Tag Archives: andrew sarris

Not My Opinion

Last weekend I was at UCLA’s Billy Wilder theater for a screening of Gerald Peary’s documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, a story which – spoiler alert – does not end happily.

True, Peary closes the film with a misty-eyed snapshot of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, arm-in-arm, leaving a cozy, small town movie theater, but it’s put there to help us look back, not forward. Looking forward is a much scarier prospect. Thomas Doherty, in his piece, “The Death of Film Criticism,” explains why:

The transfer of film criticism from its print-based platforms (newspapers, magazines, and academic journals) to ectoplasmic Web-page billboards has rocked the lit-crit screen trade. Whether from the world of journalism (where the pink slips are landing with hurricane force) or academe (which itself is experiencing the worst job market since the Middle Ages), serious writers on film feel under siege, underappreciated, and underemployed.

Why buy the cow, in other words, when you can get the kvetch for free? So says the younger generation to the old. “But the kids don’t know the first thing about movies,” replies the golden age. (Or as Richard Schickel said, “What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium.”) You can see where it goes from here. It’s On Golden Pond meets The Paper Chase. (Charles Laughton plays Schickel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays “The Kid.”)

The septuagenarians are out of touch, says the youth. The youth is under-educated, says the septuas. Of course, these statements are meaningless reductions.

The real problem is the new generation’s misreading of film criticism’s purpose. The new technology is innocent, as is the general drift of the reading-population towards the cheapest-possible (i.e. free) format. That technology is here to stay, so the fogeys should get used to it (Roger Ebert has, and he done beautifully.) What’s torn asunder serious film criticism is the erroneous belief, held by many of the new generation, that critics are there to offer an opinion. And – to follow the logic – because everyone has an opinion, there’s no reason why this arbitrary group should be elevated to the level of special elite.

As a member of the new generation, I have a sense of why this is. Growing up post-modern products of a deconstructionist age, wherein our liberal arts colleges taught us the death of the author has rendered analysis a free-for-all, and each of our $40,000 a year opinions, which can be voiced in break-out study sections, is as uniquely perfect as a snowflake, it’s no wonder that my people are irked by the idea of intellectual authority, especially with respect to pop culture and media, our favorite pastime.

I was there when Academia became est.

Now everything is valid if you “feel” it. Now we “feel” Kubrick’s intention. We “feel” Barry Lyndon was too long. We don’t “think” it’s too long. No, not any more. The democratization of intellectual authority has done away with all that. (How do you feel about that last statement?)

But film critics aren’t there to offer their feelings. They’re there to offer insight. And while every one of us, no matter what our training, can bring thoughtfulness to the understanding of a motion picture, only a select group, who knows their history, their theory, and has a basic understanding of the realities of production, can bring serious, comprehensive intelligence. Feelings are for book groups.

I’m not getting Ayn Rand on you, so let’s be clear. Everyone’s invited. Whether you’re young or old, a blogger or a print journalist, come join the serious conversation. Just leave your opinions in the lobby. Serious film criticism is begging you.

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Americans Have Feelings Too

A friend just sent me a link to this video, a tribute to filmmaker Paul Mazursky. “Well,” I thought, “it’s about time.”

Paul Mazursky’s nearly twenty films as writer/director stand alongside those of Woody Allen as American film’s most sustained comic expression of the 1970s and 1980s. Though unlike Woody, whose milieu is predominately intellectual, Mazursky’s people are so raw, and so baffled by their own emotional tumult, their sincerity comes across as forcefully as their ridiculousness. This makes films like An Unmarried Woman and Blume in Love very difficult to classify, but all the more relevant; in that place between funny and feeling, there is an inner world, uncharted by contemporary Hollywood, where the joke is vital, yes, but never at the expense of character truths, of the hearts and minds in play. If laughter is always warm in Mazursky, it’s because it comes from this place of empathy, and not – as is the case with today’s comedies – from distance. As Pauline Kael wrote, “Mazursky brings you into a love relationship with his people.” We are not better than Mazursky’s people because we are Mazursky’s people.

Way back, in one of the American cinema’s most formidable decade, Richard Corliss had a sense of what would come. “Paul Mazursky,” he wrote, “is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations….Mazursky has created a  body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness.” And Andrew Sarris, on the occasion of Lincoln Center’s 2007 eleven-film tribute, wrote, “Mr. Mazursky is a testament to the sheer depth of American mainstream movies way back (it now seems) in the days when directors – and Mr. Mazursky in particular – knew how to be funny and adult at the same time.” “The great thing about Paul’s movies,” Mel Brooks said, “is that they never seem to be made up. They seem to spring from life.” It’s true. It’s very, very true.

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.