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?