The purpose of any truly great film critic is to enlighten as well as enrage, and Andrew Sarris, who died two weeks back at 83, did a hell of a lot of both in his half-century of writing about cinema. Sarris will forever be enshrined as the critic who brought la politique des auteurs to America, but at his best he also had a way of deftly summing up a filmmaker’s entire body of work in a few sentences — their themes, their visual style, and their narratives.Critics who argue that technique should not call attention to itself are usually critics who not do wish to call attention to technique. —The American Cinema, p. 54
He is someone that all American film fans should know about, but since he was a writer first and foremost and not a TV presence (no “thumbs up” for him) and championed film as an art (no exaltation of the grindhouse, as with Tarantino), he is currently best known by students who are assigned his work, critics who still admire his fine writing, and those of us who are old enough to remember when reading contemporary film reviews was an integral part of the moviegoing experience.
When a recent biography and collection of Pauline Kael’s work were published in tandem, a few “theme pieces” were written to nostalgize about the Sixties and Seventies, when reading film reviewers (and film books!) was what movie buffs did in the hours they were not in movie theaters (no VCRs!). Kael and Sarris have often been linked together in articles of this kind, since they were the yin and yang of American film criticism during that period, most importantly because of their antithetical viewpoints about the auteur theory.
Kael was a top-notch writer, don’t get me wrong — I loved reading her collections when younger. But it was the strength of her writing that made all the difference. I still find it hard to see any kind of sustained viewpoint behind what she liked and didn’t like. Later in his career, Sarris developed into an idiosyncratic critic whose reaction to a particular film was hard to gauge (sometimes even after reading what he had written about it); Kael was always like that, with a few modest exceptions.
Admittedly, Sarris kept that “feud” with Kael alive for a while — she had fired the first salvo with her derisive 1963 Film Quarterly article “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris”; Sarris’ obits carried a bitchy remark she made when declining an invite to his wedding to critic Molly Haskell. But I remember AS making more remarks about PK than vice versa.
Speaking of his fellow critics, it was interesting to see in an online bio that rock critic emeritus Robert Christgau said Sarris seemed “full of himself.” This struck me as odd, because Christgau’s letter-graded method of rating albums (which is now copied *everywhere*, most particularly Entertainment Weekly) was definitely a variation on his old Village Voice colleague Sarris’s much-debated/love-and-hated notion of assembling Hollywood filmmakers in a pyramid fashion, with a “Pantheon” at top and “Less Than Meets the Eye” auteurs at the bottom.
He first wrote about the “politique” in a 1962 essay in the magazine Film Culture called “Notes on the Auteur Theory” (echoing Truffaut’s “Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Francais”). According to his obits, Sarris spent a year in Paris in 1961 and became friendly with, among others, the critic-filmmakers who wrote for the Cahiers du Cinema. It was no surprise, then, that he was the American reviewer who imported the auteur theory.
I’m assuming anyone reading this blog knows the theory by heart — that the director is in a sense the “author” of a film, and that most filmmakers with any talent rework the same themes, characters, and narrative approaches the way that a great novelist does. In order to write this blog entry, I reread most of Sarris’s seminal 1968 book The American Cinema, which introduced the full range of his categorizing of American filmmakers.
I have very fond memories of the book. A dog-eared copy (which I still own and refer to) was given to me by my high school film teacher John Loose — who didn’t instigate my love of movies (my parents did that), but who was infinitely important in showing me how to look at films intelligently. The book became a key item on my movie-book shelf, along with Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion (does anyone remember that tome?), the Movies on TV collection (which I later contributed to and edited for an edition), and various Films of-type pop paperback collections and profiles of individual personalities and genres.
Another Sarris volume that was important to me, which I borrowed from the library twice, was Interviews with Film Directors, which was one of the few other books Sarris came out with in his lifetime. That tome contained a few dozen fascinating talks with the directors I was discovering as a young film maniac and is rarely found in bookstores these days. (I in fact never have seen a copy sitting around in all my years of going to secondhand bookshops, but am sure some helpful soul has probably scanned it into the big portable library we call the Internet.)
But back to The American Cinema: I consulted it all through my college years as a seminal source of knowledge and information, as well as opinions that made me think “is he outta his fucking mind?” The book nonetheless struck me the way that Breathless and Mean Streets did: as a work that screamed to the rafters, “I LOVE MOVIES!” In the first flush of my film-fixation, that was manna from heaven.
So how does it stand up these days? Very well, because Sarris supplies in the preface, “Toward a Theory of Film History,” all the reasons that the auteur theory is an important and necessary tool for studying film, but he also elaborates at some length the ways in which it *doesn’t* work in various cases —thereby defeating the Kael-ist naysayers in one fell swoop.
The American Cinema was Sarris’ American version of the 1965 Georges Sadoul book Dictionnaire des cineastes, with his own addition, the aforementioned categories of directors (some of which had titles such as “Lightly Likeable” that were obviously intended to piss people off in the way that Christgau’s “grades” did). In the intro he addresses that seminal twentieth-century question: can a commercial work be a work of art?
The auteur theory said yes, that a director working for a cold-blooded, money-driven corporation could still make a personal work that mattered in the grand scheme of things. Sarris’ own twist on the theory was to create the categories and to encourage debate and argument (thus his long career in academia).
