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Hail the Conquering Hero: Andrew Sarris profiled

By Kent Jones

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Kent Jones re-examines the 50-year career of Andrew Sarris, the man who brought auteurism to America

Photo © Robin Holland

After the New York press screening of a revived Mickey One a few years back, a certain critic was heard to remark, "I guess that's what you'd call Strained Seriousness."

And I guess the remark is what you'd call an inside joke. Deep inside.

For those of you who don't get the joke, and I expect many of you will not, it is language learned from a sacred text, officially dated at 1968. Strained Seriousness is actually the name of a category, which appears between two other categories, Lightly Likable and Oddities, One-Shots and Newcomers, in much the same way that Corinthians appears between Romans and Ephesians. Every category contains a list of movie directors, and a corresponding sub-list of their films, the important ones are italicized, and the entire enterprise is appended by a series of hierarchical yearly lists, the top four or five films also bestowed with italics. This is an all-American affair. True, there is a smattering of foreigners (Fringe Benefits), and the one called Renoir was so great, it is said, that he made it into heaven (the Pantheon) with only five American films to his credit. But the particular spiritual discipline embodied in these revelatory lists and rankings is as deep dish-American as Emerson or Hawthorne. And just as Hawthorne saw original sin turning the tables on Young Goodman Brown or the minister under his black veil, so the Book sends Huston, Wyler, Zinnemann, and Wellman wandering the world with the legend Less Than Meets the Eye emblazoned on their foreheads.

"I can't get those fucking categories out of my head," a friend once complained, like the woman who hears the ticking bomb at the beginning of Touch of Evil. Small wonder. Consider the descending order, from the transcendentally whole to the prosaically piecemeal ("He has created more great moments and fewer great films than any director of his rank" rings a particularly alarming note), or the cursory texts that are not so much defenses as cryptic illuminations (for instance, "Cukor's cinema is a subjective cinema without an objective correlative"). The American Cinema has the monumentally timeless authority of an originary text - it does not appear to have been written as much as handed down from above and received by mankind. Of course, there is writing, very good writing, in the preface, the introductory essay, and, in recent editions, the afterword. But these feel like a scholar's explanatory notes, outside the transfiguring object that is the Book itself. An alternative history of American movies? Of course, given the fact that a multiple Oscar winner (Ben-Hur) sits sadly unitalicized at the bottom of 1959. But it's more than that. And it is quite different from the assorted pieces by Agee or Farber or Kael, in which readers found sympathetic voices that validated sentiments or intuitions theretofore unexpressed in the greater culture. If you received The American Cinema at the right moment in your life, and many people including myself did, it came with the force of a divination, a cinematic Great Awakening. I suppose that makes Andrew Sarris, its author, the Jonathan Edwards of film criticism.

It has been pointed out, often, that many English-language film critics before Sarris invoked the director in their reviews - it's been pointed out most often by Sarris himself. Yet the fact is that no one except Manny Farber had confronted the question of what direction actually was. They had done pretty much everything but - ontological observations, theoretical prescriptions occasionally illustrated by actual movies, or critical language such as the following: "He has come back from the war with a style of great purity, directness, and warmth, about as cleanly devoid of mannerism, haste, superfluous motion, aesthetic or emotional over-reaching, as any I know." That's James Agee on William Wyler, and while it's all very lovely, it doesn't address the central question of what exactly Wyler does for a living. For Farber, and for no one else, this question was part of the job, and he approached it from his own stubbornly particular viewpoint - so particular that no one noticed at the time.

