Sunday, July 19, 2009

Strained Seriousnes


After Andrew Sarris was 'fired' from his New York Observer position, many of my most favored blogs told me I absolutely had to get a copy of his The American Cinema, if I hadn't already read it. As long as I've been reading criticism on a week-to-week basis (though I do this less and less now that I'm reviewing new releases myself), Sarris had always been a personal touchstone--- especially with his reviews appearing alongside Rex 'Sexy Rexy' Reed's (does any other paper in America have a sharper contrast in the quality of its critics?). His review of A.I., in particular, stands as a favorite of mine--- not just because I agree with him on the film, but because he responded to the ideas and emotions that the work presented in an incredibly sensitive way, far moreso than many critics did at the time of its release. If you look at Sarris' Rotten Tomatoes page, you'll see the man hardly ever gives a negative review--- he always gives movies the benefit of a doubt, he always engages with the work on its own terms instead of on his terms, and I've never once seen the man pretend that his word was the final one. I won't deny that his critical benevolence is something I constantly aspire to, though never achieve (as a friend once said of me, "the lad is not one to form an opinion lightly" or, as another friend says, "you're out of your fucking mind").

So naturally, upon hearing that I wouldn't have his criticism to enjoy on a weekly basis, I hurriedly purchased my copy of the canonized The American Cinema. Of course, he was only fired from his staff position, not from the paper all together, although he hasn't published a review since the announcement. Reading The American Cinema, I am sorry to say that I am disappointed--- it's really quite weak as an academic approach to the first forty years of the sound era, and it's even weaker as criticism (and Sarris constantly goes back and forth on what he means for the book to be). Although he says in the beginning of the book that he doesn't want his view of the canon of American films to be the 'final word' on the matter, his prose suggests otherwise.

The chapters of the book are his method of establishing his canon. The first chapter, called "Pantheon Directors", represents "directors who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world". It includes whom he consider to be the fourteen greatest film makers to have worked in America (or the English language, he is unclear about his criteria)--- they are, in chronological order: Charles Chaplin, Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchock, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, Josef Von Sternberg, and Orson Welles (whom he considered at the time to be "the youngest indisputably great American director"). I don't really object to any of the names on his list--- though I've always found Lubitsch's detachment from his characters to counter the humor in his films--- what I object to is the way he organizes film makers in the following chapters. The next chapter is called "The Far Side of Paradise", which represents "directors who fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their personal vision or because of disruptive career problems"; notice the way The Pantheon is capitalized, suggesting an almost mythic stature of his most prized auteurs.


The first chapter, along with the essay that opens the book "Towards a Theory of Film History", is undoubtedly excellent--- filled with passion and ideas. But after the first chapter is where the book starts shooting itself in the foot, ideologically. Surely the careers of film makers such as Vincente Minnelli, Frank Borzage, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Preston Sturges, or King Vidor suffers from no more or less "fragmentation of personal vision" or "disruptive career problems" than the ineffable and mighty Pantheon--- and while I certainly don't think he means to, dividing film makers rung by rung in the manner he does can be kind of trivializing. He never really expounds on exactly why or how Minnelli's or Ray's career is more "fragmented" than Ford or Welles (the latter of whose career is notoriously, albeit gloriously fragmented). Surely if one is going to postulate that the aforementioned film makers aren't quite up to the quality of The Pantheon, then one could spend more than a page and a half of sweeping generalizations and vague connectives to prove this point, but Sarris is so busy establishing his canon that he doesn't have any time to actually develop his arguments (it's a relatively short book considering the vastness of its subject-- 393 pages, and almost a third of the book is the index). There is generally one essay length piece in the chapters after The Pantheon, but some are as short as a paragraph or two--- surely it wouldn't have killed Sarris to explain why so many directors fall short of his Pantheon criteria. Too busy coming up with cutesy titles for his chapters, perhaps?

