Auteurism: Revolutionary Impact of Andrew Sarris’ French-American Perspective

Auteurism: Revolutionary Impact

The ultimate test of any theory should be pragmatic, that is, the degree to which it produces new and useful knowledge and new and insightful understanding of social reality.

As a perspective, auteurism has proven its pervasive usefulness and radical impact with a number of theoretical and practical results that evolved out of its revolutionary ideas.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read:

New Ways of Seeing Films

Auteurism marked an important intervention in film criticism–its polemics challenged the then prevalent view of Hollywood as a monolithic system.  Classifying films by directors represented a new way of organizing film knowledge and of ordering a new experiencing of cinema.  Critic Claire Johnson noted that Sarris altered irreversibly the way movies were seen, revealing dimensions that traditional literary-based criticism had ignored.  By treating movies as movies, not as poor relations or extensions of books and plays, Sarris introduced a new method of criticism.

Auteurism raised the issue of whether a film should be judged as an individual work unto itself, or with reference to the director’s other films, both those that preceded and those that followed that work.

The New York Times adopted auteurism as a guiding principle when Vincent Canby, formerly writing for Variety, was appointed to be the paper’s chief film critic, in 1968.  Implicitly or explicitly, most contemporary critics, even those who do not define themselves as auteurists, pay a greater attention while reviewing a particular film by a particular director to what that director has done before, and to the specific place of that film in the director’s overall career.

 

 Art Versus Entertainment

Auteurist critics have noted that because of the industrial-commercial nature of Hollywood serious film artists often come through the back door. Hence, the Hollywood industry underwent a major reevaluation.  The reputations of directors like Hitchcock and Minnelli, who had been dismissed by critics because they worked in such lowbrow forms as the suspense-thriller and musical, were reconsidered.  Directors who somehow had escaped the attention of American critics (Hawks), were recognized as major filmmakers, along with other gifted stylists who had directed low-budget “B” productions, such as Sam Fuller or Anthony Mann.

Auteur criticism pointed to the possible tension between the director’s vision and the conditions and constraints for realizing this vision: Studio pressures, genre conventions, star demands, and story requirements.  However, for some, these constraints proved to be a source of strength, imposing discipline on their wildly eccentric instincts.  As Thomas Schatz pointed out, the most celebrated American auteurs did their most expressive and significant work within conventionalized genres and within the studio system.

While acknowledging the commercial-industrial constraints placed on filmmakers, auteurists rejected the artificial distinction between art and entertainment, signaling a new way of thinking about movies.  Auteurists noted that a presumably “serious social drama” by Fred Zinnemann might be less serious, less social, and less dramatic than the presumably “escapist entertainment” of a John Ford Western, a Vincente Minnelli musical, or a Hitchcock thriller.

This notion stemmed directly from Sarris’s pioneering and audacious ranking of directors, claiming that: “Orson Welles made many more mistakes than Fred Zinnemann ever could, and yet I wouldn’t trade on shot from Chimes of Midnight for the entire oeuvre of Zinnemann.”

 

Auteurism and Film Studies

Auteurism elevated film studies to a legitimate area of scholarly concern.  In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a growing number of film courses devoted to a single director: Renoir, Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks.  Auteurism also led to a new focus in film scholarship, with a flood of books on individual directors, both monographs of their work and critical biographies of their lives.  The new trend began with Sarris’s own monographs,  The Films of Josef von Sternberg (1966), The Films of Max Ophuls (1973, unpublished), and The John Ford Movie Mystery (1975), in which he examined the oeuvre of these directors as a totality rather than as a series of unrelated films.  It also included Who the Hell Is Hawks? Robin Wood’s seminal volume on Hitchcock, and many other books.

 

Auteurism and the Legitimacy of Film as Art Form

Sarris once observed that book editors don’t remove chapters from novels without the writers’ consent, but in Hollywood, final cut is usually done not by the director but at the producer’s discretion.  When a sub-literary work is brought to the screen, the critic may ignore the original, but when a classic novel (say, Theodor Dreyser’s An American Tragedy), is concerned, comparisons are inevitable.  Nonetheless, no matter what the source material is, for the auteurists, final judgement of aesthetics and meanings must be based on the film qua film.

 

Auteurism and Film History

Up until the work and writings of Sarris, film criticism has been dominated by “forest critics,” who describe Hollywood as a factory run by capitalists and philistines. “Forrest critics” viewed Hollywood as a factory, and focused on what pictures have in common rather than on individual differences.  Sarris argued against Hollywood’s cultural inferiority complex: “Film by film, director by director, year by year, Hollywood has been superior to that of the rest of the world,” hence demanding–and according–higher status to American movies.  Sarris allowed that if Hollywood yields at the very summit–it has not produced many Fellinis, Bergmans, Antonionis, Kurosawas, and Truffauts–it completely dominates the middle ranges, particularly in the realm of good-bad movies.

