by Pat Graham
If you received The American Cinema at the right moment in your life, ... it came with the force of a divination, a cinematic Great Awakening. --Kent Jones in a 2005 Film Comment interview with Andrew Sarris
Which exactly describes my own experience with Sarris's classic volume—"I once was blind but now I see," or at least see a damn sight better than I had before. It's 40 years on since the The American Cinema: Directors and Direction, 1929-1968 was published by Dutton (in late '68), and my gratitude for it remains undiminished, even if our still sometimes capricious author-critic loses me more often now than he ever did then (e.g., Juno as 2007's best film?).
Though actually he lost me pretty often back then too. On Douglas Sirk: "His art transcends the ridiculous, as form comments on content. ... Sirk's taste is exquisite, and hence, inimitable." On Howard Hawks: "His technique has served ultimately to express his personal credo that man is the measurer of all things." With Hawks I'm still on the outside looking in, especially vis-a-vis his allegedly "masculine" vision (Veit Harlan anyone?), but in the case of Sirk I've long since been converted. Because as Sarris himself never stops insisting, the proof of the art is in the viewing: set Sirk's '59 Imitation of Life, that opalescent, chill masterpiece, against John M. Stahl's emotionally invested but stodgy '34 version and tell me it all comes down to the screenplay. Obviously more routes to epiphany than story lines and actors—which mostly bored me then and still do today—and getting lost in a mise-en-scene "delirium" seems, at least to this somewhat deranged viewer, a far more engaging alternative. And if not for Sarris's insights into, e.g., the work of Preston Sturges, the almost choreographic sensibility you find there, I'd probably still be kvetching about why his films aren't really "funny." But who needs literal ha-ha's when there's so much else to get into, in the commedia dell'arte energy and spectacle, what Sarris essentially refers to as the films' "Brueghelian" congestion. As with Renaissance painting to contemporary eyes, you don't have to buy into the iconography to groove on the formal envelope, of composition and line, of visual orchestration and texture. And to think that, fussbudgeting over a "yes it's funny"/"no it's not" bottom line, I might never have seen these things at all.
So: all about an identifiable "consciousness"—or awareness or empathy or whatever you want to call it—that, arguably and/or ideally, goes to the "creative" heart of what we see on-screen. Which isn't leaving much room for necessary qualifiers and quibbles, so let's give our auteurist in chief the final word on those—from the 2005 interview again: "I've always said to people that auteurism is nice, but it's hypothetical, and gradually you learn how much or how little influence different directors had. You can see that Hitchcock had more influence than someone like Stahl. What it really is, is first you see something, and you like it, and then it's a mystery, and you go into the mystery—and that's what's interesting. And the test of criticism is: can you make a case for it."