Saturday, November 09, 2013

What Stanley Kauffmann Taught Me About Film

A tribute to the late film critic.

Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic's film critic for 55 years, recently passed away. As a subscriber to TNR since the early 1980s, I came to rely on Kauffmann not just for reviews of films that would otherwise be unknown to me but for a continuing education in film.

The conventional reviewer aims at passing judgment on a movie with an eye on helping you decide whether to see the film or not. These reviews seek to answer the question, does the movie work or not? This is of interest, of course, as are the usual mechanics of filmmaking: the acting, direction, cinematography, plot, music score and so on.

It is quite another thing to see in film a vital genre of art. Kauffmann's reviews were a pleasure to read not just because they were neatly crafted, but because his intellectual range was presented without snobbery or apology.

Kauffmann's reviews taught one not just about a film, but all film. What he taught me about film was everything beyond describing the mechanics of casting, acting, direction, technique, and to some degree the storytelling itself.

I recently met a fellow (and much more professional) musician who handcrafts guitars as a hobby. He observed that the musicians of his acquaintance were also drawn to either photography or film, and so it seemed to him that music and film were two inter-related strands of artistic DNA. I do not know if this is universally true, but I can report that film and music are bound up with writing in my own DNA.

Poverty and competing demands on my limited time preclude me from making a film, and so I have made the films on the cheap, in my own mind, by writing screenplays--seven, at last count.

Here is a selection of excerpts from Kauffmann's reviews. Though he often reviewed obscure foreign or limited-release domestic films, I have purposefully chosen (mostly) widely released films that you may have seen.

Rambo
Helped by a Vietnamese girl who had been secretly briefed to guide him, Rambo escapes. (The girl is soon killed, so Rambo is left uncluttered by affection.)
 
The Great Gatsby (1974)
Besides the tininess of ear he shows, he insists on an utterly inappropriate atmosphere of quasi-expressionist grotesquerie—sweaty faces, fish-eye lenses, Gatsby’s parties as somewhat degenerate debauches—an atmosphere that stupidly controverts the reticence of Fitzgerald’s novel. To make it all just a little worse, Clayton slam-slam-slams an enormous number of enormous close-ups at us, quite pointlessly, which is rather as if a composer worked steadily in loud chords.
 
Where Soldiers Come From
Where Soldiers Come From is unique. It is about war, about Afghanistan in particular, but it is more about civilization than about combat. An American woman named Heather Courtney, experienced in documentary, was struck some four years ago by the sight of high school seniors joining the armed services in upper Michigan where she lives. She resolved to film some of them as time touched these youngsters. We prepare ourselves for inevitabilities--death and harsh injuries. These do not come. We see bits of combat, and one young man gets a Purple Heart for an endurable wound. We see training camps and military leaves and returns to duty and discharges. But what we really see is a basic hard fact, integral to civilization. Peace and peacemaking are common enough terms, easy to sing about and lofty in tone; yet peace, as anyone can see, is an interval in history. The patterns we are watching are more usual--the patterns of conflict.
 
The Princess of Montpensier
How helpfully gifted Bertrand Tavernier is. To watch one of his films is to have the world clarified: we see a street, a room, a corridor as more itself than we might have seen it on our own. Like other sterling directors, this French master begins, so to speak, with the intent of revealing the secrets that lie around us, unperceived— and in that rarefied world, he sets his story.
 
I Was Born, But...
Ozu (1903–1963) began to direct in 1927 and made a total of fifty-four features. He is best known here for the group of pictures that began in 1949 with Late Spring and concluded with An Autumn Afternoon in 1962. Couched in differing subtleties, these later films share, in some degree, one quality. The poet and dance critic Edwin Denby said often that what he prized most in ballet was stillness, which I take to mean the recovery through motion of a resident serenity, an apprehension behind the dancing of quiet pure existence. This view relates to Ozu. The best among his last films, Tokyo Story, has a certain stillness behind all that we see and hear, a hushed apprehension of human mystery.
 
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
But the film is considerably schizoid. All the gifts of the cast and of Allen, all the little insights that are scattered along the way, are expended on a screenplay that is mostly contrivances. The best deviation from dreamy plotting is the finish. A conventional romance would have had a knitted-up ending. Vicky Cristina Barcelona simply untangles. Its most up-to-date aspect is that it does not formally conclude. The American women have some warm experiences; then they travel on. The same is true for the viewer.
 