What I think escapes Sarris is that his idol-worshiping concept of The Pantheon is more dubious than enlightening. He skirts around the issue that sometimes great directors make bad films, and sometimes bad directors make a good one. Saying that a small handful of film makers qualify as the Crème de la Crème, especially with a plethora of great films and film makers produced in the American system, trivializes the film makers who, for inexplicable (and unexplained) reasons don't qualify for The Pantheon. He says of Nicholas Ray (in an overall strongly favorable piece): "It must be remembered that They Live By Night, The Lusty Men, Rebel Without a Cause, and Bigger Than Life are socially conscious films by any standards, and that Knock on Any Door is particularly bad social consciousness on the Kramer-Cayatte level. His form is not that impeccable, and his content has generally involved social issues" All statements of truth, but when his criteria for induction into the Pantheocal Society is "directors who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world", surely the exclusion of Ray, among others, sticks out considerably. Yes, Knock On Any Door is painfully overbearing, but if social consciousness is one's artistic calling, surely bad social consciousness is better than no social consciousness at all. He says in the John Ford piece that "Ford's failures tend to be objective rather than subjective in that he tends to be faithful to his own feelings at the expense of his material." Why is this quality a virtue in Ford's case and a weakness in Ray's?


I feel things only get more presumptuous from there. After this first chapter about The Pantheon, which is admittedly exciting critical analysis that feels both personal and objective, Sarris seems to feel that as he goes further and further down the directorial rungs of his cinematic ladder, the less he actually needs to elaborate on his arguments; which is odd, because the less the arguments are developed the more broad and shaky the claims become. In the chapter "Less Than Meets the Eye" (this category is for "directors with reputations in excess of inspirations", whatever that means), Sarris writes of Carol Reed that "The decline of Carol Reed since Outcast of the Islands is too obvious to be elaborated". Really, now, it's too obvious to be elaborated on? Which is genuinely funny, because it strikes me as being a bold enough statement (however true) to merit an elaboration. He follows up on his promise and proceeds to not elaborate on why Reed's career has declined. Poor Carol, forever confined to the sub-Pantheon--- it's so implicit that it's not even worth Sarris' time. Things get all the more confounding in that same chapter, when he writes of David Lean that "The sheer logistics of Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai can not support the luxury of a directorial point of view." Does this not run counter the auteur theory that he was America's most vocal proponent of? Lean's epic films--- arguably the most idiosyncratic epic films of all time that thoughtfully and poignantly consider manhood, nationalism, and empathy--- are too large-scale to be the works of an artist and yet The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Faust, Metropolis, The General, The Searchers, Land of the Pharaohs, North by Northwest, and Rio Bravo (to name a few films from The Pantheon directors) are not?

An apex of hilarity is reached when Sarris arrives at the chapter called "Strained Seriousness". These ne'er-do-wells are "talented but uneven directors with the mortal sin of pretentiousness"--- the mortal sin of pretentiousness. The irony of that statement is self-evident, even judged apart from the context of the rest of the book. Who does Sarris think he's fooling? This declaration is coming from the man who has quoted himself ad nauseum throughout the text, and who uses these self-quotations to prove his own arguments! While we're talking about the mortal sin of pretentiousness, lumping in the careers of Jules Dassin and Stanley Kubrick with the man who made The Sound of Music would have to qualify.

I just find it difficult to believe that the Sarris I've been reading all these years is responsible for this book. It's full of the kind of generalizations and know-it-all authoritarianism that I have never once seen in his New York Observer reviews, and in fact that is what I found refreshing about his tone. In The American Cinema he avoids fleshing out his opinions by taking on an authoritative, scholarly tone. What is most upsetting about the book is how sharply the book declines after an exemplary opening chapter. The essays in "The Pantheon" are, on the whole, much longer than the pieces in the rest of the book; he fleshes out his views and puts the film makers in a unique context. I found the writing a little on the dry side but highly informative nonetheless. Though once I hit the next chapter, "The Far Side of Paradise", I knew something was up. After that, it becomes clear that Sarris is going to write film makers off more and more brazenly, all in the name of building up his Pantheon. I know he's gone back and changed his opinion on certain films and film makers (according to Johanthan Rosenbuam he revised his opinion on 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he describes in the book as "... a science-fiction project so devoid of life and feeling as to render a computer called Hal the most sympathetic character in the humbled scenario", after a little 'herbal stimulation'), and this is perhaps more admirable than anything; no one is right all the time (no, not even me), and to acknowledge that is the sign of an adult thinker and an open-minded person. Unfortunately, in 278 pages of The American Cinema, he counters that noble image.

