Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Praise of Andrew Sarris

            During my sophomore year of college, I signed up for a class on Howard Hawks. I hadn’t cared for Hawks much before—I liked some of his films, but they didn’t strike me as masterpieces (naivety is the basis of youth). Instead I signed up for the class for another reason: Andrew Sarris. For someone who had only minimal exposure to film criticism at the time, there were only a few names I knew (Pauline Kael wasn’t even one of them). 

            Even before I studied cinema, Sarris (who sadly passed away today) already had influenced my cinephile brain without me even knowing who he was. I was watching films because they were directed by a certain person. I was making connections between the works of John Ford and Orson Welles. The way a kid like me watched films was you’d try and watch three or four by one great director, just so you could have taste. And then you could figure out the grand statement. Ford was about the changing American landscape from individualism to society. Kuorsawa’s films explored the possibility of empathy. And so on and so on.

            But Hawks was tricky. He worked in every genre possible. His films, at least to the untrained eyes, lacked the visual dynamics that the other canonical Hollywood directors showed off (actually to think of it, would there be a canon of Hollywood directors without Sarris?). If I waited a year, Sarris would teach Hitchcock, a director everyone loves. But I wanted a challenge; I wanted to see Hawks the same way Sarris saw him.

            On the first day of class, Sarris walked in casually (already 80 at the time), cane in hand, and looked up with a “oh there you are” kind of look at the class of 20. He didn’t care to say much; he really liked Hawks, but apparently the department forced the idea of the class on him. But Hawks was great, so we were going to watch Scarface. In his scrabbly voice, helped by a microphone, he gave the year and the actors and said let’s watch the film.

            Scarface was of course a great film, and easily recognizable as one. Sarris said some words after the class—I honestly don’t remember them, and then asked for a few comments. We read a couple pieces, one of them written by Sarris, that talked some of the more common Hawks themes: professionalism, men within groups, but it was the eye-line level shot (something Hawks mentioned in interviews) that stuck with me. Here’s a visual clue, finally!

The next week came Twentieth Century, a screwball comedy I had never heard of. No more than 15 minutes into the film, I noticed a shot. John Barrymore, perched way up on high, stared down as Carole Lombard was on stage. It’s the only shot like that in the film that broke Hawks’s usual eye-level shots, and it struck me as the shot that perfectly explained Barrymore’s odd behavior to Lombard, somewhere between love and fatherly protection.

            Sarris never spoke much in the class, not out of disinterest. He would talk about the time he met Montgomery Clift, or read one of his old reviews of The Big Sleep, but he mainly wanted to hear from us. I occasionally spoke, and he would usually agree. But what he did, which I never have had any other film professor do otherwise, is ask if we liked the film, and what we liked about it. So much of film academia today is about deconstruction and analysis, that our opinions on whether we thought the film was good or not didn’t matter. And to say that one of the problems in film criticism today is whether we liked a film or didn’t like it would be an understatement. But Sarris used his like/dislikes as a starting point. The great “flaw” of Bringing Up Baby—everyone is a complete screwball—made for an interesting discussion about the nature of screwball comedies.

            It was only after the class that I picked up The American Cinema, and then you got to know Sarris. Sarris wasn’t afraid to extrapolate EVERYTHING from a single shot. He would explain the entire psychology of a director, and what they were doing. This is what of course led to his entire battle with Kael, because he wasn’t willing to let the film stand on its own. He wanted to draw a map; he liked a shot in High Sierra because it reminded him of something he was in another Raoul Walsh film, which is something almost every critic does now (just see the supercuts of things that reappear in Wes Anderson’s films). 

            When I later took a class on film criticism, so many people seemed to attack Sarris when he covered him. He messed up on Billy Wilder, he took his theories too far; everyone preferred the electrifying voice of Kael. Kael took you into the screening room, Sarris exalted from down on high. Kael wanted to get lost in the woods; Sarris would examine each tree, and then climb up to the mountain to view the forest as a whole.

            At the end of that Hawks class, Sarris asked us which Hawks film was our favorite. By then, I had been converted. Although Sarris’s comments in class were limited, his original take on the films from years past still held true. And what I suddenly realized was that Sarris had not taught me how to love Hawks, but simply let me love Hawks on my own. By the time I wrote my final paper—an examination of how Hawks’s Red River was actually a deconstruction of American mythology—I realized I had created my own psychology of Hawks. I had concluded Hawks’s was interested in the working life of America, but it the extreme ordinary-ness of our heroes. He was interested in the psychology of those we place as great men, who never saw themselves as such. He wanted to take many of our great myths and break them down into simple American can-doism. My theories are certainly influenced by Sarris’s writing on men and professionalism, but it is also my theory. The point wasn't to see Hawks the way Sarris saw him; it was to see him how I saw him.

            Perhaps that was the takeaway from Sarris. Kael rails at the begin of “Circles and Squares” about how High Sierra was a shlock film and for Sarris to like it just because he noticed a shot was bullshit. But for cinema to be anything but a personal experience sounds just as bullshit. Sarris didn’t make his theories and lists and categories to be the last message. It was simply the way I keep a list of my favorite films from very old years that I share with no one. It’s why my favorite films are the ones that I’ve created my own ideas of the film that are probably wrong but highly subjective in a way that matters to me. And Andrew Sarris mattered a lot to me, and all of us, whether we like it or not.

No comments: