Saturday, October 05, 2002

No one writes sharper or more stinging film commentary than Stanley Kauffmann:

A Finnish weight lifter named Jouko Ahola, as Zishe, is so ungifted an actor and tries so earnestly to do his role well that there is something sweet about him. On the other hand, Tim Roth, as Hanussen, is so convinced of his talent and is so mistaken that he is close to unbearable.

Same article, different film:

...the picture completely lacks the still-cherished de Broca touch. The best that kindness can say is that On Guard was made by a competent director. At least in Herzog's film we can see traces of the younger man. Not here.

This from a man who starts out warbling about the vitues of kindness!

Ruthless lack of sentimentality is one of several hallmarks of Kauffman's style. There is also the absolute precision of his writing style. And there is the fact that he is a teacher as well as a critic. Like all good teachers he never stops being a student -- in virtually every review, he shares, rather than displays, learning.

Just a few years ago, he did something that only critics of a certain advanced age ever dare attempt: he reversed an earlier opinion. The film in question was ViscontiÕs The Leopard, and his intial review in 1963 was decidely mixed. Technically, it was fantastic, but the pacing was off, certain scenes were extraneous, and the acting was terrible. In the end, he concluded, it was "ill-made, incohesive, tedious."

"I looked up my review and blushed," he confessed in the August 15, 2000 issue of The New Republic, which has been his home since 1958. "Yes, I had praised the film's visual splendor, but I wriggled now at the rest." Re-examining the film at some length, he finds "Visconti's hand figuratively caressing every measure of sumptuousness, of cultural texture, in scene after scene ...The very last moment of the picture, in a small Palermo square at midnight, where the prince kneels and crosses himself when a priest and acolytes hurry past to someone's bedside, now seems a peak in film art."

Why had he gone so wrong before? Kauffmann considers the question and thoughtfully muses on why it is that fixed opinions are so fixed.

"Our minds are freighted with beliefs that we may no longer believe,Ó he writes. "... Filed away in the recesses of our minds are thousands of opinions that we have accumulated through our lives, and they make us think that we know what we think on all those subjects. We do not. All we know is what we once thought, and any earlier view of a work, if tested, might be hugely different from what we would think now."

Taken together, the two reviews, seperated by 40 years, are vintage Kauffmann: skillfully negotiating the murky path between a filmÕs undoubted assets and its ultimate downfall, and then, questioning whatever baggage a film brings with it, even if itÕs his own previous opinion.

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