June 16, 2009
Early last week, news broke that the NY Observer were cutting a third of their editorial staff, and that Andrew Sarris would be among those let go. Dave Kehr later posted that Sarris was indeed laid off from his staff position, but would continue contributing as a freelancer. This was unsurprising news, considering the state of the newspaper business and film critic gigs in particular, but it’s still the end of an era.
It’s unlikely that a writer starting up today will ever have a perch like the Village Voice or the Observer to build an audience for over 50 years like Sarris has done – film criticism today is more of a part-time job or hobby, for better (a diversity of voices, Movie Morlocks) and worse (you know, not getting paid). Collating all of one’s stories from different outlets on Twitter and Facebook might one day serve the same function, but…..not quite yet. It’ll be interesting to see where else Sarris decides to publish, and I’m counting down the days until he fires up a Twitter feed (although, note the typewriter above).
In any case, Sarris abides, and it’s past the time that I engaged more with his work. Any U.S. critic who has approached a film and detected the style and themes of a director, whether it’s stating that Todd Phillips is obsessed with frat-boy humor or noticing the affectless performances in Bresson, has been influenced by his writing. So that’s everyone. In adapting Cahiers du Cinema’s politique des auteurs to American audiences, Sarris opened up the possibility of investigating a film’s style, not just it’s plot mechanics and themes, which the more literary minded critics of the time were focused on. Nobody seemed to notice that these were moving images before Sarris took up the cudgel (there were others, of course, but no-one was as vocal about making a big deal of it. Manny Farber had already done stylistic analyses of directors, but hadn’t stuck a name to it. So, rhetorical license, and all that).
For a deeper, and more personal analysis of Sarris’ influence, read Kent Jones’ excellent 2005 encomium in Film Comment. Not only was Jones of the first generation affected by Sarris’ work, he was a friend. His key (and closing) line: “He gave me, and many, many others, a framework, a way of seeing and understanding an art form that was and still is culturally disreputable. I owe him a lot, and so does anyone else writing about cinema.”
I was morose enough after the Sarris news to tour a few Manhattan bookstores to see what Sarris-iana I could pick up. Perhaps still enthralled with film literature from our mini blogathon here at Morlock central, I wanted to dig further into his writing. I was mainly searching for a copy of The American Cinema, which I had sped through a few years ago when I borrowed it from the library. After trips to four fine retailers (two used) and some clipped dialogue with their fine information desk personnel (“Sarris, American Cinema, No?, OK”)I could find no trace of the American Cinema. It’s been in and out of print, but I thought any legit re-seller would have one on hand. Not a trace.
It’s readily available online, but I’m not concerned about myself buying it. I’m more concerned about the younger me wandering around a suburban Barnes & Noble, seeking affirmation for his cinephilic addiction. David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary is readily available, on which I already gave my thoughts – but let’s just say it’s limited in scope and doesn’t offer much of a stylistic basis for viewing the art. So I worry that there are a gaggle of younger mes running around with Thomson as their only guide…and I shudder. These kids need to hear the following, from the first page of the preface of The American Cinema:
A serious approach to old movies is particularly indispensable at a time when the very existence of old movies is jeopardized by the shocking negligence of the so-called film industry, and at a time when the appreciation of old movies is hindered by the pernicious frivolities of pop, camp, and trivia. The enemies of cinema have found their new battle cry in the condescending cackle one hears in so-called art houses. This book is intended for those perennial ciniphiles, the solitary moviegoers.
If I had read this at 16, I would have felt a chill in my spine and become a Sarris acolyte. Instead I came to the same conclusions on my own (a few jackals laughing at a screening at The Umbrellas of Cherbourg will do much to disillusion a man), but I wish I had his intellectual firepower on my side. As with most topics, let’s place our faith in the power of the internet (it’s available on Kindle!) and hope for the best.
So, no American Cinema, but I did manage to pick up a dustier bit of print in the Sarris library: a volume of interviews he edited in 1967, Hollywood Voices. The centerpiece (at least by my standards) is an elegiac piece by Sarris on his never-published interview with Preston Sturges in 1957, upon the release of his final film, Les Carnets du Major Thompson (1955). In this wide-ranging piece, Sarris discusses his ambivalence regarding interviews (“The link between artistry and psychology is a tenuous one for me…”, and he adds a joshing, “Note: Sturges was not interested in baseball. Does that make his work less American?”) and an investigation of Sturges’ apparent decline (“Although clowns supposedly yearn to play Hamlet, they usually end up playing Lear.”) It is a very strange document, an anecdote of a forgotten interview for a forgotten film, but Sarris turns it into lingering series of questions about the nature of the critc-filmmaker realationship and the bruised dignity of one comedic genius. Just another example of why we should be grateful to still have his thoughts to kick around.