It was Sarris who took it upon himself to overhaul American film criticism, by facing what everyone else had either avoided or backed into, with and without cultural alibis. And he accomplished it in a few rather simple, elegant moves. First of all, there was all that ranking, from most to least personal. Whether or not you agreed with his choices, it was clear that, somewhere in the world, priorities had been reversed from content to form, but also from outside to inside. Sarris took a postwar French idea - the Politique des auteurs - and translated it as the Auteur Theory, which he later (correctly) admitted was not a theory at all but "a collection of facts, a reminder of movies to be resurrected, of genres to be redeemed, of directors to be rediscovered." It's been said that he simply took a French notion and Americanized it, which isn't untrue, but this minimizes the daring. To embrace American movies and moviemakers in Paris was one thing. To embrace those same movies and moviemakers in the country that had made and marginalized them in the first place was a far riskier proposition. This was a systematic destruction and reconstruction of the standard view of American cinema and, by extension, all of cinema, an insistence that cinematic beauty did not come from without (the right subject, actors, set designer, cinematographer, etc.) but from within, and that it was a matter of simple logic that it was the director rather than the writer or the performers from whom the final result was generated. Putting it another way, to fix your sights on the actors or the cinematography or the dialogue was akin to staring at someone's mouth, knees, and navel, whereas contemplating a film through the framework of direction was akin to looking at the whole person. Bazin, the Cahiers and Positif critics and the Brits at Sight and Sound, Sequence and Movie were already there, but it was Sarris who shepherded it into American consciousness, the toughest job of all.

His smartest move was parachuting two French terms into the American critical language - Auteur and Mise-en-scène. Auteur was a brilliant choice, because it killed two birds with one stone: on the one hand, curbing the then-prevalent literary bias in criticism by finding an alternative to Author, on the other hand, solidifying the concept of personal creation in a way that went well beyond the term "director." Mise-en-scène was necessarily more mysterious, and neither Sarris nor Alexandre Astruc ever adequately defined it. "We might say that Mise-en-scène is the gap between what we see and feel on the screen and what we can express in words," Sarris wrote in response to a request for a definition from a doctor in Maryland. Fair enough, but a little too tricky. "Mise-en-scène is the shaping of an objective core. Take away the objective core, and you have pure personality without Mise-en-scène." Not bad, but perhaps an overly fancy way of saying that filmmakers manipulate their raw material the way sculptors mold their clay. "What Mise-en-scène means is perhaps less important than what it implies." I wonder if the doctor was satisfied with that one.

The point is that Mise-en-scène is, or was, a necessarily undefinable and eminently malleable term, which ultimately came to stand for a kind of magic, an alchemical process in the happy meeting between artist and material. This type of purely aesthetic thrill had remained in the shadows of film criticism - cinema had been pegged as either a modern, theoretically driven marvel in perfect sync with the ongoing ascendancy of the proletariat ("When Eisenstein demonstrated that anything goes as far as temporal distortion is concerned, the actor was completely forgotten as the intransigently counter-revolutionary agent operating against the smooth flow of dialectical montage," wrote Sarris, brilliantly), a purely sociological phenomenon ("As soon as we identify an entity called 'Marilyn Monroe' as an iconographical element of Niagara, we incorrectly limit a variable element with an invariable name"), a 20th-century entertainment machine or nothing more than the sum total of its various parts. Among many other things, Sarris was saying that magic in cinema was more a question of sensibility than visual, verbal or aural splendor, and Mise-en-scène came to denote the evidence that human intelligence, as opposed to efficiency or self-importance, had been applied from behind the camera. If you insisted on a strict translation, the term applied more to metier than magic, but it seemed ridiculous to describe the Mise-en-scène of Joseph Pevney or Delbert Mann. Ultimately, the term as Sarris put it to use is a kissing cousin to Farber's negative space, with Sarris's "personality" jibing with Farber's "experience." The difference is that where Farber's language and orientation as a critic were resolutely private, Sarris's were public and explicitly polemical. And they did the trick. The next time you browse through the Vincente Minnelli section at Kim's Video, or watch a TCM tribute to Raoul Walsh, or read an appreciation of Park Chan-wook in The New York Times, think of Andrew Sarris. There are still critics who think they're scoring points by insisting that film is a collaborative medium, only to return to the director as organizing principle without missing a breath.

