AT A TIME when even a vulgar art-director such as Baz Luhrmann can be hailed as a "virtuoso," imagining a culture concerned with movies as an art rather than a business is to engage in a romance even further removed from reality than Moulin Rouge. But such a culture did exist, and indeed it flourished, in the Sixties, largely through the heightened passion of two charismatic film critics--The Village Voice's Andrew Sarris and The New Yorker's Pauline Kael--who waged war against each other's opposing aesthetics from the pages of their respective publications. So influential were these gifted prose stylists that even the average moviegoer might have felt forced to choose whether Funny Girl was a shrewd vehicle for Broadway chanteuse Barbra Streisand or un film de William Wyler.
One of the primary pleasures of Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic (Scarecrow Press) is its evocation of a lost world of American journalism and film culture, of a time when movies were discussed and written about in an idiosyncratic and deeply impressionistic manner. A festschrift, or tribute volume, honoring the intellectual passion and artistic influence of the 72-year-old Sarris, Citizen Sarris collects roughly 40 essays by critics (e.g., Todd McCarthy, Dave Kehr, Phillip Lopate), filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, Curtis Hanson, Budd Boetticher), academics (David Bordwell, James Naremore, John Belton), and other industry professionals. Most of the essays are written in a confessional style that emphasizes Sarris's contributions to the collective imagination, to the understanding of what movies are capable of. Naturally, the authors turn often to the critic's two most enduring achievements: his introduction of the auteur theory into mainstream American discourse, and the publication of his seminal book, The American Cinema, in 1968.
Just as naturally, Pauline Kael--whose "Circles and Squares," a devastating putdown of Sarris's early auteur theory essays, was emblematic of the flamethrower exchanges between the two--hovers over Citizen Sarris like a spectral presence. In a sharp and useful essay about the two writers, the book's editor Emanuel Levy writes: "Kael's prose had the heat of gossip, a breezy rhythm that pulled in readers. Sarris's style was more formal and elegant; he didn't go out of his way to demonstrate rapport with his young readers. Kael pretended to talk to her readers at their level; Sarris expected them to rise to his."
While Kael--brilliant at unlocking a film's subtext, and at reproducing the emotional and sexual energies of actors and directors--seems less important today for what she said than for how she said it, Sarris articulated aesthetic criteria that unified the works of American directors and ranked them in order of importance. With his erudite prose, Sarris insisted on the artistry of filmmakers such as Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and John Ford, identifying unified patterns of theme, visual style, and personal meaning. And with notorious categories that included "Less Than Meets the Eye" (e.g., David Lean, Billy Wilder) and "Strained Seriousness" (e.g., Stanley Kubrick, Richard Lester), The American Cinema unsettled the critical establishment, renovating the careers of commercially marginal but artistically distinguished filmmakers (e.g., Samuel Fuller) and eviscerating acclaimed ones with surgical precision.
Sarris was fond of saying that his identity was caught in a trip- wire--too academic for journalists and too journalistic for academics. But Sarris navigated these fields deftly, echoing his vital skill as a critic in dissolving the lines of demarcation between high and low, between abstract act and popular culture. Notwithstanding its titular play on Welles's greatest creation, Citizen Sarris is devoid of a Thompson, the indefatigable journalist who sought to deconstruct Citizen Kane's identity, methods, and manner. Rather, the book mirrors its subject's own even keel through a smooth mix of the professional and the personal (the portrait sketched by Sarris's wife Molly Haskell is required reading). The range of contributors is indeed impressive, although I miss the presence of writers of my own generation--those born in the Sixties and after. For the best thing about Andrew Sarris is that there's something of him in all of us--not just in those who write about movies, but in anyone who sees them.
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