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A Tribute: One Movie Lover's Debt to Andrew Sarris

The American Cinema Andrew Sarris Inset - P 2012

THR film critic Todd McCarthy recalls how the seminal book, "The American Cinema," inspired a lifelong exploration of cinema.

Andrew Sarris was the man who taught me how to do what I do. Without him, I would never have experienced the cinema in the way that I have or been provided with such an inspiring road map to pursue what, for all of us in the critical and historical film world, is the endless quest for discovery of little-known works and artists.

For me, as it was for many young cinephiles growing up in the 1960s, the book that changed everything was Sarris’ 1968 The American Cinema. An expansion of articles Sarris had written five years earlier, the book represented the flinging down of the auteurist gauntlet, an erudite proclamation of the supremacy of the director in the filmmaking process, a provocative establishment of rankings for filmmakers and a bold argument on behalf of the view that many Hollywood films were just as much expressions of their directors’ personalities as were the works of the most revered international film artists.

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Hard to believe now, but at the time those were fightin’ words; John Ford, David Lean, William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann, Robert Wise, George Stevens and few other grand old men were considered fine, distinguished craftsmen. But Douglas Sirk, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher, Frank Tashlin, Don Siegel and, for God’s sake, Edgar G. Ulmer? Who the hell were these guys, other than occasionally watchable journeymen and hacks who took whatever jobs they could get?

When I first opened up The American Cinema in a student bookshop in the fall of ’68, I was riveted but almost didn’t buy it (the Dutton paperback original cost $2.95) because I was outraged that Sarris had banished one of my favorite directors, Billy Wilder, to the ignominious category of “Less Than Meets the Eye” (later, Sarris performed a mea culpa and upgraded Wilder to exalted status). But I immediately dove in, struck first and foremost by how many filmmakers he deemed important were unfamiliar to me and how much work there was to be done to truly know and evaluate the history of the American cinema.

 

Of course, Sarris wouldn’t have become nearly as famous or controversial as he did without Pauline Kael, who started a skirmish with Sarris that broadened into a wider critical conflagration that swept up many of us who took up the trade in the 1960s. Those of us who climbed aboard Sarris’ bandwagon long ago considered that our side had won, by  virtue of the fact that so many of the filmmakers he (following the French lead) championed -- Hawks, Hitchcock, Walsh, Sternberg, McCarey, Preminger -- have been swept into the general pantheon, and perhaps even more so due to the accepted general practice (even by Kael) of considering most films to be, first and foremost, the work of their directors.

 

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I was therefore surprised last fall when, participating on a panel at the New York Film Festival marking the publication of a fine biography about Kael, the Paulettes in attendance still seemed so anxious to continue the battle, to keep up the attack on Sarris as their implacable enemy; la guerre n’est pas finie, or so it would seem.

The occasion forced me to analyze why, as a teenager, I had chosen Sarris, and not Kael, as my model and inspiration. Certainly, she could be the more dynamic crusader both for and against a film (though he often was dizzyingly eloquent and quite funny, Andy, especially as he got older, had a tendency to ramble). What it came down to, in the end, was that, with Kael, what you’re left with is all opinion -- brilliantly and eloquently expressed opinion, to be sure, but subjective impressions nonetheless.

By contrast, Sarris’ initially controversial method of creating a hierarchy of talent had the automatic effect of establishing priorities and, in a broader sense, inspiring a deeper plunge into film history. Seeing the entire filmographies of so many directors on the pages of The American Cinema suddenly presented many of us with a massive artistic and exploratory challenge which, for me, continues to this day and will for the rest of my life: To see all these filmmakers’ work for ourselves, to find them (in pre-video days) at revival cinemas and obscure archives and on television at 2 a.m. , and then decide for ourselves and make further judgments and priorities.

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One of Sarris’ categories in The American Cinema was “Subjects for Further Research,” and that seems to apply to nearly everything I’ve done professionally since that time. Once you’ve gotten a handle on the personalities and artistic tendencies of certain directors, you begin more carefully tracking the careers of writers, cinematographers and other contributors to a film’s accomplishment. My first book, “Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System,” which I embarked upon directly out of college, was conceived entirely as an extension of The American Cinema, having been inspired by Sarris’ phrase, “Eventually we must speak of everything if there is enough time and space and printer’s ink.” From my point of view, his perspectives opened many windows and doors, while Kael’s work had the feel of a judge’s gavel.

I encountered Andy on several occasions over the years, the final time at the New York Film Festival last year, when he attended a screening of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel. He always was gracious and affable in his shuffling and rumpled way, and he was always quick to deflect or discourage any attempt I made to thank or praise him for his professional guidance. But I can say without any question that my own career and, that is to say, my life would not have been the same without him.