“You mean he’s still alive?!?

I’ve got a cagey relationship with Stanley Kauffmann, who’s served as The New Republic’s film critic for fifty years. He offhandedly denies the significance of filmmakers I love (Robert Altman, Woody Allen). He seems to snottily dismiss entire genres such as sci-fi, horror, and children’s animation. His finely honed senses of delicacy and decorum prevent him, far too often, from engaging with anything too violent, too pulpy, too explicitly sexy, too hyperbolic… no matter how good the actual content, aesthetics, and moral concerns may be in said movie. Even when a movie is explicitly political, Kauffmann sidesteps political discussion in his critiques.

(That last part is especially problematic, given who draws his paychecks.)

All that being said, Kauffmann’s a keeper. Unlike most cinephile bloggers and formalist critics, Kauffmann pays serious attention to acting and actors. (He started his career in theater, and it shows.) He’s been a long champion of foreign films and in giving his limited space in TNR to older, more obscure, and non-American films in revival. He resists hype and the media’s concentration on the sparkly and new. He’s admirably suspicious of the now-dominant auteur idea in cinema criticism, and emphasizes contributions from other operators than the director in crafting a movie’s vision. Kauffmann accommodates his style to the small space TNR gives him––he’s brisk, conversational, dryly witty, and possesses a jaunty verve of language that mixes high cultivation and lowbrow pop in surprising ways.

I’ve taken Kauffmann for granted over the years––his byline’s always there, in that page-and-a-half spread, issue after issue––and rarely read him. I get the feeling that I’m not the only one. Kauffmann rarely comes up in critical discourse, either in print or online. There’s never been a career-spanning omnibus of his film criticism, as there’s been for his contemporaries Pauline Kael and Manny Farber. His Wikipedia entry is a stub.

So, it’s fitting that The New Republic devotes a subsite to its longest-lasting staff member, and . (Kauffmann is 93, and still working.) There’s a multi-part video interview, links to favorite reviews, and more.

What follows, after the jump, is an extremely long excerpt but also the best encapsulation of Kauffmann’s critical philosophy on cinema, and his style, that I’ve read. And mine, too… which is why I’m quoting it in the first place. It comes from his dissection of one of the auteurists’ sacred cows: Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes, a film regarded as highly by cinephiles now as it was in 1969, when Kauffmann published this review:

There is not a flaw in the mise-en-scene, not a dull frame for the eye. (Well, one reservation: Ophuls either detested or feared Cinemascope and, in some intimate scenes, he puts arbitrary shadows at the edges to narrow the picture.) But after it’s all over––before then––we are faced with the Chesterton comment. The first time G. K. Chesterton walked down Broadway at night past the flashing electric advertisements, he said, “What a wonderful experience this must be for someone who can’t read.” In the case of Lola, one might add: or for those who want to pretend they can’t––figuratively––read.

For the script of Lola is just one more teary version of the Prostitute with the Heart of Gold, the whore ennobled by the whoring, whom all her friends adore. The matters that made the real Lola an extraordinary woman are omitted completely; we are given only the picture of a woman turned to sexual adventuring by her mother’s callousness; who makes her way with her loins; who dramatizes farewells a bit and can develop a little tenderness if the man is a king who gives her a palace; but is only an adventuress, with a touch of Carmen deviltry. To see this Lola as a mythopoeic figure of romance or a figure of the Eternal Feminine, to posit that her story is related to our culture’s concepts of romance, is to me a quasi-adolescent insistence on glorifying whores. The difference between, say, Dumas’ Marguerite Gautier and Ophuls’ Lola is one between an early attempt to show the particularized humanity of a type and the luxuriant exportation of the type itself.

The acting of most of the principals is very bad. The late Martine Carol, who is Lola, never could act, and here she doesn’t even look pretty. Ophuls spent little time on making her face attractive, even in her younger scenes. Oskar Werner, as her German-student lover, is waxen-faced and cutesie. (Miscast as a twenty-year-old.) Will Quadflieg and Ivan Desny as Liszt and James are sticks. Peter Ustinov, the ringmaster, has merely a fraction of the modulation and shading that he showed in his recent pastry Hot Millions. Only Anton Walbrook as Ludwig is substantial.

Some of the Lola admirers might agree with all of this; all of them might agree with some of it. Together they reject its relevance. Why? Because they subscribe, with passionate and unquestionable conviction, to a theory of the hierarchy of film values. They believe in selecting and exalting sheerly cinematic values, like the matters I have praised earlier, and in subordinating or discounting such matters as those I’ve objected to. To them, this is exultation in the true glory of cinema.

To me, it is a derogation and patronization of cinema. To me, this hierarchy says, “This is what film can do and we mustn’t really expect it to do any more, mustn’t be disappointed if this is all it does.” A chief motive behind the hierarchy is to avoid discussion of the strictured elements forced on film-making by the ever-present money-men. Lola was commissioned as an expensive showcase for Martine Carol. The money-men foisted Miss Carol and a cheap novel––by the author of Caroline Cherie––on Ophuls, so let’s not criticize those elements, let’s concentrate on Ophuls’ marvelous decor, detail, and camera-movement and, by the simple act of appropriate omission, presto, we have a masterpiece.

I disbelieve in this hierarchy. There are money-men involved in every art. No one would dream of praising an architect because he designed his interiors well, if he had debased his overall form to please his client’s pocketbook. Why a special leniency for film?

Why, indeed––in the face of the fact that film has proved it doesn’t need it, has achieved thoroughly fine work? The worst aspect of this approach is that it crimps the film out of its cultural heritage: the cinematic and the literary and theatrical and psychological and social and political––and says to it, “Just go and be cinematic. If anything else is achieved, good. If not, no great matter.” It is an aesthetic equivalent of the Victorian ethic of
“knowing your place.”

That’s a necessary tonic to the pure formalists and auteur activists out there, as much as I love some of them. If you care about cinema criticism at all, make your way posthaste to the Kauffmann site.

–————–––––––

(Thanks, Girish.)

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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