Feature image: Stanley Kauffmann, photographed in 1998. Credit: Jack Manning/The New York Times.
For admirers of Stanley Kauffmann – chief film critic for The New Republic from 1958 until his death in 2013, at the age of 91 – this new anthology of movie criticism has been long anticipated. The last collection of Kauffmann’s film appreciation, Regarding Film: Film Criticism and Comment, was published almost fifteen years ago. Now Bert Cardullo, who has previously published several valuable interviews with Kauffmann, has compiled a selection of the critic’s reviews, remembrances, and reports written between 2000 and 2013. Aptly entitled Persistence of Vision, this posthumous volume is a timely memorial to one of cinema’s most resonant critical voices.
As commentators have noted, Kauffmann’s criteria for film art stemmed from his conviction that cinema was equal to the traditional arts (hardly a fashionable view in 1958, when he began reviewing films). The present volume confirms a deeper preoccupation: namely, that his aesthetic criteria coalesced around a profound humanistic impulse. Put crudely, Kauffmann was a truth seeker. Sample a handful of his reviews from any period and you’ll discover the ubiquity of terms such as truth, authenticity, actuality, verism, and realism (though it’s clear that realism is but one order of truth, for Kauffmann). The acme of artistic achievement could be represented by an actor’s performance, a stretch of dialogue, an editing manoeuvre, or some other textual feature, attaining the quality of truth – truth that is apposite to the individual film’s basic material. Hence even a flatly incredible movie, like Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), could display artistic truths. Kauffmann seemed especially drawn to films that flout formula and immerse us in dailiness, dwelling in the textures, rhythms, and contingencies of quotidian reality. Such films, he remarks pointedly in a review published in 2010, are “especially refreshing in the age of Avatar” (p. 193).
Like the films he admired, Kauffmann’s criticism bears the distinction of truth. He never postured or pandered. As Persistence of Vision testifies, his writing seemed immune to popular fads (dissections of Superman Returns [Bryan Singer, 2006] or Iron Man [Jon Favreau, 2008] are not to be found here). In the new volume, as ever, he challenges truisms. Reviewing The Aviator in 2005, he cites hallowed behemoths Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) before asserting that Scorsese has yet to make a masterpiece. Meanwhile, the former enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard “has become, aesthetically, a reliably eccentric old-timer” (p. 240), the auteur’s heterodoxy now predictable and orthodox. As a purveyor of truth, moreover, Kauffmann owns up to the vicissitudes of his profession. If other critics present their contentions as axioms, Kauffmann construed his own criticism as corrigible; hence it is with humility and good cheer that he performs a volte-face when reappraising Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (1962), a film he had long disliked. And of course, every page bristles with Kauffmann’s honest, evocative, penetrating prose. He succinctly captures the style and sensation of particular moments, as when describing Wong Kar-wai’s short film The Hand (2004): “The very walls of rooms, as [the] camera glides along them, seem erotic.” Of the visual texture of István Szabó’s Sunshine (2000), he writes, “The interiors of homes have the rich gravy warmth of luxe turn-of-the-century European apartments, as if the occupants were living in the aroma of goulash and loving it” (p. 137). He is never finer than when discussing actors. Recalling Jack Nicholson’s ex-astronaut in Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983), he exquisitely describes how Nicholson “carefully coaxed his usual easygoing attractive self to grow over-ripe and pulpy, like fruit left out of the refrigerator too long” (p. 105).
His putdowns are deliciously tart. Of Catherine Keener’s performative range, he avers: “Whenever she attempts any kind of emotion, as in [Andrew Niccol’s Simone (2002)], she becomes an amateur” (p. 76). He rues Spike Jonzes’s Adaptation (2002) – a sardonic comedy whose protagonists are twin brothers – for serving up a double dose of Nicolas Cage (“that wretched actor”). Such spikes could pass for sheer cattiness were it not evident that he knows and cares about acting. His observations about particular screen actors are typically astute: Gwyneth Paltrow’s exceptional talent, he notes, relies on gifted directors for fruition, while figures such as Kenneth Branagh and Liev Schreiber – exceptionally talented though they are – lack the ineffable quality that distinguishes movie stars. Kauffmann displays a cineaste’s affection for performers (indeed, he himself was once a stage actor), acknowledging the intimacy we develop with these remote celluloid strangers; thus his eulogies to bygone idols Wendy Hiller and Takashi Shimura refer to them as “old friends,” though he never knew them personally.