Should I bother reading more Sarris if I didn't care for this one? Are his other books better than this?

22 comments:

Adam Zanzie said...

I've never known what to think of Sarris. If you ask me, he's wasted falf of his life obssessing over a theory that may SOUND like it expands cinema... but, in my opinion, it actually sort of limits it. Yeah, I said it: the "auteur" theory is nonsense.

Ever hear people complain about how so-and-so doesn't have a "style"? I hate it when that happens, and in some ways, this kind of pseudo-intellectualism in regards to cinema is the fault of Sarris's original writings. Because Sarris champions directors who have a style that defines their whole careers, that may explain his dislike for great filmmakers like John Huston (who never really had a style; he just directed projects that interested him).

No doubt Sarris has contributed some fantastic stuff to cinema, but on the issue of the auteur theory I have to side with Pauline Kael. She countered by writing, "Traditionally, in any art, the personalities of all those involved in a production have been a factor in judgement, but that the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgement. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better"?

And yeah, it took Rosenbaum's help to get Sarris to revisit Kubrick. Actually, before "A.I.", Sarris never cared for either Kubrick or Spielberg (the only other Spielberg movie he loved was "Empire of the Sun"). I didn't know that he was so funny in the head when it came to judging David Lean's epics.

I probably won't be checking this new book out, since Sarris's theorys and style of criticism don't interest me that much. His wife, Molly Haskell, is weird, too. I remember when she was co-host of The Essentials on TCM a few years ago; when they were showing "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", she admitted to Robert Osbourne that she thought it was overrated. Guess Sarris's contempt for Huston spilled over to her.

One thing Sarris and Rosenbaum HAVE always had in common: they both hated "No Country for Old Men".

Miranda Wilding said...

That sucks, dude. Can you get a refund?

But seriously...

I've loved Mr. Sarris (and Ms. Haskell too, for that matter) and his writing for years. But I had NO IDEA...

I don't think anyone with a brain should set themselves up as the ultimate authority. He's a big enough name to do that. It won't test his credibility. But I still think it's incredibly foolish.

Roger Ebert has a Pulitzer. Did he do that? Not to my knowledge. Did my goddess Pauline? I don't think so.

It's fine to say that various directors are your favourites, worthy of certain kinds of respect and reverence etc. But to set them up in an untouchable PANTHEON is more than a bit ludicrous IMO.

Chaplin, Ford and Hawks are all great. The only one that is a personal favourite of mine on his list is Welles.

Some of those gentlemen may be magnificent artists. But they're better, more accomplished and more deserving of worship than STANLEY KUBRICK, DAVID LEAN, WOODY ALLEN or MIKE NICHOLS...?

So Lean can't be considered a monumental filmmaker because he made great, sweeping epics. Kubrick is too pretentious.

Excuse me while I laugh uncontrollably - for hours on end.

There are people (some of them near geniuses) who would kill to make films at either man's level. They never will...and their hearts break a little each day.

But Kubrick and Lean must be madly inferior to the PANTHEON because Mr. Sarris says so...???

Whatever...

I don't have any issues with his choices. He's as entitled to his opinions as anyone. But I can't fathom people that perceive themselves as the one person WHO REALLY KNOWS EVERYTHING about that particular subject.

And I do get rather annoyed by individuals who make statements and then don't even bother to back up their claims. Yeah. Great. You believe that. But can't you at least tell us WHY???

This is the thing about idols or prominent people you admire, Ryan. In a lot of cases (though admittedly not all) they can be really disappointing to meet.

It hasn't happened to me yet. I was lucky. But most people will tell you that that's (unfortunately) true.

I'm pretty discouraged myself after reading your post.

Maybe you could still work on getting a refund, though...

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, part of me certainly agrees with you with respect to the auteur theory, in that it can be a tad reductive. But the theory itself was never meant to be the defining principle for all of cinema... it was more of a way of categorizing Golden Era Hollywood pictures. But that's probably the worst phase you could apply he theory to, because especially then the movie was as much a result of the artists and artisans working on the movie as the director. With someone like Godard, it's obvious he's the driving force behind them because the movies are, far all intents and purposes, him. Holding film makers who worked under wildly different circumstances to the same standard is kind of... well, dumb.

