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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.*

Kael responded with "Circles and Squares" and thereafter Sarris panned her first collection, I Lost it at the Movies. (He also dismantled her slipshod "Raising Kane" essay in 1971, as did many others.) There was no lengthy, ongoing public debate or exchange of ideas between Sarris and Kael themselves from then on. So, the false nostalgia for the great days of "Kael vs. Sarris" is baffling. Yes, as many have said, some people sorted themselves into "camps" -- the so-called "Paulettes" (as they were known primarily by those who saw them as Kael's sycophants) and the auteurist-oriented "Sarristes" -- but in terms of aesthetics or theory or ideology, what did they really represent? Kael's pals vs. auteurism? Visceral responses vs. hierarchical categorization? Dionysian vs. Apollonian criticism? Philistinism vs. academia? It was never that simple.

And should Sarris or Kael really be defined by what "side" some other people imagined themselves to be on? There's no question that many critics and cinephiles passionately identified with Team Pauline or Team Andrew, and felt there was much at stake in how they defined themselves against their real or fantasy rivals, but the "team captains" weren't actually out there on the field of public discourse leading the charge, no matter what they may have said in their respective locker rooms.

When Kael died in 2001, Sarris wrote in the New York Observer:

I am always being asked to appear on panels bemoaning the state of contemporary film criticism when compared with the supposed golden age of the nouvelle vague and the Kael-Sarris contretemps. I always pour cold water on these projects by asserting, as I do now, that film criticism today is far superior to what it was back in the supposed golden age of the Kael-Sarris cat-and-dog fight, when two comparatively provincial and unsophisticated careerists -- one in San Francisco and the other in New York -- collided in a maze of misunderstandings that concealed the fact that they were both consumed by movies with much the same emotional intensity. So which of us was proven right in the long run? In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes or someone once said, we are all dead.

In 2011 Sarris recommended five books of film criticism for The Browser -- by Bazin, James Agee, Robert Warshow, Manny Farber and David Thomson. Of Warshow he said:

Warshow focused on the "immediate experience" of the viewer -- how a movie moved a man. He, in fact, preferred the term "movie" to the more highfalutin "film." He suggested that we should judge films based on the emotional effect they have on us.

Hmmm. Who does that sound like? And of Bazin's classic "What is Cinema?" he said:

Auterism acknowledged that the director was the dominant personality in films and that films reflected a director's vision. That was how it changed the trajectory of criticism. It was accused of ignoring every other contributor and technician involved in film -- unfairly so.

Auteurism helped us understand that a director's work should be judged on its artistry rather than its subject matter. Before I became familiar with the work of Bazin, I felt that film had to be ambitious and socially conscious to be valuable. Bazin and Cahiers helped me realize that cinema was sui generis, that film didn't have to prove its social relevance, and that film should be judged on its own terms. But back then, bucking mainstream American criticism and showing appreciation for commercial pictures was a risky proposition.

And he concluded:

All critics were in some sense consumer guides. There is nothing wrong with being a consumer guide. I know that the term is used in derogation. But the best writers were also the best consumer guides.

What Kael wrote in "Circles and Squares" (which she did not select for inclusion in her collection, For Keeps) seemed to me like a willful misreading of Sarris's case, playing semantic games with straw dog arguments. In reality, I think the "debate," such as it wasn't, was over before Kael ever published her piece. After all, as she would continue to prove for the rest of her career, she was an auteurist through-and-through. She always wrote about films in terms of their directors, whether she loved them (Peckinpah, Altman, De Palma) or hated them (Oliver Stone, Sidney Lumet) or changed her mind about them.

As Sarris recalled in a 2009 New York Times interview, it wasn't a two-sided argument: There was Sarris, Kael, Farber, John Simon, Stanley Kauffmann...

"We were so gloriously contentious, everyone bitching at everyone. We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much. Urgency seemed unavoidable."

Now that is something real, and worth treasuring. Read Sarris's writing. He expanded his Film Culture pieces (including a 1963 piece called "The American Cinema") into the incalculably influential The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1927-1968, in which he sorted directors' work into various categories ("Less Than Meets the Eye," "The Far Side of Paradise," "Strained Seriousness") -- including his personal pantheon. Get ahold of Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955-1969, The Primal Screen: Essays on Film and Related Subjects (1973) and Politics and Cinema (1978) and you'll see he was no dry dogmatist (he did love his alliteration, though).

