Sunday, October 27, 2013

Good grief! It's been months since i've written; i'm stuck in the middle of an article (which i hope to finish soon) about recent restorations. Right now, i'm in the midst of press screenings for DOC NYC, which this year looks to be a really impressive festival. I got through with the New York Film Festival a month ago: it was quite a festival, though i only got to about a third of the films. At the beginning of September, i finally saw some of the films at this year's NewFest; it's been four years since i've attended the NewFest.

But importantly, the last few weeks have brought a lot of sadness, because many people have died. Two weeks ago, Stanley Kauffmann died. For 55 years, he had been the film critic for The New Republic (give or take some time off, as in 1967-68, when he spent time as the theater critic for The New York Times): a remarkable run that has been documented in several books, starting with "A World On Film". I have to say: i was very disappointed in this week's New Republic (November 11, 2013); it included Stanley Kauffmann's last review, of a Czech docudrama ("Nicky's Family"), a French-language film ("The Artist and the Model") and the documentary about genocide in Indonesia ("The Act of Killing"); as usual, he is very precise and thoughtful in his approach to these movies; in fact, his review of "The Act of Killing" is one of the most trenchant i've read. But his last review was followed by a selection of his writings, and i must say, i was appalled, because the representation was unfortunately chosen. A lot of the selected quotes come from the first decade of his work at The New Republic, but what had been chosen were things which indicated that he was a very narrow critic. He was initially resistant to Ingmar Bergman, until he saw "Persona"; sure enough, the selection is from his review of "Winter Light", which shows him skeptical of Bergman; there are selections of reviews of Jacques Demy, Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Luc Godard, none of whom he was sympathetic to; yet he was the most eloquent defender of Michelangelo Antonioni, the early Philippe de Broca, Richard Lester, and Kenji Mizoguchi. During the 1970s, when the films of Yasujiro Ozu finally were distributed in the United States, his analyses of Ozu's films were always so acute.

One of the tests for a critic is if their enthusiasm illuminates: if the critic likes something, and can lead you to a deeper understanding, or even to an appreciation, of a work which initially struck you indifferently or negatively, then the critic has done an important job. And that was a test that Stanley Kauffmann effortlessly passed, time and again. He was also (as befitted someone who started out as a man of the theater) a sharp critic of acting. Here are some of the quotes which show him at his best.

"From the moment her crescent-moon nose comes through the door into her husband's office, we are in Miss (Kay) Kendall's power. Her slightly crazy ambience, her luscious voice and speech, the very delicacy of the bones in her wrists and hands, all these serve one of the theater's prime and serious functions: to give the audience someone to fall in love with. She is, moreover, a highly skilled professional, with more accent on the physical than one usually finds in comediennes." ("The Reluctant Debutante")

"Audrey Hepburn is a good young actress - limpid, compassionate, intelligent, and attractively dignified. She has generally been equal in talent and technique to what she has been asked to do. But her performance as Sister Luke in "The Nun's Story" is better than her sheer ability, as such, could make it: because her person is so right for the part. After she has done all she can do with knowledge and design, her beauty speaks for her." ("The Nun's Story")

"As for Antonioni himself: I have now seen "La Notte" three times and I speak carefully when I say that I think he is making a new art form. In this film, even more strikingly than in "L'Avventura", he is forging a new language apposite to a changed world. For a society theistically based and teleologically organized, the concepts of drama that derived substantially from Aristotle have sufficed for centuries. The film was born to that inheritance and, out of it, still produced fine works (although with a perceptibly increasing tinge of nostalgia). Antonioni has seen the dwindling force of this inheritance and is finding means to supplement it. He is achieving what many contemporary artists in his and other fields are seeking and not often with his success: renewal of his art rather than repetition." ("La Notte")

"It is a generation born since the advent of the sound-film, people who do not translate ideas into film terms but who think, create, breathe, purely cinematically. Influences and inheritances from the novel, play, painting, which can all be seen as themselves in the work of the best directors, have been well digested in Lester's work, have been turned into cinematic tissue. He is one of the film's New Men. There are risks in the sheer joy in being a New Man, in skimping (as noted) some of the obligations raised by the job undertaken. But there are also delights in it, and Lester has filled his film with them." ("The Knack")

"It is possibly risky to say, but the chief reward in "Late Spring" is not in its materials, gratifying though they are. The highest benefit - as in "Tokyo Story", though less strong - is appreciation of the artist himself. One is moved by a great deal in the film, but the ultimate and more moving of responses is one's regard for Ozu. This is in no way due to exhibitionism; most certainly it's not because of virtuosity a la Fellini. It's because everything in an Ozu film derives from his utter subscription to a view of life as infinitely sacred and of art as the most sacred exercise in life. He serves, rather than making anything serve him." ("Late Spring")

Anyway, those are just a few of the quotes from the early film criticism which better illustrate Stanley's insightfulness and eloquence. At least, i think so.

But the last few days have been wrenching: among those who died include Arthur C. Danto; Deborah Turbeville; the actress Marcia Wallace ("The Bob Newhart Show"); the director Antonia Bird ("Priest"); Lou Reed; and our neighbor Shirley Smith, who started in New York City in the 1950s as an actress and model (one of the original Maidenform Bra models, and a member of the original company of the Broadway show "Picnic") and became a painter. But time passes.

J. Hoberman noted that there's so much going on in film in New York now, and it's true. But one thing i'd like to mention is that Nick Pinkerton's piece on Tom Allen is up on the Moving Image Source website. It's an astute essay on the film culture of the 1970s, when Tom was working as the second string critic for The Village Voice (under Andrew Sarris) and then was the film editor for The Soho Weekly News (which is where i came in). One thing i'll say: i think we knew we were in a wonderful age of film, as new films were coming in which were incredibly original and startling, and the expanse of film history was being revived and renewed.

Film is changing again, exactly how is open to question. That's why the New York Film Festival proved to be so instructive, if nothing else. And i'm still thinking about what i saw.


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