Kauffmann Syndrome

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-07-19 17:00:00-04:00 No comments

On a whim I checked out a compendium of Stanley Kauffmann's writing on film. Most of the reason I bothered with it was to find out about movies from his time that I might have missed, not because I like Kauffmann's criticism as such. The experience ended up being more of a window into certain attitudes held by cinematic tastemakers of his day, most of which have dated poorly.

Kauffmann held films to high standards, but I always got the feeling it wasn't because he wanted to see better films — more like, it was because he was disappointed so many of them didn't meet his standards, which not the same thing at all. It says something that one of the most highly praised films in the book is Murder On The Orient Express. I say this knowing full well delivering a good piece of pop art is in itself art, and that respect I agree with him. Ditto The China Syndrome, which he compared to Z in terms of its thrill factor (he's right). And there are times when his dyspepsia is my own (Bertolucci's 1900 is indeed an awful movie).

Still, a lot of Kauffmann's analyses have aged badly. I think some of that is nothing more than the fact that most cultural criticism in the moment ages badly — yesterday's critical darling is today's old news, and yesterday's overlooked curio is today's classic. But his takedowns of Robert Altman seem less like actual critiques and more like a swell of resentment against a man who wasn't nonconformist in the way Kauffmann wanted. (You don't get a say in how other people choose to be originals.) And the old saw that a good piece of pop entertainment beats pretentious faffery wasn't particularly insightful in his age either, but to use it to elevate Orient Express over A Woman Under The Influence just seems like chicanery: checkmate, film snobs! Why attempt to rank two films that aren't even for the same audiences, let alone attempting to accomplish remotely similar goals? To top it off, his appreciation of Orient is bizarrely childish: he actually praises the filmmakers for placing the suspects in a semi-circle at the climax and having Poirot work his way through them, along with some other Film School 101 fluff. He also thinks Woman is intended as being "realist", when it's clearly a lot closer to the Douglas Sirk school of melodrama — admittedly not a flavor for everyone, but the misclassification of the film's intentions and tone is a big part of why his discussion of it makes no sense to me.

I can't help but feel he liked Orient because it was entertaining to him and disliked Woman because it was not, and couldn't just own up and say that, and so had to attack Woman for being a failure of form and content and Orient for being a success. For him it wasn't even about one movie failing on its own terms and another succeeding; it had to be about one movie being superior to the other, generically, and — this to me was the real thumb in the eye — to pitch that as some cleverly counterintuitive reading of both films. A pop entertainment can actually be better than a purported art film? Don't stop the presses.

Maybe that's the reason I found so much of Kauffman's writing dated, both because many of the films he lays into have been vindicated by time and more thoughtful examination — and by my own feeling that to discuss art in a hierarchical way, to pit films against each other, just forces you to adopt unfair standards about everything. There are better films and worse films, but always relative to their intentions, their audiences, their aesthetics — and the trick, I guess, is to talk about that without atomizing movies to the point where all aesthetics are relativized, where there are no bad films because everything potentially has a fanbase of one. That's a mistake too. But the trick is to be at least as honest as you can about the fact that every movie is aimed at someone somewhere, and that a good critic has to figure out how to receive the movie in that spirit.

Tags: Stanley Kauffmann criticism critics