"Americans can't resist a good revival meeting," Jean-Pierre Gorin said of Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sarris whipped up a remarkable amount of fervor in the Sixties and Seventies. Once he realized that he had fans - which came with the realization that he had enemies - he was quick to point out that fanaticism was always a two-way street. "I would be the first to concede that any critical theory carried to extremes is absurd," he wrote in 1970. "When you become too addicted to the politique, you wind up listening to visiting Frenchmen whispering into your ear that Edgar G. Ulmer has just directed a nudist film anonymously . . . The point is that in America we are always overcompensating for the extremisms, real and alleged, of others, thus becoming extremists ourselves." Those who attacked Sarris reacted with their own brand of extremism that, in retrospect, seems notable for both its venom and its underlying anxiety, not to mention its wholesale evasion of the subtlety and intricacy of his arguments. On the one hand, Dwight Macdonald and John Simon (immortalized by Sarris as "the greatest film critic of the 19th century") were taking Sarris to task for legitimizing the most vulgar impulses in cinema and thus betraying the original promise of the medium; on the other hand, a certain critic at The New Yorker was trying to have it both ways, tipping her hat to the aesthetic conservatism of Macdonald and Simon and then wheeling around to accuse Sarris of spoiling the party by turning the ecstatic rush of moviegoing into a slow, somber trek to the museum, punctuated by numerous genuflections and incense burning.

It's one of the odd quirks of history that, at least at this moment in time, the name of Pauline Kael has to come up if you're discussing Andrew Sarris. They go together like Petruchio and Kate, Zeus and Hera, Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Despite the fact that they shared certain predilections and preferences (for Godard in the Sixties, Altman in the Seventies, and The Earrings of Madame de... now and forever), they never stopped battling after 1963, when Kael tossed a grenade into the auteurist cell with the lively but ridiculous "Circles and Squares," and right up to Sarris's deflating goodbye to his old nemesis in The Observer. "Not that I have any desire to continue playing good old Charlie Brown to Miss K's Lucy," wrote Sarris in 1970, "but I can't really discern any overriding moral issue involved in the conflicting tastes of two movie reviewers." Perhaps not, but just as Godard recognized the tracking shot as a moral affair, so one might say the same of a critic's stance toward the art form they're contemplating. And while Kael in death is just as popular as she was when alive, if not more so, I think it's Sarris who has had the more positive and lasting effect on the way we look at movies.

Sarris met every challenge head-on, and Kael sidestepped them all - Resnais, Malick, Fassbinder, late Bresson, late Dreyer, post-Dr. Strangelove Kubrick, post-Last Waltz Scorsese, Shoah, and, last but not least, the classical American cinema that was getting such a spirited revision from both sides of the Atlantic during her ascendancy. Moreover, she made a practice of encouraging her readers to sidestep right along with her, and provided them with a series of snappy alibis that jangled in the brain like hook-laden Top 40 tunes - Hiroshima, mon amour was "an elaborate masochistic fantasy for intellectuals"; Barry Lyndon "says that people are disgusting but things are lovely"; The Merchant of Four Seasons is "an art thing, all right, but perhaps not a work of art." Of course you can't "get drunk on" the aforementioned films and filmmakers. You can fall in love with them (believe it or not, some of us have fallen in love with Barry Lyndon and The Merchant of Four Seasons, and I'm pretty sure we weren't duped or intimidated into it), but it's a very different kind of love from what you might feel for The Godfather or Dressed to Kill. Where Sarris often shared Kael's ambivalence over art cinema, he almost always tried to come to terms with it - for him, the uncrossable line of viewer tolerance that Kael watched like a hawk was nonexistent. As long as filmmakers didn't lose their nerve or cop out, Sarris reckoned that the ideal, sympathetic viewer owed them their best. One could say that for Kael the artist is guilty until proven innocent, while for Sarris he/she is innocent until proven guilty.

