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R.I.P. Andrew Sarris

June 21, 2012

In my earlier post “Yes, there are critics. Get over it”, I must confess there’s one point I forgot to address. One of the many knocks against critics is they hate movies. I don’t know what circles the people who continually circulate this myth travel in, but I have never met a critic who didn’t love movies, and who didn’t get into the job partly because of it. They may prefer movies of yesteryear, it’s true, and I know that fact also irritates a lot of people, but they love movies. And one example of a critic who truly loved movies, even if I often didn’t agree with his approach (more on that below) was Andrew Sarris, who died today at the age of 83.

Sarris, who was born in Brooklyn in 1928, was a movie fan from his childhood; he once recalled being entranced by a movie based on a Jules Verne story when he was three or four years old. He also had been developing his ideas about movies, and how to view them, since high school, being an avid listener of the ceremonies for both the New York Critics Awards and the Oscars.  And after graduating from Columbia in 1951, and serving three years in the Army signal corps, he traveled extensively to, among other places, France, and he met up with then-critics Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, who were developing what Truffaut would call “la politique des auteurs”, which both influenced and supported his own thoughts. But it wasn’t until 1960, when he secured a position as film critic for The Village Voice, that he was able to combine his passion, the acumen behind it, and that influence, to a larger audience.

It’s easy to forget the auteur theory, as it later came to be called by Sarris and other American critics, was a reaction against what was going on at the time in film both in the U.S. and in France as much as anything else. There had been other critics before who had championed the unpretentious films of the studio era (Otis Ferguson), as well as critics who recognized the director as a primary, if not the primary, influence on a film (James Agee and Manny Farber). But by and large, especially in the 50’s, films were either dismissed as merely “populist entertainment”, or only praised in terms of whether they were medicinal (“good for you”) or were on the right side of issues. In France, Truffaut and his colleagues decried what they saw as the “cinema of quality”, where the director seemed to be there mainly as a hired hand to stage whatever the script said to do. The auteur theory, on the other hand, was meant to celebrate the visual quality of a film, and, just as important, argue that it was the director who should be the first artist you think of when think of how good (or bad) a film was. And the directors auteurist critics such as Godard and Truffaut championed weren’t the ones who made “socially responsible” films, but directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, who worked in genre films such as westerns, comedies and thrillers and therefore weren’t considered “important.”

It was Hitchcock, a particular favorite among the French critics, whom Sarris championed in his very first review in the Voice; in praising Psycho, which New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (the bête noire of Sarris and many of his contemporaries) had decried as lacking subtlety and being an obviously “low-budget job”, Sarris called Hitchcock “the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today”. And in both his “Notes on the Auteur Theory”, which he published in 1962, and his groundbreaking book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, he codified his approach to both directors who, for him, were part of the pantheon (in addition to Ford, Hawks and, of course, Hitchcock, this list also included Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Renoir and Josef Von Sternberg, among others) as well as directors who were in categories ranging from “Expressive Esoterica” (Stanley Donen, Robert Siodmak) to “Lightly Likable” (Busby Berkeley, Michael Curtiz) to his most damning category, “Less Than Meets The Eye” (Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder).  To him, and other auteurist critics, the truly great director was the one whose personality shone through every film, and who expressed that personality in their visual style, and the duty of the auteurist critic was not only to recognize this, but also see how a film by a director not only for what it accomplished on its own terms, but how it fit into the director’s past work.

Just as the auteur theory was a reaction against the notion that only foreign films and socially-conscious cinema was worthy of discussion (it should be noted Sarris also championed foreign films, not just from contemporaries like Godard, but also directors as varied as Bergman, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi), auteurism itself came under fire. Screenwriters over the years such as Ernest Lehman and William Goldman attacked auteur critics for undervaluing their work on films, and stressed that films were collaborative. Most famously, Pauline Kael, in her essay “Circles and Squares”, published in Film Quarterly in 1963, took Sarris and other auteurist critics to task for what she saw as the weaknesses of the theory itself (how auteurist critics celebrated, as she put it, directors who made “a purse out of a sow’s ear” at the expense of directors who made “a solid carrying case out of a good piece of leather”; that is, directors who triumphed over their material were better in auteurist critics’ eyes than those who made good movies from good material), what she saw as the arbitrariness of how it was applied (she was particularly incensed on behalf of John Huston and Carol Reed, two directors on Sarris’ “Less Than Meets The Eye” list), and most of all, that auteurism was essentially “an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence.”

