Andrew Sarris: In 1963 a Round Table Discussion Took Place at the New York Public Library between a Panel of America's Most Eminent Film Critics

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HISTORIAN Raymond Haberski sets the scene: 'The critics plodded along, addressing American movie criticism until Dwight Macdonald stood up and made a thunderous statement about Andrew Sarris: "A Messiah he may be, but a film critic, never!"' (1) It is difficult to imagine the impact Andrew Sarris had on American film criticism in the 1960s, for the idea he introduced is now a given in critical orthodoxy and industry assumption, from the publicist to the critic to the man and woman on the street.

Sarris was born in Brooklyn, New York on 31 October 1928. He read English at Columbia University, and while pondering a teaching career he landed the post of contributing editor at the 'little magazine' Film Culture in 1955, (2) which had been established that year by avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas. While Film Culture proselytized on behalf of underground practices known then as the 'New American Cinema', Sarris would begin a highly influential excavation of the American mainstream. Influenced by his friend, Fulbright scholarship student Eugene Archer, who had fallen under the spell of new French ideas in Paris, Sarris began to Americanize French thinking in his own writings. His first piece appeared in 1961 and was entitled The Director's Game. In it Sarris invited the reader to predict the artistically superior movies of the summer. He then dismissed everything except the work of Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Wise, Vincente Minnelli, Joseph Mankiewicz, Anthony Mann and Carol Reed. Film art can only be discovered, Sarris wrote, 'if one stipulates that the director is king and that the past offers any guide to the future'. (3) At a moment of transformation in the American film industry and across American culture, Sarris' translation of the French politique des auteur into what became known as the 'auteur theory' was timely. Its pleas for creative agency in popular art and an indigenous American aesthetic would crucially shape American criticism and filmmaking itself during the 1960s.

In the 1950s American film criticism had been dominated by the sociological approach. A movie was valuable if it dealt with 'important' social issues and embraced social realist aesthetics. Documentarist Robert Flaherty was highly regarded, as were the Italian neo-realists Rossellini and DeSica. Among American directors, John Ford, William Wyler and Fred Zinnemann were considered worthiest in an industry for the most part dedicated, felt the sociological critics, to passing sensations, 'low' art. Such films as The Ox-Bow Incident (William A. Wellman, 1943), The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) and Judgement at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961) were appreciated because they addressed the serious matters of the day in a naturalistic fashion, featured respected actors, and reproduced liberal-humanist ideals. Stanley Kramer's earnest liberal tracts--The Defiant Ones (1958), Inherit the Wind (1960)--typified Hollywood's appeal to middle-class audiences and highbrow critics. James Agee, Robert Warshow and Dwight Macdonald's balanced patrician prose had set the tone for postwar American film criticism. In 1958, three years after his death, Agee's work was collected in one volume for sale to the public. It was the first instance in which an American critic's writings were collected and appeared on bookshelves. As film criticism took centre stage in cultural debates during the 1960s, this trend would see Pauline Kael and others become bestsellers.

As the 1950s wore on, various factors were militating against the official criticism. The era had seen the emergence of an American art house circuit dedicated to the provocative new cinemas of Europe and Japan. From 1959 the work of the French New Wave began appearing in American cinemas. Cresting the latest invasion, directors Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol were the living embodiment of modern cinema, proffering a vision of youthful intellectual experiment which would resonate through the culture. …