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Half a Century at the Movies

From the writings of Stanley Kauffmann

Hulton Archive/Moviepix/Getty Images

The Silence, 1964

A foreign director said to me after seeing Ingmar Bergman’s last film, Winter Light, “it’s a rich director’s picture.” He explained that, in his view, its economy of cast and settings, its brevity, were less the result of artistic refinement than of laziness-cum-arrogance bred of success. I thought his remark more funny than true and still do; but Bergman’s latest, The Silence, gives it another meaning. Bergman—in his current phase, at least—is exemplifying the saw about specialists: men who know more and more about less and less. He may not be a “rich” director, but, in spite of the passion in this film, he is a more aloof one than he was. He is anatomizing narrower and narrower circles of material; and the emphasis is on the dissection rather than on any revelation.

The film is patently a symbolic work about alienation. But its symbolism is its defect; it breaks down into a series of discernible metaphors, rather than aggregating them into an organic and effective work. We are constantly aware that there is a code to be read and we spend our time reading it. That the film is a rebus, with clues to be hunted in it, indicates its limitations. It almost seems to have been contrived as an exercise for that school that looks on criticism as cryptography.

The Young Lions, 1958

I have had a chance to watch Brando’s career from its beginning because he made his professional debut in a children’s play of mine at the Adelphi Theater in New York in 1944. His role consisted of being hit on the head and falling down; but he managed to find a way of falling down that, without being obtrusive, was individual.

Brando has evolved a personal style which relies largely on understatement and the liberal use of pauses. Often the effect is heart-breaking; remember the poignancy he gave the vapid monosyllable “Wow” in On the Waterfront when he learned that his brother was threatening his life. Occasionally the style lapses out of meaning into mannerism; some of Sayonara could have used compression. But in essence he reflects in his style—as actors often do—a prevalent artistic vein of his day. Kemble exemplified the classic, elegant eighteenth century, Kean the wild, torrential romantics of the early nineteenth century, Irving the elaborate majesty of the late Victorians. I compare Brando with these luminaries only to draw a parallel. He is a taciturn realist: an epitome not of that joyous realistic revolution which swept away the humbug that obscured the contours of the world but of that generation born into realism which has seen its world with harsh clarity, whose work is to reconcile itself to that world’s revealed boundaries and to find its triumphs inwardly.

Pulp Fiction, 1994

Meanwhile, however, what’s most bothersome about Pulp Fiction is its success. This is not to be mean-spirited about Tarantino himself; may he harvest all the available millions. But the way that this picture has been so widely ravened up and drooled over verges on the disgusting. Pulp Fiction nourishes, abets, cultural slumming.

So much of what inundates us these days—in film, in various kinds of pop music—is calculated grunginess, of climate and temper. So much of what goes on in (what I hear of) rock music revels in the lower end of every kind of spectrum, grungy ideas and diction delivered by grungy people. So much of modern film seems to compete in grunginess. Very little of this stuff seems to have anything to do with the lives actually lived by its avid public. Most of it seems designed as guided tours of an underworld for people otherwise placed—career-oriented students, job-holding others. Escapism always has been one function of theater and film, and for ages it was cloyingly pretty-pretty. Boy, has the pendulum swung.

La Chinoise, 1968

I wish I could believe that Godard is a committed Maoist; it would at least give the picture an internal validity. But the impression grows and persists that Godard is congenitally a bootlicker of young boots. When he made Breathless almost ten years ago, postwar nihilism was “in” with youth, so it was “in” with him; Breathless was nihilistic. (It was his first film, and it seemed a personal statement.) Today the cognate youth-group is politically activist, so La Chinoise is Maoist.

I do not suggest that Godard is forbidden to change or that he should distort the current state of society or should abandon his interest in youth—which is really his only interest. But from the course of his work one may deduce a consistent belief: Young equals Good, Older equals Bad.

Easy Rider, 1969

The hippie life is the most credible I have seen in a fiction film. And visually, imaginatively, the picture captures a sense of journey, of the hunger for frontier in American space, the feeling that there ought to be a possible large-spirited life in a large land, that the very ability to move through this country is a refutation of the crabbed lives on every side. But, like so many films whose aim is to tell some truth, it gets a bit cross-eyed as it gets closer to its goal. There is some arrant triteness and falseness. The aide-de-camp of the drug-buyer, with his dark glasses and death’s-head cane, is a comic-book figure. When the cyclists fix a flat in a rancher’s barn, we look past them to the rancher shoeing a horse. (Get it?) The meal with the rancher and his family under the trees is third-rate Steinbeck. The scene where the two youths go swimming with two hippie girls is all cliché; swimming—particularly in the nude—is by now a very weary objective correlative for purity of heart.

