Saturday, August 06, 2011

Let us now praise Stanley Kauffmann

It is almost as if designed. The last film of Claude Chabrol, who died in September, is such an apt example of his major gifts that it is almost as if he had planned a farewell. Inspector Bellamy ... is another of his mysteries in which the director seems at least as interested in the characters as he is in the mystery.

Chabrol said he wanted to pay homage to Georges Simenon, whose hundred-plus novels about Inspector Maigret are only a segment of his breathtaking output. ... A further impulse was the fact that Gérard Depardieu would be in the film -- his first with Chabrol -- and the director saw the present-day Depardieu as the epitome of the middle-aged Maigret: possibly a bit heavier, a bit slower, suggesting more understanding of criminals and greater hatred of crime.
That's from Stanley Kauffmann's review of Inspector Bellamy in The New Republic. Kauffmann has written about films at The New Republic for as long as I can remember; since, I think, the 1960s. He's the last of an old breed, writers who made a literary form out of movie criticism, just as others have done for book criticism. There was James Agee; there was Dwight Macdonald; Pauline Kael; and John Simon, who has retired from regular reviewing.

I usually disagree with the opinions in The New Republic, but from a literary standpoint it's way ahead of other political magazines with back-of-the-book arts coverage. And Kauffmann has earned his tenure. The average moviegoer has never heard of him, and probably most people who claim to take "the art of the cinema" seriously are only vaguely aware of him. (For one thing, he shames pseudo-sophisticates by his refusal to trade in academic jargon.) But his discussions of  films are almost unfailingly rewarding, regardless of whether you see, or have any interest in seeing, the film. I think he's the best movie critic now working, and always has been one of the best.


Respect for a film reviewer is not primarily a question of whether you agree with that reviewer's judgments. Pauline Kael wrote striking and original prose, although in my view she was often writing about a derivative movie in her mind rather than what was on the screen. John Simon has always been worth reading for his erudition and wit, but was a little harsh on anything less than a masterpiece, and given to gushing over the output of directors including Ingmar Bergman and Lina Wertmuller that varied in quality. As for Kauffmann, I probably trust his opinions as much as anyone's; but it's his perceptions and style that fit him out as distinguished.
Along the way, we can savor the clever little inventions by Chabrol to move his story along. For just one instance, Bellamy arrives at a woman's house and sees a watering can lying on the terrace floor. This leads to a blunt discovery. The whole sequence takes perhaps five seconds, but we can see that Chabrol searched beforehand for a means of revealing the fact without cliché.
He's a shrewd observer of the various arts that go into making a film, from cinematography to musical score to set design to editing to -- of course -- the director's overall vision. But he seems most in his element when he writes about acting. (He's also reviewed stage productions in New York, where the acting is what matters above all.)


The ordinary workaday movie reviewer for a newspaper or magazine commenting on a performance falls back on a handful of ready-made ideas: the actor was "miscast"; the two leads "lacked chemistry"; &c. Kauffmann is beyond that kind of piffle. He finds words that most of us couldn't about what makes a performance work, or not, or how.
One benefit that a really big film star provides is the assurance of embrace before we even see his or her new film. Depardieu himself knows that he doesn't have to begin, as most actors must, by winning the audience: that was done long ago. He can just enter and get right down to business, without implicit or explicit fanfare. What a warm dividend this kind of encounter is on the time we have invested in Depardieu.*
One of the toughest jobs for the movie reviewer is giving the reader a reasonable idea of what the film is about -- a certain minimum of description is unavoidable -- without giving a plot summary or being excessively detailed. That part gave me trouble when I was in the film reviewing racket. Kauffmann makes it seem easy, even though he doesn't have a lot of space to work in (he'll write about two or three movies in, I'd guess, no more than 1500 words). He has a facility for choice observations that say more in a sentence or two than most reviewers could in a dozen, even assuming they had equal insight:
Nothing Personal could not be more of a contrast to the Chabrol. It is a first film; it has a simple narrative with only two characters, though minor ones flit through occasionally; and we never learn their backgrounds or even their names. Finally, although every moment is realistic, the story is a fantasy -- it couldn't happen. Except that we see it happening.
How could anyone go to movies and write about them bi-weekly for over 40 years? Movie reviewing did my head in after a year or so in each of my stints. Of course, he gets to choose which movies he wants to see, and in New York has more and better options than most places. You'd think, nonetheless, it would become a deadly grind. But Stanley Kauffmann just sails on, with no apparent lack of enthusiasm and no decline of his consummate skill. I hope I'll still be reading his latest work years from now.


* I haven't seen Inspector Bellamy, but I thought of Kauffmann's words when I recently watched Depardieu in 36 Quai des Orfèvres, an absorbing if brutal crime movie. (The title is absurdly translated as 36th Precinct; Quai des Orfèvres is the location of Paris's police headquarters on the Ile de la Cité -- the name comes from the Middle Ages, when the quai was where workers in gold (or) did their trade. As for "Precinct," I think New York is the only city in the English-speaking world that uses the term for its police districts.)

Anyway, in the first shot where Depardieu appears, he dominates the scene -- and he hardly does a thing, just lights a cigarette. It's possible, as Kauffmann suggests, that we're primed to react to Depardieu and he can afford to underplay the moment. Still, not having seen him in a movie for some time, I was struck continually by how unobtrusively "right" his every expression and tone of voice was. I don't think I've appreciated his acting technique because it's never obvious. He just slips into a character like a perfectly fitting glove.


1 comment:

green mamba said...

Thank you for writing this. As a long-time fan of fine film criticism, I appreciated it, and agree for the most part with your assessments of Kauffmann, Kael and Simon.