The American Critic

Last night, The New York Film Critics Circle presented Andrew Sarris with their lifetime achievement award for his contribution to film criticism.

If Sarris were to read what I’m about to write, he’d probably chastise me for my excess of enthusiasm (unlike Kael, Sarris was the most sober of critics), and my liberal use of superlatives (unlike John Simon, Sarris never made ostentatious proclamations), but in this case I’m sure there’s no other way to express the tremendous, even overwhelming value of Sarris’ work on those of us who try to think seriously about the movies.

Andrew Sarris is the greatest living film critic. Not only is he the most insightful, the most historically versed, and the strongest writer around, Sarris is singlehandedly responsible for positing the dominant ideology behind American film criticism as it is practiced today. Whether you know it or not, without Sarris – as strange as this sounds – we wouldn’t think of films in terms of directors and writers. We’d think of them as stories performed by glamorous people. And in this case, the “we” applies as much to casual viewers as it does to scholars. Since delivering The Auteur Theory to America – in short, the notion that films, like books, do have authors with unique voices and visions – his book, The American Cinema, has done more than any other to bring this massive, perplexing, frustrating, joyful medium down to size. It’s to interested moviegoers what the OED is to linguists.

When I get up in the morning, I make a cup of coffee, look at my email, and open The American Cinema to a random page and read. Others stretch or do yoga, but to get the day going, I review chance passages of Sarris just to make sure the cinematic thermometer in my mind is properly calibrated. Of course, there’s always more work to be done, always more films to see and reconsider, and never enough to say about The Shop Around the Corner, which is why these morning sessions are rarely easygoing. With The American Cinema in hand, I imagine Sarris sitting atop one of those tall chairs that preside over tennis courts. As I hit the ball over the net and run around to the other side to return it to myself, Sarris is yelling at me to go faster, and hit sharper; he’s urging me not to give up on John Ford, and not to be unduly generous to Billy Wilder. And sometimes his wife, the great critic Molly Haskell, appears beside him, reminding the both of us not to forget things like historical context, the continually changing tide of culture that shapes pictures like oceans shape rocks. That’s when I really start to sweat. Molly reminds me that pictures aren’t made in a vacuum – that even Orson Welles, the most careful and controlling of directors, was subject to his zeitgeist. Surely, that needles Sarris (though he’s heard it many times), and he has to step down from his tall chair to have a few words with Molly in the corner. Lucky for me, their conference gives me time to catch my breath, which I so deeply need because it’s only 9:00 and I haven’t had my coffee. I’ve only read this, by Sarris:

The art of cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much what as how. The what is some aspect of reality rendered mechanically by the camera. The how is what the French critics designate somewhat mystically as mise-en-scene. Auteur criticism is a reaction against sociological criticism that enthroned the what against the how. However, it would be equally fallacious to enthrone the how against the what. The whole point of meaningful style is that it unifies the what and the how into a personal statement.

Thank you, Andrew (and Molly) for keeping the phonies in their place and making the great ones even better.

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4 responses to “The American Critic

  1. keep aiming for it, be the new Sarris.

    For many of us who never quite swallowed P Kael.

    • Thank you. I know a lot of people had a hard time with Kael. She was cantankerous and dirty and sometimes mean, but it was only because she loved the medium and hated to see it abused. I know the feeling. There comes a point when being polite feels like a lie. Still, a little bit of reserve, at the right moments, might not have hurt her all that much. I love her.

      • I’m very much enjoying your blog. I have been very eager to discover some quality out here in blog-land, and it appears I’ve found some. Kael and Simon both are incredibly difficult and entertaining to read. Difficult – particularly in Simon’s case – because they often betrayed their love for film. Stern words and an occasional spanking is good parenting; thrashings with a belt are not generally considered the best of methods. Yet of course they are both brilliant and I feel I’ve learned quite a lot from them. Keep up the good work here.

      • Thanks so much for reading and enjoying. I really do appreciate it. I’m with you on Simon; he often seemed more interested in misanthropy than real analysis, but Kael, no matter how ornery, never stopped being totally passionate. It made her more antagonistic remarks seem earned.

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