Yes, Sarris gets so hung up on the substance of style that I fear he forgets the substance of content. Though, of course, he'll make exceptions to this stylistic principle when it suits his agenda. Surely Borzage, Fuller, Ray, Kubrick, etc... have a more concrete 'style' of film making than Chaplin or Hawks who, in the compositional sense, are not the most distinct of directors. On that note, surely John Huston does as well! He's willing to ignore the late career failings of Chaplin, Hawks or Ford (and he ignores them all together), but because John Huston made some clunkers when he was older this somehow invalidates The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo. His argument is definitely a bit of a house of cards.

Yes, no one took Sarris to task like Kael did. "Circles and Squares" is among my favorite essays in I Lost It At The Movies. Still, she was so silver tongued that I can't help but feel she is misrepresenting the argument somewhat. Like I said, she makes it sound like it's all of cinema, when really it was designed to specifically apply to the early sound era into the late 50s/early 60s.

And yeah, Sarris doesn't give too many negative reviews lately... unless you're The Coen Brothers. Two of the only negative reviews I can think of from him in the last few years are of their last two features.

That reminds me, I want to have Mise-en-scène barred from the critical lexicon. Anyone who honestly uses that term in analysis looks like a dick.

Ryan Kelly said...

Miranda, so nice of you to stop in!

I don't think I really need a refund. I got it off Half.com for like 5 bucks, and it was worth reading... to an extent. It pissed me off almost every step of the way, but now at least I have an opinion on it. No doubt there are some interesting observations scattered here and there.

So you've read his Observed stuff as well? Glad I'm not alone in thinking his twilight-years writing is fantastic. A lot of people don't like the critic he is now because they prefer the critic he was, but honestly I think he's gotten better. Maybe I'll read his actual criticism from the time and skip his half-assed 'text books'.

The only favorite on that list is Welles? Not even Hitchock? As I said in the post, the only director on that list I'm not big on is Lubitsch--- very smug, very cynical, and not all that funny. To Be or Not to Be is one of the most self-important pictures I've ever seen.

In fairness, Allen was only excluded because the book was written in '68. I wonder what Sarris thinks of the man and his work.

That's all I was getting at, that it's one thing to say that these directors fall short of these directors, it's another thing all together to not back it up because it's so implicit and anyone who doesn't see it is either cinematically blind or an idiot or both. This is Armond White rhetoric, and seems very much beneath his reputation.

Yes, we put people on such a pedestal and the real thing is, more often than not, just a shadow of that. I was fortunate enough to be an extra in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where I got to be around Spielberg and watch him direct. Now there is a man who lives up to his reputation--- he brings warmth and energy to his movie sets, and that shines through in his finished project. Thankfully, that's the one idol of mine I have "met", and it wasn't disappointing in the slightest. So it can go both ways.

As always, thanks for stopping in. Surely made my morning (so far)!

Miranda Wilding said...

Aw, you're such a sweet boy.

If only everyone in cyberspace were like you, Ryan...

I do read Mr. Sarris from time to time in his curent mode. But I used to find a lot of his old stuff very interesting.

Why is that a lot of people that have been writing film criticism for years start to give everything a free pass? Is it boredom or do they just get worn out by the relentless amount of product that they have to look at?

I imagine one could get jaded...

Roger Ebert's not as sharp as he used to be. He's been ill, poor man. So that is understandable.

But Andrew Sarris doesn't give many negative reviews any more, as you and Adam mentioned previously.

I didn't realize that the book was from 68. So Woody effectively doesn't factor into the equation. At that juncture, Mr. Nichols had only made VIRGINIA WOOLF and THE GRADUATE.

Hah hah. Talk about early promise. More like monumental.

At the risk of offending anyone who reads this, I find Hitchcock sensationally overrated. He did make some excellent pictures. REBECCA and VERTIGO are masterpieces.

But he basically stuck to one genre, didn't he? Not very imaginative or wide ranging.

Someone said (God, I wish I could remember WHO...) REBECCA is really more of a DAVID O. SELZNICK movie than a Hitchcock film.