The Lives of Others
The cast of this film stokes that perversity. Sebastian Koch, as Georg, has the sort of good looks that bespeak an interesting man. Martina Gedeck, as Christa-Maria, is lovely and, in all shades, compelling. Ulrich Muhe makes Wiesler the kind of rigidly strict, thoroughly convinced officer who shows no hint of breach and therefore makes us suspect the possibility. Thomas Thieme, as Minister Hempf, provides lechery coaxed along by power. Thus, despite the fact that parts of this film remind us of past pictures with comparable themes, the director and his actors make it immediate, gripping.
 
Lila Says
Sex can be very helpful. For a screenwriter who wants to treat a subject that might seem insufficiently interesting to some viewers, a strong sexual element can serve as hook and medium. As multiple instances have shown, that sexual element can bring along the background material that may have been the first reason for making the picture. The latest example is Lila Says.
 
The Bourne Identity
But it is incredible chiefly in retrospect; it is much less incredible as the film speeds on. This contradiction is typical of most thrillers and is wrapped in the phenomenon of film itself. In a thriller novel, questionable events are often handled assumptively--the assumption that a game is being played and only a spoilsport would demur. I haven't read this Ludlum book, but I have read some like it--years ago I even edited a few--and the credibility blips just need careful tooling. But when a comparable event occurs in a thriller film, something almost awesome, almost thaumaturgic, transmutes the matter. Assumption disappears: actuality reigns through innate cinematic power.
Kauffmann on the Oscars:

I watch the Oscars every year, and I have more or less the same reaction: that everything is in character. And every year, regular as a sort of intellectual clockwork, knowledgeable critics are ready to scorn: to disclose the industrial ogre beneath the artistic hoopla, to rip open the pretensions, to excoriate the lengthy and unexciting familial tributes and embraces. Each year I wonder what these critics expected. A coronation by the Muses on the slopes of Olympus, perhaps?
Kauffmann on the need to review films that most readers will not see at their local multiplexes: (Februaty 7, 2005)

A letter from a reader in the Pacific Northwest asks wryly: "Do you invent some of the films you write about?" The question prompted a Borgesian temptation to invent, but I was soon calmed down by a sober fact—hardly new, still sobering. The reader's faintly desolate question underscored it. In terms of filmgoing possibilities, this country is schizoid. I, in New York, confront a fairly full range of available films. Only in a few large cities is anything like that range available; and those cities are only a small slice of this country's possible audience. Most people, like that reader, have the chance to see only the major Hollywood products—not even all the American films, let alone foreign ones. 
Harold Rosenberg, who in his time did a good deal of lecturing around the country, once described the cultural situation in America, apart from the biggest cities, as a wilderness dotted with stockades. Those stockades were mostly the lively colleges and universities. In my own lecturing days, I found Rosenberg's comment a shade too reductive but healthily blunt. Radio and television and paperbound books and, latterly, the Internet were all regarded for a time as chances for cultural spread. Little proof of this is so far forthcoming. The reverse could easily be argued: that these increments have chiefly given more power to those who have no interest in, say, (director) Jill Sprecher. 
Why, then, do critics--at least on some magazines and newspapers--continue to review films that will probably not reach wide audiences? For myself, it is partly because, as a democrat, I believe that the rights of the minority must be respected, including the filmgoing minority. It would be an offense to that minority, whether or not they knew it, to omit reviews, positive or otherwise, of films that are part of contemporary culture and of value to their cultural conspectus. Equally importantly, it would be an offense to the art of film to ignore those who, often through much travail, keep reaching upward. I don't think that seriously intended films will save this sorry world, but I do think that their absence, even ignorance that they exist, would make it sorrier.
Adieu, Stanley; you are sorely missed.


The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy:
The Revolution in Higher Education

Reconnecting higher education, livelihoods and the economy
With the soaring cost of higher education, has the value of a college degree been turned upside down? College tuition and fees are up 1000% since 1980. Half of all recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed, revealing a deep disconnect between higher education and the job market.

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Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

go to print edition1. Debt and financialization
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Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).

We are not powerless. Once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.

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