Funny how fate deals the cards. In a slow week for movies, the annual dead zone following Labor Day, I proposed to my editor that I devote a column to the critic Andrew Sarris and Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic (Scarecrow Press), a new book of essays examining and celebrating his influence. Then, just as I was about to sit down and go to it, the news of Pauline Kael's death arrived and with it, an uncomfortable dilemma. Could I write about Sarris and not Kael? Should I write about Kael and leave Sarris for later?
The awkward irony, of course, is that even after one of these two passes beyond the mortal pale, they remain joined at the metaphorical hip, coupled in history and legend. In reality, there's little doubt that neither would relish being associated with each other for a millisecond, much less eternity. They were rivals, opposites of a paradigmatic, almost primordial sort. Yet at this point they might as well shelve any idea of filing for a cosmic divorce. In the cinematic imagination they are forever linked, divine antagonists, as tumultuously inseparable as Tracy and Hepburn.
No doubt, both names are hazy or unfamiliar to many readers now. Their heyday was the '60s and '70s. For anyone into film criticism during that era, which in retrospect looks like the era for film criticism, they were the twin titans. Yet if you were a partisan of one, you would not have looked at it that way. If you were into Sarris, as I was, Kael was a brassy, self-infatuated hyperbolist, hardly a real critic at all. If you were one of Pauline's brood, I'm sure Sarris was equally beside the point, less a co-equal than a galling parvenu.
To nonpartisans, the whole thing must have looked a little strange. From a more disinterested standpoint, Sarris and Kael were only two among a number of serious, thoughtful critics that also included Stanley Kauffmann, John Simon and Dwight Macdonald. But this pair had a way of catalyzing passions and points of view, especially among the young high-school and college students belonging to what would be dubbed "the film generation." Sarris wrote for The Village Voice beginning in the early '60s. Kael moved from San Francisco and started at The New Yorker in 1968, when she was almost 50. Coincidentally, that was the same year that I wrote my first film review, as a 16-year-old high-school student.
The crucial issue that divided--and forever joined--them was the auteur theory, which wasn't even a product of American film criticism. Now that we are in a retrospective mode, permit me to salute the 50th anniversary of Cahiers du Cinema, the vastly influential French film journal founded in 1951 by André Bazin, arguably the greatest of all film critics. It was in 1954, in issue No. 31 of Cahiers, that Francois Truffaut, one of several young would-be directors who wrote for the magazine, promulgated what he called the politique des auteurs--the auteur policy.
Truffaut's formulation was a way of looking at films that valued the medium as the expression of the director's vision; simply that. Sure, it recognized that movies are an industrial form and that most films involve the talents of numerous people. This, in fact, was a part of the director's challenge: to mold all these disparate givens and contributing factors to his own singular idea. The essence of the auteur concept is that only the director is in a position to organize and unify all these expressive elements; cinema is a director's art, if it's an art at all. For hundreds of years educated people had understood painting and poetry and other "high" arts as embodying their greatest potential as modes of individual expression. The auteur policy allowed cinephiles the same understanding.
To an extent, this idea was necessary, inevitable and inherently common-sensical, which no doubt is why it spread so widely and became so deeply embedded in the general view of film. Yet the French version of auteurism had certain aspects and consequences that deserve noting. Truffaut didn't think every director was an artist. Far from it. He thought most directors were mere furniture movers, metteurs en scene. The term auteur (author) was reserved for those exceptional directors--the likes of Chaplin, Welles and Ford--who managed to impose very singular personal visions on diverse material over the course of a career.
Indeed, the politique des auteurs was far less a tool for day-to-day or week-to-week film reviewing than it was for deep retrospective evaluations of careers and eras, a way of assessing the relative merits of King Vidor and Frank Borzage, say, from a distance of decades. One crucial result of this view was that it overturned the standard assumption that films in "pulp" genres like Westerns, gangster and horror films were intrinsically of lesser value. On the contrary, Truffaut and his cronies insisted, the essential merits and themes of John Ford were clearer in Westerns like The Searchers than in "serious" films like The Grapes of Wrath. This re-evaluation of genres, which helped catapult Alfred Hitchcock from a mere director of thrillers into a great artist, was arguably the most radical innovation of the French.
Sarris introduced Truffaut's concept, which he called the auteur theory--an unfortunately pretentious term compared to the more provisional "policy"--to the United States in an essay printed in the magazine Film Culture in late 1962. Like the French, he posed it primarily as an implement of retrospective analysis, giving "film scholarship" (a field that was barely nascent in the United States at that point) a means of evaluating the work of various directors.
