On June 20, Andrew Sarris, one of the nation’s most influential film critics, passed away at the age of 83. Sarris expanded the appreciation of movies by advocating the "auteur theory," which holds that a director’s voice is central to great filmmaking. Reposted here is a "Critic’s Corner" article that Sarris wrote for the Spring 2006 issue of DGA Quarterly.
BY ANDREW SARRIS
Andrew Sarris 1928-2012
When the late, great James Agee (1909-1955) introduced himself to the readers of The Nation as their new movie reviewer in the issue of December 26, 1942, he concluded his brief and modest account of his own qualifications for the job with the following disclaimer: "As an amateur, then, I must as well as I can simultaneously recognize my own ignorance and feel no apology for what my eyes tell me, as I watch any given screen, where the proof is caught irrelevant to excuse, and available in proportion to the eye which sees it, and the mind which uses it."
In embracing Agee’s mantle of the amateur for the movie reviews I have published for more than 50 years, I write as one who has never claimed any technical expertise in the fearsomely complicated task of making movies. That ignorance has not kept me from making all sorts of magisterial judgments, some of which I later regretted. I admit it. I have made mistakes, and I have occasionally even admitted them, especially for underestimating Billy Wilder, among many others. But who cares? Mine was never meant to be the last word on any subject, even by me.
Certainly, things have changed radically for both critics and directors since I started reviewing movies, and I would like to discuss at least some of the implications of these profound changes. But first, a few strolls down memory lane to establish a context for my current attitudes. Back in 1937, C.L. Lejeune, the very influential female critic of The London Observer, scolded Alfred Hitchcock in print for shocking his audience with the horrifying climax of a sequence in his film, Sabotage, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, itself a prophetic precursor to our current obsessions with terrorists. The sequence, which is in the book, follows a mentally challenged young adolescent boy, who is carrying a box with a bomb in it, across London. He ends up on a bus, passing clocks all along the way indicating the proximity to zero hour. Just as the boy is playfully gesturing to a friendly old lady’s small dog on the seat next to him, zero hour arrives, and a cut to an exterior shot of the bus shows it exploding into a thousand pieces. Ms. Lejeune wrote further that she made Hitch promise never to do anything like that to an audience again. I don’t know whether or not Ms. Lejeune was alive 23 years later when Psycho and its horrifying shower scene came out, but it seems as if Master Alfred broke his promise with a vengeance. I suppose that the story’s moral, if any, is that a critic should never try to tell a director what to do.
About a decade after the Sabotage incident, I was a student at Columbia College, where I signed up for a course in creative writing. When the professor interviewed me for the course, and asked me what I wanted to write, and I replied “film criticism,” an expression of dismay crossed his face as he exclaimed, “You don’t want to do that. We’ve already lost Agee to movies, and that was such a waste of great literary talent.”
Still, I persisted for the next decade without much success either at Columbia or in the outside world, and here I am in 2006, a tenured professor in Film Studies at The School of the Arts at Columbia University, teaching a seminar in film criticism to very eager young students. I am still not sure what happened in the interim, and what contributions, if any, I made to cause the seismic change in acceptance of the cinema as one of the dominant art forms of our time, even for many of the academic cinephobes of yesteryear.
So what do I tell my students these days? I begin by saying somewhat self-consciously, “You are the future, and I am the past.” But I immediately chase away the false euphoria by adding: “I don’t really mean that. What I intend to do is drag you from your present into my past so as to help you shape your future.” I may refer in passing to my contentious role in bringing the French word, auteur, into the English language, and with it, my modified version of Francois Truffaut’s “La Politique des Auteurs” in my now famous (or infamous) essay, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” But that was long ago, I tell the students, and right now I want to emphasize “La Politique des Critiques,” which champions the individuality of critics as strongly as it champions the individuality of directors.
The point is that I am still in the hunt for stylistic, thematic, and narrative excellence in the cinema, and I hope to stay in this hunt till the day I die. The best criticism, like the best poetry, is the criticism richest in associations. The best criticism, like the best cinema, is the criticism with the deepest and most persuasive arguments. So let a multiplicity of styles flourish for both critics and directors.
To that end, the last thing I want to do, either in my reviews or in my classes, is indulge in mindless nostalgia for an imaginary past in which there were not many more bad movies than good ones. I happened to have lived through the “Good Old Days” of the Great Depression, World War II, Hitler and Stalin, and though the present is hardly a happy postcard from Hawaii, there are still interesting movies being made amid the eternal preponderance of junk in all art forms.
Still, the movie scene has changed considerably for both critics and directors over the past 50 years, and we both, critics and directors, have had to adapt to the pluses and minuses involved. The advances in technology have made the classics of the past more accessible to more people, but they have virtually eradicated the urgency of mass movie going, and with it, the guaranteed mass audience from all age groups. When Agee, or say, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, reviewed a movie, they could count on their readers knowing what they were writing about within any given period of time. Nowadays, the mainstream reviewers have to write about films their readers may see tomorrow or next month or next year either in theaters, innumerable television outlets or on DVD. Anyone can become a film critic as a blogger on the internet, and almost anyone, it sometimes seems, can become a filmmaker. We are living and working as always on the brink of chaos, but somewhere in the swirl of human endeavor, another great film is struggling to be born, and we critics have to stay on the alert to welcome it into our always troubled world.
Andrew Sarris was reknown critic, film historian, and author of numerous books including The American Cinema: Directors and Direction 1929-1968.