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Andrew Sarris (1928-2012): Death of an Auteurist

Andrew Sarris


Yesterday I wrote a long and rather convoluted essay about cinephilia and the language of love it inspires. While on the subject of mise-en-scène, and the quasi-mystical import the Cahiers critics attached to the term, although they could not/would not find any words to adequately define what they meant by it, I quoted Andrew Sarris. It is worth quoting him in full now, from a 1965 piece for Film Comment on the cinematic style of Otto Preminger:

“For me, mise-en-scène is not merely the gap between what we see and feel on the screen and what we can express in words, but it is also the gap between the intention of the director and his effect upon the spectator. To read all sorts of poignant profundities in Preminger’s inscrutable urbanity would seem to be the last word in idiocy, and yet there are moments in his films when the evidence on the screen is inconsistent with one’s deepest instincts about the director as a man. It is during these moments that one feels the magical powers of mise-en-scène to get more out of a picture than is put in by a director.”

Sarris wrote this in 1965, when comments like these still mattered. Christian Keathley opens his marvelous book on the cinephiliac condition, appropriately called, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, with his fond recollection of another piece by Sarris on mise-en-scène that begins, “The subject of this piece was suggested by a letter from Dr. Irving Schneider of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Dr. Schneider wrote:

“With respect to some of the ideas I’m working up, I need a good working definition or explanation of the notion of mise-en-scène. Like camp and several other terms, I think I know what it means but I am not sure. A search through theatrical dictionaries and film works yields no definition. Friends and I have used the term occasionally to refer to the sum of all the elements making up a film, and at other times to the placement of the actors within a setting, but none of us can agree on what the most common or accurate usage is.”

It was up to Sarris to explain to this man, a doctor, of man of science no less, what he meant by mise-en-scène. Whereas, in fact, Sarris did not know more than Dr. Schneider who wrote, unconsciously echoing the phrase used by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for pornography in 1964, “I’ll know it when I see it…” Epstein didn’t know what photogénie was, but he knew it when he saw it. Sarris didn’t know what mise-en-scène but he knew etc. Because he was in the know. Because he felt himself to be part of a club. In his famous review of Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business, Jacques Rivette wrote:

“The evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks’s genius: you only have to watch Monkey Business to know that it is a brilliant film. Some people refuse to admit this, however; they refuse to be satisfied by proof. There can’t be any other reason why they don’t recognize it.”

Rivette’s tautological reasoning was, of course, all about exclusivity: either you see it, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you can’t be part of the club. It was against this kind of exclusivism that André Bazin railed in “On the politique des auteurs,” his polemical 1957 piece in Cahiers du Cinéma in which he decried the favoritism of his young disciples, what he called an “aesthetic personality cult”: “So it is that Hitchcock, Renoir, Rossellini, Lang, Hawks, or Nicholas Ray, to judge from the pages of Cahiers, appear as almost infallible directors who could never make a bad film.” Bazin saw two “symmetrical heresies” in the critical practice of the young auteurists: 1) objectively applying to a film a critical all-purpose yardstick, and 2) considering it sufficient simply to state one’s pleasure or disgust. Sarris, a great admirer of Bazin, eagerly embraced both heresies.

In what is still considered the most elaborate explanation of his position as an auteurist, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” Sarris, at the time a journalist writing for the Village Voice (this piece was published in Film Culture),  took issue with Bazin’s suggestion that a movie transcends the man who made it (and not in the way Sarris meant it in his description of mise-en-scène) and is dependent on historical circumstances. Sarris found this determinist and moreover felt that the auteur theory (he ambitiously called it a theory, not a polemic or a politique) was “the only hope for extending the appreciation of personal qualities in the cinema.” No matter how silly it sometimes seems. On the subject of an auteur being unable to make a bad film, perhaps Bazin’s major beef, Sarris simply applies good old-fashioned American sense: no, not always, but most of the time. Is Minnelli superior to Huston? No, not always, but most of the time. Which is what makes him a great auteur. Unfortunately for Sarris, and fortunately for the history of film criticism, especially for those delighting in polemics, he then went on to try to fit what is basically a plea for the recognition of personality, both on the part of the filmmaker and the critic, into a system, the kind of “all-purpose yardstick” that Bazin was opposed to. Here Sarris says that he had no choice, since contrary to France, where they have film critics of Bazin’s intelligence who are able to revise their preconceptions with every film they reviews, to generously approach it on its own terms, America has only hacks who don’t even realize – especially in the case of Hollywood cinema – that what the movie is trying to express often exceeds what is in the script. So they need some guidelines, and Sarris was willing to provide them.

