A piece about The Alloy Orchestra in light of their Ebertfest presentation of "The Son of the Sheik".
"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.*
Marie Haws: Remember the Old Vic Tunnels? I did some more sniffing around and you'll never guess where it led me. That's right - into the sewer system! But not just any old sewer, oh no... it's the home of a famous forgotten river flowing beneath Fleet Street; the former home of English journalism.So grab a flashlight and some rubber boots as we go underground to explore "mile after mile of ornate brickwork" and a labyrinthine of tunnels which reveal the beauty of London's hidden River Fleet. (click images to enlarge.)
"Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you are and everything you know." -- Pauline Kael, "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris" (1963)
"She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment. And I don't mean that facetiously. She has great passion, terrific wit, wonderful writing style, huge knowledge of film history, but too often what she chooses to extol or fails to see is very surprising." -- Woody Allen, to Peter Bogdanovich, quoted in the introduction to the book This is Orson Welles (1998)
The imminent publication of two books devoted to Pauline Kael -- "A Life in the Dark," a biography by Brian Kellow, and a collection of reviews and essays called "The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael," both due Oct. 27 -- has provided an excuse to recycle all the old arguments about her. And that's not something I can imagine being said for many of her American contemporaries, mostly because nobody argues about them. Is there another American film critic who has inspired such a biography, published 20 years after her retirement? Does anyone still read, say, Vincent Canby, the powerful, impressively independent but rather lackluster successor to Kael's much-ridiculed Bosley Crowther at the New York Times? (Canby covered the film beat at the Times during the height of that institution's "make-or-break" authority from 1969 to 1993, when he switched to theater, succeeding Frank Rich.)
Some have pointed out that Kael was often wrong. Well, I should bloody well hope so. What critic isn't? By "wrong" these critics evidently mean that she did not agree with them about which movies were good and which weren't, or that her verdicts did not align themselves with the Judgments of History, lo these many years later. Were "Bonnie and Clyde," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Last Tango in Paris," "Shampoo," "Nashville" and "Casualties of War" really as great as she claimed? How could she be so dismissive -- even contemptuous -- of "La Dolce Vita," "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," "Shoah," "L'Eclisse" (and all Antonioni after "L'Avventura"), "2001: A Space Odyssey" (and all Kubrick thereafter) and Cassavetes pretty much across the board? (If you don't find at least a couple things in those lists that raise your hackles, you should be worried about the integrity and independence of your own critical values.)
Turner Classic Movies is saluting the June 30 birthday of director Anthony Mann with day of his films -- including 1949's "The Black Book" (aka "Reign of Terror") an Austro-Hungarian Expressionist film noir take on the French Revolution, photographed by one of Mann's frequent early collaborators (and one of the noirest of black-and-white cinematographers), John Alton. At Straight Shooting (bookmark it), Richard T. Jameson surveys the career of a filmmaker who
acquired a passionate cult among connoisseurs of film style for having made some of the most lucidly and powerfully visualized films in American cinema. Few filmmakers have equaled his genius for fusing landscape and dramatic action, and his heroes--in the films noir of the late Forties and his majestic Westerns of the Fifties--are a compellingly conflicted lot. [...]
Was Anthony Mann a director of the first rank? Not when the touchstones are Lang, Ford, and Hawks.... But his best work goes a long way toward making film noir and the Western our two richest genres, and his relentless pursuit of dynamic images ensures him the esteem of anyone who believes that movies should be worth looking at, minute by minute, frame by frame.
No modern director is more in love with the artifice of filmmaking than Martin Scorsese, or more overt in his expression of it. From the "drunk-cam" in "Mean Streets" (1973) to the self-consciously stylized performances in films like "Raging Bull" and "King of Comedy," the William Cameron Menzies opening of "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" to the ersatz two-strip Technicolor of "The Aviator" to the 1954 Hitchcock psychodrama look of the current "Shutter Island," Scorsese packs his frames with dense layers of Hollywood history.
Sometimes, as in "New York, New York" (my favorite of his films, along with "King of Comedy," "After Hours" and "GoodFellas"), he contrasts '40s, '50s and '60s studio gloss with the no-less-mannered "naturalistic" improvisational acting favored by Kazan and Cassavetes from the same era. Likewise, in films like "Shutter Island" he immerses himself and his audience in a world that never existed outside of the movies. "Raging Bull," for example, isn't just a boxing picture and a showbiz biopic, it's a study of boxing pictures and showbiz biopics. "GoodFellas" isn't just a gangster film, it's a movie about gangster films. Has any other director offered a nearly four-hour "Personal Journey... Through American Film" (a 1995 guided tour beginning with clips from "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Duel in the Sun"), followed by another four-hour personal essay on Italian cinema (1999's "My Voyage to Italy")?
To salute the surprise success of "Shutter Island" (top of the box-office for two weeks running), I took some excerpts from an introductory interview Scorsese did for the now out-of-print 2005 MGM DVD release of "New York, New York" and interpolated frame grabs from that movie and others. The result might serve as a primer on how to watch any Martin Scorsese picture.