Essays (book reviews)
Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic:
If it is one (among many) of the principles of criticism to have the graciousness to judge a work in its own terms, to evaluate whether it achieves what it set out to do – then Citizen Sarris is a book that places itself beyond reproach. This is a Festschrift, a loving, awestruck tribute to Andrew Sarris from his intimates, associates, friends and fans. It does not pretend to be an even-handed evaluation; it celebrates the man, his work and career, from first page to last.
Emanuel Levy has done a good job assembling a diverse range of contributors. The quality of the writing is high – although, for a book so handsomely produced, it is sadly riddled with typos. There are very personal testimonies from Molly Haskell, Elisabeth Weis and David Thomson; hearty tributes from grateful filmmakers including John Sayles, Curtis Hanson and Budd Boetticher (whose closing list – “One Dozen ‘Nevers’ for Young Aspiring Directors” – is priceless); accounts from professional reviewers such as Charles Champlin and Todd McCarthy as well as higher-brow critics including Dave Kehr, Gerald Peary and Godfrey Cheshire; views from inside the industry offered by Daniel Talbot (New Yorker Films) and producer James Schamus (The Ice Storm); and analyses of Sarris’ influence on the course of academic film study by David Bordwell, Peter Lehman, John Belton and Jeanine Basinger.
Richard Corliss’ witty “Confessions of a Sarrisite” warns that “Eulogies, like elegies, are typically more about the speaker than about the roastee or dearly departed” and tries to avoid becoming “an elevated personal essay of the highbrow or Lopate variety”. True to form, many pieces – including Philip Lopate’s – are highly confessional and often nostalgic in nature. Every Festschrift has its inevitable moments of sentimental and evaluative excess, and Citizen Sarris is no exception: Ed Sikov’s anti-Pauline Kael diatribe sounds a shrill note, while Caryn James’ line that Sarris is today a critic who ‘embraces the future’ is not quite convincing.
I suspect prospective readers will either be immediately drawn into this book – in some way identifying with the world it describes – or thrown out of it. For who is Sarris exactly, what does he represent, to those outside his circle? In pre-Internet days, the majority of his regular writing over several decades – first for Village Voice, then New York Observer – was largely unavailable in many places around the world. Only his books, very uneven in their quality, stand for him in the long view of history (which may well be the wrong way to evaluate the history of film criticism, but it is still the dominant way – ask any university student!).
The fact is, for many filmgoers and film thinkers, Sarris has figured more as a name, a position – a myth, even – than a writer whom one consults and measures opinions against. This is, in fact, a situation that Citizen Sarris helps, perhaps unwittingly, to perpetuate. You will not read much here by way of tribute to his books The Primal Screen (1973), The John Ford Movie Mystery (1975), Politics and Cinema (1978) or probably his most ambitious work, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (1998). No, for most of these panegyrists, Andy is the guy associated then, now and forever with that singular event from 1969 called The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.
Is Sarris a great critic? I have personally never ranked him as such. His prose always seems to be summing everything up before it even gets started on a film, topic or director, tossing out witty turns of phrase (“if only good movies can teach us how to live, even bad movies can teach us how to die”) or dramatic-sounding pronouncements (analysts need to have “an encyclopaedic awareness of not only the universe of film itself, but the exact position of film in the universe”) – which often seem to stop discussion stone cold dead.
Sarris has always – commendably and valuably – called for an attention to film style, how a film communicates its particular tone, viewpoint and sensibility. As he wrote in 1975: “The stylistic auteurist is more concerned with the director’s attitude toward the spectacle than the spectacle itself”. But it has fallen to others, such as Manny Farber, to really delve into and spell out this insight as a critical practice.
Does this matter? The Sarris that emerges from this book is a phenomenon, an abiding inspiration, a catalyst rather than a critic. Even those unfamiliar with the vast majority of his writing can enter into the novelistic spirit of this project: its evocation of a very precise time, place and cultural context.
Despite the obligatory insertion of the word ‘American’ into its title (could one imagine a book called, so unselfconsciously, André Bazin: French Film Critic?), Citizen Sarris seems – to a non-American like myself – much more specifically about the intense, sometimes ingrown film culture of New York, taking in such sites as Village Voice, Columbia University and various screening venues invoked in nostalgic mantras. Levy, in his editorial commissioning, makes only a half-hearted attempt to cover and evaluate the extent of Sarris’ international influence – although Richard Peña’s discussion of how romantic auteurism became a political platform, for a time, in Latin America offers a tantalising glimpse into a bigger world picture.
Positif critic Robert Benayoun, looking back in 1986, found it “unpardonable” that The American Cinema should consider Eisenstein a ‘fringe benefit’, judge Mankiewicz ‘less than meets the eye’ and ghettoise Boorman as an ‘oddity/one-shot/newcomer’. What he did not get is the cultural context that necessitated Sarris’ partisan provocations. Citizen Sarris is useful in, accumulatively, giving an in-depth picture of that context.
In a review essay that could well have been another chapter in the book itself, Jonathan Rosenbaum (Cinema Scope, no. 6, Winter 2001, online here) evokes the fluid, very 1960s film culture that Sarris helped to galvanise: a time when critics, filmmakers and the industry (i.e., independent exhibitors and distributors) mingled and exchanged views more freely than happens today; and when the lines between trash and art, experimental and mainstream, were not so rigidly or territorially drawn.
Sarris has a noble place in the history of those cultural figures (including Parker Tyler and Serge Daney) who, in certain eras and situations, managed to carve their career paths in a hybrid space between journalism and the academy. Luck, opportune timing and a congenial cultural atmosphere were certainly on Sarris’ side at the moment of The American Cinema: as P. Adams Sitney remarked in a panel discussion on the legacy of Film Culture magazine (the transcript of which appears in Cinema Scope, no. 8, September 2001): “I hope that Andy won’t consider it rude of me to point out that an academic book on major directors would not be divided into The Pantheon, etc”.
But why not? The American Cinema is less in the tradition of weighty film history books by Georges Sadoul or Basil Wright than of quixotic, passionate, ever-polemical ventures like Jacques Lourcelles’ massive Dictionnaire du cinema: Les Films (1992) – which can hardly bear to acknowledge the Nouvelle Vague! Sarris was and is, indeed, a “list queen”. Kael meant that epithet unkindly, but James Naremore turns it into a contemporary rallying cry in his “An ABC of Reading Andrew Sarris”:
We are now at a point where we need less theory and more canon building … Without canons, Hollywood wins; we are left with no values – only facts, box-office statistics, and quasi-scientific explanations of ‘systems’. Film study would be greatly enlivened if we had another book like The American Cinema, devoted exclusively to naming the best Hollywood directors and pictures of the past thirty years. This book would of course need to be written by someone as talented and educated as Sarris – someone who knows TV as well as movies, and who is willing to put her or his values on the line.
© Adrian Martin October 2001