Sarris visualized the three premises of the auteur theory as three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle as personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning. It is these circles that Pauline Kael took as the emblem of perhaps her most entertaining polemical piece, “Circles and Squares,” published in 1963. Kael was the anti-Sarris: where he wrote for the lowly Village Voice, she was the grand tastemaker at the New Yorker; Sarris was East Coast, Kael was West Coast; Sarris was passionate, Kael was cynical. Both loved American movies, but Sarris was an auteurist and Kael, clearly, was not (although her uncritical championing of Altman, Scorsese, Peckinpah and De Palma, and her relentless trashing of Kubrick reeks of the Parisian cult of personality). Kael’s piece, which became as famous as Sarris’, is less a step-by-step analytical unraveling of Sarris’ proposed system, than a breathtaking display of verbal dexterity, using a colleague’s work for target practice: firing off zingers and bon mots – on the subject of Sarris proposing that what makes an auteur is an “élan of the soul,” Kael proposes, “Where else should élan come from? It’s like saying ‘a digestion of the stomach’;” on Sarris offering “distinguishability of personality” as criterion of value, Kael retorted, “The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?” – Kael did not really engage with the essence of Sarris ideas, ideas that were proposed as a topic for discussion, to make film criticism in America better, than she was in the business of promoting Pauline Kael, of reinforcing the pecking order. In fact, a lot of what Sarris proposed still makes sense. To say that he was a-historical because he dismissed Bazin’s criterion of historical circumstance, is to misread the circles from the outside in: the criterion of craft, as David Bordwell suggests, is not such an obvious point of departure as it might seem: “By taking technical skill as a baseline of inquiry, Sarris obliges the critic to understand what collective norms are operating in the director’s milieu.” The second circle, the director’s personality, is where the trouble really begins, but what is wrong, really, with the suggestion that within the creative cluster that is both commercial and artistic filmmaking, it is still the director who has the best opportunity to blend all the components in a distinctive way? He does this mainly through film style, through blocking, framing, through coaching actors and discussing lighting schemes with the cameraman etc., through establishing a mise-en-scène. Bordwell and Thompson define mise-en-scène precisely as, “the director’s control over what appears in the film frame. As you would expect from the term’s theatrical origins, mise-en-scène includes those aspects of the film that overlap with the art of the theater: setting, lighting, costume, and the behavior of the figures. In controlling the mise-en-scène, the director stages the event for the camera.” And sometimes does this is such a distinct way to arouse the auteurist’s interest. “Once this is granted,” Bordwell writes, “who would deny that a director’s habitual ways of orchestrating the diverse materials of the medium may reflect the same sorts of qualities we use to characterize people we know?” This is just a way of knowing movies, more intimately.

What then, about “interior meaning,” the most elusive of Sarris’ circles. Does this denote “deepest significance,” or the clash between the director’s personality and the material? Sarris consciously keeps it vague: “It is ambiguous in any literary sense because part of it is imbedded in the stuff of cinema and cannot be rendered in non-cinematic terms.” Is it the same as mise-en-scène? It certainly seems to come from that mysterious realm where words like photogénie come from. Perhaps Sarris is merely saying that we don’t have to know it, only to feel it. That this where the critic’s love for the movie resides. And the language of love, as we have seen, talks mostly about itself.

I only met Andrew Sarris once. This must have somewhere in the mid-nineties, when he was still a young sixty, with a voracious appetite for movies and a boyish twinkle in his eyes. The occasion was a  silly but fun meta-conference on the films of Alan Smithee, the famous director who stands for the absence of a director, who steps in when a filmmaker wants to take his name of a film. What started out as a joke on auteurism, quickly turned into a tribute to Sarris, who had graciously accepted to preside over an event that, in its postmodern ironies, was completely opposed to all he stood for. In his concluding speech, he showed that he was in on the joke by urging the crowd to go see My Best Friend’s WeddingL.A. Confidential and Wings of the Dove, none of them auteur movies. Throughout the nineties I bought Film Comment chiefly to find out which movies of the month’s releases Andrew Sarris had liked. They were usually an eclectic bunch, many of his choices unexpected. And I guess this was the point. As he had done by compiling a list of great American filmmakers in his landmark book The American Cinema, without really arguing why these were the greats, he made me curious as to the logic behind his choices. The past couple of years his critical output was limited to a monthly column in Film Comment, called “The Accidental Auteur,” in which he reflected on widely ranging subjects like Roman Polanski, Eric Rohmer, François Ozon, or recent small art movies that had barely been seen. When I finished my piece on cinephilia last night, I found out Andrew Sarris had died in a Manhattan hospital, aged 83. I will sorely miss him for his passion and insight and, yes, for his championing of the director and for movies, all movies, as an art form.