“The Unknown Known”: The scope and limits of documentary
As an investigation, The Unknown Known adds little to our memory of Rumsfeld’s press conferences and his lugubrious ruminations over what words meant. The marvel of the film (and of other Morris projects) is the cold lucidity of the light in undeviating close-up on the “witness.”
The first time I met Stanley I had just started at The New Republic in the job of assistant literary editor, which has long entailed being the liaison between Stanley and the magazine. For several months I had spoken to him on the phone each week. I knew him by his singular voice, which had the genteel lilt of a nineteenth-century aristocrat. (“It’s delightful to hear from you, Laura dear.”) He was in his mid-nineties then, with bad eyesight, and used e-mail, endearingly, with cheerful ineptitude.
April 10, 1961
At last. Michelangelo Antonioni is an Italian director who has just made his seventh film and who is so highly esteemed abroad that there has already been an Antonioni Festival in London. For the eleven years of his career no Antonioni film has been released here. Now at last comes Avventura, which is the sixth of his works.
December 10, 1993
Steven Spielberg has made his own Holocaust museum. In Schindler's List (Universal), an adaptation by Steven Zaillian of Thomas Keneally's book, Spielberg has created a 184-minute account of the fate of Kraków's Jews under the German occupation, centered on the German businessman and bon vivant, Oskar Schindler, who devised a ruse to save 1,100 Jews from the Auschwitz ovens. A closing note tells us that in Poland today there are fewer than 4,000 Jews but in the world there are 6,000 "Schindler Jews," survivors and descendants.
January 24, 1994
If a film has genuine worth, it's more than one film. It changes with further viewings. The second time you see it, it's larger. This time you aren't "distracted" by the story, by discovering what happens next. You can concentrate on the qualities that made you want to see it again, usually acting or felicities of vision or both. (Third and later viewings—of especially fine films—have an even stranger effect: as you learn more about them, you simultaneously feel you're seeing them for the first time.
March 25, 1996
It's always fun to see a reliable old story smartly updated. This time it's the man and woman who are both in the news game, and this time of course it's the TV news game. The slick script is by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, suggested by an Alanna Nash novel, and it gleams with topical reference and knife-edge dialogue—not only non-cliché but anti-cliché. (By far the best Didion-Dunne screenplay so far.) It's called Up Close and Personal (Touchstone), and to ensure that the film belongs to its sub-genre, it has stars. Real stars.
March 24, 1997
Under the credits Kathleen Ferrier sings the haunting lament from Gluck's Orfèo. A man's voice says:I have to tell you that a very special little world has died and I am the designated mourner. Oh, yes, you see, it's all important custom in many groups and tribes. Someone is assigned to grieve, to wail, and light the public ritual fire. Someone is assigned when there's no one else.Thus begins Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner (First Look).
For decades, readers of The New Republic could not comprehend that their beloved and trusted Stanley Kauffmann was in his seventies, his eighties, and then his nineties. He had started as film critic at the magazine in 1958. But he wrote like a young man, or like someone capable of falling in love once a week as he discovered some fresh glory. Stanley was born in 1916 (the year Griffith’s Intolerance opened). As a boy he saw silent movies as they played New York. And there he was, at 95, writing about new films with the old awe and delight.
In the early 1960s, when I was an undergraduate, I first began reading Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic, and I got pulled into his eloquent enthusiasms for the exciting new art coming to the States from Italy, France, Sweden, Japan, and Eastern Europe. “There was a masterpiece almost every week!” I heard him exclaim about ten years ago—a little hyperbolically, perhaps, but it felt that way at the time.
Stanley Kauffmann and I went way back together, without ever having met. The New Republic was the first magazine I subscribed to as a high school teen, and Kauffmann the first film critic I regularly read. He was my introducer to Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and, for me the crowning name, Yasujiro Ozu. At that avid, foraging stage in my self-education, I barely registered that there were other critics sitting in their cockpits feasting on the images whooshing by, apart from the phrase-snapping stunt pilots at Time and Newsweek, w