If Kauffmann refused to salute all that popular culture ran up the flagpole, this was evidence less of contrariety than of a desire to redress critical fallacies. Recalling the then-resurgent Michael Caine as “once one of the best screen actors,” he asserts that Caine “took a five-year break in the mid-1990s and came back without his talent” (p. 63) – this after the actor had recently earned his second Academy Award. Reviewing Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella, 2003), he expresses scepticism about the widespread veneration of Nicole Kidman (also recently esteemed by the Academy, and lauded by Kauffmann colleagues such as David Thomson); he considers box-office favourites Leonardo DiCaprio and Colin Farrell injurious to The Aviator and Alexander (Oliver Stone, 2004), respectively; and though he finds Tom Hanks pleasant on-screen company, “[this] is not the same thing as giving a good performance” (p. 139). Yet Kauffmann’s unfashionable views not only skewered inflated reputations; they elevated undervalued ones. Regarding Anjelica Huston as potentially “a major actress,” he bemoans the dramatic arts for inadequately serving her talents; he shines a favourable spotlight on European actors Stellan Skarsgård, Isabelle Huppert, and Daniel Auteuil; and he extols the performances of nonprofessional actors in imported art films such as Namueopneun San (Treeless Mountain, So Yong Kim, 2008), Pranzo di ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch, Gianni Di Gregorio, 2008) and Zero Bridge (Tariq Tapa, 2008). He also defends highly-praised yet lately maligned actors. While critics of the day reproved Al Pacino for showboating – a charge aimed at works as diverse as Heat (Michael Mann, 1995) and Devil’s Advocate (Taylor Hackford, 1997) – Kauffmann maintains that Pacino “never coasts,” the actor treating “each performance as the reason for which he was born” (p. 76). Flouting fashion, Kauffmann exhorts us to treat sceptically the prevailing critical judgments of our times.
In the early 1970s Jack Nicholson noted that “[Kauffmann] didn’t like Marlon in The Godfather. He gives great reasons, all of which, to me, are things that I think are good about actors. But as far as his context, and what he says about the film, I read him and I pay attention to him.” 1 Kauffmann’s tendency to justify his judgments by means of explanatory context is indeed a virtue, and persists in the present volume. At times, he employs historical context as criteria – hence, for example, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain suffer by comparison to latter-day screen couple Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland (Kauffmann’s gold standard). More generally, he uses context to illuminate both the film under review and his own critical conclusions. An account of James Ivory’s The Golden Bowl (2001), for instance, furnishes paratextual detail at once expansive and concise, and wholly germane to the film at hand. Kauffmann describes an 1895 production of Henry James’s play Guy Domville, its negative appraisal by critics such as George Bernard Shaw, and an account by James’s biographer of the playwright’s fateful reaction to his detractors – all as cogent preamble to the difficulty of adapting James. The review goes on to gloss proximate contexts for the present James adaptation – chiefly, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s earlier film version of another heritage novel, The Bostonians – before proceeding to the new film’s merits and misfires. This frame of reference enlightens us both to James’s present incarnation by Jhabvala and Ivory, and to Kauffmann’s assessment of it. It enables Kauffmann not only to pinpoint the film’s failings but to lay bare the logic of his own appraisal.
