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A Tribute: Stanley Kauffmann, 1916-2013

Unflagging dedication and unclouded acuteness of perception

We are saddened to report that Stanley Kauffmann, our film critic of more than five decades, died early this morning at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York at age 97. We will be adding to this tribute throughout the day.

James Wolcott

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. 

David Denby

In the early 1960s, when I was an undergraduate, I first began reading Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic, and I got pulled into his eloquent enthusiasms for the exciting new art coming to the States from Italy, France, Sweden, Japan, and Eastern Europe. “There was a masterpiece almost every week!” I heard him exclaim about ten years ago—a little hyperbolically, perhaps, but it felt that way at the time. If I may put it a little baldly, Stanley electrified educated people with the news that movies had become one of the high arts again, and that there were contemporary works—by Bergman, Truffaut, Antonioni, and many other directors—the equal of the masterpieces of the silent era. At the same time, he fought unfailingly, then and forever after, against kitsch of every kind—people are still quoting his disdain for such movies as Judgment at Nuremburg. (“I was castigated for my review of On the Beach, with the implication that anyone who found faults in the film was anti-peace. Prepared now to be thought pro-Nazi, I have to point out that [Stanley] Kramer is simply one more “spectacular” producer who treats social-political matters with the same Hollywood Apparat as if he were making a damp domestic drama: star-studded casts, irrespective of aptness role; ingenuity to keep the script within mass-digestion limits; and “big studio” camera treatment of important players.”)  In all, an invaluable critic.

David Thomson

For decades, readers of The New Republic could not comprehend that their beloved and trusted Stanley Kauffmann was in his seventies, his eighties, and then his nineties. He had started as film critic at the magazine in 1958. But he wrote like a young man, or like someone capable of falling in love once a week as he discovered some fresh glory. Stanley was born in 1916 (the year Griffith’s Intolerance opened). As  a boy he saw silent movies as they played New York. And there he was, at ninety-five, writing about new films with the old awe and delight. Not that he was a one-track person: He adored his wife of many years, Laura; he watched theater and wrote about it as well as he handled films. More than that, he had been a publisher’s editor, and among his coups there was one that embodied Stanley’s life and passions—he found a new novel and worked with the author and believed in it: It was The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy.

Stanley did not found a theory or make a cult out of his opinions. He had a steady and firm belief that amid so much commercial fodder the cinema could produce works of art and imaginative reach to live beside the best of the other arts. Over the years, he became a famous seeker-out of lesser known pictures, often in foreign languages, and unafraid of small, local subjects. He knew that the educated and creative eye is never impressed by size or locality. It saw aspects of the human spirit whether delivered by Nicholas Ray or Satyajit Ray, by Ingmar Bergman or Ingrid Bergman. This is not the easiest or most glamorous path for a film critic to take, especially in a culture that knows far too little about India, eastern Europe, Iran, Cuba, or what lies beyond the Hudson River. Stanley was a New Yorker through and through: You could hear it in his reasonable, dry but edgy writing. But he was a citizen of a wider world that was opened up in his lifetime by cameras and screens. When Stanley Kauffmann was born Intolerance was a daring and naive flight of American show business. By the time he died it was clearly a condition of the world from which there was no hiding. Stanley was one of a great generation that urged us to look and see; to watch and try to understand.