"I suppose... I am a revisionist in the most restless sense of constantly revising myself," Sarris wrote in the introduction to Politics and Cinema. "Consequently, every movie I have ever seen keeps swirling and shifting in ever changing contexts." This openhearted stance before the wonder of cinema, the polar opposite of Kael's famous one-viewing/one-judgment credo, is crystallized for me in Sarris's return visits to Kubrick. "It's not that I have seen the light," he wrote in 1975, "but that I have come to appreciate Kubrick's particular form of darkness." But he had started with 2001, which prompted a little-remarked report on a second re-viewing of a film he had vilified in The American Cinema ("The ending·qualifies in its oblique obscurity as Instant Ingmar"). It was two years later when he took this "enhanced" look, resulting in one of the most charming passages in all of American film criticism. "I must report that I recently paid another visit to Stanley Kubrick's 2001 while under the influence of a smoked substance that I was assured by my contact was somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano on a King Sano [cigarette brand] base. (For myself, I must confess that I soar infinitely higher on vermouth cassis, but enough of this generation gap.) Anyway, I prepared to watch 2001 under what I have always been assured were optimum conditions, and surprisingly (for me) I find myself reversing my original opinion. 2001 is indeed a major work by a major artist." I'm not sure what I love most about this passage - the fact that it's impossible to imagine anyone else writing it (in 1970! in The Village Voice!!), its complete lack of guile, or its corresponding lack of self-consciousness. And then, a few sentences later, a kind of peak is reached: "I don't think that 2001 is exclusively or even especially a head movie (and I now speak with the halting voice of authority)."

Sarris's disarming honesty and his complete lack of concern with being hip have always been his trump cards as a critic and his bête noires as a journalistic player. The old Voice probably could have tolerated an attention-getting firebrand like Stanley Crouch forever, no matter how reactionary, if he hadn't tried to smash up the joint; but its patience wore thin with this "instinctively" Christian centrist (whose political acumen could have given any of his fellow staff writers a run for their money) with an unapologetic love for old movies and a curiously formal prose style in the best belle lettrist tradition. And yet, despite the fact that his archenemy's dizzying virtuosity is often stood in opposition to the style of every other film critic before or since, it's Sarris, with his restless intelligence and his Proustian regard, who is finally the more modern writer. What is winning in Kael - moving, in fact - is the urgency of her need to communicate her emotional responses to films and, especially, actors who made an immediate impact, in a correspondingly immediate style so breathlessly intoxicating that it haunts film criticism to this day. Her best pieces shimmer and throb like a great Tommy James single. And that's always been the rub, for her and for her devotees. Anything that smacked of premeditation or intellectual mediation, anything that moved in any direction other than toward the immediate, was anathema. Unfortunately, a high percentage of art and a higher percentage of criticism smacks of both premeditation and intellectual mediation (out of necessity), which is why she more or less painted herself into an aesthetic corner by the time she retired. Such is the life of the Enthusiast/Debunker. Meanwhile, Sarris, in the best tradition of Bazin, Daney, and Farber, was always a critic-theorist - in other words, his immersion in the medium is so total that he generates theory through his practice. While he may not have a defining essay like "The Ontology of the Photographic Image" or "White Elephant vs. Termite Art" - or, God help us, the unfathomable "Fantasies of the Arthouse Audience" (reduced to ashes by Raymond Durgnat) - he does have 50 years' worth of remarkably trenchant and insightful criticism, in which the cinema itself always stands at the center, valiantly protected by Sarris as if it were his queen and he its knight. A river of personal expression indeed.

Flip to any given page from any one of his anthologies, long out of print and overdue for a fresh look (come to think of it, a few more anthologies of uncollected material are in order), and you will find a restlessly inquisitive and extraordinarily supple mind at work, always laboring to tie together an assortment of elements - historical antecedents, contemporary political realities, Proustian reminiscences. If his writing about the very best - Ophüls, Mizoguchi, Hitchcock, Ford - is less exciting than his writing about the flawed or failed, it's probably because sublimity tends to be a great equalizer, while imperfection comes in limitless variations. "On the whole, most movies tend to be more complex than profound," Sarris wrote in The Primal Screen, "but this makes them all the more difficult to pin down, describe, and categorize for all time." No one aside from Farber worked harder at pinning down, describing, and (always provisionally) categorizing. On occasion, Sarris hit a comic high note in the process: "Richard Benjamin is so ideally cast as Philip Roth that it is almost frightening to think of him ever playing anything else. And who wants to look at Philip Roth as a figure of fantasy?"

