Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Andrew Sarris, Goodbye To You

As a kid, I loved movies.  What kid doesn't, right?  But back in those days, I really knew nothing about them except for how much I enjoyed or did not enjoy them.  That was before I became an unapologetic auteurist.  That was before I read The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris.  The American Cinema, for all you silly kids out there that have no idea what it was, is and always will be, is pretty much the bible of any and all cinephiles born after 1950 or so.  Originally published in 1968, one of the most important years in the history of cinephila, it spoke to several generations of cinephiles and movieheads as if it, and therefore its author, Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris, was the word of god.  In many ways, it was.  Granted, being born in 1967, I came to the book one generation removed from its original audience, but it had no less of an impact on me because of it.

Sarris and his book were what brought the Auteur Theory, first posed by a certain François Truffaut in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, across the Atlantic and into the colleges and art house cinemas of America.  Claiming that a director was more than mere director, but the author of their film, with a unique yet discernible artistic signature to their work, Sarris helped to create a generation (or two or three) of fellow unapologetic auteurists - myself very much included.  Even if there were some opposition from other critical corners, the auteur theory has gone from theoretical slapdashery to sanctified critical canon.  Sarris' book, with its classic sectioning from Pantheon Directors (Hawks, Hitch and the boys) on down through such lower rankings as Expressive Exotica (Jacques Tourneur, Edgar G. Ulmer) and Strained Seriousness (Kubrick!?  Really?), can be found, and quite dogeared most likely, in just about any respectable cinephile's bookshelves.  And if it isn't found in your bookshelves, then you need to get a copy asap.  I know mine, quite dogeared of course, sits right beside my desk, just waiting to be given yet another perusal.  

With Mr. Sarris' passing Wednesday, at the age of 83, we are all left with a void in our cinematic hearts, but at the very least, we will always have his book - the book - to dogear forever.  In 1970 Mr. Sarris wrote, in the forward to another book (Confessions of a Cultist), explaining his profession: "Still, I suppose we represented a new breed of film critic.  The cultural rationale for our worthier predecessors - Agee, Ferguson, Levin, Murphy, Sherwood, et al. - was that they were too good to be reviewing movies.  We, on the contrary, were not considered much good for anything else."  I too have written in other fields (attempts at poetry and fictional prose litter my literary past) and I would have to jump on board with Sarris' definition of our joint profession.  Like him, I feel as if I too was not much good for anything else - and I mean to take that in the most complimentary manner.  Now even though we were in the same field - he on top, me down closer to Earth - I never had the privilege of meeting the man, but that doesn't mean that I will not miss him and his writings.  I might even have to finally forgive him for categorizing Stanley Kubrick as Strained Seriousness.

3 comments:

Michaël Parent said...

Superb hommage Kevyn! I must admit that I haven't read The American Cinema but have read some of his writings. I just ordered my copy on Amazon and should receive it in the next days. His classification of directors is very interesting and I must remember you that Pauline Kael used to really dislike Kubrick's films... Which I completely disagree but I also think that it is sane that there are many currents in film criticism and not only one way to "read" Films and directors/authors.

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx. Kael and Sarris did go several rounds back and forth in print. Back in the day it seemed that you were either a fan of Kael or a fan of Sarris. I think I am probably a little of both. A blend of Kael's fierce writing style and an auteurist like Sarris (Kael did not believe in auteurism).

Margaret Perry said...

Now I'll go and buy a copy rather than just checking it out of the library! Of course, sometimes I wish I knew about these people before they die...
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