Stanley Kauffmann on Criticism, Theater and Film

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Stanley Kauffmann has been active in criticism since 1958. At that time he became the film critic of The New Republic, the journal he has been associated with ever since, except for an eight-month period in 1966 when he was the theater critic of The New York Times. From 1969 to 1979 he served as both film and theater critic of The New Republic. He continues as film critic but wrote theater criticism for the Saturday Review for five years, from 1979 to 1985. In 1974 Mr. Kauffmann was given the annual George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, and in 1982 he received the George Polk Award for his film criticism.

Mr. Kauffmann has published five collections of film cnticism: A WorUon Film (1966), Figures of Light (1971), Living Images (1975), Before My Eyes (1980), and Field of View (1986). He is editor (with Bruce Henstell) of the anthology American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to "Citizen Kane" (1972). And he has published two collections of theater miicism, Persons of the Drama (1976) and Theater Criticisms (1983).

At seventy-one, Stanley Kauffmann is the dean of American film and drama critics. Perhaps no other writer in American history has brought as much learning, style, and wit to the practice of regular reviewing. Without question, no other writer has ever iudged the "popular" arts of film and theater by higher standards.

The following interview took place in Mr. Kauffmann's New York apartment on July 29, 1987.

Bert Cardullo

University of Richmond

QUESTION: I'd like first to address the insistent criticism over the years that your film reviews have a literary bent. I understand why people make this criticism of you, but I don't agree with it. And I'd like you to comment on this subject, if you would.

KAUFFMANN: Well, I've always been amused, because my critics don't know what my chief defect is. Or was. I hope I've amended it in the course of time, but it was certainly there when I began. My defect wasn't that I had been writing novels or had been in publishing. I think I had published seven novels before I ever wrote film criticism-six, and the seventh came out later. It was that I approached films from the theatrical point of view, not from the literary one. I was educated for the theater. I worked for ten years in a repertory company, I'd written plays, I'd done some other work around the theater. Through these years I had always been going to films and loving them, but I had always thought of them as secondary.

QUESTION: As something a stage actor did when he couldn't get a New York theater job.

KAUFFMANN: Yes, when he, or a director or a writer, couldn't get work in the theater. I thought that it was wonderful to have films around, but they were like the vegetables around the roast: the roast was what mattered. And through a series of accidents, I became a film critic. And when I look back at some of those early reviews of mine, what I see is a theater person going to films.

QUESTION: Your theater background is certainly clear in your analysis and criticism of acting.

KAUFFMANN: I hope that's true; I've wanted it to be. I hope that element hasn't diminished. But I hope also that, through the years, I've learned more about film and about film values as such. I'm very anti the auteur theory, but I owe the auteur theory a debt. It made me look at films as films. And the auteur critics helped me to make the examination of purely filmic values part-not by any means the primary part, as it is with them, but certainly a part-of my criticism.

QUESTION: It's interesting that you say you're against the auteur theory. I'm against it and for it because, on the one hand, as you suggest, it is good to look at film as an autonomous, unique art form . Please explicate the other side.

KAUFFMANN: The other side is summed up in the one word, priorities. I can't be expected, I as an individual, can't be expected to leave at the door of the film theater all my experience of life and art and concentrate only on what the film has to offer me in cinema stylistics. …