Hitchcock was a complete misogynist and in a lot of his movies it's not even subtle. It's either boiling just beneath the surface or astoundingly blatant.

Like in Notorious, for example. That bloody well offended me.

Hitch is really not my thing.

But that's SO COOL that you met Steven and that your great admiration for him is still alive and kicking. I think that's wonderful.

You don't hear stuff like that all the time.

All things considered, I guess you actually don't need a refund.

Sometimes you just have to take situations for what they are. Get everything out of them that you need and then let the whole thing go...

Rick Olson said...

You know, I just picked up the Sarris book and am finished with the first chapter (a fine one, I agree) and am about half way through the "Pantheon," but it does strike me that he criticizes Truffaut's use of the auteur policy to pre-judge (a movie by director x will always be better than one from y) then turns right around and makes a canon, effectively excluding some directors -- one of them Kubrick! -- from the highest ranks. Seems a bit ironic to me ...

Also, on the auteur "theory": Auteur criticism is just like genre criticism or class criticism in that it is another trick in a critic's tool bag for getting into the guts of a film. To call it nonsense, as Adam does, gives it too much weight and too little both at once. It is one way of approaching understanding a film or films.

In reality, most critics these days privilege director over other crew members. You don't see critics talking about Sven Nykvist's Winter Light or James Horner's "Titanic." The auteur policy is the major lens through which critics see film. And I agree with Sarris that the director of any given film is the most reliable pre-indicator of its quality.

MovieMan0283 said...

Well, a lot to respond to here. I read The American Cinema a few years ago, and only got to Sarris' other criticism (also from the sixties and seventies, but quite different - I suggest you look into it if you can find it) this year.

I enjoy reading Sarris. My own sensibility is much, much closer to Pauline Kael's, except that I find the auteur theory winningly romantic and clarifying (hard to pull those two off at the same time). I disagree with Adam for the same reason as others; the auteur theory should not be the be-all, end-all, but it's an excellent tool, and a more provocative one, I submit, than sociological, thematic, or most other forms of criticism (even though I tend towards the thematic myself).

Ryan, I don't really agree with Sarris' brand of auteurism, which finds little to celebrate in post-Golden Age cinema, and which is, for lack of a better word, sniffy. Though some of his favorites are also some of mine, he has an undoubted preference for the classical over the modern, romantic, or subversive - hence his slighting of Ray and Kubrick, among others. But I don't read Sarris to agree with him, I read him to grock off his unique sensibility, same as with Kael. So I wasn't disappointed by the flaws in The American Cinema, but rather found them kind of invigorating. If nothing else, they give me something to butt my head up against. That, I think, is what canons and pantheons are for, and the more idiosyncratic the better.

I also disagree about the Golden Age being the wrong period to look into for auteurism - actually, it's the BEST period, precisely BECAUSE the system was so gamed to smother individual expression. What's fascinating about auteurism is to detect the ways the artist's vision sneaks around the contours of studio style, genre conventions, and other givens. This sort of auteurism is more invigorating and ultimately more rewarding than the sort which merely recognizes the obvious impression of a singular visionary like Godard (whose control of his films, and individuality of expression, is so complete it essentially renders the auteur theory a moot point - to discuss the films from ANY angle or theory is to discuss their auteur).

Finally, as for your "mise en scene" dig, I won't take it personally but when you guys come up with a better word to hit on the formal essence of a movie - the balancing of the elements, the strength of the aesthetic impression, the individual choices which add up to a totality - I'll start using it instead!

Adam Zanzie said...

To answer Miranda's question, the person who dismissed "Rebecca" as "a David O. Selznick film" was none other than Hitchcock himself.

It's in the book of interviews between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. Hithcock doesn't have many kind things to say about the film, but Truffaut does. My favorite part of the exchange between them:

TRUFFAUT: And the movie won Best Picture, to date the only Oscar you've ever received.
HITCHCOCK: I've never won an Oscar.
TRUFFAUT: But you just said...
HITCHCOCK: The Oscar went to Selznick, the producer. The Directing Oscar that year went to John Ford.

^lol

MovieMan0283 said...

