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The American Cinema Revisited: Rosenbaum on Sarris (From Cinema Scope #6, January 2001)
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic: Essays in Honor of Andrew Sarris
Edited by Emanuel Levy
The Scarecrow Press, 2001
Ironically, my enemies were the first to alert me to the fact that I had followers. — Andrew Sarris, Confessions of a Cultist (1970)
One of the main emotions aroused in me by the 40 or so contributions to this millennial Festschrift is nostalgia — specifically, a yearning for the era three or four decades ago when something that might be described as a North American film community was slowly emerging and recognizing its own existence. This was just before academic film studies, radical politics, drugs, and diverse other developments splintered that community into separate and mainly non-communicating cliques and ghettos, accompanied by an intensification of studio promotion that eventually took infotainment beyond its status as a minor industry and into an arena where advertising was coming close to defining as well as monitoring the whole of film culture, thereby phasing out individual voices — or at the very least bunching them together in sound bites, pull quotes, bibliographies, and adjectival ad copy.
It’s not as though a single film community can’t or won’t ever exist again. More precisely, it’s changed its stripes and certain portions of it have gone back underground — “underground” in the present situation often meaning online. And occasionally representations of that lost community crop up in books such as this one, where academics (ranging from John Belton to James Naremore to Elisabeth Weis), journalists (from Roger Ebert to Leonard Maltin to Gerald Peary), programmers and distributors and producers (including Geoffrey Gilmore, Daniel Talbot and James Schamus), and filmmakers (including Robert Benton, Budd Boetticher, Peter Bogdanovich, Curtis Hanson and John Sayles) are once again juxtaposed cheek by jowl, as they used to be in the pages of Film Culture — as if they all still listened to one another. (To be fair, sometimes they still do, and this book demonstrates how it can still happen — and how Sarris could and can make it possible.) Though Emanuel Levy hasn’t quite succeeded in making this group international — despite a one-page essay by Serge Losique entitled “The International Film Critic” and a Todd McCarthy memoir entitled “Sarris and Paris”— he’s at least made it North and South American in orientation rather than simply “American,” with Piers Handling contributing a useful piece about “Auteurism in Canada” and Richard Pena doing something similar with Latin America in “Andrew Sarris and Romantic Rebellion.”
My nostalgia for that era and lost community is personal as well as tribal. I’m speaking of the decade during which I left Alabama for Vermont and New York and discovered art cinema as well as film criticism, the French New Wave as well as the auteurist styles of Hollywood — the latter as propounded in a 68-page essay called “The American Cinema” by Andrew Sarris that lead off the Spring 1963 issue of Film Culture, which I still own minus its lurid cover of chained chorines in a surreal 30s musical. (By contrast, hardly anyone seems to recall Sarris’ pantheon of actors’ performances, “Acting Aweigh!”, which appeared in the Fall 1965 issue and was clearly designed as a companion piece, though it inspired much less comment or controversy.) I was already a buff at the time who ran the Friday night film series at Bard College, but I didn’t start getting involved professionally with film criticism until 1968, just as I was quitting grad school in English and American Lit, when a classmate hired me to edit an anthology of film criticism (never published) structured around directors — which led me to meet, among others, Andrew Sarris.
I moved to Paris the following year, and on trips back wrote a few movie pieces for The Village Voice that Andy either assigned or approved: first a pedestrian account of a thrilling experience — being an extra on Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer; then reviews of such independent fare as Jim McBride’s Glen and Randa, a documentary about the first moon landing called Moonwalk One, and Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania; and my first two years of Cannes festival coverage — thereby paving the way for book reviews of everything from Gravity’s Rainbow and Myron to Theory of Film Practice and Jerry Lewis: In Person. I also contributed ten best lists to Sarris’s year-end wrap-ups, along with a slew of others — not really the same thing as the Voice’s recent annual polls, because it was still a genuine community newspaper in the early 70s, closer to a bulletin board than anything else, with a letters column that was typically more fun to read than anything else in the paper.
How did Sarris figure in all this? As one of the main connecting threads and references for me and my friends, and in many ways as a passionate rallying point. Also as a facilitator and friend in his own right. During the same period, I can recall Andy once gleefully referring to Vidor’s Street Scene as “pre-Bazinian” after a Paris Cinémathèque screening, and offering a wonderful rap to me about what was so special about Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore as a kind of “first-person” testament and as an uncommon stretching of a filmmaker’s limits, after its first Cannes screening.
The names I miss most in this volume of tributes are those of various Sarris disciples and comrades-in-arms with whom I feel or once felt a particular kinship, such as Stuart Byron, David Ehrenstein, Tag Gallagher, Stephen Gottlieb, Roger Greenspun, Joseph McBride, Richard McGuinness, Michael McKegney, Roger McNiven, George Morris, William Paul, and James Stoller. The reasons for these absences are quite diverse (some of these people are no longer alive, and others no longer write) and I’m not bringing them up as reproaches to Levy’s ample list of contributors — simply as indicators of the sort of history that sometimes escapes textbooks and Festschrifts alike. Along with many of the writers who are included, they and I qualified in some ways as Sarrisites — a motlier crew than the Paulettes (also known as the Kaelites) by and large, though surely no less passionate, and surely different in vocation insofar as we were all entirely and exclusively self-appointed. (I can still recall Todd McCarthy’s voluminous, single-spaced letters to me in the mid-70s, running through weeks and months of auteur-oriented filmgoing with heartfelt thumbnail evaluations attached to every feature, often complete with Sarris-like alliteration.) Only later would come the revisions, retractions and even defections. It was a shock, for instance, once I came to know Samuel Fuller, that, contrary to what Andy wrote, he wasn’t either a primitive or a right-winger — not the man who organized a fund-raising party for Adlai Stevenson in the 50s. But Manny Farber wasn’t really accurate about those aspects of Sam either, and if it weren’t for both these pioneering critics, I might never have discovered Fuller’s movies in the first place.