The book’s structure is perspicuous. Whereas the reviews in Kauffmann’s earlier collections were organized according to abstract principles (conceptual, regional, alphabetical), Cardullo arranges Kauffmann’s reviews in chronological sequence, giving rise to some happy by-products. For one thing, this ordering allows tacit associations to accumulate. The consecutive critiques of Joel Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, Richard Linklater’s Tape, and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (all 2001) provide contrasts in indie “cleverness;” though Kauffmann doesn’t explicitly cross-reference these films, his successive analyses of their eccentric conceits distinguish superficiality (Coen; Anderson) from substance (Linklater). Across the book, the self-conscious cleverness of US indie cinema becomes a leitmotif, accruing contrasts. Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation, for instance, are found guilty of “almost juvenile showing off” (p. 82). Also crystallised by the book’s chronological structure is Kauffmann’s shifting estimation of recurring figures. While Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003) regrettably showcases “Tom Cruise Incorporated” (the star commodity), Spielberg’s War of the Worlds restores Kauffmann’s faith in Cruise’s acting prowess. The aforementioned Tape ushers Kauffmann to an awareness of Uma Thurman’s screen potency, previously opaque to him. Not least, the book’s organisation conjures a sense of autobiography, as if by reading Kauffmann chronologically we accompany him – his concerns, convictions, and proclivities – through the final phase of his life. (This sense of finite biography is compounded by the book’s framing sections – a set of testimonials, a biography, a chronology, a bibliography, and an overview of Kauffmann’s career supplied by Cardullo.) Of course, some readers will opt to impose their own sequence upon the collection, jumping back and forth to reviews of favourite films. Certainly Kauffmann’s criticism can be enjoyably consumed this way. But to read the critiques in chronological order is both to deepen the feeling of shared discovery – of intimate communion with the critic – and to reconstruct the vagaries of the era in which he wrote.
We can lament the lacunae. Virtually every Kauffmann review of the past fifteen years harbours insights worth revisiting. But Cardullo has assembled a body of criticism that is entirely representative of Kauffmann’s erudition, wit, and wide-ranging compass. That he resists any impulse to editorialise the original texts is laudable, but a few slips might have been amended. Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson were paired not in Spy Game (Tony Scott, 2001), as stated in the critique of The Royal Tenenbaums, but in Behind Enemy Lines (John Moore, 2001). The name of French soccer star Eric Cantona is misspelt throughout the review of Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric (2010). A consideration of House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman, 2003) cites Ben Kingsley’s performance among two current instances of metamorphic acting, but because the review has been culled from its original context we are left to wonder about the second instance.
Hovering over this posthumous collection, finally, is an irreducible poignancy, never more acute than when Kauffmann reflects on aging filmmakers and films about aging. About ten years ago, he and I exchanged letters in which he expressed (among other things, and in tremulous handwriting) his admiration for Michelangelo Antonioni. The present volume finds him saddened by the diminution of Antonioni’s powers, the auteur’s contribution to the portmanteau film Eros (2004) containing “no substance and [being] only faintly reminiscent of his style” (p. 125). He perceives cause for concern in the late career of Abbas Kiarostami. But he writes movingly about stalwarts such as Jacques Rivette, Bertrand Tavernier, Claude Chabrol (“we can rejoice that he carries on” [p. 75]), and Alain Resnais (“a pleasure [that at 91 years of age, he] is on hand still to present a new work” [p. 236]). Meanwhile, Michael Haneke’s unflinching study of old age – Amour (2012) – compels Kauffmann to proclaim: “This is realism that enlarges our conception of the term” (p. 230). Late in the book, he invokes a key difference between theatre and cinema, namely, that the latter medium immortalises its productions; and as if to provide an instance, he writes in an obituary of Wendy Hiller, “Anyone who has a tape of Pygmalion can turn on [Hiller’s] soul” (p. 267). Hiller’s performances not only live on, but (like the legacies of Fonda and de Havilland) they persist as criteria. We can similarly rejoice that Kauffmann’s criticism – and the standards he set for film appreciation – endure beyond his passing.
Persistence of Vision: The 21st-Century Film Criticism of Stanley Kauffmann, ed. Bert Cardullo (Atlanta: Anaphora Literary Press, 2015).
- Robert David Crane and Christopher Fryer (1975) Jack Nicholson: Face to Face. New York: M Evans and Company, p. 21. ↩