When I learned Andrew Sarris died, I mentioned that reading The American Cinema in high school had changed the way I looked at movies. Turned out I’m not alone: a lot of people found that book in high school or college and consider it a formative experience. I was at a summer course at a high school in Ottawa, with a small library that didn’t provide a whole lot of choice of reading material during the lunch breaks. (Yes, this was before the internet became popular; I’m old; etc.) But it did have a copy of The American Cinema, Sarris’s 1968 book/manifesto – based on an issue he had done for the magazine Film Culture – where he placed five decades’ worth of Hollywood directors into categories. There was a “pantheon” of the best of the best, the canonical directors who made great movies and had their own signature style. There were the directors who may not have been so great, but had distinctive or interesting styles (“Expressive Esoterica”). Most controversially, there was the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category: directors with high reputations within the movie industry or among critics, but who really weren’t all that interesting (into this category he placed William Wyler, John Huston, George Stevens and – to his eventual regret – Billy Wilder).
It’s hard to describe what an impact The American Cinema had on a young reader. If you’re a young person with an interest in classic film, you’ll know the stars, and some of the directors, and your idea of a quality film will be something along the lines of the Academy Awards’: a well-made, smart film with good writing and great star performances. That’s always been, and still is, Hollywood’s main definition of quality, and I’m not saying it’s a bad one. But Sarris, influenced by the things the French liked about American movies (and also by his friends like the brilliant New York Times third-string critic Eugene Archer and future ascot wearer Peter Bogdanovich), proposed a new way of looking at things. Directors define the movie more than stars, which is how John Ford and Howard Hawks can make distinctively different John Wayne Westerns. A movie can be intelligent, tasteful and deal with big issues, and still be less interesting than a Poverty Row picture made with real passion. I walked away from that book wanting to see the movies he mentioned – like Rio Bravo, for example – wanting to investigate these directors, wanting to understand the thematic and stylistic connections between the movies they made. Eye-opening.
Sarris was not the slickest prose stylist, sometimes falling into obscurity or banality, and like the French critics and filmmakers who influenced him, he was given to Moses-from-the-mountaintop pronouncements that didn’t leave a lot of room for nuance. He later came to regret some of the pronouncements: he placed Billy Wilder in the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category, mostly because Wilder was such an establishment favorite in Hollywood, and not long after the book was published he admitted that he was wrong. His Film Culture piece pronounced that Hollywood movies were “superior” to the output of any other country’s film industry; by the time he wrote The American Cinema, he walked this back to the more reasonable statement that Hollywood could “hold its own” with the rest of the world.
He was also criticized for writing as if the director does everything in the film, and the writer and producer have nothing to do with it. (Though honestly, every attempt to create an auteur theory for Hollywood writers has been a failure, because the writing credits in a Hollywood film often tell you nothing about who wrote what. The identity of the director or producer defines the writing style of most films more than the writing credit, rightly or wrongly; that’s just the way the system is set up.) The most potent attack, potent because it wasn’t entirely wrong, was that Sarris and other auteurists were reading too much into conventional genre films, and confusing self-plagiarism with artistic depth: Pauline Kael famously pointed out that just because a director’s new film is linked to things he’s done in the past, that doesn’t make it good.
Fair points, but the absolutism of The American Cinema was part of what made it work. There’s no room for hedging in criticism that aims to change minds and influence people. It’s probably better to err on the side of too much praise, or too much vitriol, than to err on the side of even-handed evaluation. An on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand review never drives people to the box office; it’s a rave that gets them in, and it’s a pan that keeps them out. Sarris needed the absolutism, the cocksuredness, to get us to reconsider our way of looking at American film. Whether Howard Hawks is great or overrated is an issue for another time; first he had to establish that he was important, and that his films are the product of one man’s distinctive personality. Those things were not widely known and understood outside France.
We can then find ourselves disagreeing with some of the rankings and the pronouncements, as he eventually did himself, but he recognized that first and foremost the pronouncements needed to be made. Without Sarris and other auteur critics, we wouldn’t be arguing about whether the American Hitchcock and Howard Hawks and the post-World War II John Ford and Orson Welles belong in the pantheon. They simply wouldn’t be considered worthy of serious attention, because most influential American critics felt that Hitchcock had lost it after he left England, and that Ford sold out when he started making mostly Westerns and that Welles never made anything worthwhile after The Magnificent Ambersons.
Sarris was building on the work of other critics – Manny Farber, the Cahiers du Cinema crowd in France – but they didn’t really try to create any kind of quasi-official canon of American film. Sarris did, and he did it at just the right time, with a boom in film as an academic discipline. Sarris provided a sort of alternative to the very dry, very anti-Hollywood version of film history that had been canonical in critical journals, courses and academic textbooks. And that had a huge influence on the way people discuss cinema history, whether they agree with his categories or not. His provocative alternative history of American movies became almost the official history.
In some ways, he was never quite as comfortable with reviews of big new movies as he was with older or underground films – partly because, with new movies, he often seemed to hedge, poking around the edges of the film instead of giving full-fledged raves. One of the few new movies that got an unqualified rave from him was Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which he called “The only truly great American film of the ’70s.” Most critics, obviously, didn’t see the ’70s that way. But he wasn’t always the sort of critic who could see a new film and pronounce it a masterpiece, and that, rightly or wrongly, is what a reviewer needs to be able to do to drum up enthusiasm. Sarris was able to do this when movies like Psycho were new, but in the ’70s, he didn’t have the enthusiasm or viciousness that would have made his reviews as influential as Kael’s.
Still, his reviews were full of charming moments and interesting observations. One of my favourites is from a 1962 piece about a bunch of bad movies he’s recently seen, done as a Socratic dialogue with himself. At the end we get this famous exchange, a bit of self-mockery of Sarris’s tendency to forgive a movie anything if there was a beautiful woman in it:
A. I’ll give you just three words to sum up your conception of the cinema as reflected in all these bad movies.
B. Girls! Girls! Girls!
A. The truth is out at last.
You can see him interviewed about his career in this clip at 15:18; in a somewhat ironic juxtaposition, it follows an interview with his arch-nemesis, John Simon. (Sarris, always bitter about Pauline Kael’s attack on him, always talked as if she were his arch-nemesis, but they weren’t really all that different in their views; Simon was the essence of a critic who hated most Hollywood product and considered both Sarris and Kael to be overgrown children raving about mass-produced trash.)