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How Movies Became Cinema: Andrew Sarris in Seattle Part I

By Andrew Sarris on June 25, 2012

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The following is a transcript, gently edited, of a recording made by Robert Horton on the occasion of a lecture Andrew Sarris gave on March 12, 1987 at the University of Washington. (Read the audience Q&A portion of the event here.)

I’m a little intimidated tonight by the idea that you’re paying seven dollars to watch this broken-down person from New York address you. But thank you for coming. I hope I can provide some enlightenment and entertainment worthy of that. One thing I’d like to point out at the start—I don’t do much lecturing anymore. I’ve been sort of laying low, trying to conserve my energy for the few things I have to do, and I haven’t been traveling around. So when Tom Keogh wrote to invite me to the Seattle Filmhouse, one of the things that got me here was my familiarity with and great admiration for the writings of Kathleen Murphy and Richard Jameson for the Seattle Film Society’s paper Movietone News. It meant a great deal to me to read that there were civilized voices writing about film out here in Seattle. And I always felt a great affection for these two writers. At a distance. This is the first time I’ve actually met them, and I guess we’ve formed a sort of mutual admiration society…

I don’t know how many of you read The New York Times today. I happened to notice a very trivial piece about architecture. The post-modernist movement in architecture has already been declared dead, after just 14 years. You know the post-modernist movement: people got tired of the modernist movement, which gave us all the blank slabs all over the place, so the post-modernists came along and took the slabs, and put little curlicues on them in the classical tradition. Now everybody’s tired of that, so something new has come out called neo-modernism, that’s going to replace post-modernism. Tonight I don’t know whether I’m going to postulate or define post-auteurism or neo-auteurism. I haven’t made up my mind. I’ll try to think about it on the plane ride back to New York and maybe come to some conclusion! But tonight I’d like to take you back and try to describe some of the historical situations in which this whole thing began. I don’t want to overdo the grotesque careerist biographical stuff, because there’s a kind of exhibitionism involved there; and there’s no reason for you to believe it, since no one knows, at that low level of existence, what anybody did or didn’t do. But I wanted to present the climate, and discuss how I think things have changed, where we’re going, and if we’re going anywhere.

When I first started writing criticism for Film Culture, I was writing completely in the mode—and this is very ironic—of the dominant people of that time who were influencing criticism. The dominant people were Bosley Crowther, the film critic of the Times, who for 27 years was the most influential film critic in America, and no one has replaced him, no one since has been so much in tune with both the readership, the industry, and public taste. He influenced everybody. And the second was the model for film scholarship, Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler. So the dominant concern was the social concern, the social ideas that were generated by films. Films that generated social ideas were important, and films that didn’t generate social ideas were not important.

Now, I accepted this, and my early reviews were sophisticated in certain ways. In 1956, I wrote an article on Citizen Kane called “Citizen Kane: The American Baroque.” That article has been republished more than any article I’ve ever written, and I can’t stand to look at it today. I think it is so stupid, so elementary, so obvious, so not-having-to-do-with-anything. And yet, just last week I got a request from a publisher in Israel who wanted permission to reprint that piece in Hebrew and include it in a collection of pieces on Orson Welles. I can’t stand the piece. I mean, it is, in a sense, pre-auteurist. I analyze Kane bit by bit, in a systematic way. Pauline Kael said she really admired me during this period, and I wrote an article on Nights of Cabiria which George Stevens admired—again, very conventional, very systematic and schematic.

And then came my Waterloo. I was still living at home with my mother in ’57 or ’58, I was writing a systematic 35-page review of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and I was having a really hard time. Suddenly, I began choking, and they called the ambulance and everything. I’d just eaten some steak, I’d thought a piece had gotten lodged in my throat, I was screaming and screaming, but they couldn’t find anything there. And it turned out I was having throat spasms, my nerves had given way. Which, I think, might account for the fact that through the years I’ve been a little harder on Bergman than I should have been. I sort of associate him with that episode.

This was the low ebb of my pre-auteurist thing, when I was doing these laborious articles that everybody admired, and I wrote a two-part essay on Carol Reed. I went picture by picture, and everybody said, “That’s wonderful, that’s wonderful,” and I thought, “Unnnh, something is missing.” And also, in 1955, the year I started, both James Agee and Robert Warshow died. They were, at that time, the two best (I think) prose stylists around writing about film and related subjects, and the tradition they represented was pretty much all that I knew.