Richard Brody (no Paulette he) wrote** Wednesday in The New Yorker:

From the time the idea of the auteur crossed the ocean, in the early sixties, to this day--thanks mainly to Sarris--it has been consistently misunderstood by its detractors, in part because of Sarris's linguistic peccadillo. He referred to the "auteur theory," as if it was something that could be proved. The phrase that the French critics used for their idea was la politique des auteurs. It was a "policy," not a rule, and a "politics," because it was aimed at power. These critics didn't only seek the widespread recognition of the directors they admired but (as Jean-Luc Godard told me in 2000) thought they were, in a way, prolonging the French Resistance "against a certain sort of occupation, in the cinema, by people who had no business being there." They were both asserting a living pantheon of filmmakers they admired and seeking to throw out interlopers in order to make a place for themselves in the film industry (thus the invective). [...]

If auteurism were nothing other than the recognition of arcane patterns across a director's body of work, it would have had a short and obscure run. But in fact, its power comes from its inspiration of artists.

In his forward to the 2001 collection "Directed by Allen Smithee," edited by Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock, Sarris (in an avuncular and effusive mood) magnificently summed up his own legacy:

After more than forty years of polemics, I have reached the state where I am regarded as too much of an academic for the journalists and too much of a journalist for the academics. And so if I seem glib, blame the journalist in me, and if I seem pompous, blame the academic in me. When James Agee wrote his first movie column for The Nation, he described his relation to the movies as that of an amateur. That is what I am also, a lover of the magical medium that has enthralled me since early childhood, and will do so till the day I die. I know most of it is artistically worthless, but that doesn't matter, because the cinema, at least that part of it that relies on live action cinematography and narrative, is not entirely art at all. Too much of living, breathing, aging and dying reality seeps into its pores for it to be studied as congealed creation. [...]

I have no idea anymore where I belong on the critical scene, or where I want to belong. What was for me an outlet in the fifties and an obsession in the sixties has become a time-consuming profession in the nineties. I would like to think that I have evolved both as a critic and a human being, and that I have kept an open mind on the cinema. Yet it somehow seems that the more I write the less I communicate, and that I shall forever be typecast as the stormy petrel who once took on the whole critical establishment single-handed. Have you added anyone to your Pantheon?, I am asked in a humoring tone of semiseriousness. Wait and see, I reply. The trouble is that I staked out my positions before I had an opportunity to explain them....

And so, after the publication of "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" and Kael's response:

Soon every film critic was taking sides. The great majority embraced Kael's debunking position, which was vaguely antitheory, antisystem, antifilm scholarship, and, above all, anti-taking-movies-too-seriously. Significantly, the word "trash" kept popping up in her article, and this was a reassuring code word for the cinephobic cultural establishment.

Overnight I had been transformed from a nonentity to a pariah. It seems I had been the bearer of bad news, to wit, that movies had to be studied seriously and studied intensely. [...]

My own interpretation of the auteur theory was based originally on the weird notion that good movies did not just happen by accident; nor were they the products of some mindless beehive of activity. I proposed instead a pattern theory in constant flux to explain certain stylistic signs of personal creativity in what had otherwise been dismissed as an industrial assembly line. My business was history, not prophecy. After looking at a score of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a score of films directed by John Ford, and a score of films directed by Howard Hawks, no one could tell me that Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks were not authentic auteurs. This was not to denigrate the role of the actor, the writer, the cinematographer, the editor, the composer of the music, the sound technician, the set designer, and the myriad artistic and technical contributors to the finished motion picture. There were instances, in fact, in which the true auteur of the film was not the director at all, but a producer like Selznick, a cinematographer like Lee Garmes or Gregg Toland, a set designer like William Cameron Menzies, a special effects wizard like Frank Bashevi, a composer like Miklos Rozsa or Max Steiner, a writer like Ben Hecht, or actors like Garbo and Cagney, Sullavan and Stewart, Leigh and Olivier, Hepburn and Tracy, Dunne and Grant, Arthur and Boyer. My "theory" was intended as the first step rather than the last stop of film scholarship. [...]

