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Film Critic Stanley Kauffmann Dies at 97

Stanley Kauffmann, the American Jewish film critic who died on October 9 at age 97 was termed “one of the oldest working critics in history” in obits, but he was more than just a Methuselah among the thumbs-up-or-down crowd. Kauffmann’s long life gave him time to gain useful artistic experience and erudition by trying to be an actor, playwright, novelist, and editor. The result was erudition unusual in the journalistic milieu, being able to casually throw a word such as “animadverting” into a conversation, or refer to the 18th century author Samuel Johnson’s long poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes.”

Manhattan-born Kauffmann was the son of a prosperous dentist, but after studies at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and NYU, he took on day jobs to support his artistic ambitions. One such, as he revealed to author David Hajdu,, was as textual editor of Captain Marvel comic strips: “I did the [comics] work for the paycheck, so I could do my own writing and provide future historians the grounds for my canonization, or such was my plan.”

With typical percipience, Kauffmann observed the relation between comic book frames and film story boards setting up camera shots in film as narrative elements, but his novels did not get him canonized. Yet as Dawn Sova’s “Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds” recounts, a certain notoriety occurred when Kauffmann’s 1950s novel “The Philanderer,” about a tormented sex addict always chasing after the “janes, the jazzy, jazzy janes,” ran into censorship trouble in its British edition. Kauffmann was likewise alert to the universal link between cinema and eros, which he would claim dawned on him as a high school boy on a date with a girl who after one kiss, magically seemed to transform into Joan Crawford before his eyes.

Kauffmann’s writing about theatre was also candid about erotic motivations among sexual minorities, as in his notorious 1966 Sunday New York Times screed, “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” which without naming names, alluded to the “viciousness towards women, the lurid violence … the transvestite sexual exhibitionism” in plays by gay authors Edward Albee, William Inge, and Tennessee Williams. In a 1967 interview reprinted in “Conversations with Stanley Kauffmann” (University Press of Mississippi) he would explain that this analysis was meant to express societal pressures on minority authors in theatre; he went on to liken suppressed gay themes to previously suppressed Jewish themes in the works of Samuel Nathaniel (S. N.) Behrman (1893–1973), a once-celebrated playwright:

“We’ve had this kind of masquerading before in the theatre. Between wars, we had a very successful Jewish writer of high comedy in the American theatre. He went through all kinds of agonies of readjustment of values, recasting of stories, and distortions of characters, so that he could write plays that would not have a Jew or a Jewish phrase in them, because he felt that plays about Jews would not fly. He probably was right at the time, unless it was a sentimental Jewish play, like ‘The Jazz Singer.’ So this matter of having to disguise is an old problem in the theatre, and possibly it’s a sign of progress that it’s gone past disguising political principles in allegorical terms, gone past disguising Jews as gentiles: now it’s reached the border of the question of whether homosexuals need to disguise their lives.”

Acutely aware of his own status as a Jewish writer, Kauffmann was suspicious of expressions of the Holocaust in the arts, as he wrote in a 1964 article praising the novel “Blood from the Sky” by the Ukrainian Jewish author Piotr Rawicz (1919–1982):
“What is a writer of fiction to do with the German mass murder of the Jews? Leave it alone, if he can. Besides the magnitude of the matter, there is the familiar and usually true observation that fiction cannot equal the facts themselves.”

Onscreen in later years, the Holocaust was a more acceptable theme for Kauffmann, especially the French Jewish director Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (1985), which he recalled in 2001,: “Claude Lanzmann made Shoah. That four-word sentence, for me, is chiseled in rock. A monument, a monumental achievement. Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust is more than a work to be praised: it is a gigantic block of evidence for future beings on this planet, more elevated than us, I hope, to show them some of the profound darkness that had been possible in the past.” Kauffmann also admired Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993) so much that he wrote two articles to say so, in 1993 when the film was released and again in 1994.. Yet he loathed other fictional attempts, such as Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” (1997), calling its plot “blatantly impossible…theatrically phony…an actor’s shallow conceit.”

Among American Jewish filmmakers, Kauffmann disliked the Coen Brothers’ “adolescent trickery and sententiousness” and wrote loftily of their “Fargo” (1996): “The results are mixed, but at least they are not uniformly pretentious.” Kauffmann could be snappish and even insulting when irritated by something, such as Woody Allen’s acting skills. Kauffmann called Allen’s performance in “Bananas” (1971) the “quintessence of Amateur Night. [Allen] confuses the ability to write comedy with the ability to perform it.” Of “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1994), Kauffmann wrote: “The picture’s one big drawback, which keeps it from being completely amusing, is Allen’s performance. He cannot act. He never could act. There’s no sign, at this late date, that he ever will be able to act.”

On a more upbeat note, among Kauffmann’s late reviews are some enthusiastically promoting Israeli cinema, such as his 2012 article on “Footnote”, writer-director Joseph Cedar’s story about Talmudic studies, and his very last article, posted in August, praising “Israel: A Home Movie” in which director Eliav Lilti interwove snippets from home movies made from the 1930s to the 1970s: “Some titles embrace us. They seem to have been waiting, affectionately quintessential – the heart of the matter. Such is ‘Israel: A Home Movie.’ It fits so snugly into a preconception we didn’t know we had that we feel as if we have already seen the film, and want to see it again.”

To some loyal readers, it seemed as if Kauffmann might go on forever, seeing, re-seeing, and recalling films and plays, but in a February online review of the Dustin Hoffman-directed film “Quartet,” (2012) set in an improbably lush British rest home for retired musicians, Kauffmann made an atypically wistful allusion to mortality: “It occurred to me that if elderly musicians ever dream of an afterlife, it might be much like this. An exquisitely furnished, spacious Valhalla, well-staffed, and full of old chums. The life beyond, as Hoffman might agree, could certainly be worse.”

Benjamin Ivry writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.

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