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Remembering Film Critic Stanley Kauffmann

The articulate observer who was unafraid to disagree with popular opinion

Allen Lowe
October 11, 2013
Stanley Kauffmann.(Newsweek)

Stanley Kauffmann.(Newsweek)

I was surprised by how wronged I felt by news of the death of Stanley Kauffmann; I never knew him, never spoke to him; all I did was read his work for about 40 years. Beyond being a constant source of sharp aesthetic observation, he always had the good sense to know what was decent and interesting and what was bad or uninteresting and unworthy from both an intellectual and technical and, once again aesthetic, sense. He was also something of a lifeline for me to a literate world in which, for a brief time, intellectual discipline was a function of—or, really, a parallel to—aesthetic discipline, expressed as a matter of course rather than exception by both critics and artists.

A lot of it has to do with the kind of personal insecurity felt by the constant autodidact, who spends his days, nights, and then years working to reinvent himself, usually to little public avail. A critic like Stanley Kauffmann, so far outside of The Academy in both intent and practice, seemed to be an adjunct to the self, as a public intellectual in the best sense, lacking in self-importance or ponderous theoretizing, yet completely sure of himself in ways that lacked any taint of arrogance or pomposity. Most admirably, he was completely unafraid to assert himself within the broad boundaries of his own personal means and methods of advocacy, lacking the fear that he would be isolated by his own dissent or exiled by any inability to match his intellect to anything resembling a supposed social or intellectual consensus.

His was an example of intellectual courage both rare and difficult, subject as such constant dissent is to charges of bitterness or jealousy or an inability to “fit in” with civilized discourse. But constantly dissent is exactly what he did, and his opinions never aligned themselves with the popular press or the blogs or the electronic media. Kauffmann never worried about being considered too “negative” as he excoriated the American entertainment system of film and theater making. He just did it and explained his reasons for doing so, never got personal nor felt a need to defend his right to do so, and made his points in ways that were so rationally and aesthetically (in terms of both language and ideas) pleasing that he at once appeared to have both personal style and intellectual righteousness on his side. He never closed the argument by making you feel there was no room for opposition, but he did make you wonder, by the power and comprehensiveness and just plain rationality of his argument, if you disagreed with him, whether or not it was time for a reassessment of your own basic assumptions or conclusions. Such was the strength of his all-encompassing intellect. Like another great critic, Richard Gilman, he was so matter of fact in his depth of knowledge and ability to express his depth of knowledge that one left his essays not only personally smarter and more aware than ever before, but also somehow more rational and even, dare I say it, civilized. His writing was its own little world, of such clarity and smartness, intellectual safety and reassuring rationality, that one left it, for the wider (artistic) world, at one’s own excessive risk.

One reads Kauffmann in relation to other critics as one hears one’s own music in relation to other musicians. The perspective born of observation is similar: other critics have more surface style—or is it really just gesture and mannerism? Other critics have more academic degrees and affiliations—or do they just retain a knack for post-intellectual, discursive rationale with little basis in working and breathing reality (otherwise known as The Real World)? Other critics have more technical ability—or is it really just a certain ease and facility that they maintain, lacking the soul possessed by Kauffmann, which lies in his whole sense of operative, immediate, and constantly evolving history? His CV may be lacking, but in real terms and in real time it’s another world—no, it’s another word, of integration of ideas and principles with their means of execution, into what I would call, in what I hope may be my own epitaph, a true intellect of form.

Allen Lowe is a saxophonist, guitarist, and American music historian who has written extensively on jazz, the blues, country music, and American popular song. His last CD, Blues and the Empirical Truth, was chosen as one of the Top 15 of 2011 by the New Republic. He lives in South Portland, Maine.

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