Also, Miranda, what does sticking to one genre or theme have to with an artist's value? I'm all for diversity, but it's hardly a prerequisite for greatness (indeed, many would say it's the exact opposite...)

Miranda Wilding said...

MovieMan, it's a personal preference that I simply can't deny.

In terms of performers, if someone were to play the EXACT SAME TYPE of character (however magnificently) IN EVERY SINGLE FILM that they appeared in, would you call that person a great actor?

Doubtful. Though some might make the point that they were truly excellent. But they simply didn't have enough range.

You can always make exceptions if you love the artist's work. Come to think of it, WOODY ALLEN tends to make the same kind of film over and over again. But some of his films are comedies and some are stark dramas. SLEEPER actually veered into sci fi.

There was at least an attempt to break out and do different kinds of things.

But they all deal with relationships in some magical way. There goes that auteur bell again.

I'd give him a pass any day because I understand what he's trying to do...and he does it so effortlessly and brilliantly that it almost defies logic.

What can I say?

I love the way that Scorsese can make musicals (NEW YORK, NEW YORK), concert films (THE LAST WALTZ), intimate costume dramas (THE AGE OF INNOCENCE), uproarious comedies (AFTER HOURS, THE KING OF COMEDY) and hard knocking gangster sagas (GOODFELLAS, THE DEPARTED) and do them all profound justice.

I'm in awe of him. It's like poetry. His range is breathtaking. I do tend to be far more knocked out by people who can do a lot of different things exceptionally well than someone who is very good at just one.

To me, it generally shows far more ability.

Adam, thanks for that. I had no idea that Hitch had said that about HIMSELF.

Thanks for my (wholehearted hysterical) laugh for the day...

MovieMan0283 said...

Meredith, I don't argue with your personal preference. But to say that a lack of range (putting aside the fact that within the thriller genre, Hitch could tackle comedy, romance, drama, tragedy...) some how diminishes an artist's status is not, I think, a widely-held or even very justifiable position. Here is where I would normally use examples from that most legit of arts, painting; however, my in-depth knowledge of the field is sadly lacking. At any rate, I think we can both agree that there are artists who focused on a very narrow field of achievement. Ok, I can think of one: Jackson Pollack. He worked in many different styles before achieving abstract expressionism, but it is those paintings which are generally held to be his triumph. That he was not as successful with, say, still lives or abstract canvases not done with drip technique is generally not held against him.

Pauline Kael, Sarris' dire enemy, once argued against Sarris' thesis that one had to be competent before one could be great by pointing out that Antonioni was very poor at staging fight scenes, among other things; that were he assigned to do a western in Hollywood he would probably fail and be considered "incompetent"; but obviously, his greatness lay elsewhere. This doesn't EXACTLY respond to what you were saying, but it is a reminder that it's usually best to judge artists but what they can do, rather than what they can't.

MIranda Wilding said...

MovieMan, you're obviously an intelligent guy.

But you clearly have your own perspective and I have mine. It's immaterial to me if my views are on the rare or unpopular side. I don't generally see myself as a contrarian and I wasn't arrogant enough to state that my opinion on anything was positively definitive.

If anything, I took Mr. Sarris to task for precisely the same thing.

I attempted to be polite by stating that it was a personal preference. I've had my site for over a year. In that time, I've championed many films that were given a widespread critical bashing.

It matters little what anyone else thinks of them. I personally found something of value in them.

Your POV is well considered. But I don't back down from anything.

I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

And...MEREDITH???

Ha ha ha.

NO.

MovieMan0283 said...

Miranda,

Yikes - where did I come up with the "Meredith"? Now you see why I have a screenname (though interestingly the first time I stepped out online with my real name, it was immediately mangled - from "Joel" into "Josh". Go figure!). For what it's worth, Miranda is also my mother's name so I've nothing against it...

When you said Hitchcock's narrowness was "not very imaginative" it sounded like a definitive statement of some sort of aesthetic criteria. Perhaps it's a difference in viewpoint. I recognize a subjective realm, but also a (relatively) objective one, in which claims had been staked and denied but have to be backed up by more than recourse to personal preference. I try to phrase objective claims one way, and subjective ones another, but everyone has their own approach (Kael, my favorite, loved to muddy the waters there) so I guess I misunderstood.

