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Regarding Film: Criticism and Comment
Stanley Kauffmann
Foreword by Michael Wood
Baltimore: Performing Arts Journal Books (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2001.
$21.95, 216 pages, ISBN 0-8018-6584-0.

Nicolas Magenham
Université de Paris X - Nanterre

In his review of Woody Allen’s 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 Kauffmann’s 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 Kauffmann’s 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 actor’s 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 actor’s career. For example, he thinks Gérard Depardieu’s acting strength comes from his prodigality, and even though some of his works are not always convincing—Kauffmann refers notably to his performance in Colonel Chabert—such 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, Depardieu’s 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, Kauffmann’s reviews sometimes conclude with a kind of happy-ending that makes you forget their occasionally unfavorable tone. Although his review of Cameron’s 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 something—if 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 Hitchcock’s The Birds at the time of the film’s 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 Kauffmann’s 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 Hollywood’s 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 Allen’s 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 today’s 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 Kauffmann’s subtle and enthusiastic reviews could no doubt also contribute to the return of cinephilia.

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