Harold Pinter with Stanley Kauffmann on his show "The Art of Film," New York, 1960s.

Lolita, 1998

Bill Clinton influences the film world. The missile attacks that he recently ordered have revived interest in Wag the Dog. His personal behavior has extended permissiveness in public discussion; so it has, in some degree, affected the atmosphere in which Lolita arrives. Candor passed a milestone in this country with a comment by a man interviewed on a news program last month: “I never thought I’d have to explain oral sex to my eleven-year-old daughter.” And this is only one of the fractures of reticence that have lately been crackling all around us.

Clinton is not into pedophilia like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. Still, his sexual activities and the publicity about them have made a difference, I’d guess, in the possible shock quotient of this film. No one in his right mind, or even a fragment of it, would make light of pedophilia; but a work of art on that subject cannot now be as completely—or merely—shocking today as it once was. “Once” means a year ago.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1965

Love, still making the world go round, still makes the rounds of the cinema world. In France, for example, it seems that one can win the Grand Prize and the Cannes Festival by taking one of the oldest of French film love stories and pasting on a new technical gimmick—letting all the characters sing their dialogue instead of speaking it. The story of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the one about the boy and the girl who are too idyllic to be careful, and when he is forced to go away before they can marry (this time it’s the Army), she discovers just exactly how careless she has been. Practical Maman, not wasting much time on shock, sets out to find a man who will be broadminded enough to marry her daughter anyway. Years later, the girl and the boy, now both married, meet briefly, to squeeze out about 12 cc. of tristesse before they part again forever. It all proves that no nation can manufacture synthetic national goods like the nation itself. The worst “French-type” shoddy comes from France.

Saving Private Ryan, 1998

For me, who was glued to a radio on that June 6th, ankle deep in newspapers, no honor, no tribute, no regard can possibly be too much for the men who went ashore that day. But the film wasn’t made solely to recreate that invasion, which is where the bafflement sets in. The film acts as if, from that large beginning, it moves to a special point; but it doesn’t. Spielberg has said, “How do you find decency in the hell of warfare. That was what attracted me to the project.” But every World War II film I can remember, and many other war films, have dealt with comradeship and sacrifice. Saving Private Ryan leaves us with the sense that a master director made a film while searching for its unique point and never quite found it.

Bed and Board, 1971

Truffaut can be called a Hollywood director without a Hollywood.

In daily Hollywood practice, what it came down to was that directors under contract to a studio were supplied with scripts by the studio. The director was simply one step, though a major one, in the manufacturing process from studio executive to consumer. He didn’t have to find his subjects himself—certainly not in himself—as artists, film or otherwise, have usually done.

This, I would guess, is the aspect of Hollywood that Truffaut misses most. He has seemingly run out of sources, novels or other materials that genuinely spark him, and even his latest autobiographical films have been thinned out into entertainments. Heaven, for Truffaut, would presumably be the chance to work in an old-time studio with no responsibility to originate material, with a front-office that bombarded him with scripts, some of which he was obligated to direct. What a happy misery. Nothing to do but direct, just as if directing—in that merely executant sense—were filmmaking.

Eyes Wide Shut, 1999

I had lunched with Kubrick in New York two years earlier. (One remark lingers. I praised Peter Sellers’s three roles in Dr. Strangelove, and Kubrick said dryly, “Yes, three performances for the price of six.”) We had lunched because I was inviting Kubrick to appear on a series about film that I was then doing on PBS in New York; he had seen some of the programs and was sufficiently interested to meet and talk about it, though eventually he declined. He was now living abroad and he was working on a film. “This obviously makes it impossible.” (Despite which, he had wanted to think it over.) “In addition to this,” he said, “I have steadfastly avoided talks, lectures, etc., because they tend to formalize my own thinking, which I think would not be a good thing.” I never forgot his statement because, as it seemed to me, it was almost a prophecy.