Anyway, I always enjoy the back-and-forth...I will check out your site.

Ryan Kelly said...

Miranda, if everyone in cyberspace were like me I would suddenly look very bad. I need all the creeps, freaks, and lunatics to make me look good!

MovieMan also sad that his old criticism was interesting. I don't doubt it. As I said, he quotes his reviews of movies several times throughout the text (though not anyone else, if I remember correctly), and they are certainly good observations, however I may disagree in some cases (though who reads critics for validation?). I'll have to check them out. Though a good writer putting out a bad book seems to run counter to the author theory (bwahahah).

Yeah, I've wondered about that too, older critics giving every new release free passes. I think it's probably a combination of things--- a critic not being quite as sharp as they used to be, becoming numbed by sheer bad-ness of it all. I'm sure there are a lot of factors. And yes, Ebert has unfortunately been very ill, but unfortunately his criticism has also become all the more pedestrian.

Hithcock... wow! You are just full of surprises. Here's the short version: I don't agree. Though I also don't entirely disagree.

Now, the long version: I think what could be interpreted as misogyny in some films is just Hitchcock's general attitude towards actors. Though it strikes me that he never respected an actress of his in quite the same way he did Ingrid Bergman. I think he's (quite brutally) taking the misogyny of the male characters (more Cary Grant) to task in Notorious. First, he asks Bergman to get close to this guy and have an affair with him and then, when she does so, he treats her like a slut. Like De Palma, Hitchcock's thrillers are a mask for a lot of emotions, especially sexuality, and to me Notorious seems to be about the Madonna/Whore complex.

I've always found the 'master of suspense' label painfully reductive with respect to Hitchcock. As I said, his films are more about sexuality than anything, and they contain elements of melodrama and comedy. I'll agree that he can sometimes be contemptuous of his female characters, but he can do the same with his men. For instance, he treats Gregory Peck like a bimbo in Spellbound.

And if you think he's a misogynist, you really must see Marnie! I don't know if there has ever been a more sophisticated portrayal of a woman on film (directed by a man, that is).

But, what do I know? We all know how sexist I am. Hell, before I knew you Miranda, I didn't have any idea that girls blogged!

There is hope for me yet...

Ryan Kelly said...

Rick, you are so right--- he criticizes the Cahiers crowd for the auteur theory, goes so far as to accuse them of being disingenuous in the case of Ray, and then just bends over backwards to prove why his favorites are better than... well, a lot of really good/great directors. Some bad ones, too, and that does the good one's a major disservice, being lumped in with bad ones.

And yes, I agree that if you take the auteur theory with a grain of salt it's valuable--- again, I just don't like the way it's treated as definitive (Sarris claims it shouldn't be but in The American Cinema it sure is the guiding force). But I agree with you, Rick, the director's are almost always the principal guiding force behind a picture. Just not THE only one.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yes MovieMan, I'll definitely be checking out Sarris' other criticism some time soon. Are they collected in book form?

I'm with you on Kael, though I think we feel exactly opposite about the two of them. With Kael, she's such a brilliant writer that even when I don't see where she's coming from she makes you understand. I tend to enjoy reading her reviews more when I haven't seen the movie in question, because I don't really see what she does on the screen a lot of the time. With Sarris (in The American Cinema), it's the opposite: I know exactly where he's coming from a lot of the time, but he doesn't really flesh out his opinion too much, which makes the opinion worthless. But I also really love Kael's wholly anti-academic approach to criticism. It makes her writing sparkle with life and energy.

I like what you say about auteurism in the Golden Age (a great band name), but at the same time it's difficult to discern because a lot of those directors worked with the same people movie in and movie out! So the line between auteur and craftsmen can ger a bit blurry. That's more what I was getting at, but at the same time it's fascinating to see the way director's put their stamps on movies, especially with everything working against them as it does in Hollywood.

And I thank you for not taking the "misce en scene" dig personally, as I was cranky yesterday and didn't really think about what I was writing. I was really taking about Sarris, who dropped the term as recently as his Tetro review. I don't mind it if you're discussing how the director's aesthetics serve the story, but I felt like Sarris was dropping the term to do his job for him. So, it was a dig at Sarris... never at you MovieMan.

