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. Trailing a series of articles in the Paris journal Cahiers du Cinema in which they glorified the director, emphasizing the Hollywood studio craftsman, in Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and A Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1959), the New Wave auteur represented the odyssey of the intelligent young in a world cowed by Cold War brinkmanship and mediated by mass production. Leaving their mark on every frame of their work, the New Wave directors set an example for American cinephilia and American filmmaking.

Key to the cultural shift about to take place in America was a fresh assessment of the mass culture which surrounded Americans. Cultural theorist Susan Sontag argued against traditional interpretation of art by appealing to the sensory, contingent pleasures we experience when confronted with individual artistic texts. By the mid-sixties, Andy Warhol and the 'Pop' artists sought to interrogate the high-minded canons of the past. By revealing the strategies of the advertising men in his hard-hitting 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders, journalist Vance Packard made commercial art a worthy subject for serious contemplation, and contributed to the rise of irony in pop culture. In a world in which anything could be art, television spewed out the aesthetics and values of the consumer society in ads, game shows and old movies. The Hollywood studios, in slow decline since the 1948 Paramount consent decrees effectively broke their monopoly of production, distribution and exhibition, gleaned revenue from rentals to the television networks, enabling an entire generation to experience decades of studio product. Such a shift mimicked how the French had renewed their vows to cinema before the return of American movies to post-war Paris. While less adventurous American critics appreciated worthy Hollywood pronouncements on important issues, they ignored great swathes of entertainment product, the bread-and-butter of the industry. Generic, star-driven and gimmicky, the standard western, musical, film noir had eschewed messages in favour of shrill effects, what Sarris would call the 'what' of ideology in favour of the 'how' of cinematic style. As he wrote:

Those of us in America who have embraced 'Cahiers' rules, with limited reservations, have done so partly because the deepest meanings of the film medium have become completely disassociated from the traditionaily balanced criticism of causes and effects, partly because 'Cahiers' reinforced our suspicions of propaganda posing as art, and ideologies posing as ideas, and partly because we approved of critics who lived, breathed and devoured cinema not as shame-stricken fugitives from reality but as devotees of an art which no longer required the defensive analogies of the older more fashionable cultural disciplines. (4)

Sarris intended his pieces to contribute to debates on authorship taking place not only in France but also in the British magazine Movie, which launched in 1962. Following the French auteurist lead, Movie also championed the director as the source of creativity in the studio picture. Like Sarris, the Movie critics would apotheosize Hollywood craftsmen like Minnelli and Nicholas Ray. Countering the orthodox critical emphasis on content, Sarris would introduce the excavation of classical Hollywood genre sensations into the discussion. By searching out the mark and temper of hitherto unsung names, he would try to get at that mysterious concision among the filmic elements lighting, colour, actor placement and editing that the French were calling mise-en-scene. Sarris' appeal on behalf of the genre movie was passionate. Of Ray's energetic Chicago gangster flick Party Girl (1958) he wrote:

It is possible to dismiss the film as the limited triumph of form over content, but in Ray's wild exaggerations of decor and action, there arises an anarchic spirit which inflects the entertainment and preserves the interior continuity of the director's work. One may choose to confront or to ignore the disturbing impfications of Party Girl, but the choice involves more than one film and one director. It involves the entire cinema, past, present and future! (5)

Such passion and attention to the visual and aural energies of a film were new in American criticism. Macdonald and others' perception that Sarris had imported obfuscating theory into film appreciation now seems to highlight classical criticism's reluctance to see film as film. But among a newly aware campus constituency Sarris would find an audience. Prioritizing the 'how' of directorial inspiration over the 'what' of indifferent material or extra-cinematic dogma, Sarris would enshrine what the French critics dubbed 'St. Cinema' for an American readership. The Winter 1962-63 issue of Film Culture ran 'Notes on the Auteur Theory' in 1962. Here Sarris sought to explain what he had (crudely) translated as the 'auteur theory'.

He proposed a series of concentric circles. The outermost pertained to technical competence. Without this elementary requirement, the director was clearly no auteur and had no place in the Pantheon of excellence Sarris would propose. The second circle related to signs of a recurring directorial style, the author's signature. The innermost circle, Sarris' most crucial and controversial move, pertained to 'interior meaning ... the tension between a director's personality and his material'. (6) If a director's career had seen him traverse all three circles, he qualified for admission to the Pantheon.

To an American mind-set traditionally suspicious of theory, Sarrisite auteurism seemed perplexing. Yet here was a way, as Sarris saw it, of defending cinema as art, and of discovering what was arguably America's own cinematic art. As the old studio system crumbled, the time for ploughing back and theorizing the fascinations of classical Hollywood cinema began. Sarris showed that America could have an art cinema to rank with the foreign directors whom the cognoscenti admired. The last 'Scribes on Screen' (Metro 146/147) featured Sarris' most famous detractor Pauline Kael, commenting at length on what has become known as the 'KaeI-Sarris debate'. Essentially, Kael disputed Sarris' circles on the grounds that instinct not intellect, should be the yardstick for measuring a movie's worth. For Macdonald, New York coterie auteurism imported an arcane rationale which nobody outside Greenwich Village understood, and which threatened to degrade the common sense standards that had guided earlier generations. Macdonald also saw himself as a bastion against what he termed 'kitsch', the effluent of the popular of which the genre movie was a key exemplar.

In 1968 Andrew Sarris developed his ideas into a book entitled The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. It has been highly influential. In it, Sarris elaborated on the methodology he expounded in Film Culture. Now the Pantheon included masters of American filmmaking Griffith, Chaplin, Ford, Welles, Hitchcock, Hawks and Flaherty. The cream of this 'Great Man' perspective on American film history, these directors combined technical proficiency, recurring style and a certain 'lan of the soul'. Emphasizing the difficulties associated with being a creator in the Hollywood system, Sarris' Far Side of Paradise was the category that exemplified what was best about Hollywood mise-en-scene. In its ranks was Nicholas Ray, auteurism's favourite beleaguered craftsman mired in the compromises of the system. Expressive Esoterica included workmanlike genre specialists like Don Siegel, by the latesixties a regular in downtown theatres and drive-ins: Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Hell is for Heroes (1962), Madigan (1968). Amongst the Oddities, OneShots and Newcomers were directors such as Roger Corman, a commodity specialist adept at surmounting logistical problems to churn out interesting Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and other kitsch. Then there were those under the heading Less than Meets the Eye. These were directors 'with reputations in excess of imaginations. In retrospect it always seems that the personal signatures were written in invisible ink'. (7) They included Billy Wilder, John Huston and William Wyler. In a famous piece in the pages of Film Comment in 1976, Sarris re-evaluated Wilder, whose autumnal works were then signalling a retreat from the trademark acerbity of works such as Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951) (which Sarris himself freely admits to being enchanted by when they appeared).

By the early seventies the 'New Hollywood' directors, led by Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, seemed to cinephiles and cineastes to legitimize the cult of the director. The work of Peter Bogdanovich--Targets (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971), Paper Moon (1973)--rejoiced in allusions to those grand old men of American cinema, Ford and Hawks. Bogdanovich's writings--Fritz Lang in America (1968), John Ford (1968)--assiduously followed the auteurist line. Sarris explained a new era of movie appreciation in America. If film scholarship had been dominated by what Sarris dubbed 'forest critics', those who concentrated on what movies had in common, he would reveal what made studio product individual, what made them special. In The American Cinema Sarris had written: 'The theory of film history toward which this book is directed aims at nothing more than taking the moviegoer out of the forest and into the trees.' (8)

Sarrisite auteurism shifted the moviegoer's gaze away from the represented world that had underwritten the classical theorizing of Andre Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer and the tastes of highbrow critics, and re-thought the search for cinema's essential nature that had characterized film theory since Eisenstein. In Edward Murray's words, by attending to the dimensions of representation itself, 'the auteurist discussion of film as a visual art comes as a welcome relief'. (9)

But the shift from the world to its image has lead theory and criticism up extreme alleys. In Film Culture Sarris had asserted that 'film for film, director for director, the American cinema has been consistently superior to that of the rest of the world'. (10) Whilst it yielded to a few international masters at the top, the middle ranges belonged to Hollywood, felt Sarris. This position now seems increasingly tied to the historical desire to assert a domestic tradition before a critical establishment then overawed by the 'quality' pronouncements of European and world cinema. Arguably, American film culture came of age in the 1960s. The New York Film Festival was inaugurated in 1963. In 1967 Bonnie and Clyde opened, that first incendiary shot of a new American art cinema. The same year saw the establishment of the American Film Institute. In an era in which hierarchies were everywhere challenged, loving movies carried cultural cachet. But whilst auteurism keyed into the times, Sarris' Pantheon inevitably seems conservative to us now. In 2006 British critic Brad Stevens observed in Film International that Griffithian narrative solutions only became orthodoxy because the Hollywood continuity system adopted them. (11) Whereas to watch a contemporary work like Gus van Sant's Elephant (2003) is to witness other solutions to the problem of how to tell a story cinematically.

