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Stanley Kauffmann dies at 97; longtime film critic

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Film critic Stanley Kauffmann, who in the 20th century helped define movie reviews as an intellectual form, died of pneumonia Wednesday at St. Luke's Hospital in New York. He was 97.

His death was announced by the New Republic, the politics and culture magazine that published his criticism for more than five decades.

Although Kauffmann's commentary tended toward the intellectual and often went against the grain — finding fault in heralded movies such as "The Godfather," "Pulp Fiction" and "Full Metal Jacket" — he championed the rise of serious cinema in the late 1950s and 1960s.

"Stanley electrified educated people with the news that movies had become one of the high arts again, and that there were contemporary works — by Bergman, Truffaut, Antonioni, and many other directors — the equal of the masterpieces of the silent era," said longtime compatriot and current New Yorker critic David Denby in a tribute posted Wednesday by the New Republic.

Although many of the films Kauffmann acclaimed in that era came from Europe or other foreign locales, he found much to admire in contemporary American films, such as "Schindler's List," "Platoon," "Roxanne," "Tender Mercies" and "River's Edge." And he unabashedly loved some comedy classics, such as "Some Like It Hot."

But he recognized that much of the time, he was out of the mainstream. He told interviewer Charlie Rose in 1998 that he turned down an invitation to participate in a survey by the American Film Institute on the top 100 U.S. movies.

"I didn't want to be trampled," Kauffmann said, "under the thundering herd of opinions that I didn't agree with."

Stanley Kauffmann was born April 24, 1916, in New York. As a child he started going to the theater, and it became his first professional love. Even before graduating from New York University in 1935, he acted and performed other duties in off-Broadway theater. He wrote numerous short plays, including a children's work in rhymed verse, "Bobino." Its production had in its cast a nearly unknown Marlon Brando performing in pantomime.

Kauffmann also worked in book publishing, on and off, for about 10 years, during which he scored two major successes. At Ballantine Books in 1953 he promoted a science fiction novel about a future in which books were burned, "Fahrenheit 451," by Ray Bradbury. Then during a short stint at Alfred A. Knopf, he came upon a manuscript, "The Moviegoer," and worked with its young author, Walker Percy. "The Moviegoer" went on to win a National Book Award in 1962, but by the time it came out Kauffmann had been fired from Knopf.

He landed at the New Republic in 1958, where he sang the praises of European film directors. Of Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura," which he reviewed in 1961, he said, "The first 10 minutes make it clear that this is the work of a discerning, troubled, uniquely gifted artist who speaks to us through the refined center of his art." In reviewing Federico Fellini's "8 1/2" in 1963, Kauffmann said the resolution of the film was unsatisfactory but that it little mattered. "The reason that certain operas exist is that certain singers existed who could sing them," Kauffmann wrote. "The prime reason for this film is that Fellini is a prodigious film virtuoso."

Kauffmann took a brief, unhappy interlude from the New Republic in 1966 to become the New York Times' theater critic. But his intellectual, often negative reviews did not sit well with the Broadway community, according to Gay Talese's book about the paper, "The Kingdom and the Power." After only eight months, Kauffmann was out.

He returned to the New Republic, where he continued to promote serious film endeavors. But as time went on, he expressed frustration at over-the-top efforts he considered pretentious. "The rhetoric of seriousness," he wrote in his 1980 book, "Before My Eyes," "is one of the subtler plagues of our time." He also shot down many Hollywood films.

But if he found a serious, big-budget film to his liking, he put up no barriers to embracing it. In his 1994 review of "Schindler's List," he said that he thought the movie so worthy that he watched it a second time. "I noted subtle compositions, astringent editing, overall vigor of construction that had certainly affected me the first time — I had thought it superbly made — but now seemed even more astonishingly fine."

Kauffmann was active well into his 90s, writing a piece for the magazine as recently as August, in which he reviewed independent films "Our Nixon," "Israel: A Home Movie" and "Museum Hours."

Kauffmann's wife of 69 years, Laura, died last year. They had no children.

Despite his long career, Kauffmann said he didn't get bored with seeing movies so often as a critic. "No matter how much I know about a film's makers or its subject before I go, I never really know what it's going to do to me," he wrote in 1974, "depress me with its vileness, or just roll past, or change my life in some degree, or some combination of all three, or affect me in some new way that I cannot imagine."

Besides, he wrote in the same essay, "I still get a thrill out of getting in free."

david.colker@latimes.com

steven.zeitchik@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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