In Memoriam: Andrew Sarris

In “Flick Picks,” its regular feature on film revivals playing at local theaters, The Los Angeles Times this week recommended, in addition to “John Ford’s What Price Glory?,” and “Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park,” what the Times described as “John Landis’ National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Peter H. Hunt’s 1776,” and “Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz.”

Now, as its name suggests, Animal House is very much a creation of the National Lampoon school of humor and specifically of its screenwriters; 1776 is a musical that, if attributable to anyone, belongs to its librettist Peter Stone and songwriter Sherman Edwards; and The Wizard of Oz is the ultimate MGM corporate product.

It is almost absurd to describe the film as “Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz.” Fleming was not involved in supervising the casting and pre-production of The Wizard of Oz—that was under the charge of producer Mervyn LeRoy, and Fleming was only marginally involved in the writing of the screenplay, which was undertaken by a platoon of writers including, among others, Herman Mankiewicz, Ogden Nash, E.Y. Harburg, Samuel Hoffenstein, Irving Brecher, Herbert Fields, and the three writers ultimately credited, Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Alan Wolff. Fleming did help another writer, John Lee Mahin, rewrite some scenes but only when Fleming took over directing the picture after filming had begun and three other directors had been replaced. The first two directors, Norman Taurog and Richard Thorpe, had filmed scenes that remain in the final movie, and George Cukor had taken over, making certain critical changes in the production, before Fleming showed up on set.

And yet there it is: “Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz.” The fact that the L.A. Times felt obliged to identify this and each of the other movies in its “Flick Picks” with the name of the movie’s director is a testament to the influence of film critic Andrew Sarris, who died last week at the age of 83.

In its obituary, The New York Times described Sarris as “a champion of the auteur theory,” explaining that he “played a major role in introducing Americans to European auteur theory, the theory that a great director speaks through his films no less than a master novelist speaks through his books.” But this understates Sarris’s importance. He was not just a champion of the auteur theory; he was the American champion. And like any true champion, he found a worthy opponent. In his case, as nearly every Sarris obituary noted, that opponent was Pauline Kael, The New Yorker film critic who died in 2001.

From the outset of their careers, in the late fifties and early sixties, Sarris and Kael, though completely different in style and temperament and often judgment, were nevertheless yoked together—the yin and yang of American film criticism. In a sense, they were a team of rivals. It is not just appropriate, therefore—it is right, that Sarris’s obituaries focused almost as much on his critical battles with Kael as on his own work.

Throughout his long career, Sarris preached the auteurist view that the director is ultimately the “author” of a film, its true, singular, creative force. He praised films—even minor, even trashy films—if their director’s style and thematic consistency could be discerned. In his classic book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Sarris placed directors into stratified classes, elevating directors like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles into his “Pantheon” and dismissing directors like David Lean, John Huston, Billy Wilder and William Wyler as “Less Than Meets the Eye.”

Sarris built his reputation, and an entire school of film criticism, on his devotion to the works of favored directors. He gloried in the Hawksian, the Wellesian, the Hitchcockian touches, even in movies that are, at best, forgettable. But where his application of the auteur theory was arguably most audacious was in his affinity for the work of less well-known directors whose work he felt had been overlooked. A typical example is his review of Shock Corridor, which was directed by Samuel Fuller and which Sarris, of course, refers to as Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor.

Sarris wrote: “Samuel Fuller has never received particularly serious reviews in America. Only British and French cultists have saved him from complete anonymity. Consequently it is amazing to find him recapitulating the themes from all his neglected films of the past fifteen years—I Shot Jessie James, The Baron of Arizona, The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, Park Row, Pickup on South Street, Hell and High Water, House of Bamboo, China Gate, Run of the Arrow, Forty Guns, The Crimson Kimono, Verboten!, Underworld USA, Merrill’s Marauders. Hardly the most prestigious list of films, but an interesting list nevertheless for the true connoisseur of individuality.”

You’ve got to love a guy who can come up with that list of films and treat it with the same respect others might show for, say, the films of Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa. But the idea that appreciation of Fuller’s oeuvre was a mark of the “true connoisseur of individuality” drove Kael—a true connoisseur of individuality—crazy.

Kael, in fact, made her mark as a critic of the auteur theory. Early in her career, when she was still living in Berkeley, Kael made one of her first forays onto the national stage with an attack on Sarris and the auteur theorists entitled “Circles and Squares,” in which she compared the auteur critics to consumers who buy clothes by the label: “This is Dior; so it’s good.” “Circles and Squares” is filled with rhetorical questions. For example, discussing Sarris’s dismissal of John Huston, she wrote: “Isn’t the auteur theory a hindrance to clear judgment of Huston’s movies and his career? How is it that Huston’s early good—almost great—work must be rejected along with his mediocre recent work, but Fritz Lang, being sanctified as an auteur, has his bad recent work praised along with his good?” Such questions are still worth asking.

Near the end of “Circles and Squares,” Kael quotes, and questions, Sarris’s praise for the French critic Andre Bazin. Sarris had written: “Bazin’s greatness as a critic rested in his disinterested conception of the cinema as a universal entity.” Kael’s retort: “I don’t know what a ‘universal entity’ is, but I rather imagine Bazin’s stature as a critic has less to do with “universals” than with intelligence, knowledge, experience, sensitivity, perceptions, fervor, imagination, lucidity—the traditional qualities associated with great critics…. [The] good critic…helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves….”

By these criteria, both Kael and Sarris deserve to be ranked in the critics’ “Pantheon.” If their critical battles went on for decades and ended without a knockout, for her devoted readers, of which I unabashedly number myself, Kael emerged the winner. The New York Times, in its Sarris obituary, scored the fight as a technical victory for Kael: “Ms. Kael more often won on points as the high stylist.”

But it was more than style that distinguished Kael’s writing. Kael, though she certainly had her favorites among directors, never fell for the rigid categorization that marked-arguably, disfigured—Sarris’s work, and she always recognized that film was a collaborative art form whose “auteur” might in some cases be an actor or a producer or, heaven help us, an actual author. Kael never had the need to pigeonhole any work, to fit it into a theory. Kael’s views often surprised her readers. One waited for the latest issue of The New Yorker to arrive to see not so much what Kael thought of a film but what she thought about it. Sarris, alas, with his theory and his Pantheon and his categories, was far more predictable.

If, in the end, this means that Sarris was only our second greatest film critic, surely there is no shame in that, and we should not be embarrassed to say so, even on the occasion of his passing. Given the pervasive influence of his auteur theory, Sarris may even yet have the last word—or, at least, the last laugh (and it will probably be over something like the description of MGM’s classic musical as Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz).

About Lawrence Peitzman

Lawrence Peitzman is a lawyer in Los Angeles.
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