Under the influence of Sarris, the summary verdicts of 1968 had by 1975 mushroomed into a veritable cottage industry of close analysis and re-assessment in book and magazine. Pioneered by Secker and Warburg's Cinema One series and the Hollywood Professionals books from Tantivy-Barnes, the auteurist study became a staple of Anglo-American book publishing. In his seminal Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1968), Peter Wollen deified Hawks. Cinema programming too has felt the pull of auteurism's obscure studio artists. A season of 1950s B movie specialist Joseph H. Lewis played the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1980, Lewis' Gun Crazy (1950) going on to a successful run in London's West End. Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) and Mars Attacks! (1996) felt like his generation's tribute to Sarris. There were those who tried to re-think the auteur label. Richard Corliss' Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema (1974) and Charles Higham's Hollywood Cameramen (1970) extended the possibilities of a theory of authorship. Yet as Sarris revealed in his lowly estimate of Roger Corman, classical auteurism has proved singularly unsuited to describing or celebrating the commodity status of a product with the explanatory proficiency of recent writers on the industry and its audiences such as David Bordwell or Peter Krmer. Sarrisite auteurism also tended to the masculinist. Consonant with its Cahiers du cinema forebears, it deified poets--rather than poetesses--working out their angst in a factory.

Edward Murray felt Sarris was better on the energies and flows of individual movies than he was at dogmatizing on behalf of the auteurism that supposedly justified such positions. In a Film Culture piece from 1959, Sarris argued for the stylistic and thematic integrity of Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1956). Sarris' reconciliation of the play of the visual with Bergman's overarching ethos is rigorous, achieving more here than in his attempted reconciliation of style and theory elsewhere. Sarris also belies the criticism that he lacked sensitivity towards European art cinema. As Death fools the knight, he writes:

Almost any other director would have sustained this great cinematic moment with either an immense close-up or a receding tracking shot to the ceiling of the church looking down upon mortal man in his fullest affirmation. Instead, Bergman truncates his effect with a quick cut to the squire entertaining the church painter with a Rabelaisian account of the Crusade. This abrupt transition from sublimity to ridicule is characteristic of Bergman's balanced treatment of the high--low dualism of human life. (12)

In this passage Sarris comes close to the literate metaphysical zeal of Godard's and Truffaut's early criticism, and the mystical play of cinema's unique genius.

But like the French auteurists, for some Sarris lacks a sophisticated political sense. Among other errors, this led to a blind spot where Italian Neo-Realism was concerned. David Walsh at the World Socialist Web Site reviewed Sarris' 1998 book 'You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet': The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949, dwelling on its lack of socio-political insight. It is perhaps reminiscent of an auteurism blind to anything beyond its director heroes that Sarris identifies the arrival of sound and the 1934 Production Code as shaping influences on movies of the inter-war years, yet ignores the unemployment and incipient revolt that was everywhere apparent across America during the Great Depression. Such had been the socio-historical crucible out of which Agee and Macdonald had emerged. Nevertheless, Sarris' analysis of the relation between form and content in studio product laid the groundwork for contemporary accounts of classical Hollywood and, as Walsh remarks: 'one cannot even seriously approach American cinema without working over and through his critical writings'. (13)


(1) Sarris, quoted by Raymond Haberski in 'It's Only a Movie': Films and Critics in American Culture, University Press of Kentucky, 2001, p.133.

(2) Sarris in Haberski, p.125.

(3) Ibid., p.125.

(4) Ibid., pp.126-7.

(5) Ibid., p.128.

(6) Sarris, quoted by Edward Murray in Nine American Film Critics, Frederick Ungar, 1975, p.41.

(7) Sarris, quoted in The Cinema Book, Pam Cook and Mieke Bernink (eds), British Film Institute Publishing, 1999, p.313.

(8) Sarris in Murray, p.51.

(9) Murray, p.63.

(10) Sarris in Murray, p.51.

(11) Film International, Volume 19/2, March 2006.

(12) Sarris in Murray, p.65.

(13) David Walsh at http://www.wsws. org/arts/1998/july1998/sarr-j01

Richard Armstrong is an Associate Tutor affiliated to the British Film Institute. His book Understanding Realism appeared from the bfi in 2005. He is currently working on the Rough Guide to Film.


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