Isolated—notoriously so—in his country home and in his studio, he became more concerned with filmmaking than with films. Yes, themes can be discerned in his work, and since his death the winkling out of Kubrick themes has bloomed into a small critical industry. Certainly violence and cynical bleakness are patent in his work, but they seem structural conveniences to him rather than burning concerns. From 2001 on, with longer and longer periods of time between pictures, he became centered on the solution of problems, technical and narrative, rather than on creating work aimed at the responses of the viewer. Solipsism became king in the Kubrick studio; formalism became supreme. This is a long way from design, which is a beauty and blessing in art, a means of affecting people. Formalism is a tyranny even when self-imposed, as it usually is.

Last Year at Marienbad, 1962

I am something of a traditionalist, I suppose, and when I saw Last Year at Marienbad, it warmed my conservative heart. “Here,” I thought, “is respect for tradition. Here is a welcome return to the principles of the free French film of the twenties—Delluc, Dulac, Jean Epstein, early René Clair, Cocteau. How pleasant to see a proper regard for the past in young folks.” Imagine my surprise to find Alain Resnais, the director, being hailed everywhere as an innovator, a daring experimentalist, an avant-gardien. Were all these reviews and articles one huge typographical error? I felt relieved when I read that Resnais made no such claim to be an innovator and declared his debt to predecessors including D. W. Griffith.

The film is very interesting. It is not very moving. No characters are created; the actors, by and large, merely pose—as photographic and symbolic elements. The technique becomes the end instead of the means. We find ourselves saying, “Yes, that is remarkably like the way the conscious and subconscious gambol and struggle with each other,” but of the effect of that gambol and struggle, we feel little. Still there is no reason why all motion pictures must be alike or achieve the same results. There is plenty of room for one like this, which provides a stimulating hour and a half. And it is good to see that someone (French, of course) has revived some of the film’s oldest and most respectable techniques.

Two or Three Things I Know about Her, 1970

Two or Three Things is more interesting than many other Godard films because, for one reason, it seems to have sustained the director’s own interest; there is no feeling, as in Pierrot le Fou, that this very bright man has embarked on something to which he is committed long after his darting mind has really left it and that he is forced to invent irreverences and interpolations to keep himself interested. For another reason, the film is devoid of the worst aspects of Youth Worship that sometimes taint his work; it is about people, some of whom are young.

But the impasted artistic and philosophical freight is once again tedious. The interviewing of characters by an unseen interviewer, which is supposed to break open conventional film form, is now a Godardian convention. The sound-track, with Godard quoting away, has an air of dormitory discovery, under the midnight lamp, what life and metaphor are All About. When we get a huge close-up of bubbles floating on the surface of coffee in a cup while Godard whispers about Being and Nothingness, it remains bubbles and quotations; there is no transformation into philosophical comment or Pongeist poem.

Wag the Dog, 1998

Political satire makes us feel good. Ever since it began in dramatized form—2,400 years ago with Aristophanes—it has been a means by which an audience of the powerless could enjoy criticism of the powerful. Curiously, however, in modern times the critical function has been at least matched by another function that had always lurked below and has now grown: vengeance.

The only gratifying revenge we can have on the powerful, not only for their actions but for being powerful, is through satire. It has not resulted in much change in America, and now it may result in even less, but, oh, does it make us feel better. Will Wag the Dog deter another Panama or Grenada adventure? We can doubt it. But at least the film demonstrates, with wit, that we are not unwitting. Our laughter at the film is our moment of absolute equality with our governors.

Some Like It Hot, 1959

Lately, in the wave of sentimentality that always seems to follow success, much has been written to the effect that Miss Monroe is not merely attractive but also has gifts as a comedienne. She has few. She is not nearly as good an actress, for instance, as her Continental counterpart, Miss Bardot; she lacks the French girl’s voice, verve, moderate technical proficiency, and certainly lacks her range. But by now Miss Monroe and her advisers have learned where her strengths lie, and this role is superbly designed to conceal the weaknesses and display the strengths—physical and personal. One aspect of her superiority over such pneumatic dummies as Jayne Mansfield, Anita Ekberg, and Diana Dors is that she has learned not to take sex seriously. As a performer she kids sex; and as a character, in this film, she is so humble about her attractiveness that her effect is equal parts sexual and endearing. It is rumpled, unpretentious, good-hearted sex.

Lola Montes, 1969

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.

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. And the acting of most of the principals is very bad.

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.”

The worst aspect of this approach is that it crimps the film out of its cultural heritage: the cinematic and 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.”