In any event, the auteurists of the fifties and sixties did not introduce the cult of the director. Dwight Macdonald and John Grierson were writing very knowledgeably about Hollywood directors back in the early thirties. The great majority of film histories around the world have been organized in terms of the collected works of individual directors. [...]

At this late date I am prepared to concede that auteurism is and always has been more a tendency than a theory, more a mystique than a methodology, more an editorial policy than an aesthetic procedure. The cinema is a deep, dark mystery that we auteurists are attempting to solve, and, what is infinitely more difficult, to report our findings in readable prose. The cinema is a labyrinth with a treacherous relation to reality. I suppose that the difference between auteurism and Allen Smithee-worship is the difference between knowing all the questions before finding the answers, and knowing all the answers before formulating the questions.

Thank you, Andrew Sarris. Thank you.

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* An excerpt from Sarris's "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962":

... [The] ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director's personality and his material. This conception of interior meaning comes close to what Astruc defines as mise en scène, but not quite. It is not quite the vision of the world a director projects nor quite his attitude toward life. It is ambiguous, in any literary sense, because part of it is imbedded in the stuff of the cinema and cannot be rendered in noncinematic terms. Truffaut has called it the temperature of the director on the set, and that is a close approximation of its professional aspect. Dare I come out and say what I think it to be is an élan of the soul?

Lest I seem unduly mystical, let me hasten to add that all I mean by "soul" is that intangible difference between one personality and another, all other things being equal. Sometimes, this difference is expressed by no more than a beat's hesitation in the rhythm of a film. In one sequence of "La Règle du Jeu," Renoir gallops up the stairs, turns to his right with a lurching movement, stops in hipline uncertainty when his name is called by a coquettish maid, and, then, with marvelous postreflex continuity, resumes his bearishly shambling journey to the heroine's boudoir. If I could describe the musical grace note of that momentary suspension, and I can't, I might be able to provide a more precise definition of the auteur theory. As it is, all I can do is point at the specific beauties of interior meaning on the screen and, later, catalogue the moments of recognition.

The three premises of the auteur theory may be visualized as three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning. The corresponding roles of the director may be designated as those of a technician, a stylist, and an auteur.... Technique is simply the ability to put a film together with some clarity and coherence. Nowadays, it is possible to become a director without knowing too much about the technical side, even the crucial functions of photography and editing. An expert production crew could probably cover up for a chimpanzee in the director's chair. How do you tell the genuine director from the quasichampanzee? After a given number of films, a pattern is established.

In fact, the auteur theory itself is a pattern in constant flux. I would never endorse a Ptolemaic constellation of directors in a fixed orbit. At the moment, my list of auteurs runs something like this through the first twenty: Ophuls, Renoir, Mizoguchi, Hitchcock, Chaplin, Ford, Welles, Dreyer, Rossellini, Murnau, Griffith, Sternberg, Eisenstein, von Stroheim, Buñuel, Bresson, Hawks, Lang, Flaherty, Vigo....

** Sarris said very much the same thing in his 2001 "Directed by Allen Smithee" forward.

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ADDENDUM (06/21/12): Todd McCarthy gets it, even though it didn't actually have to be an either/or proposition:

Certainly, Pauline could be the more dynamic crusader both for and against a film (although he was often dizzyingly eloquent and quite funny, Andy, especially as he got older, had a tendency to ramble). What it came down to, in the end, was that, with Kael, what you're left with is all opinion--brilliantly and eloquently expressed opinion, to be sure, but subjective impressions nonetheless.

By contrast, Sarris's initially controversial method of creating a hierarchy of talent had the automatic effect of establishing priorities and, in a broader sense, inspiring a deeper plunge into film history. Seeing the entire filmographies of so many directors on the pages of The American Cinema suddenly presented many of us with a massive artistic and exploratory challenge which, for me, continues to this day and will for the rest of my life: To see all these filmmakers' work for ourselves, to find them (in pre-video days) at revival cinemas and obscure archives and on television at 2 a.m., and then decide for ourselves and make further judgments and priorities.

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