Furthermore, as Molly Haskell puts it in one of Citizen Sarris’ best pieces, “Life with Andrew…and Film” — even more valuable for its many corrective insights than for its biographical information — “Although he attracted a great many followers (and detractors: he received more mail, hate and otherwise, than anyone at the Voice), Andrew never set out to acquire acolytes, or form a flock of disciples to whom he would issue the party line on every film, or whose straying members he would whip back into the fold…or ex-communicate!” It doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out who Haskell is distinguishing her husband from, and it’s important to stress that her point isn’t a wife’s wishful thinking or idealistic gloss but the gospel truth: not only did Sarris fail to encourage disciples, unlike his most visible opponent; one way or another, he — unlike the enduring example of his work — wound up doing his best to discourage them. Another of Haskell’s corrective insights distinguishes him from practically everyone else in his critical generation: a refusal to use such Frankfurt-school epithets as “trash” or “kitsch,” perhaps underlining the degree to which he developed in reaction to analysts such as Siegfried Kracauer, and in concert with what he once called “the Parisian heresy (in New York eyes) concerning the sacred importance of the cinema.”
The interesting thing about Andy in the 60s was that he became polemical almost in spite of his normal and mainly gentle inclinations — a taker of hard and fast positions that disconcertingly created dissension wherever he went, when it wasn’t really in his nature to sustain such battles for long. In the back pages of the Spring 1963 Film Culture, he assigned five stars to Renoir’s The Elusive Corporal and Hitchcock’s The Birds, no stars to Lawrence of Arabia and To Kill a Mockingbird, and only one star to Antonioni’s Eclipse — judgments bound to give offense to all sorts of people as well as a certain kind of passionate sustenance to a hardcore group of followers, myself included (even though I preferred Eclipse to The Birds, and still do today, and despite the fact that Andy offered a thoughtful semi-defense of Zabriskie Point in contrast to practically everyone else in New York at the time, reprinted in The Primal Screen.). Because what Andy stood for was a revolution in taste — a new kind of syllabus founded on the excitements stirred up by the personal styles of directors. It led to a lot more than his defense of certain American directors; he was also one of the few American critics at the time to defend Muriel and Gertrud.
Above all, it was a declaration that movies were important — a position that still gave one a lot of leeway for change and development. Here are two key sentences by Sarris drafted four years apart for Film Culture, each one retaining its own kind of legitimacy. 1962: “After years of tortured revaluation, I am now prepared to stake my critical reputation, such as it is, on the proposition that Alfred Hitchcock is artistically superior to Robert Bresson by every criterion of excellence and further that, film for film, director for director, the American cinema has been consistently superior to that of the rest of the world from 1915 to 1962.” 1966: “All in all, no film I have ever seen has come so close to convulsing my entire being as has Au hasard Balthazar.”
It was the passion that finally counted the most, and one might that add that similarly, the best pieces in this collection aren’t always or necessarily the ones that have the most to say about Sarris. In contrast to the more gingerly or dutiful tributes that seem to be walking on eggshells — no need to name names here, because most of them can be spotted at once — is a lengthy and deeply felt piece of invective by Ed Sikov, an avowed ex-Kaelian, about the homophobia he finds in Pauline Kael’s review of George Cukor’s last feature, Rich and Famous, which he briefly juxtaposes with Sarris’s review of a Cukor biography, as well as Sarris’s public apology for gay-baiting when he wrote about Parker Tyler. In his Preface, Levy records his regrets that neither Kael nor any of the “Paulettes” he approached agreed to contribute anything to this volume, though he neglects to add that the fury of this former Paulette — almost recalling in certain respects one of the essays in The God That Failed about defections from the Communist party — is in some ways as revealing as the silence of the others. The degree to which some auteurists and anti-auteurists split over issues of politics, religion and even sexual orientation testifies to the urgency these kinds of debates had when certain basics of critical programs were still being established and defended. Which is another way of saying that these people weren’t just fighting about movies; they were fighting about world views, life styles, and personal philosophies — a far cry from the thumbs up and thumbs down of simple consumerism. (If you want to get a sense of the decanted essence of this position, see if you can hunt down The Films of Josef von Sternberg, a Museum of Modern Art monograph of 1966 that qualifies as Sarris’s first book — and for me as well as a certain number of contributors to Citizen Sarris remains his best.) In the same period that I became a Sarrisite and certain others became Paulettes, I also became, after I moved to Paris, a Burchite — hunting down the unseen films mentioned in Noel Burch’s Praxis du cinéma (the original French edition of Theory of Film Practice) with some of the same fanaticism that led me to stay up all night in Manhattan (before the era of VCRs) to catch unseen features by Nicholas Ray or Samuel Fuller. Maybe the agendas of The American Cinema and Praxis du cinéma were ultimately too incompatible to make much sense together, but not for a crazed cinephile in Paris with time on his hands. Things were still growing then, which meant that everything was still possible.
I don’t doubt that things are still growing and still possible for various crazed cinephiles today, so I’m not trying to pull any rank here. The point is that, cinema-is-dead theorists to the contrary, film history never even comes close to repeating itself, for better and for worse. And the prime lesson to be learned from Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic isn’t how much things were changed forever by one book called The American Cinema, because ultimately there is no forever in film criticism. The point is how much they’re still changing because of it, because with or without forever, ripples can last for centuries.