In Jerry Roberts’ The Complete History of American Film Criticism, critic/author Joseph McBride took Kael to task for taking much of what Sarris had written out of context to make him look ridiculous. And indeed, there are problems with Kael’s attack (Sarris wasn’t her only target; she also went after Crowther and Dwight MacDonald, among others); that last statement and others seemed to imply Sarris and his ilk looked down on directors whose films weren’t “macho” enough, but in fact Sarris was a great champion of directors such as George Cukor, Max Ophuls and Douglas Sirk who were known for making “woman’s” films. Also, Sarris – who always said he intended his theory to be part of a dialogue and not the last word – acknowledged the contributions of screenwriters, and even wrote in his preface to Richard Corliss’ Talking Pictures (Corliss’ attempt to do for screenwriters ranging from Ben Hecht to Robert Benton what Sarris did for directors) that he hoped Corliss’ book would start a dialogue on the importance of screenwriters in movies, as well as the others who contributed to movies, such as the editors, cinematographers and the actors. Finally, Kael scoffed at the very notion of cataloging directors and films, as she preferred to treat them as just a visceral experience; given my love of history and given that, temperament-wise, as my friend Owen Gleiberman would put it, I am more Apollonian (as he labeled Sarris) than Dionysian (as he labeled Kael), I think that’s a bit much.

And yet, I have to admit, I respond not only more towards Kael’s writing than Sarris’, but also towards her misgivings about auteurism. I do think Sarris and his ilk were arbitrary in deciding who was worthy of praise and who wasn’t, in championing the likes of Joseph Losey (whom I’ve never been a fan of) and Otto Preminger (whom I run hot and cold towards) while denigrating the works of Huston, Reed, Wilder, William Wyler and Fred Zinnemann, all of whom I’m a fan of (in fairness to Sarris, he later reversed himself on Wilder, pointing out the French critics initially were lukewarm towards dialogue-driven films such as Wilder’s because visual movies with less dialogue like those of Ford and Hitchcock were easier to follow, and it was Truffaut himself who urged Sarris to re-evaluate Wilder. Sarris also re-evaluated Huston, up to a point). I also did get the impression Sarris and his followers (more so his followers, admittedly) seemed to embrace the idea if they liked a director, it meant that director was incapable of making a bad film (as much as I like Hitchcock, for example, I would not willingly sit through Topaz or Torn Curtain again, for example). And while it was good and necessary for Sarris and others to champion classic Hollywood films as art, the lengths they went to justify those films as art were sometimes a bit much as well. Lehman, who worked with Hitchcock on North by Northwest and Family Plot, once recalled a French critic who had an elaborate interpretation of the license on the car Bruce Dern drove in the latter movie, and Lehman replied that it was his own license plate. Also, to call a director less than meets the eye because he looks for good material and then makes a good movie out of it – as opposed to a director who puts his stamp over weaker material – is to me a little like saying Casey Stengel wasn’t a great Yankees manager simply because he had so many great players under him (lots of teams with plenty of great players don’t do as well as those Yankee teams did). But mostly, I have two major problems with the auteur theory. One is the idea the director’s personality is a major factor in determining their greatness, as well as how much of it shows up in the director’s films. I know I often use Michael Bay as a whipping boy, but the fact of the matter is, there’s no doubt the films he makes are personal and express his point of view about life and art; that in no way (in my opinion, of course) makes him a good director on any level. More importantly, this first point seems to denigrate directors who may be talented but who don’t have recognizable personal traits that pop up from film to film. In other words, directors such as Louis Malle, who try not to repeat themselves, are considered dilettantes, rather than artists who take chances on each film, and given how Malle is one of my favorite directors (and I also like those like him, like Ang Lee), that viewpoint leaves me cold.