The auteur policy was useful not only in treating foreign directors who had control over their films, but in reconsidering those Hollywood directors who, despite the constraints of the studio system, were able to instill a personal style into their work.  Sarris’s work led to a systematic revaluation of film art, based on his belief that American movies deserved to be judged by the same artistic standards applied to European films: Not all foreign films are good, and not all Hollywood films are bad.

As a result, the American cinema changed gears from being an industry totally despised to one that’s respected.  Conferring respectability on previously underappreciated Hollywood directors, Sarris claimed that undiscriminating champions of foreign against Hollywood movies might profitably inspect the crisp authority of Samuel Fuller’s Merrill’s Marauders or Don Siegel’s Hell Is for Heroes.

 

(Re)Discovery of (Underestimated) American Films

Auteurism led to the rediscovery and revival of obscure American films in museums and art houses across the country.  Sarris was the first to suggest that a director who works within the studio system and succeeds in imposing his personality on material written by others should be elevated.  As a consequence, film societies mounted ambitious and complete retrospectives of Hollywood directors.  Sarris was also influential in reranking filmmakers, previously stigmatized as B-movie directors, such as Samuel Fuller.  In The American Cinema, Fuller and 19 other directors are placed in a category called “The Far Side of Paradise.”   These are directors “who fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their personal vision or because of disruptive career problems.”  Included among them are: Robert Aldrich, Frank Capra, George Cukor, Cecil B. De Mille, Leo McCarey, Vincent Minnelli, and Nicholas Ray.

Cukor, Minnelli, and George Stevens were all A-directors nominated for (and winning) Oscars during their careers, but it’s Robert Aldrich or Nicholas Ray who benefitted the most from Sarris’s reevaluation.  “It is the artistic force with which his ideas are expressed that makes his career so fascinating,” Sarris observed about Fuller. “It’s time the cinema followed the other arts in honoring its primitives.  Fuller belongs to the cinema, and not to literature and sociology.”

In the 1990s, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, of which I was president between 1996 and 1999, had conferred its prestigious Career Achievement Award on such directors as Don Siegel, Budd Boetticher, Joseph H. Lewis, and Abraham Polonsky.  It’s doubtful that the association would have done so without Sarris’ pioneering work.

 

Ranking Films Within Careers

Sarris reacted against the conventional Hollywood thinking that directors made more “mature” films after the Second World War than before or during.  In George Stevens’s case, he noted: “I wouldn’t trade one Swing Time for ten equivalents of The Diary of Anne Frank, or one Penny Serenade for ten Giants.”  Even the esteem of widely heralded directors, such as Ford, whose reputation had long been established, underwent a critical revaluation that reflected a basic reconsideration of Hollywood filmmaking.  Auteur critics argued that Ford’s genre films–war films like They Were Expendable, and Westerns like The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–showed stylistic richness and thematic ambiguity that made them superior to the calculated artistry and social consciousness of “serious” works, such as his “Oscar caliber” movies, The Informer and The Grapes of Wrath.

 

Auteurism and the Film Canon

The film scholar Virginia Wexman has pointed out that, though critics often consider themselves disinterested observers, their activities are shaped by concrete historical contexts.  This explains why certain films, such as Vertigo, are continuously chosen for critical discussion and reevaluation.  Film scholarship, with its fluid and shifting canon, lends itself well to this kind of sociologically-oriented inquiry.  Changes in Sight and Sound‘s ranking of the “Ten Greatest Films of All Time,” shows that the values held by contemporary critics are certainly historically shifting.  Four new films appeared on the 1982 list, compared with the 1972 one: Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Samurai, The Searchers, and Vertigo.  The appearance of three American films in 1982 is at least partly accounted for by the continuing vitality of auteurism.

 

Auteurism and Movie Marketing

In the New Hollywood, auteurism has become a marketing tool.  Movies are no longer described in terms of their stars, but in terms of their directors: A Scorsese film, a Spielberg film.  This trend has been explored in essays by Donald A. Cook, “Auteur Cinema and the Film Generation in 1970s Hollywood,” and by Timothy Corrigan, “Auteur and the New Hollywood.”  In this volume, Sundance Festival’s Geoffrey Gilmore and Good Machine’s James Schamus address themselves to auteurism as a marketing hook in the independent film milieu.

For example, Fine Line Features (the art division of New Line) has produced several offbeat hits, such as Robert Altman’s The Player and Short Cuts, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho.  Fine Line’s approach, defined by its founding president, Ira Deutchman, favored director-driven projects: “We feel strongly that the director ultimately has the responsibility for whether what we’re reading in a screenplay is going to turn up on a screen.”

In conclusion, what those critics who claim that “auteurism is dead” may actually mean is that as a critical method, the perspective is so well absorbed in our consciousness, so organically integral to our movie culture, that there is no need anymore to fight for it.

It is safe to say that, after decades of debate, the battle over auteurism is over.   And the winner is…Andrew Sarris; and the loser is….. Pauline Kael.