Sarris later said he thought his essay was modest, tentative and exploratory, and indeed it was an early piece by a virtually unknown critic writing in an obscure journal. But it set off another near-nonentity writing in similar obscurity on the opposite coast. In 1963, Kael weighed in with "Circles and Squares," the aggressively combative essay in which she attempted to pulverize the auteur theory and, no doubt, Sarris with it.
Pulverizing in this case, though, proved a little tough. It was as if Sarris had invented the shovel (or imported it from Paris). If one has dirt to move, one can use it. Or not. But it hardly stands to be refuted and conclusively banished from the intellectual universe, because it's not a proposition or hypothesis. It's not even a theory, really. It's a tool, a way of approaching things. The main effects of Kael's essay, in any event, now belong to the fabulous realm of unintended consequences: It made an enduring polemical duo of her and Sarris, and it drew more attention to the auteur theory than he had.
When Emanuel Levy, a film professor and former colleague of mine at Variety, asked me some time back to contribute an essay to a "festschrift" to celebrate Sarris' 70th birthday, I readily agreed. In the piece I wrote for Citizen Sarris, "My Own Private Shinbone," I recall going, at age 11, to Raleigh's Colony Theater (now the Rialto) to see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the film that made me an auteurist several years before I heard the word. My friends liked this movie, I realized, mainly because it had John Wayne and a hit song on the radio. But I noted the director's name, John Ford, and somehow understood that he was the reason I liked the movie. When his next film, Cheyenne Autumn, came to Raleigh, I went, but I went alone; it didn't have the Duke or a radio hit. A few years later, I understood why I went when I read Andrew Sarris.
If The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was the movie that planted the seed-idea that movies could be an art, Sarris was the critic who elucidated, better than any other, how that art was constituted of one man's vision and could be seen in all of his films. Sarris' book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, remains not only the pre-eminent guide for anyone who wants to establish a basic artistic understanding of the golden age of American movies, but also an endlessly delightful read.
Admittedly, the auteur theory ended up a troublesome and erratic tool. Applied in retrospect to film history, it was fine. But turned toward the present and future, the same light proved all too useful to the marketers and manipulators of celebrity culture. It also tended to overinflate the eager egos of too many would-be artistes. In some ways, the maximum point of diminishing returns for auteurism-as-worldview came in the 1990s at the Sundance Film Festival, where the number of new Fords and Hitchcocks to emerge from thousands of indie hopefuls was embarrassingly close to nil.
Always reserved about Truffaut's politique, André Bazin prophetically worried that it would degenerate into an "aesthetic cult of personality." Sarris, however, was not guilty of such cultism. He never went dotty over directors in print. That, ironically, was left to Kael, who after mounting a noisy but futile campaign to deprive Orson Welles of the title of Citizen Kane's auteur (in her Citizen Kane Book, she championed screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz) seemed to give in and join the other team by anointing "her" stable of directors, secondary talents like Philip Kaufman and Fred Schepisi. What could be worse than Bazin's fear? Well, this: an aesthetic cult of minor, inconsequential personalities.
The biggest cult coalesced around Kael herself. Her emotive, colloquial, argumentive writing style, which brandished her visceral reaction to any film in not-to-be-challenged terms, attracted not only readers but many, many young critical aspirants, who wrote like her, liked the movies she liked, and made regular pilgrimages to her home in Great Barrington, Mass. They even voted as she instructed in critics' forums. This phenomenon always sounded like the Moonies to me, and I didn't believe it till I encountered it in person. I'm still not sure it had anything to do with film criticism. Perhaps she was Madame Blavatsky in another life.
Kael retired in 1991, slowed by Parkinson's disease. Remarkably, with his unfailing genial gentlemanliness, Sarris carries on, writing now for the New York Observer (read him at www.newyorkobserver.com). The more time that passes, the more the hard-fought differences between these two fade and their points in common come to the fore. One point, perhaps the most felicitous, was the intellectual climate they shared, battled within and stimulated. In Citizen Sarris' 38 essays, writers including Martin Scorsese, Roger Ebert, John Sayles, Phillip Lopate, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Corliss, Leonard Maltin, David Thomson and Sarris' wife, Molly Haskell, conjure a time when the concept of "film culture" was its most incandescent and influential, illuminating the culture at large.
I'm sure I wasn't alone in my reason for contributing to Citizen Sarris. Very simply, it was a way of saying to Andrew Sarris, "Thank you." I know Pauline Kael's many devotees must be saying the same to her this week. In that gratitude for decades of teaching and inspiration, the two sides are, no doubt, in greater agreement than their respective mentors ever were.