The American Cinema is a very odd sort of time-capsule, assembled by Sarris in 1968 just as the studio system was imploding entirely (thanks to the failures of big, awful musicals and the appearance of Easy Rider and the golden age of “maverick” American cinema — a period that Sarris wrote about on a weekly basis in the pages of the Voice). At points, he goes straight for the nearest play on words, as when he notes about Cassavetes that “too much of the time he is groping when he should be gripping.”
Those lines are somewhat cringe-inducing, but the reason the book has remained so important was Sarris’ ability to literally sum up a filmmaker’s career in a single line, as well to situate his visual style within certain traditions, be they that of Murnau and the moving camera, or Eisenstein and the miracle of montage. (I say “his” by the way, because his entry on Ida Lupino is one-stop-shop collection of sentences about every woman director he could think of to that date — except the avant-gardists, whom he never wanted to acknowledge.)
Beautiful examples of Sarris at his most incisive appear in the chapter entitled “The Pantheon,” where he discussed the 14 filmmakers (including the guy he's standing with in the pic above) he thought were the finest-ever to work in the American cinema (two of whom, Renoir and Ophuls, only made a handful of films over here) and in his “Far Side of Paradise” chapter (where the also-rans dwell).
There, in his entry on Nicholas Ray, he contrasts the approaches of Ray and John Huston by noting that, if one compared They Live By Night and The Asphalt Jungle, “one will notice that where Ray tends to cut between physical movements, Huston tends to cut between static compositions. Ray’s style tends to be more kinetic, Huston’s more plastic, the difference between dance and sculpture.”
In this sense Sarris carried on from James Agee, Manny Farber, and Otis Ferguson, the American film critics who would mingle theory and purely emotional statements about the films they loved (the same is true of Godard, Truffaut, and the Cahiers posse, of course). Along these lines, Sarris drops into his chapter on Keaton the fact that a scene in The General, where Buster makes a gesture to choke his girlfriend but then kisses her instead, is “one of the most glorious celebrations of heterosexual love in the history of the cinema,”
This is perhaps Sarris greatest strength as a critic — his emotional connection to the films he wrote about; the underside is the fact that he openly admitted here that he had no emotional connection to animation, documentaries, and the avant-garde. At one point in the book he pretty much cancels out the possible influence of the avant-garde on the mainstream, which means he wasn’t partaking of the then-gestating psychedelic cinema of the Sixties, which drew heavily on the avant-garde. He also couldn’t take into account the profound effect that Kenneth Anger and other undergrounders’ pop-saturated short films would have on future generations of music-videomakers.
The American Cinema is indeed a mixed bag of brilliant insight and sometimes blind devotion to, or misguided dislike of, certain filmmakers. The oddest thing about the book, which I’ll discuss below, is that he chose to never update or revise it. The filmographies were updated a bit (the single best inclusion being the addition of Napoleon to Stanley Kubrick’s filmo), but the entries were never rewritten by him in the forty-plus years since the book’s publication.
In later years, he publicly admitted he had gotten Billy Wilder (whom he put in the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category) horribly wrong. The Wilder entry in the book portrays him as a filmmaker who was too cynical for his own good; Sarris seems particularly irritated by the ways in which he saw Wilder forcing beautiful actresses to act out unpleasant suicide scenarios.
He even discounts with a single phrase Double Indemnity, which is, was, and forever will be, one of the finest film noirs ever made. He was a big enough man to admit that he was dreadfully wrong on the issue of Wilder, but never revisited his book to elevate Billy to “the Pantheon.” (His feelings about Kubrick similarly flipflopped, most notoriously when he finally 2001 when high, and realized it was a far better film than he’d thought it was previously.)
Sarris’ views on comedy were indeed both wonderfully on-target and then hopelessly misguided. In the latter category was his devotion to Blake Edwards, whom he praises to the heavens (and kept on praising throughout the Eighties in his Voice columns), while slamming Wilder, Tashlin, and Quine, whom time has proven were far better and much more interesting comedy filmmakers. (Blake Edwards had his moments, but my god, there was a preponderance of absolute tedious garbage, even in the “golden era” — his encountering Sellers was the miracle.)
On the positive side of the ledger, though, Sarris’ oddball categorical system of evaluating filmmakers once and forever enshrined the great movie comedians as the “auteurs” of their own movies. He conspicuously undervalued Laurel and Hardy, but his evaluations of W.C. Fields, Mae West, and the Marx Bros as “auteurs” of a kind wasn’t just lip service for the cults those comics gods had in the late Sixties. It was an acknowledgment that sometimes a dominant performer was indeed the “auteur” of his/her starring vehicle.
Of course, given my obsession with all things Jerry Lewis, I am still fascinated by Sarris’ entry on Jerry, which is in the form of a list of 12 reasons he doesn’t think Jerry is a good filmmaker. It’s quite a detailed argument — whereas it’s rather obvious that the love or hatred of Jerry (and the odd mixture of the two that some of his modern fans have) is a personal thing that is hard to justify, no matter how much critical acumen you possess. However, Sarris does sum it all up in his last two sentences on Lewis:
He has never put one brilliant comedy together from fade-in to fade-out. We can only wait and hope, but the suspicion persists that the French are confusing talent with genius.
To be continued…