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Stanley Kauffmann Tribute: The First Film Critic I Ever Read

Stanley Kauffmann and I went way back together, without ever having met. The New Republic was the first magazine I subscribed to as a high school teen, and Kauffmann the first film critic I regularly read. He was my introducer to Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and, for me the crowning name, Yasujiro Ozu. At that avid, foraging stage in my self-education, I barely registered that there were other critics sitting in their cockpits feasting on the images whooshing by, apart from the phrase-snapping stunt pilots at Time and Newsweek, whose reviews were revved with journalese. Kauffmann, who had held his post at TNR since 1958, gave off an aura of intellectual seniority. He fathered the term “the film generation” to describe the rising young wave of cinephiles for whom Susan Sontag would reign as queen bee and holy ghost in those tatty urban temples of Upper and Lower Boho Manhattan, where the distinction between “film” and “movie” was a theological point of dispute, punctuated by flying popcorn. A kingly, composed presence on the page (photographs of him made him look like all illustrious head), considering each film on a case by case basis, Kauffmann didn’t seek converts or castigate heretics; he was a congregation of one. He sounded un-beholden to whatever trendy notions thumping in the culture like tribal drums, neither bending to consensus nor assuming a contrarian stand for the sake of playing provocateur or Dwight Macdonald-ish naysayer (though he did dismiss enthusiastic reports of “Hurricane Marlon” in his review of The Godfather). His writing rode in the quiet car of critical discourse, shunning the rhetorical bluster and blurby hyperbole that made the '60s and '70s such enjoyably desperado times, his authority deriving from the independence of judgment, range of knowledge ready at his fingertips, nicking precision of expression, sly digs of irony, and abiding curiosity that turned his columns into a mutual voyage of discovery with the reader.

For a man who never seemed to raise his voice in print, who practiced a sweater-vest decorum, he was raptly receptive to rebel outbreaks on the screen from such crafty, iconoclastic insurgents as Jean-Luc Godard to Quentin Tarantino. He keyed in brilliantly to Sam Peckinpah’s prismatic aesthetic of violence, and appreciated the lethal craftsmanship an old Hollywood hand like Don Siegel (Peckinpah’s directorial mentor) brought to Escape from Alcatraz. It wasn’t only in cinema that Kauffmann kept his receptors open. Reading him on Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theatre was a revelation for me—he made you see that something difficult and tremendous had been forged on the stage, and he communicated one of the most difficult things for any writer to communicate: enthrallment. Although my loyalties shifted to other movie critics, I never stopped reading him (and not just in The New Republic—his memoir Albums of a Life calls out for revival), growingly appreciating his unflagging dedication, steady morale, and unclouded acuteness of perception. I kept learning from him up to the last. His very longevity carried a Shavian salutation: He had traveled down a long hallway of film and stage history and yet here he was, issue in, issue out, fully engaged with the latest item on the docket. None of us wins immortality, but Stanley Kauffmann came nearest. 

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