Then a friend of mine, Eugene Archer, and I began working on a possible film history. He was from Texas, and I had met him at a film course at Columbia University. This was right after I’d gotten out of the Army, and I was at a teacher’s college and I was just floundering around. That’s where I met Jonas Mekas, who got me started both at Film Culture and The Village Voice. But Eugene Archer was one of those kids who, from the age of about nine, was making 10-best lists, and everything I didn’t know about film he knew about film. He went to Europe on a Fulbright and he spent the whole time in Paris going to the Cinémathèque, seeing old movies, and reading Cahiers du cinéma. He began writing me enormously long letters about what he was seeing, what he was thinking, dadadada... I began to rethink my own thinking. At that time, he was proposing a book on six American directors—he’d signed a contract, but he kept haggling over it and he never did write the book. At that time he thought the six major American directors were Fred Zinnemann, John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Elia Kazan, and George Stevens. This was in terms of what they had been doing up to that time. I remember he began with a study of how they handled the same kind of scene, a scene of a man going off to action and a woman trying to hold him back. In the case of Zinnemann it was High Noon, with Grace Kelly trying to hold Gary Cooper back; with John Ford it was Stagecoach, with Claire Trevor trying to hold John Wayne back; the scene in Huston was… oh, I can’t remember; the Stevens scene was from Shane, with Jean Arthur trying to hold Alan Ladd back; the Kazan scene was Jean Peters trying to hold Marlon Brando back in Viva Zapata!, and so on. If he had ever written that book, the course of film history would have been very different. I think that book would have been so far ahead of its time that it would have ended the whole auteur controversy, because he would have proven it.

But he went to Paris, and he began rattling off these directors to the French, to the Cahierists, and they just sneered at him. They didn’t like Ford—actually, Godard said that they missed the boat on Ford and Ophuls. They didn’t like Stevens, they thought he was trop appliqué; they didn’t like Huston, they thought he was too despondent, depressing, the sin of despair; they didn’t like Zinnemann, he was just too precise, too professorial, too detached, too detailed; Kazan they liked; Wyler was too impersonal. And that was about it. “So,” he said, “who do you like?” And they said, “Hawks and Hitchcock.” And I remember him writing this letter—and later this very brilliant English critic, Robin Wood, wrote an article with a title that came from this letter, which had been written years before—and in the letter he wrote, “Who the hell is Howard Hawks?” It was written in the spirit of inquiry, you know, as in: how did we miss Howard Hawks? I mean, why were the French so excited about him? So I began thinking, and then I started to remember that I had never thought much about Howard Hawks, because Howard Hawks had never seemed very artistic, particularly in comparison to Huston, who was very obviously painterly in his compositions. All I knew was that Hawks, he made damn good movies. But that didn’t seem enough to get excited about. What was the theory? What was the rationale for admiring Hawks?

So I wrote back, and actually I knew more Hawks movies than my friend did, I’d caught up with a great many of them. And I noticed two things about Hawks: one, that his films were very direct, vigorous, and I could see why the French liked him. There was also a historical accident: in America, because of the tangled web of Howard Hughes interests, the print of Scarface was unavailable for revival. Most of us over here had never seen it. In fact, I didn’t see it until ’61 when I went to Paris and saw it at the French Cinémathèque. Whereas in France it was available, and people admired it and felt it was one of the great American films. Secondly, they were also familiar with Hawks in the silent era, particularly A Girl in Every Port, which has one of Louise Brooks’s most interesting performances.

But I went over the Hawks films that I’d seen and liked: for instance, Red River, which now is clearly one of the seminal American films. In fact, a friend of mine whose opinion I respect very much thinks that Red River rather than Citizen Kane is the great American film, in the sense of describing America. That is, that John Wayne and Montgomery Clift—and this is prophetic, about the Vietnam War—are the two opposing sides of America. But I noticed something about Hawks, and this applied to Red River, to Only Angels Have Wings, to almost everything Hawks had done, except some of the comedies, like Bringing Up Baby. And that is: he was much stronger in the rhythms and textures and movement of the living than in any meditation on life. The thing I noticed was that Hawks had bad endings. And I think that was no accident, because he didn’t know how It ended, how things end—he had no metaphysical vision. He was the ultimate American director in that sense. And from that point on, we began to go to these other people, like Raoul Walsh and so forth. I tried to develop these different directors.

