Wednesday, June 20, 2012

R.I.P. Andrew Sarris

This has nothing to do with animation, so skip it if you like.

There was a time when Hollywood movies were treated as nothing more than commercial entertainment.  (Sound familar?)  They were a product, not an art form.  In the years after World War II in France, a group of cineastes started looking hard at Hollywood films.  Perhaps, due to their cultural background or perhaps due to their lack of English skills, they saw things in Hollywood films that no one had bothered to notice.  They formed a magazine called Cahiers du Cinema and many of them, besides being critics, grew to become film makers.  Some of you will be familiar with the names Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and others of their generation.  Collectively, they were known as the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave.

Critically, they championed what they referred to as Les Politiques des Auteurs.  They saw directors as the ones who shaped what was on screen and noticed recurring themes and motifs in directors' films.  They not only championed film makers who had some critical standing, such as Orson Welles (though at the time Welles' stock was pretty low), but directors who were completely below the radar like Howard Hawks and those considered mere entertainers like Alfred Hitchcock.

Their approach to film history and criticism might have gone unnoticed in the United States except for Andrew Sarris.  Sarris was aware of French film criticism and was a lone voice fighting to establish what was known as the Auteur Theory in American criticism.  He was opposed by critics like Pauline Kael and during the 1960's, film criticism was on the cultural map with the Auteur Theory being one of the main points of contention.  Was the director the author of a film or not?  Was a weak film by a great director automatically better than a good film by a weak director?  Was a director's style integral to how a story was communicated or was it something layered over the top of a script?

While the Auteur Theory may have overplayed its hand in claiming authorship, it firmly established the legitimacy of the concept of directorial style.  Earlier film critics had been mainly literary in their approach, judging a film based on plot, characterization and dialogue and basically blind to the notion of a visual style or recurring themes in a director's work.

If we take for granted now the idea of a Martin Scorcese film, a Wes Anderson film, a Ralph Bakshi film or a Brad Bird film, we do so because of Sarris.

Sarris's book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 was a Rosetta stone for understanding the work of Hollywood directors.  He placed them in somewhat frivolous categories (Pantheon Directors, The Far Side of Paradise, Expressive Esoterica, Less than Meets the Eye) and his descriptions of directors were sometimes frustratingly short and hard to decipher.  However, the more films I saw by a director, the more I understood what Sarris had written and the majority of the time, I was amazed at how perceptive and concise he was.  The American Cinema was a map book; it showed you the terrain and pointed out the highlights.  Prior to the trip, it made little sense but once there, the reader could only be impressed by what Sarris had written.

I saw Sarris only once in person.  He gave a talk at Queens College with his wife, critic Molly Haskell.  However, he absolutely shaped my value system when it comes to film.  Sarris was much more a champion of John Ford than the French critics, and for that I am eternally grateful.  His books, the aforementioned The American Cinema; The John Ford Movie Mystery; and You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949, are still taken off my shelf when I've seen a film and wonder, "What did Sarris say about it?"

The heady days of film criticism are over.  No longer does a review provoke controversy or demand attention.  We've passed through the "thumbs up-thumbs down" era and are now reduced to a Rotten Tomatoes meter reading.  Many of us who love film have little to be happy about in this era of tentpoles and sequels.  I'd rather spend my time staring at the work of Ford, Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Frank Borzage, Gregory LaCava, Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, etc. trying to perceive these directors through their films.  It's a rewarding way to spend time and I have Andrew Sarris to thank for it.

(The New York Times obituary can be found here.  Those of you who might be interested in the views of cinephiles and published film writers on Sarris should look at Dave Kehr's entry on Sarris's passing.  Kehr regularly writes about new DVD releases for the Sunday edition of The New York Times and his site is an ongoing discussion about various topics of film appreciation.)


Thad said...

Wonderful piece on a brilliant writer.

I sometimes recoil from the auteur theory, mainly because it often delves into the academic/"things that aren't really there" territory I so openly scorn, but Sarris normally stayed planted in reality. His work is a breath of fresh air from the "this piece isn't about a filmmaker, it's really about how clever I am" prose that seems to dominate any film discussion beyond the "star" rating system.

Film criticism is a difficult art to master, but Sarris did it. So did Manny Farber. Same goes for Jonathan Rosenbaum (sometimes), Mike Barrier, and yourself.

Mark Mayerson said...

Hi Thad. I'd also recommend Robin Wood. His books on Hawks and Hitchcock are some of the best things written about those directors and Wood had an interest in international film and politics in film that perhaps surpassed Sarris.

Michael Sporn said...

Sarris shaped the way I hink about film. His American Cinema book was my bible from 1970 on, and I returned to that book so many times that I finally had to buy a second copy. It was sad when he was dismissed by the NY Observer a couple of years ago, but his voice was still in the air. Now it's too depressing to think of the state of film criticism knowing he's not in the world. How many thumbs up or down?