The other thing that should be noted about the Kael/Sarris feud – which extended among the followers in each camp – is while it was useful in setting up the kind of dialectic and dialogue Sarris hoped to start (though in a different way than Kael chose, of course), it obscured the fact both actually had a lot in common. Both, of course, came from the idea classic American films of the 30’s and 40’s were as much art as European films were. Both were champions of the French New Wave, and they had similar tastes in other filmmakers, like Lubitsch. Both were passionate about movies and movie criticism. Both were center-left in their politics, disdaining what they saw as the dogmatic nature of the far-left at the time and its influence on film, and film criticism, at the time. And the tendencies that each criticized in the other were also in themselves; Kael, of course, became an auteurist of a kind in championing 70’s directors such as Altman, Coppola, DePalma, Peckinpah and Scorsese – all or most of whom worked in the area of “macho” films she had denigrated Sarris for praising – while Sarris would also dole out what others saw as excessive praise for movies such as Lola Montes because he wanted those movies to be seen. Finally, as they got older and mellowed to an extent, they back-pedaled from the strong statements they had made earlier about film, Sarris about the auteur theory (in an interview he did in 2005 with his wife, critic Molly Haskell, Sarris said there was “too much suspicion of the well-written screenplay”), and Kael in extolling trash in her famous essay “Trash, Art and the Movies” (she later said she wouldn’t have gone that far if she had known “trash” would dominate film for several years). That, however, didn’t take away from their differences (such as Kael’s famous proclamation she never saw a film more than once, while Sarris saw movies several times each), and while they did see the other’s good points (near the end of her life, Kael praised Sarris as a writer, while Sarris acknowledged she was ahead of him on 70’s films), they still remained on opposite sides.

One other thing they had in common that should be dealt with separately; both had their followers, either “Paulettes” (the Kael fans) or “Sarris-ites”. In addition to influencing people as a critic, Sarris also taught at Columbia University, and inspired many a critic and film-lover, including J. Hoberman and Haskell. Everyone who has ever worked with Sarris or been taught by him has testified to his good humor and passion for film, but mostly, his unpretentiousness and willingness to change his mind (which famously came through in 1968 when he panned 2001, saw it a second time at a reader’s urging after having smoked pot, then reversed his position). Another  indication of Sarris the man was his happy marriage of over 40 years to Haskell (which she wrote about in Love and Other Infectious Diseases: A Memoir, though it mostly dealt with the year she nursed him through a potentially life-threatening illness). In that 2005 interview I mentioned, Sarris said the only thing he’d claim about his works – which, in addition to his 29 year stint at the Voice and his 20 year stint at the New York Observer until he was unceremoniously dumped by the latter, include his books The American CinemaConfessions of a CultistPolitics and Cinema, and You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet, in which he re-assessed and re-visited his work from The American Cinema – was he introduced the word “auteur” into the English language. As much as I may have disagreed with him, that self-assessment is a tad modest for someone who, more than anyone else except perhaps for Kael, shaped the movie habits and critical thought of a generation of moviegoers, as well as those who came after.

Postscript: When it comes to the end of the year, a critic these days will often bemoan the state of movies that year, and sometimes not even wait till the end of the year. Sarris was once asked about that, and his response was always the same; it was a given there’d be a number of movies any year that were bad, but as long as there were 30 or 40 to get excited about, it was a good year, and in his case, there were almost always 30 or 40 films to get excited about (which can be seen in his top 10 lists, which were divided into “Best American Films”, “Best Foreign Language Films”, and “Best Non-Fiction Films”). That’s another mark of his legacy, I think, reminding us to always look for the wheat amongst the chaff.

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