At one point I had a shelf of film criticism books.  It consisted of a number of Pauline Kael books, a bunch of Roger Ebert books and two books by Stanley Kauffmann.  They are a great trio of American film critics and they are, sadly, all gone now.  Kael has been gone for a long time, and was no longer writing at the end, but she was still reviewing films for the New Yorker when I first started subscribing, back in college.   I wrote a piece on Roger Ebert when he died, a short piece that I put together in the 15 minutes after I learned of his death and before I left work.  And now Stanley Kauffmann has died, bowing out at the grand old age of 97.

Ebert had years of being on television, and all those reviews that were so easily accessible on the web.  Kael had her legions of devoted fans who hinged on every review and bought all of her books.  Kauffmann didn’t have either of those things, but he had a great body of work.  I don’t have pictures of Kauffmann to throw up and there wouldn’t be much point, as he wouldn’t be recognized like Ebert was.  But to give you an idea of the importance (and longevity) of Kauffmann’s critical work, I have two books by him.  One is a late book called Regarding Film: Criticism & Comment, published in 2001 and covering much of the late 90’s.  I bought that at Borders because it was being returned and I only had one of his books at the time and wanted to buy it instead, even though I really didn’t have the money to spend on it.  The other book I have of his, which I bought when I was still at Powells, is A World on Film: Criticism and Comment, his first film book, covering his initial several years of reviewing films for The New Republic, dating back to 1958.  That book was published in 1966.

In between those books was decades of work, decades of which can be found in his other work, books I need to get (I have read several of them, but I only have the two).  If you want to learn how to review a film, how to care about a film, how to watch a film, you can learn a lot from reading Kauffmann, an underappreciated critic who deserves to be remembered.  He could be funny (“Ben-Hur cost $15 million, and in my opinion is worth it.  I wish I owned a small piece of it; it is obviously the best business venture since General Motors.”) and could be unflinching in the flaws he saw in a film (“Kubrick, who had been nursing this project for years, insisted not only on ignoring Schnitzler’s recognition of the necessary pastness of the story, but on transposing it to New York.  Thus Kubrick coolly disregarded all that his audience has encountered of enlightenment in these matters in this century, not least in the films of Ingmar Bergman.”).  Like any critic, there are things I disagree with him on; his passionate objections to Burt Lancaster and his acting ability for one (“That Huston could not get a good performance out of Lancaster cannot be held against him, but he has achieved what no other director has done: he has got a bad performance out of lovely, miscast Audrey Hepburn” or “Miller has had consistently bad luck with the films made from his plays.  All My Sons had Burt Lancaster in it.” or “Schell, if he will fall out of love with his quick sweet smile, can be a good actor.  Lancaster cannot.”).

If you love film, then take some time and read some of Kauffmann’s work.  He’s gone now and there won’t be any more.  So be grateful for what you’ve got.

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