Never you.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, the earlier criticism is gathered in book form (I probably wouldn't have seen it otherwise) but I'm not sure if the books are still in print. I borrowed them from a local library: Confessions of a Cultist, The Primal Screen, and Poltics & Cinema. The first is reviews, the second veers more towards essays, and the third focuses on the subject of its title. All greatly expanded my perception of Sarris; up to that point, I had only read a few select reviews and The American Cinema. Read 'em if you can find 'em and let me know what you think.

In fact, one of them has an essay in which Sarris attempts to patiently explain the term "mise en scene" to a reader who had more or less the same objection as you - that Sarris was using it an awful lot, without explaining what he meant by it.

Ryan Kelly said...

Ir probably was me, in a past life or something.

MovieMan0283 said...

(Not that you don't know the term, obviously, just that Sarris' explanation might clarify his own position on the matter for you.)

Ryan Kelly said...

Oh no, no, I didn't take it that way at all. I'm just hypersensitive, not oversensitive. =)

Miranda Wilding said...

MovieMan, by all means check out my site and leave a comment or two if you have any desire to.

I think we probably both misinterpreted what the other person was saying.

I disagree with people that I'm close to all the time. No harm done.

So you think that I'm full of surprises, Ryan? Hah. You should see me when I really get going, young squire.

Well...from everything I've read and heard, Hitch supposedly WAS a misogynist. There's all this stuff also floating around about how he deliberately destroyed Tippi Hedren's career because she wouldn't do him the big favour.

She and her daughter Melanie Griffith have both said as much. They loathe him endlessly to this day.

Perhaps I'm overly sensitive to it because I'm also a woman who has had a number of unwanted jackasses obsessed with me.

(Seems to me we had a private discussion about that, right, Ryan...?)

I never thought about Hitch being equally disdainful of the male gender. I do recall vividly what he said about actors in a general sense. But none of that apparently bothered Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart or Grace Kelly - who all worked with him more than once.

I've never made it all the way through MARNIE. It's probably because of Connery. But if you think it's worthwhile (it's usually on TV at least every six months), I'll watch it the next time it's on.

That's a very interesting take regarding NOTORIOUS. All I can recall about it was that someone talked me into watching it (on my birthday, no less) and I was extremely disenchanted with it.

As in MUCH.

Most of the time (as you know), I'm a rather straightforward chick. However, I do read subtext and behavioural motivations as well as anyone alive. But I honestly didn't see it that way.

Maybe I'll give it another go at some point.

I know. DePalma gets a bad rap for what he puts his female characters through. But I honestly find his sensibilities much closer to mine.

BODY DOUBLE is so over the top (almost operatic) with its sex and violence. It does seem quite derivative of Hitch as well. I liked Melanie Griffith. But there's a lot in that film that I could take or leave.

DePalma likes to shock. He can be a really effective provocateur. CARRIE and DRESSED TO KILL were like amusement park rides. Very entertaining.

I know we'll split on this. But when I did my review of the latest Mann opus and I said that there were many gangsters pictures since THE GODFATHER that were far more notable than PE, I was largely thinking of THE UNTOUCHABLES.

Costner goes up and down in terms of his charisma quotient. In that he's unfortunately rather flat - like day old champagne. But everyone else is in rare form...AND the set pieces were fantastic (the shootout at the bridge, the baby carriage at the train station, that ending)...

Ryan, you know that you are one of the most egalitarian gentlemen on the planet.

It's simply that Ms. Johanson was frustrated because she couldn't shoehorn you into her "all men are disgustingly scuzzy sexist twits" world view.

Certainly there are men that are scuzzy. Some dudes are sexist. There are guys who are twits. You have your various combinations of those qualities. Then you have the men that are just going through a phase or two.

But when you stack all those numbers up, I don't think that that even adds up to 50% of the male population. Quite a bit less in fact.

You, my sweet, could never be included in any of those categories.

That chick's barking up the wrong tree.

So there...

MovieMan0283 said...

Miranda (not Meredith!), don't worry; I did not take anything the wrong way. Compared to some of the conversations I've had over at Wonders in the Dark (great site, that, but things get contentious from time to time...), this was a mutual appreciation society.