But the great discovery was Hitchcock. Hitchcock was a different problem from Hawks. Hawks, we didn’t know who the hell he was, but everybody knew who Hitchcock was. We liked Hitchcock, but we had never taken him all that seriously. He was supposed to be a great entertainer. The master of suspense, they said, and as Hitchcock himself said, “I’m just doing a job of work." Actually, that was John Ford, but Hitchcock said something similar, and so did many others. (This was no help when you were debating with Pauline Kael and John Simon, you know.) And I began to notice something about Hitchcock that contradicted what he was saying—and this was before I got all the critical literature from Chabrol and Truffaut and Godard and all the people who wrote these brilliant analyses of the Hitchcock films. What I discovered was that no matter how many times I saw Hitchcock’s films, I never tired of them. Why is that, I wondered? You’d think that somebody working in a supposedly minor genre, dealing with suspense... Once you know how it comes out, where’s the excitement? And yet, I never tire of looking at Shadow of a Doubt, or Notorious, or Vertigo. I can look at them endlessly, and I do, I teach them all the time. I look at them, I study them… I love them. And they always yield new things, new meanings.

So I began thinking about that, and then it combined with a lot of other ideas. A friend of mine introduced me to the complete writings of Sigmund Freud. Freud wrote that art itself is a mystery, but that great art illuminates something that is in all of us . . . Our weaknesses, our vices, they suddenly become illuminated and we understand them more clearly. That was one thing. The second thing was something I picked up from Northrop Frye’s book on genre, and suddenly I understood another principle that I’d sort of intuited on my own but had never been able to express, and I think it’s one of the great formulations I’ve read in recent years. Northrop Frye said that our heritage since the Iliad is to treat the fall of an enemy as a tragic, rather than as a comic, event. And I suddenly realized that in all the great Westerns that I loved, the distance between the hero and the villain tended to be very small. And I also realized that the thing I love about Hitchcock is that at the end of Notorious, you are suddenly confronted with the tragic vision of a villain going to his doom, rather than with the escape of the two lovers. Hitchcock enables you to see both sides, and to think more deeply about human fate.

I’m now teaching a course on Hitchcock and Welles, in which I compare the two. And it’s interesting that at some point they intersect, they’re both doing noirish things. Welles is doing The Stranger about the time that Hitchcock is doing Notorious. Most of my students really respond much more to Welles as an artist. And most people think Welles is a great artist who was destroyed by Hollywood, or self-destructed, or something. And that Hitchcock is—well, you know, he’s just an entertainer who always conformed. But the difference between them lies elsewhere, and I suddenly found the image to illustrate the difference. The Stranger has a wild baroque ending, where everybody’s up on a clock tower and Welles is trying to escape and runs into a figure that emerges from the clock, and which has been planted earlier in the movie—not planted in close-up but as part of the mechanism of the clock, you barely notice it—a figure with a sword, which goes right into Welles. And then you pull back, and you have the theatrical spectacle of Welles sort of being dragged along slowly by this clock; there’s this massive human figure being reduced to this piece of machinery and then tumbling to his fate, which is very interesting. And it suddenly struck me that Hitchcock would have planted the figure with a close-up . . . And Bazin, who missed the boat on Hitchcock, would have said, “Oh, this is too obvious.” This is the difference: Hitchcock makes the action completely lucid, completely clear. You don’t have to use any brain cells to figure out what’s happening. He shows you everything and he shows you how it’s done, and when it’s done, it’s done, and everything is perfectly clear. And people say, “Aw, well, that’s too clear.” But, because it is so clear, your mind is freed from trying to figure it out. By making it lucid, you begin thinking of the fates and the depths of these people: you can study them in extremes, and they become deeper and deeper and deeper. Whereas Welles is so interested in razzle-dazzling you with his technique that he remains, except for Kane and Ambersons—and Ambersons is really his autobiography—a bit on the superficial side. Whereas Hitchcock, ironically, by making the action clear and the plot clear, makes the characters much deeper, and much more rewarding, and much richer.