For me, Sarris was at his very best when confronted with an especially knotty problem, and the aesthetic and political convulsions of the Sixties and Seventies provided him with a bonanza of paradoxes, delusions, and hypocrisies to deflate and dissect. "I think Nixon can be beaten in 1972, but not by reluctant virgins and pure ideologues," Sarris wrote of The Candidate, seeing through the beguiling surface to the core of purest bullshit. "At the very end of the movie...all McKay can do is ask, 'What do we do now?' Well, for one thing, Senator-elect McKay can go to the Senate and vote against the confirmations of Renquist, Powell, Burger, and Blackmun." He performed a similarly invasive procedure on films that were even more extravagantly praised: "It is with the characterization of Michael Corleone that both...Coppola and...Puzo seem to drift away from the rigor of the crime genre into the lassitude of an intellectual's daydream about revenge without remorse and power without accountability," or "Cabiria is too much of a one-woman show, with Giulietta Masina's heroine achieving a sublime illumination while all the other characters linger in the darkness of deception and irresolution." One of his finest moments came when he took not Gillo Pontecorvo but the Lincoln Center audience to task for cheering the café bombing in The Battle of Algiers: "All right, you say you believe in indiscriminate violence. Then squeeze Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Marcello Mastroianni, Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Peter Finch, George C. Scott, and Diana Rigg into a crowded café in Algiers. Then let the bomb go off five minutes after the picture starts, and show all our cameo stars as shattered corpses·Is it still an occasion for cheering? I think not." Sarris was not a bandwagon jumper - needless to say, he did not equate the first New York showing of Last Tango in Paris with the inaugural performance of "The Rite of Spring." Nor did he see anything so miraculously new about the New Hollywood: for him they were just a group of talented filmmakers operating under a different set of conditions than the ones under which their studio-contracted forefathers slaved. If Sarris tended to underrate Coppola and early Scorsese, he also did a far better job than anyone else of positioning them within the totality of film history, and then stuck by them once the heat of youth had cooled with the contemplative distance of age.

Sarris was always bracingly honest about his prejudices, and his greatest was for the avant-garde. "Live and let live has been my motto," he wrote of his reluctance to attack non-narrative films in print, "and since most American avant-garde film artists have tended to be as poor as church mice, it seemed unduly cruel to heap abuse atop neglect." I will never forget the hair-raising moment when he took fellow Voice writer Jim Hoberman to task in print for "freaking out on the arthouse acid below 14th Street." In retrospect, while I can't abide the notion that narrative is the only package in which moving images should be wrapped, I have to commend and even envy Sarris for his candor - most of his colleagues would have hidden behind layers of rationalization or obfuscation. And yet, Sarris is always surprising. He owned up to missing the boat on Cassavetes at the time of Shadows, and when he took a good, hard look at The Chelsea Girls, he admitted that he saw a work of great gravity and beauty. He always had a problem with youth culture, but he balanced his graybeard griping with passages that reflected the most generous and enlightened point of view since Bazin's. "We are simply too close to the popular cinema of today to read it correctly," he wrote in his Easy Rider review. "If American movies today seem too eclectic, too derivative, and too mannered, so did they seem back in the Twenties, the Thirties, the Forties and the Fifties·Out of all the mimicry of earlier times emerged very personal styles, and there is no reason to believe that the same thing will not happen again and again. Hence beware of all generalizations, including this one, perhaps especially this one, because it is just remotely possible that after all the false cries of doom, the cinema might actually be racing to the creative standstill so long predicted for it. But I doubt it. It is not the medium that is most likely to get old, tired, and cynical, but its aging and metaphysically confused critics. This particular critic has never felt younger in his life."

Sarris seems to have become a more becalmed and solitary presence in recent years, dropping the mantle of head "cultist" and regarding the games of moviemaking and movie critiquing from a benign distance. Younger readers complain that he is too content with covering the latest commercial releases, as if we should all aspire to write for an audience of all-region DVD player owners. I can't begrudge his failure to grapple with Apichatpong or Omirbaev - the distance from Three Comrades to Fassbinder is already far enough. And he remains one of the most penetrating voices in film criticism. I recently had the shock of my life when I opened The New York Observer, where he's had a berth for the last 16 years, to find his review of Godard's Notre musique. Midway, he segued into a reminiscence of his youth spent in a "casually anti-Semitic household." For him, the effects of his upbringing were only dispelled with the footage of the death camps. This bracing honesty was a prelude to lowering the boom on Godard's "evasive paradoxes," with this stinging sentence: "Mr. Godard hasn't earned the right to take the mantle of Jewishness upon himself as if it were some sort of Halloween mask." A few well-chosen words, and Notre musique hasn't been the same since for this reader.

