The uses of a critic: Andrew Sarris

If cinema is the modern art form, as Roger Ebert tweeted the other day, it is not just because of the auteurs (the pretentious term used to described the person who gives the unitary vision of the work). In some large sense, it was because of Andrew Sarris.

Tbe American Cinema by Andrew Sarris

It wasn’t just that Sarris provided thoughtful criticism of film from an personal point of view which contained principles which he could apply universally. It wasn’t that he was long associated with the most important journal of tastemakers in America, The Village Voice. It wasn’t even because of his graceful writing. All these things helped, but the central reason was a very little book he wrote: The American Cinema: Directors and Direction, 1929-1968. Just yesterday, before Sarris died, I was looking at the book, about to toss it from my collection to make a move easier for me.  And I at it again, because I remember how eye-opening it was to me when I first read it. It was quite simply organized. The material was arranged by director with a list of representatives films. Sarris wrote very briefly about the contribution of the particular director and then moved on to the next.

It was by no means a scholarly book, if by scholarly one means turgidly written with a scholarly apparatus. The kind of thing that I am a sucker for because it looks so “thorough,” and after I buy it, I never see anything other than its spine ever again. But the Sarris book was different. It provided at most one general thought about a director with some supporting evidence from some of the film. It was the exact opposite approach of Truffaut and friends when they ponderously worked a film theory in Cahiers du Cinéma. It was the kind of writing you normally read on the back of LPs, intelligent but less than comprehensive.

But the book created something of a canon of American film. It showed how you select the artist (in the case of a collaborative endeavor like film, the person who has control over the vision, the director) and then consider his work as a whole. This has been the approach of most successful film critics and reviewers since, but it was Sarris that showed how to do this.

And this is how all art is designated. It takes a person who sees a field of endeavor and can define its contents and rank its participants. The artists themselves are rarely articulate enough to define the art form (although countless interviews of artists of all stripes show they falsely believe they can).

This is how “modern art” became an art form. It was the Rockefeller “ladies,” their wealthy kin and the curators and advisors they hired who put together a museum that defines how we see modern art today. You could see how Ezra Pound and friends invented modernism in this way. Other art forms followed a similar path.

But Sarris made an art out of American cinema all by himself. And it was as though this little book was the manifesto. He made us understand that terms like deep focus and staging and tracking were not just important by themselves but that they were necessary to understand in order to really see a film.

So I put the book back in the box I was keeping, not knowing that this great critic would die today. RIP Andrew Sarris (October 31, 1928 – June 20, 2012).

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