. . . I wrote “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” for Film Culture, which was a very small magazine at that point. I think I received $25. And that was something, because most of the writing I’d done up to that time was for free. Nothing. Zero. So I was doing other jobs. I think I was getting some work at the time as a reader for Fox. Later I did a couple of screenplays there. And I was always conscious of conflict of interest, so I wrote a few reviews in Film Culture under an assumed name. I took the name Michael Walsh, from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Or is it Peter Walsh? Any literary mavens here? I can’t even remember my own pen names. The brain cells are dying—a lot of “drain bamage,” as they say . . .

At that time I was living with my mother out in Queens, writing for The Village Voice somewhat incongruously, making about $1,100 a year. And being this sinister power that was changing the course of film history. Which, at that point, sort of struck me as slightly grotesque. It was like the old Show of Shows skit with Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner, where Carl Reiner gives him a glowing introduction and says, “Oh, professor, you wrote the greatest this and that,” and Sid Caesar turns to him and says, “So how come I’m not working? So how come I’m not making any money?” Here I am, supposedly shaping all these minds, creating all this damage, ruining young people, getting them to look at junk and trash, and I am starving to death. Or living off my mother.

. . . It was quite a surprise to be attacked by someone named Pauline Kael [in “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris,” in Film Quarterly]. I had no idea who she was. Her piece came out, and I wrote a very feeble initial response. I started writing and then I just got tired, because I was at that time already working on that issue of Film Culture that dealt with older directors which would develop into The American Cinema. So I wasn’t ready for a polemical dispute. And I sort of rightly was considered to have lost that battle. But if I had to do it all over again, I would simply ask Chick [Ernest] Callenbach, then the editor of Film Culture, to reprint my original article. Because I think the debate over the years has been one-sided. I think about a hundred times more people have read her piece than have ever read mine. And mine was a very... oh, you know, as Mario Puzo said when The Godfather became a huge success, “If I’d known so many people were going to read it or be influenced by it, I would have written it better.” And that’s the way I feel about that.

I was really probing, I was really starting off, and I wasn’t proclaiming a new theory or anything, I was just assuming that it existed—in France, particularly, in Cahiers du cinéma. And I was discussing some arguments against it that had been raised by the man who I think is the greatest film critic of all time, André Bazin. Great in the sense that he entirely changed the way I and a great many other people looked at films. Bazin was criticizing the policy of his own colleagues, it was a friendly debate. And he was arguing over whether their editorial policy of having the specialists on every director review the works of that director was fair. He also questioned the idea of just dismissing or blasting whoever they didn’t like. For example, the lesser work, the imperfections of a Minnelli were accorded special privileges that were not accorded the lesser work of a John Huston, who Cahiers somehow didn’t like. So I was questioning this, and questioning whether artists get worse as they get older, or simply get more personal and stop reaching the audience. And these were rather complex questions, and it was kind of a conversation among a very small group of people, discussing critical methodology and film history. It’s a very modest article, really. In the course of it I tried to develop some unfortunate metaphors, which provided the title of her article: “Circles and Squares.” I talked about concentric circles, made it sound very schematic, and of course that doesn’t work. I would not use that method today.

. . . One of the things that struck me as I went along is that all the people who attacked me, and attacked the so-called auteur theory, and attacked the people I liked and so forth, they didn’t do a very good job of it. I toyed with the idea of writing a much more persuasive attack on auteurism myself, under a pseudonym. I could have done a better job myself, because I knew the weaknesses, the exceptions. But I think the reason so much of the cultural establishment swung to Kael’s side and accepted her essay as gospel was that I was the bearer of bad news. I was the instrument of change. People sensed it and they wanted to kill the messenger. What was changing was that movies were becoming cinema. And people really didn’t like that.

If I had to do it over again, I would get away from making directors sound like individual heroes and back to my the original conception, which was to explain how a rather commercial, manipulative, capitalistic system could produce so many interesting works, with all kinds of subtexts that were never explored at the time. In other words, how did so many damn good movies come out of this old system? And why is it so difficult today to achieve comparable effects? That’s the process in which I’m engaged right now, trying to develop this theory. But I’m also trying to stay in the present, and to find out what is happening, to recognize talent where it is, and apply these theories in the future . . .

Continue to part two.

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