Archival Spaces 306
Uploaded 14 October 2022
It was fifty years ago that I first met Andrew Sarris as an undergraduate. A film critic for The Village Voice, Sarris was the first reviewer I read regularly after becoming interested in film, even getting a subscription to the weekly paper, which also published Jonas Mekas’s weekly missives; another hero of mine. Sarris had been invited to speak at the University of Delaware by my first film professor, Gerald A. Barrett, who was also a follower of Sarris. It was also a pre-publication tour for The Primal Screen. More than just a critic, Sarris was the primary promulgator of the auteur theory in America and had already gotten into some famous spats with the likes of Pauline Kael. The auteur theory was Sarris’s interpretation of the politiques des auteurs, the critical effort of future French New Wave filmmakers, like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, to upgrade Hollywood commercial cinema and downgrade the French “cinema of quality” directors of the previous generation. After Sarris visited Newark, DE., on 17 October 1972, presenting a lecture and informally discussing his work with a small cadre of Barrett’s students, I published a piece on the visit in the University’s student newspaper, The Delaware Review, where I had been writing my own reviews since February of the same year. Here is a reprint of that article:
“Andrew Sarris, the film critic for The Village Voice and the foremost American spokesman for the Auteur Theory of film, lectured on filmmaking and social trends and answered questions from a small but interested crowd during a Student Center Council sponsored appearance on campus Tuesday night.
After talking about his new book, The Primal Screen, Sarris spoke about filmmaking trends in the sixties. According to Sarris there developed after the death of John Kennedy a sense of absurdity, of gratuitousness in America. What became important was the existential now, because the future presented only a vision of the apocalypse.
Every film became the “last” film, packed with the essence of the universe in every shot. Films no longer served as vehicles of communication rather they became “heavy” artistic statements on the state of contemporary existence.
The telephoto lens (as used in the last shots of The Graduate), showing movement without moving, became a characteristic film technique in the sixties. The general alienation became apparent in the increasing fragmentation of film narratives and disjointed editing or jump-cutting.
The focus in cinema shifted to youth, in effect wiping out traditional age groupings. Thus, an actor like Dustin Hoffman (35 years) plays an adolescent, while Clint Eastwood (47) is a member of “Youth for Nixon.”
When asked about “the Auteur Theory” in the discussion, Sarris gave a brief history of its conception. He went on to say that the Auteur Theory was basically designed to reevaluate the history of the American cinema and the neglected artists (directors) working within the Hollywood studio system
The “theory,” which was really only a set of tentative notes according to Sarris, stipulated that a director’s total output be considered and evaluated on the basis of thematic as well as stylistic continuities.
Another premise of the theory was that such minor literary genres as the western became major genres by the very nature of the cinema. Thus, it was necessary to reconsider the work of such directors as John Ford, although his primary work was in westerns.
Finally, Sarris stated that directors such as Buster Keaton and Alfred Hitchcock were not great artists as individuals, but that their genius when working within the cinema, did, in fact, produce great art. Sarris explained that the mystical experience of film, cinema as a kind of fantasy, made it the most exciting form of art.
On the level of practical application, Sarris justified the Auteur Theory as a method to make meaningful connections between a single film and the director’s past work. Sarris conceded however that this was of little value in evaluating the first film by a new director.
In his own weekly criticism, Sarris relies on his knowledge of film history, technique, and intuition. He also mentioned his own aesthetic bias against ambiguity and modernism in subject matter and classical montage in technique.”
Reading these lines fifty years later, I’m reminded how much I idolized Sarris at the time. BTW, I also loved reading Molly Haskell’s pioneering feminist criticism, she being Andrew’s spouse. I inhaled Sarris’s The American Cinema (1967), cover to cover, and entered into a whole new world of classic American cinema. My film education had only started two years before, so I knew virtually nothing about the richness of American cinema. I had had no idea who John Ford was. The Auteur Theory may have gotten some things wrong in terms of the way the studio system actually worked, but it served to organize the work of American film directors. It gave me a program for Hollywood research; it allowed me to begin to differentiate careers and thereby understand the ways the studio system actually worked.
The Auteur Theory engendered thousands of hours of discussion. Years later, when I was archive director in Munich, I met Pierre Rissient and became friends with him; besides being the eminence grise at Cannes, Pierre was a living, breathing auteurist. How many discussions about Sirk or Siodmak? I remember one time sitting with Pierre and another Frenchman, while they each tried to find the most obscure film by a director in Sarris’ “Far Side of Paradise.”
When I wrote the article, my career goal was to become a film critic, like Sarris. I never did become a working film reviewer, but Sarris did publish my first professional film review in the Voice exactly two years later in October 1974, when I wrote about Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali – Fear Eats the Soul (1974), which I had seen at the Berlin Film Festival before its American premiere at the New York film festival.