East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Friday, June 03, 2005

Rambling around auteurism in 2005

(Thoughts inspired by Kent Jones's excellent tribute to Andew Sarris in Film Comment.)

There are two ways auteurism has filtered into cinephilic consciousness: as an organizing principle and a critical tool, and while the cult of the director has been of value as both these things from before Bazin to this day, I've long been concerned about its acceptance as dogma by all our respectable critics. The Americanization of auteurism stands as the greatest part of Andrew Sarris's legacy - his judgments on specific directors never kept Billy Wilder ("too cynical to believe even his own cynicism," still true even if it dodges the point) out of the canon. But because of Sarris, the canon includes more Wilder pics than it otherwise would - the vicious Sunset Boulevard justifies the inclusion of the conventional The Apartment.

An idea derived from Sarris is that since we can't see every movie, then watching by director is a good way to proceed. A smart idea, but a problematic one: John Ford made a lot of movies, you know, and the ones that I've seen suggest some are a lot better than others. Even Jean-Luc Godard, one of the greatest and most egotistical auteurs, doesn't like all of his own films. I'll admit that my film fest choices are largely based on who directed it (and who's in it,) but I don't think this is ideal, since critics (or reviewers), when correctly aggregated, are far more consistent than auteurs. So we turn to Sarris's year-by-year lists, and we find: he wants us to watch all of John Ford's movies.

Jones writes,

"Where Sarris often shared Kael's ambivalence over art cinema, he almost always tried to come to terms with it - for him, the uncrossable line of viewer tolerance that Kael watched like a hawk was nonexistent. As long as filmmakers didn't lose their nerve or cop out, Sarris reckoned that the ideal, sympathetic viewer owed them their best. One could say that for Kael the artist is guilty until proven innocent, while for Sarris he/she is innocent until proven guilty."

Kael thought that while the viewer should be prepared to work, if the artist wasn't willing to come at least some token distance to meet the viewer, all goodwill was lost - to use a metaphor of Don Paterson's slightly out of context, we'll meet artists halfway, but we don't want to have to pick them up from the station in their wheelchairs. This was a major limitation of Kael's work - if the artist in question is Ozu then you drag him 500 miles if you have to - but it's consistent with her belief in the primacy of the viewer: movies should be made for all of us. Still, one of Sarris's greatest strengths was his willingness to do some of the work for the viewer, even when the auteurs in question went against his disposition (his coming to terms with Fassbinder is a particularly admirable example of this).

A second difference between Pauline and Andy is that the former was happy to watch from in front of the screen, while the latter was always wondering what was going on behind it. Of course Sarris's approach has merit: it makes for more interesting discussion and writing than the broadsheet-standard plot summary plus value judgment. But it's not how most people watch movies, and then there are those who would argue this isn't what art's about, what with the Author having recently been burned at the stake. I remember reading Sarris on a scene from The Searchers to which I hadn't paid any special attention: he described how the scene revealed one of the character's lifetime of longing. I marveled at Ford's ability to express this, not through words and not really through pictures, but using mise-en-scène. But today I can't remember the scene, and Ford's achievement seems, to be flippant, more skill than art.

Jones complains about how terms like "cinephilia" carry "the ring of affliction," but the truth is that if moviegoing occupies a large enough place in your life, as it must for respectable critics, you're a film nerd. Sarris won the battle for the hearts and minds of film nerds, while Kael won the battle for those of everyone else who read her; in each case their fans took what was useful to them. Me, I'm a nerd, albeit an obsessive too generic to be purely a film nerd. I recognize there's value on both sides, so I try to walk a fine line. It's just that I draw the line closer to the viewer and further from the artist than Sarris and Jones do.


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