- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

American journalism isn't what it used to be. For the most part, it's much improved. The average medium-sized city newspaper today delivers more information with more reliability than the New York Times did 50 years ago.
The magazine racks in Borders are choc-a-bloc with titles. Because of reduced printing costs and the increased availability of information, every bizarre interest imaginable has a magazine to pander to it.
The only sector of journalism in decline is the general interest magazine. Once upon a time Look and P.M. and the Saturday Evening Post stood like beacons on the literary landscape. They published great middlebrow writers and jaunty light verse. They were a literary subset unto themselves. And today they are all but extinct.
The last of those great magazines is the New Yorker. It's smaller in stature than it used to be, but somehow it perseveres week in, week out — the USS Constellation of general-interest journalism. One of the reasons it stays afloat is Tad Friend. Lost in Mongolia: Travels in Hollywood and Other Foreign Lands (AtRandom.com, $15, 336 pages) is the first collection of Mr. Friend's New Yorker essays and it has a smooth dexterity and slow charm which are impossible to dismiss.
Pop culture is Mr. Friend's bread and butter and the first third of the the book is devoted to his writings on Los Angeles and the entertainment industry. He serves as fair witness to the near stillbirth of ABC's sit-dram, "Sports Night," and delves into the talent agency war. His essay "The Short, Happy Life of River Phoenix" is a study in the understated and immutable power of common sense. As a Hollywood observer Mr. Friend knows few equals.
In "Please Don't Oil the Animatronic Warthog," Mr. Friend goes to Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida and comes away bothered by Disnification. His visit is filled with unintentionally hilarious and horrifying moments, such as when the park's director of Animal Project Development says, "'Conservation' sounds 'science' and heavy-duty; it sounds like 'Maybe we shouldn't go there.' So we put Affection Section — a petting zoo — up there as a 'hook.'"
The only moments when Mr. Friend seems a wee bit unreliable are when he ventures out of country. The book's final seven essays were written while he was abroad and occasionally an earnestness creeps into these pieces which is unbecoming in a writer of Mr. Friend's stature. But still. Tad Friend is no E.B. White; a worse thing about him can't be said.

Another shining star of American journalism which has had its troubles recently is the venerable political magazine the New Republic. Founded in 1914, the New Republic has long been a haven for intelligent liberal discourse and although with the twin scandals of Ruth Shalit and Steve Glass the '90s were not kind to it, the magazine seems to have mostly found its footing under Peter Beinart. But through the good times and the bad, there has always been Stanley Kauffmann.
Although readers under 60 might have thought differently, it turns out that Mr. Kauffmann has not always been the New Republic's film critic. In fact, it seems that there were a few decades during the magazine's youth when he did not stand in its pages with his reviews and thoughts about movies. Nevertheless, here he is now with Regarding Film: Criticism and Comment (Johns Hopkins University Press, $21.95, 264 pages), a collection of his essays from the last several years.
Stanley Kauffmann the writer has a pleasingly deliberate style, as opposed to the speedier, more enervated film writers such as Roger Ebert and David Denby, which makes reading him feel like a stroll by the Potomac. Mr. Kauffmann the critic, however, has a number of weaknesses which make him suspect as a reviewer: Because of his academic tendencies, he often falls for movies such as "Natural Born Killers"; because he is a gentleman, he frequently keeps his rapier sheathed when it should be singing.
His taste in actors is uneven: He worships at the feet of Emma Thompson, which speaks well of him, rightly saying of her performance in "Carrington," " got no prize at Cannes, and my personal consolation is that no prize is good enough for her." But he can be dazzlingly wrong, as in his assessment of the very fine William H. Macy, where he writes dismissively, "The man who plots against his wife is played by William H. Macy, who some directors continue to find interesting."
There are, however, occasions when Mr. Kauffmann, who is now 85, can still catch hold of one and knock it out of the park. Reviewing "Pulp Fiction," he dryly says of director Quentin Tarantino, "Perhaps in the future he'll emulate other kinds of directors and films." Home run.
But in the end, it is no longer fair to evaluate Mr. Kauffmann as a critic. After more than 40 years reviewing movies it is impossible to retain a sense of critical proportion. No man could possibly maintain a coherent set of standards for movies after so much time, so many millions of frames of celluloid; there is too much dreck, too little art. What the years take away in judgment, however, they add five-fold in wisdom, anecdote, and charm. Indeed, the subtitle of Mr. Kauffmann's book is "Criticism and Comment" and today he is America's premier film commentator.
The mass of Stanley Kauffmann's knowledge makes him worth reading all by itself. What other writer could casually recount, "I had lunched with Kubrick in New York two years earlier… I praised Peter Sellers's three roles in 'Dr. Strangelove,' and Kubrick said dryly, 'Yes, three performances for the price of six.'"
The truth is that while you can quibble with any one of Mr. Kauffmann's reviews — and on a case-by-case basis he can sometimes be maddeningly wrong — when taken as a whole, the full body of his work is deep and gratifying. The New Republic, as well as the rest of the world, is lucky to have him.
One aspect of film which Stanley Kauffmann rarely touches on is the business of Hollywood, which is the subject of Bernard F. Dick's Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood (University Press of Kentucky, $27.50, 269 pages). Mr. Dick, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, has composed an authoritative account of Paramount Pictures Corporation and accomplished the not inconsiderable feat of making it read less like business and more like history.
Beginning with the birth of Adolph Zukor in a little Hungarian village in 1873 and spanning Hollywood's Wild West years, through the 1966 merger that brought Paramount under the dominion of Gulf + Western, through the 1993 merger with Viacom, all the way up to the current reign of Sherry Lansing, whose contract at Paramount takes her to 2006, Mr. Dick gives comprehensive facts and wonderfully telling details.
Perhaps the nicest tidbit is the inclusion of a telegram which Cecil B. DeMille sent to Jesse Lasky in 1913 as he was scouting locations for "The Squaw Man": "FLAGSTAFF NO GOOD FOR OUR PURPOSE. HAVE PROCEEDED TO CALIFORNIA. WANT AUTHORITY TO RENT A BARN IN PLACE CALLED HOLLYWOOD FOR SEVENTY-FIVE DOLLARS A MONTH. CECIL." If only something in Arizona had caught young Cecil's eye, how different everything might be.

Jonathan V. Last is the Online Editor of The Weekly Standard.


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