Stuart Klawans

Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books
$15.95 US/$25.95 Can. 

The fact that Stuart Klawans still has a day job says a lot about the unfortunate state of film criticism in North America. In a less conservative climate, he’d probably be in Anthony Lane or David Denby’s shoes in THE NEW YORKER: he combines the wit of Lane with a passion for film that Lane has rarely shown. But in the present day, he writes in the relatively marginalized progressive American weekly, THE NATION.

Ironically, Klawans is a writer who’s well suited to the present climate for film criticism.  He can be laugh-out-loud funny while still saying something serious. He’s capable of real analysis in accessible and succinct prose. He  has a few strokes of conceptual brilliance, like reviewing BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY and THE TERMINATOR 2 together in order to explain the superiority of the former. It is “nothing less than a dudespeak translation of PARADISE REGAINED. Clearly, BOGUS JOURNEY is the most ambitious work of the imagination America has produced in recent years.” Klawans may be just a bit sarcastic, but he goes on to make a good case for the irreverence of Bill & Ted over James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s self-important shoot-’em-up.

Klawans’ first book, FILM FOLLIES, celebrated expensive, expansive and oft-misunderstood films like GREED,  LOLA MONTES, APOCALYPSE NOW & LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF. LEFT IN THE DARK strikes a much different note, kicking off with a chapter devoted to Hollywood at its dullest and including two concentrating on films firmly grounded in reality. However, the book shows off the whole range of Klawans’ taste, including contemporary follies like MOULIN ROUGE and A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. His position at THE NATION allows him the rare freedom to write about undistributed films by Chantal Akerman, Alexander Sokurov and Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Of course, a collection of reviews written over a 13-year span almost inevitably suffers from some repetition. Complaining about the sad state of foreign film distribution in a stand-alone review is one thing; doing so in a dozen different places over the course of a book becomes grating. Klawans relies a bit too heavily on plot summary for my taste, and some of his reviews, like the one on THE ADDICTION, are too fragmentary to really stand up in this context.

Although he writes for a politically oriented weekly, Klawans follows no party line but his own. (That said, he generally doesn’t depart too far from THE NATION’s.) In a blistering attack on David Lynch’s WILD AT HEART, he excoriates the whole “institutionalized avant-garde” (including Karen Finley and the late Robert Mapplethorpe) for peddling safe decadence to a middle-class audience that should be able to find plenty of disturbing imagery in real life. Despite his editors’ admitted admiration for John Sayles, Klawans knocks him as one of the “moralists who are so concerned with their own virtue that they don’t feel the need to perform an artist’s labor.” Even when his positions become so extreme that the films he writes about bear little resemblance to the ones I saw (as in the case of SAFE, THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 and THE WAY WE LAUGHED), he has the courage to go against conventional wisdom with passion.

Most of the pieces collected in LEFT IN THE DARK were reviews written for THE NATION, although it includes a few essays from THE NEW YORK TIMES and other publications. Taken as a whole,  their combined traits include an unpretentious erudition (as in the BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY/TERMINATOR 2 review, which goes from Plato to THE HONEYMOONERS), vivid descriptions of actors’ faces and gestures, and  the ability to find numerous entry points into a film, starting at one place and ending up somewhere wholly different. His takes on analyzed-to-death films like RED and UNFORGIVEN manage to find something original to say: he opines that the latter is “about America,” as conventional wisdom goes, but also - and more importantly - about Clint Eastwood’s identification with women and the connections between Eastwood’s vision of the West and the Old Testament. Klawans’ Judaism plays an important role in his sensibility, even  in the form of his jokier  conceits (like a section of purported dialogues with his obviously imaginary rabbi).

If Klawans represents a dying breed of  film critic, this book also represents an endangered species: a collection of ordinary film reviews published by a non-academic press. Back in the ‘70s, even a writer as undistinguished as Stanley Kauffman could count on getting a compilation of his reviews out every few years. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until 2015 for Klawans’ next book.