“The Auteur Theory” and the role of film critics during the ’60s was probably one of the most memorable times for those following cinema.
When film critics all over the world looked at cinema beyond just being a movie one would just enjoy at the local theater. There were directors who went beyond creating film for the sake of entertainment. There were those who created film for the sake of cinema and there were film critics who felt that some of these directors were true auteurs. That cinema was an artform.
And the person responsible for promoting “The Auteur Theory” in America was renown film critic Andrew Sarris (who worked for the New York Observer and the Village Voice, editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinema in English and an author of many cinema-related books) and for decades, cinema fans and budding film critics have owned a copy of his 1968 book “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968”.
As filmmaker and film critic Francois Truffaut had advocated since 1954 of describing “Auteurism” as the method of analyzing films or the characteristics of a director’s work that makes him or her an auteur, Andrew Sarris brought that to American culture and whether you agreed or disagreed with it, the legacy of this book continues on as there many who believe that there are filmmakers that many cinemaeaste feel contributed to the art of cinema and many regard this book as a must-have and one of the most important books on cinema ever created.
Granted, at the time when Sarris wrote this book, these were times when people saw films as a form of entertainment and nothing more. But film criticism was a unique time with film critics (and filmmakers) like Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer were astute in terms of their view of a film, we saw that in film criticism in the late ’60s in America. The film critics of the East Coast specifically in the New York area was hot! From Andrew Sarris versus Pauline Kael, these were times when film criticism was the most impressive, most entertaining and when film criticism affected Hollywood and filmmaking worldwide.
Today, we are in times where many people are discovering cinema through various online forums. People wanting to go beyond mainstream and discovering other films that they have before. Especially on physical media from companies such as The Criterion Collection, KINO, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, Sony Pictures Classics, etc. and then often looking for directors that have crafted films with meaning, with depth and for the most part, films that are truly cinema and can be appreciated for many years to come.
Some may feel that “The Auteur Theory” is just hyperbole, that in the end, all that matters is whether or not you enjoy or dislike a film. But for those who are wanting more and demand more from a film, one can not go wrong with “The American Cinema”. This is not a review book but a book that showcases various directors ala “auteurs”.
“The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968” is broken down in chapters such as:
I. PANTHEON DIRECTORS (examples: Charles Chaplin, John Ford, D.W. Girffith, Buster Keaton, F.W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, etc.)
II. THE FAR SIDE OF PARADISE (examples: Frank Borzage, Frank Capra, Samuel Fuller, Cecil B. de Mille, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, King Vidor, etc.)
III. EXPRESSIVE ESOTERICA (examples: Budd Boetticher, Clive donner, Arthur Penn, Donald Siegel, etc.)
IV. FRINGE BENEFITS (examples: Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Bunuel, Claude Chabrol, G.W. Pabst, Roman Polanski, Francois Truffaut, etc.)
V. LESS THAN MEETS THE EYE (examples: John Huston, Carol Reed, Billy Wilder, etc.)
VI. LIGHTLY LIKABLE (examples: Busby Berkeley, Henry Hathaway, Alexander Korda, Andrew L. Stone, etc.)
VII. STRAINED SERIOUSNESS (examples: John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, John Sturges, etc.)
VIII. ODDITIES, ONE-SHOTS AND NEWCOMERS (examples: Marlon Brando, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Roger Corman, Sam Peckinpah, etc.)
IX. SUBJECTS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH (examples: Clarence Brown, Rex Ingram, Malcolm St. Clair, etc.)
X. MAKE WAY FOR THE CLOWNS (examples: W.C. Fields, Jerry Lewis, Harold Lloyd, The Marx Brothers ,etc.)
XI. MISCELLANY (Michael Anderson, Jack Garfein, W.S. Van Dyke, Terence Young, etc.)
In each chapter, Sarris writes about the director and his impression of them, their oeuvre and defends why he selected the directors in his book.
For example, with Cecil B. de Mille, Sarris writes, “It is inevitable that the mere mention of Cecil B. de Mille will evoke complacent laughter in some quarters, and bristling patriotic speeches in others. If De Mille had the right enemies, he also had the wrong friends. De Mille was neither a primitive like Fuller nor a populist like Capra. Although he appealed to audiences, he never manipulated them. He remained faithful to the literary tradition of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and to the dramatic conventions of David Belasco.”
For Fritz Lang, Sarris writes, “Nonetheless Lang makes sentimental exceptions to this paranoia in the pure, trustworthy love of beautiful girls, a love capable of destroying the most intricately insidious conspiracies ever devised by evil minds. Romantic love with its intimations of Christian self-sacrifice flows through both the German and American periods of Lang’s career, as strongly in ‘Spione; as in ‘The Ministry of Fear’.”
For Ernst Lubitsch, Sarris writes, “Lubitsch was the last of the genuine continentals let loose on the American continent, and we shall never see his like again, because the world he celebrated had died- even before he did-everywhere except in his own memory.”
Overall, “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968” is a book that I have used as a reference many times. Not just for my own reviews but also, whenever I want to experience cinema, there is always a film I have yet to see and for the most part, the majority of the filmmakers listed in the book are filmmakers I have gravitated towards.
Not all “Auteurs” create great films, in fact, there are some who may have lost their way over the years, but its more of that celebration of the films that they did do so well and films that are appreciated decades later that seem to matter and thus many of have utilized this 1968 book today. It’s well-written and it’s really intriguing to see what thoughts that Sarris had towards these directors. He was astute in his observance of these filmmakers and their films and it just amazes me today (not just this book but also his other books) of how immersed he was into the films and its something that I have wanted to experience since I have discovered his work.
If there is a book that is worthy of owning, if you are a cinema fan, I can easily say that “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968” by Andrew Sarris is definitely recommended!