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The King of Comedy and Ms. 45; The one good Wayans brother movie; Looking back at the Richard Boone Show; Manny Farber and James Agee; A review of God's Not Dead.


Andrew Sarris, auteurism, and his take on his own legacy

"All of us will always owe him everything." -- Glenn Kenny on Andrew Sarris, quoting Jean-Luc Godard on Orson Welles

Andrew Sarris, "who loved movies" (as Roger Ebert described him), was long considered the "dean of American film critics." Reading the accounts and appreciations of him today, I was surprised to see how many people perpetuated the myth that Sarris and Pauline Kael were like the print era's Siskel & Ebert who, instead of facing off with each other over new movies on TV week after week, carried on a robust public debate about auteurism and film theory for decades. That didn't happen. And that mischaracterization does a disservice to Sarris, to Kael and to Siskel & Ebert, all of whom were taking their own distinctive and original approaches to movie reviewing and criticism. I think what's most important on the occasion of Sarris's passing is to acknowledge that his substantial critical legacy cannot be defined in terms of anything Pauline Kael wrote about him and the politique des auteurs in 1963 -- and certainly not in the way his and the Cahiers du Cinema critics' views were misrepresented in Kael's famous snipe, "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris."

Let's get this straight: Sarris, who had spent some time in France and acquainted himself with the Cahiers du Cinema critics (Andre Bazin, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, et al.), published an essay in Film Culture called "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" (download .pdf here). In it he set out to explain the French notion of what he called "auteurism" for an American audience.*


How to become a film critic (or not)

It's the 30th comment in a "he said, she said" post about the ridiculous Armond White v. J. Hoberman "kerfuffle" (that seems to be the most popular term for describing it) -- a beautiful defense of film criticism itself by the estimable F.X. Feeney:

The whole scrimmage that's been set up between internet critics and print critics operates on a false premise -- the idea that somebody is actually going to win this contest.

Speaking as one who has, at best, eked a marginal living in the racket since 1980 (I have no 401K to defend against the likes of Harry Knowles, and never have) I would like to point out that James Agee sets the standard NOT because he wrote "for print," but because he WROTE, period.

Film Criticism at its best is nothing more or less than the practice of literature. A humble corner of literature, to be sure -- but talent, depth of comprehension and communication are the arbiters of what's good and true. They always were, always will be. The topic is fleeting, and today's insight wraps tomorrow's fish, but the abiding joy comes of saying what you've experienced so truthfully and so well that strangers get your meaning whether they agree or not.


Oh dear, who's killed film criticism this week?

"Movie criticism of the elevated sort, as practiced over the past half-century by James Agee and Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, J. Hoberman and Dave Kehr... is an endangered species..." -- Richard Corliss, Film Comment, 1990

Good gracious, film criticism is still dying all over the Internet again this week. Who's killing it this time? The usual suspects, depending on who you ask, ranging from "Siskel & Ebert" to "the bloggers." The quotation above was written 20 years ago, and that wasn't the first time its dire predictions were made. Now they've just become conventional wisdom, so people feel the need to repeat them every few hours. reports that, at a UCLA panel discussion of filmmakers and critics following a screening of Gerald Peary's affectionate documentary overview of American film criticism, "For the Love of Movies," TIME magazine curmudgeon Richard Schickel announced, to no one's surprise, that he never loved them. That's right: No love from Mr. Schickel. None. (This is confirmed by his attitude toward Robert Altman.)

"Watching all these kind of earnest people discussing the art or whatever the hell it is of criticism, all that, it just made me so sad. You mean they have nothing else to do?" asked Schickel before adding, "I don't know honestly the function of reviewing anything."

Yes he certainly doesn't, which has been clear in print for some years, but I don't know the function of what Schickel was doing on this panel. You could make the same complaint about any kind of writing, or any enthusiasm that people feel like writing and talking about, from sports to politics. Oh, you tech columnists and food writers -- stop communicating with others about things you're interested in! What is the point? If you have to ask, you're not likely to feel ardent about engaging in the practice -- except, perhaps, for the paycheck. Now that is sad.


Bordwell & Thompson: Crix of the '00s!

Matt Zoller Seitz (aka InsomniacDad) pays due tribute to to the "Critics of the '00s": David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, at IFC Blog.

Why? Well, because they've written some of the most influential and illuminating film books (and textbooks) of our age, educating a generation of up-and-coming moviemakers and moviegoers? Because their work, in print and on their essential blog ("Observations on film art") is simultaneously rigorous and readable, scholarly and accessible? Because their enthusiasm for cinema is unparalleled? Because they look at film as film, examining the images themselves and not just treating the medium as pop-culture detritus or literature with pictures?

Well, yes, all of the above and more. MZS puts it most eloquently in his introduction:

Film criticism as we know it tends to fall into a handful of time-worn categories: an expression of one's personality, politics and taste, with traces of social critique and memoir (Pauline Kael, James Agee); or a kind of performance art on the page, using individual films, actors or filmmakers as springboards for sustained riffs on art and life (Manny Farber); or a scholarly attempt to draw connections between films and film movements, rank filmmakers by aesthetic significance and put works in historical context (Andrew Sarris).

Roger Ebert

Say goodbye to NAFCRIT

I am standing in a small room attached to a large Quonset hut in an abandoned airfield some 15 miles east of San Bernardino. There are a few old movie posters on the walls, all of them tattered. There's also a desk, although it doesn't appear to have been used for desklike purposes for some time.


John Huston: "It's as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it."

HOLLYWOOD - John Huston has come up for the day from Puerto Vallarta, the sleepy little Mexican beach town he converted into a tourist industry by filming "Night of the Iguana" there. He plans to speak with his agent and his business manager; a major Huston film is scheduled for Christmas release, and there are the Huston finances to be scrutinized and new projects to be considered. At 69, he is tall and courtly and exudes a personal charisma that I've rarely felt before; there seem to be special rewards in being John Huston.

Roger Ebert

African Queen Still Reigns

Holding forth about actors a few years ago, John Huston allowed as how there were good ones and bad ones, and then there were a few like splendid thoroughbreds: All you had to do was judge their gait and you could see they had class.