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Stanley Kauffmann, the New Republic’s Film Critic of 54 Years, Dies at 97

Stanley Kauffmann, the New Republic's Film Critic of 54 Years, Dies at 97

The New Republic announced this morning that Stanley Kauffmann, who had been the magazine’s critic for more than half a century, died this morning at the age of 97. The length of Kauffmann’s tenure is almost unimaginable — it’s safe to his record will never be broken — as, more importantly, is the sustained quality of his work. Apart from Ten Great Films, which features Kauffmann writing on The Gold Rush, Rashomon, Some Like It Hot and Tokyo Story among others, most of the printed collections of his work are out of print, but TNR‘s site has a generous selection of his work available, including his final review, of Our Nixon, Museum Hours and Israel: A Home Movie. Consider how many critics even a third his age show such an interest in under-the-radar films.

Before he was a film critic, Kauffmann was a literary agent, responsible for helping Walker Percy shape The Moviegoer into its final form . (He also published a novel, The Philanderer, which was prosecuted for obscenity in Britain.) Kauffmann’s 1966 TNR attack on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was doubly definitive:  In taking aim at Capote’s “congenital inability to write straightforward English,” Kauffmann indicates not only his critical preferences but the strength of his writing, which which was elegant but never florid, breathtaking in its erudition and yet utterly approachable in style. (No wonder he loved the neo-neorealist films of Bahman Ghobadi.) Here he is on Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, in a breezy but tightly packed paragraph you could spend days thinking about:

[T]he film’s quality — and it has a quality, sad, desperate, ludicrous, entangled — comes from the collaboration of Lumet and his actors. First, right down the line, he has cast every part perfectly. Then, with his principals, he has worked with just enough control and enough relaxation to create tight naturalistic surfaces that evoke ambiguous inward states — a dialectic that parallels Allen’s editing. 

Critic Tim Grierson pointed me to one of his favorite pieces, “Why I’m Not Bored,” from 1974, in which Kauffmann answers the question every critic gets asked eventually: Don’t you ever get bored with seeing movies?

[T]he answer is a firm no. A happy no. To salute the obvious, this doesn’t mean that I never see boring films or that I am unborable. On the contrary I’m somewhat more acutely borable — by reason, I tell myself, of professional acuteness — than most of my friends. But the idea of going to films is never boring. The editor of TNR once generously suggested that I also write about television from time to time. The prospect of merely crossing the living room to switch on TV dramas was numbing. But even when I have to leave the house to see the most unpromising of films (and I limit myself to those with at least some promise), there is something beyond the specifics of the film that tingles and attracts.

On the occasion of Kauffmann’s 50th anniversary at The New Republic, Jeremy McCarter wrote a Newsweek profile that called Kauffmann “a cultural critic for the ages.” And now, like Lincoln, he belongs to the ages.

Criticwire will continue to collect tributes to Kauffmann throughout the day, and invites readers to leave their own in the comments.

Carrie RickeyThe Philadelphia Inquirer:

My favorite review of Kauffmann’s was about Ed Zwick’s Glory. I can’t find it online, but I remember the description “patient and bloody.” Such simple words to convey complexity.You can tell a lot about a critic by whether his/her best pieces are appreciative or slams, and Kauffmann’s best pieces were positive reviews. I loved that he was the guy who discovered the manuscript of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. 

James WoolcottVanity Fair:

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 DenbyThe New Yorker:

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. 

David ThomsonThe New Republic:
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. 

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