"I never argue with people about movies," Andrew told me when I visited with him at the cozy Upper-East-Side apartment he shares with his wife, Molly Haskell. "We all see different movies. We all go to the movies and see our friends, our family, our loved ones. Brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers. Lost loves. Failed loves. People we hate. Movies are as old as psychoanalysis. So if I were to put you or anyone else on a couch and say, 'Tell me your favorite movies,' it would be a way of psychoanalyzing you." Our conversation ranged across a lot of territory in two hours - Billy Wilder ("When Sunset Boulevard played Radio City Music Hall, I saw it about 25 times. I was a great enthusiast. And then Truffaut talked me out of it"), the Pope's then-impending death ("I'm suspicious of how long he's taking"), showing Citizen Kane to students at SVA ("The lights came up and one of them raised his hand and said, 'They certainly wore strange clothes back in those days'"), the generosity of Fred Zinnemann ("You know, he had an affair with Grace Kelly on High Noon, and he once told me that he could never have gotten the performances out of her that Hitchcock did"), the political problem of landing on the right-to-die side of the Schiavo case ("You can't just stand up in the Senate and shout 'Pull the plug!' It wouldn't go down well with your constituents"), and Clint Eastwood ("I find people all the time now saying things like, 'I agree with you about Million Dollar Baby - I didn't like it either.' Their not liking it is a much more sweeping thing than anything I've said. They feel it's not big enough, important enough, overwhelming enough. And I suppose it isn't, but what is?"). But all the while, what we were really talking about was the practice of film criticism, on which Sarris has spent a lifetime of reflection. "I've always said to people that auteurism is nice, but it's hypothetical, and gradually you learn how much or how little influence different directors had. You can see that Hitchcock had more influence than someone like [John] Stahl. What it really is, is first you see something, and you like it, and then it's a mystery, and you go into the mystery - and that's what's interesting. And the test of criticism is: can you make a case for it."

"Do you think we've wasted our lives?" Andrew asked as he walked me to the door. It was a joke, of course, but it had a poignant ring. People are always implying that movies, and the hours spent watching them, are wastes of time. When you're young, it's "Why do you want to sit in the dark on such a beautiful day?" When you're older you feel it in the flip tone of movie journalism, the cultural credence afforded cinematic illiterates like Gore Vidal, and the strenuous efforts of apologetic film critics to connect cinema to the "real world" because they feel obliged to prove its "relevance" over and over and over again. You even feel it in such supposedly sympathetic terms as "cinephilia" or "movie love," which carry the ring of affliction. Andrew, with his honesty and his grace, has always made such notions seem utterly irrelevant.

As I walked through the park, I drifted into my own Proustian reveries. I remembered my previous visits to Andrew and Molly's place - the last time was almost 20 years ago, when Andrew's right-hand man and my mentor Tom Allen died of a heart attack at the age of 50. I remembered the weekend that Tom went away on retreat, the Voice almost went on strike and Andrew came down with what became a year-long, life-threatening illness. I remembered my mercifully brief stint in the early Eighties as Andrew's personal secretary, at which I was an unqualified disaster. And then, a few years before, sitting in my school library poring through old issues of the Voice. And further back, when I was 12, getting my first copy of The American Cinema from my mother's friend. It was a loan, and it got so much wear that she made me buy him a new one. 32 years later, I still can't get those fucking categories out of my head. Not that I've ever tried. That I like John Huston or William Wellman more than Andrew does, or did, is beside the point, and it always has been. He gave me, and many, many others, a framework, a way of seeing and understanding an art form that was and still is culturally disreputable. I owe him a lot, and so does anyone else writing about cinema.

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