Auteurism as Perspective–French Origins, American Tradition (Part Two): Andrew Sarris

Part Two: Foundations of American Auteurism: Andrew Sarris

See Part One about French Origins of Auteurism

In 1962, the magazine Film Culture published two articles by Andrew Sarris that forever revolutionized American film criticism.

In the first, “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” Sarris Americanized Truffaut’s “la politique des auteurs,” suggesting the director as the author of a film and visual style as the key to assessing a director’s standing as auteur.

In the second piece, Sarris evaluated 106 American and 7 foreign directors, placing them in categories that ranged from “the Pantheon” to “Oddities and One Shots.”

The immediate reaction to Sarris’s essay was violent, particularly Pauline Kael’s outrageous piece, “Circles and Squares.” To this day, more people have read Kael’s rebuttal than Sarris’s original essay. But the effect went beyond Sarris and Kael–the entire critical establishment was shaken up. Dwight MacDonald reportedly resigned his column in Film Quarterly, when Sarris was invited to contribute, and Richard Dyer MacCann conspicuously omitted Sarris from his anthology, Film: A Montage of Theories, although he included Kael’s piece. Serving as the catalyst for discovery, auteurism was part of a general ferment, a shake-up that ultimately did a lot of good.

Auteurism and genre criticism dominated film studies until the late 1970s, when new perspectives, mostly European, began to leave their mark. Genre criticism treated established cinematic forms, such as the Western and screwball comedy, whereas auteurism, in both its French and American versions, celebrated certain filmmakers who worked effectively within those forms. These critical approaches, which complemented one another, reflected sensitivity to mainstream filmmaking in addressing themselves to practices that had already prevailed within the industry.

The notion that the director is–and should be–the controlling creative force was a logical step in film criticism. As Thomas Schatz has noted, anyone who discussed the “Lubitsch touch” in the 1930s, or talked about the next “Hitchcock thriller” in the 1940s, was in fact practicing auteurism. Hitchcock once said that he was “less interested in stories that in the manner of telling them.” In many ways, auteur analysis was a formalized response to this particular conception of filmmaking.

It took several years for Sarris’s work to exert its influence on critics and scholars. Sarris was then writing for the Village Voice, a popular publication among young intellectuals. His challenge to the near-monopoly of the social-realist critics was gladly adopted by younger critics, who found it refreshing to examine films as the creation of individual artists rather than abstarct social forces.

In 1968, Sarris expanded his theory to a book length, The American Cinema, often called “the Bible of Auteurism.” The book is devoted to the ranking of Hollywood directors according to aesthetic criteria, starting “at the top with the bundles of movies credited to the most important directors, and work downward, director by director, movie by movie, year by year, toward a survey of what was best in American sound movies between 1929 and 1966.”

Sarris’s goal was to restructure American film history in terms of the careers of individual directors, starting with the greatest and working down to those of lesser interest. He looked for thematic and stylistic continuities, focusing on the totality of a director’s work along dimensions of coherent/incoherent and personal/impersonal work. Sarris claimed that, because so much of the American cinema is commissioned, Hollywood directors are often forced to express their personalities through the visual treatment of the material rather than its literary content.

In The American Cinema, the number of directors totals about 200, placed in 11 categories. Fourteen names appear under the heading of Pantheon Directors: Charlie Chaplin, Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, Josef von Sternberg, and Orson Welles.

The Pantheon group is defined as “directors who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world. To speak any of their names is to evoke a self-contained world with its own laws and landscapes. They were also fortunate enough to find the proper conditions and collaborators for the full expression of their talent.”

Auteurists never ignored the fact that movies are a collaborative art. However, drawing an analogy with architecture, they claimed that though many craftsmen may contribute to the building of a cathedral, not every team member is equally responsible for its overall design. Similarly, for a movie to be interesting and coherent, a single personality–the director’s–must come to the fore and exert its influence. From the beginning, auteurism was more of a policy or strategy than precise theory.

Four tenets of auteurism caused the greatest dispute:

  1. The director as the film’s author, which meant that attention should be focused on the director, and that a film should be explored as an essentially visual medium.
  2. Directorial careers, their total outputs, are more important that individual film made by them.
  3. Certain Hollywood directors, when subjected to such examination, are proven to be as cinematically interesting, as emotionally rich, and as philosophically complex as European directors of “art films.”
  4. Mise-en-scene became the single most important idea that Sarris contributed to American film criticism. Sarris defined mise-en-scene as all those variables of a movie that remain once the screenplay has been subtracted–camera placement, duration of shots, lighting, movement of actors–variables that should be placed under the director’s immediate personal control. Shifting the emphasis from the verbal to the visual, Sarris opened a new field of exploration in his insistence that mise-en-scene was a vital element of style and of meaning. He wrote: “The auteur critic is obsessed with the wholeness of art. He looks at a film as a whole, a director as a whole. The parts, however entertaining individually, must cohere meaningfully.” For Sarris, meaningful style “unifies the what and the how into a personal statement.” Hence, a good film is “unified by a central idea” in which the director’s personality triumphs.

On the occasion of auteurism’s 25th anniversary, Sarris corrected some misunderstandings. He claimed that, from the beginning, “auteurism was more pragmatic than Platonic,” and that, “all we young revisionist critics knew was that there were a great many good movies from the past in danger of being dumped in the dustbin of film history by an assortment of ‘realist’ and ‘Marxist’ historians.” Thus, “when we found a cluster of good movies linked by the same director, a hypothetical auteur was postulated, and the search began for an individual theme and style.”

But critics need not make an “irrevocable choice” between cinema of directors, cinema of actors, cinema of genres, and cinema of social themes. “Ultimately, the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude, a table of values that converts film history into directorial autobiography.” The auteurist’s work proceeds “bit by bit, thousands of films and thousands of conversations. Auteurism is truly a life’s work.”

Sarris’ point was that authorial studies have validity because (as in genres), it’s possible to discern a unity beneath the diversity of the work of a single director, regardless of the merits of the individual work.