry, vindictive.
The Atlantic seem enraged by the word unsinkable.
This analysis of a natural element punishing man for his hubris evokes
some reviews of Alfred Hitchcocks The Birds at the time
of the films release in 1963. These reviews seem rather obsolete
now, compared with the more recent psychoanalytic and feminist analyses
of the film. If I associate Kauffmann's idea with The Birds
early reviews, it is to imply that although his passion and optimism
make his reviews very pleasant and intellectually stimulating, some
of them appear a bit old-fashioned, for critical theories have evolved
radically in the past thirty years or so.
This remark is tied in with Kauffmanns vision of postmodern
films. He displays towards postmodern cinema a bewilderment that betrays
his attachment to the old school. For example, while he praises the
cleverness and humor of Quentin Tarentino's Pulp Fiction (1994),
he also regards it as a film that nourishes, abets cultural
slumming, which is a way of acknowledging that he is confused
by the very confusion of the film. When it comes to Fargo (1996),
Kauffmann writes that he is at a loss faced with the jumbling
of tones which he dubiously attributes to an uncertainty on
the part of the Coen Brothers about the film they wanted to make.
Admittedly, Kauffmann cannot be labeled a conservative critic, he
does not systematically disapprove of those who go against conventions;
he is merely baffled by certain aspects of postmodern cinema, even
though he does not completely admit it, as is shown in his brilliant
text on morality in films What's left of the center?.
Kauffmann writes that he likes the escapism created by
the moral decline in films like Pulp Fiction. But this appraisal
is not very convincing, for he does not acknowledge that morality
in films is completely blurred, and this despite the disappearance
of what he calls moral-reference characters. For him,
such filmmakers as Tarantino or Bertrand Blier (Kauffmann points at
Going Places (Les Valseuses), 1974) cannot [
hope that we will change the way we live for the way their people
live. Consciously or not, they rely on us in a way that the morally
sound film does not. [
] If the Good Guys have left the screen
and only the Bad Guys are up there, there are still Good Guys in the
theater, enlisted by Blier and Tarantino. The Good Guys are us.
The demonstration is compelling, but as he tracks morality everywhere,
Kauffmann somewhat undermines his own discourse about the relaxing
escapism caused by the absence of morality. Once again he confirms
his indisposition in what sometimes seems a desperate attempt to awaken
the ghosts of Hollywoods Golden Age.
Indeed, if Kaufmann confesses without really confessing it that he
is discouraged by postmodern cinema, it is more the expression of
his nostalgia for an erstwhile film era than the expression of a rejection.
Just as he praises Woody Allens own nostalgia of prewar songs
in Everyone says I Love You (1996), Kauffmann takes refuge
in his beloved classical Hollywood as soon as the opportunity arises.
In a way, Kauffmann makes me think of Claude Chabrol, whose films
on the provincial narrow-minded bourgeoisie could be regarded
as virulent satires, and at the same time as the expression of an
unavowed fondness on the part of Chabrol for the order and quietness
of this way of life. Just as Chabrol admits that he lives like a bourgeois
without being a bourgeois, Kauffmann is attracted to a certain
moral order while being probably sincerely an open-minded liberal.
Among his other dissatisfactions with the current situation of cinema,
there is also the fact that he regrets the end of cinephilia. He who
talked of the Film Generation in 1966 has to acknowledge
that todays young people obviously have less of an appetite
for movies than their parents had (they simply buy movies
as they would any product). In order to make this cultural habit revive,
he suggests that universities integrate more cinema programs, and
theaters be more active. Reading Kauffmanns subtle and enthusiastic
reviews could no doubt also contribute to the return of cinephilia.