Forgotten Books:American Cinema by Andrew Sarris
The influence of Andrew Sarris’ film crticism has become so omnipresent it is now invisible, part of the received wisdom of how we approach and watch movies. This has only become clearer after his death last week at the age of 83. You can see his mark in the marketing of the upcoming “Hitchcock Masterpiece” Blu-Ray collection from Universal, and in every movie review that even mentions the name of the director. The auteur theory will be his legacy, regardless of how often it is misinterpreted as some kind of iron law rather than the policy of “perpetual revaluation” that he proposed it as. Enough has been written about auteurism though, and not enough about the constant sense of discovery in reading his seductively winding prose. He approached films like an explorer, traveling down a multitude of paths, be it historical, stylistic or even personal, searching methodically for flashes of insight or originality, whether from the director or any of the film’s collaborative artists. His sentences would gather long strings of actors, colors and themes, as list-happy as in The American Cinema, seemingly sussing out his opinion along the way – a perambulating, open-air kind of criticism where interruption, digression and contradiction are welcome.
Guest Selections of Sarris’ work
Tom Gunning, A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, Department of Art History, Department of Cinema and Media Studies
Entry on Ernst Lubitsch (Pantheon), The American Cinema:
For Lubitsch, it was sufficient to say that Hitler had bad manners, and no evil was then inconceivable.
Besides showing how concise and precise he could be, it shows Sarris’ ultimate values. In an era when it was claimed films were valuable only if they had Big Ideas (e.g.. Ingmar Bergman) or made Big Statements (e.g. Stanley Kramer), Sarris upheld film style, not simply as a decorative function, but as the true means of expressing a judgement on the world and the people in it. He showed that the great directors of American cinema were great because they had style. Sarris had style. -Tom Gunning
Adrian Martin, writer, film critic, teacher
Q&A at the University of Washington, 1987 (transcription at Film Comment):
People talk about Platoon being a great war film. A great war film is Madame de… – the Stendhalian battle of love.
Miriam Bale, editor of Joan’s Digest, freelance critic and programmer
Review of Robert Aldrich’s …All the Marbles (Village Voice, 1981):
I cannot explain my feelings exactly, but when I left that theater of gutter trash, The National Theater, after a showing of …All the Marbles, I felt cleansed, exhilarated, almost sanctified.
Michael J. Anderson, Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, proprietor of the blog Tativille
Entry on John Ford (Pantheon), The American Cinema:
A Ford film, particularly a late Ford film, is more than its story and characterizations; it is also the director’s attitude toward his milieu and its codes of conduct. There is a fantastic sequence in The Searchers involving a brash frontier character played by Ward Bond. Bond is drinking some coffee in a standing-up position before going out to hunt some Comanches. He glances toward one of the bedrooms, and notices the woman of the house tenderly caressing the Army uniform of her husband’s brother. Ford cuts back to a full-faced shot of Bond drinking his coffee, his eyes tactfully averted from the intimate scene he has witnessed. Nothing on earth would ever force this man to reveal what he had seen. There is a deep, subtle chivalry at work here, and in most of Ford’s films, but its never obtrusive enough to interfere with the flow of the narrative. The delicacy of emotion expressed here in three quick shots, perfectly cut, framed and distanced, would completely escape the dulled perception of our more literary-minded critics even if they designed to consider a despised genre like the Western. The economy of expression that Ford has achieved in fifty years of film-making constitutes the beauty of his style. If it had taken any longer than three shots and a few seconds to establish this insight into the Bond character, the point would not be worth making. Ford would be false to the manners of a time and a place bounded by the rigorous necessity of survival.
Review of Psycho (Village Voice, August 11, 1960):
Psycho should be seen at least three times by any discerning film-goer, the first time for the sheer terror of the experience, and on this occasion I fully agree with Hitchcock that only a congenital spoilsport would reveal the plot; the second time for the macabre comedy inherent in the conception of the film; and the third for all the hidden meanings and symbols lurking beneath the surface of the first American movie since “Touch of Evil” to stand in the same creative rank as the great European films.
A wonderful riff on the importance and joys of repeat viewings, with my favorite movie as the subject. -Gina Telaroli
C. Mason Wells, IFC Center
Entry on Buster Keaton (Pantheon), The American Cinema:
The difference between Keaton and Chaplin is the difference between poise and poetry, between the aristocrat and the tramp, between adaptability and dislocation, between the function of things and the meaning of things, between eccentricity and mysticism, between man as machine and man as angel, between the girl as a convention and the girl as an ideal, between the centripetal and the centrifugal tendencies of slapstick.
Brynn White, film researcher and writer
Review of Marnie (Village Voice, July 9, 1964):
Eisenstein may be spinach, pure iron for aesthetic corpuscles, and Dreyer high protein for the soul, but Hitchcock has always been pure carbohydrate for the palate