Auto-Eroticism Confessions of a Cultist

1970, 480 pp., $8.95.

"for at least two years criticism on the Harvard CRIMSON, the University of Chicago Maroon, and at several Yale publications has been overwhelmingly 'Sarrisite.' And what Harvard and Chicago do today, less prestigious institutions can be presumed to do tomorrow."

"if I must choose between beautiful people and ugly problems. I will choose the beautiful people and leave the ugly problems to the politicians."

"The Ballad of Cable Hogue is not particularly relevant ... few good things ever are."

WHETHER you like or dislike Andrew Sarris's film criticism will probably depend on your point-of-view. If you spend your life at the movies, if your idea of complete intellectual and emotional fulfillment is the acquisition of an ability to empathize totally with a strong cinematic personality-then Sarris is definitely the man to turn to as a guide to cinematic transubstantiation. His altar even has its own iconography: casts of Angle Dickinson's body and Belmondo's mug, John Wayne's slouch and Hitchcock's pot.

If, on the other hand, you possess an unfashionable commitment to education; if you feel that art can both refine man's sensibilities and alter the world he lives in, then you may find Mr. Sarris's autcurist flag a more than slightly distasteful emblem of the liberal bourgeois' 50's and 60's frivolity.

The auteur theory of film criticism has gone through many transformations since its initial conception. For Andre Bazin and his Cahiers du Cinema scions in the 40's and 50's, approaching a film as if it were creatively guided by a single intelligence-preferably that of the director-provided opportunities for scholarly, disciplined film thought. Just as a modern writer is judged more by an oeuvre, his body of work, than by a single masterpiece, the Cahiers critics traced continual directorial themes and motifs, evaluating the creator's relationship to his subject by the manner in which it was visually portrayed. Serious film criticism in the U. S. has gradually assimilated the most basic French ideas. In terms of the auteurist's gradual relinquishing of rationality, however, America's only auteur critic prior to Sarris was Manny Farber, who specialized in glorifying Raoul Walsh's James Cagney and Errol Flynn epics for readers of the Nation or Commentary.

The most distressing historical accomplishment of Sarris's rise to fame has been his ability to turn avowed cultism into a major dynamic in a film world previously unsullied by grotesque consumer fetishism. With Kauffmann writing for the New Republic, Dwight MacDonald for Esquire, and Robert Hatch for the Nation, film scholarship was not in the "shambles by the early sixties" that Sarris claims. And despite the spiritual association Sarris (and nearly every other film critic) attempts to make with James Agee, he is far removed from that critic's quality. Though Sarris, while writing for Film Culture, the Village Voice, or the defunct N. Y. Film Bulletin has taken what he calls "passionate risks" on behalf of personal preferences, he evinces no primary need to analyze a film rigorously, except on its own terms (and that unevenly); neither does he feel a need to posit aesthetic values according to the complexities of pleasures they afford. Sarris's only overwhelming need is not critical, but psychological. The man wants a dreamworld, and he expresses his craving in an overtly irrational fashion:

I stopped lowering my head at the epithet "cultist" as soon as I realized that the quasi-religious connotation of the term was somewhat justified for those of us who loved movies beyond reason. ...

What hath Sarris wrought?

Well, with the help of others like the febrile Mr. Byron, who reviewed Sarris's latest tome in adulatory terms in the New York Times Book Review, Sarris has legitimized the auto-erotic school of film criticism. What is looked for in a film is the indelible signature of a personality; given that, whether expressed through direction or writing, cutting or sound, Sarris will analyze the data and produce a personal philosophy.

Among the "classics" canonized in Confessions of a Cultist are Aldrich's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, Hitchcock's The Birds, Preminger's Advise and Consent. All are auteur genre items; Sarris rarely has the flexibility of such British auteurists as Raymond Durgnat to admit that non-auteurs can produce great films. Each has raw narrative material of questionable significance, and a blatant commercial bent which made the few respectable critics feel rotten and cheated the morning after, unless trash was all they expected.

WHAT, then, gives the Sarris brand of auteurism its especially attractive quality?

First, it requires less writing or intellectual discipline, less relevance to the world we inhabit-though most films both praised and panned deal in a real historical context-and more regurgatative descriptions of the nuances of artifice.

Second, it puts even the most timid of souls into an anarchic critical position of imagined danger. Sarris continually rants and raves against the "literary critical Establishment." He also bears a curious, love-hate relationship with the motion picture viewing audience, scolding an "out" director like Huston for attempting to insure their recognition of the tensions in Reflections in a Golden Eye, but scolding them when they fail to show up for the latest Bresson. The enemy is everywhere; thus does armchair iconoclasm reach new heights of tired antagonism.

Third, Sarris's auteurism carries with it vast pseudo-intellectual pretense. Mr. Sarris may well be as prophetic about the careers of directors and their philosophic overview as Mr. Byron says he is, but the critical question remains "to what ends?" That question remains unanswered, lying forgotten somewhere between Ophuls's tracking-shots and John Ford's painted backdrops.

Can anything be salvaged from Sarris's body of work?

Well, given an auteur who's also a good director, he will manage to come up with as good an explication of his films as most critics; possibly, because of his fine eve for visuals, a better one. He does champion such out-of-current mood directors as Peckinpah and Renoir; he is generally concerned with instituting fashion according to his own "impassioned" integrity rather than merely following the fashionable (though his recent 2001 recantation was curious indeed). With such developments as his labeling of Fellini as the "Busby Berkeley of metaphysics," and a latent inclination towards admirable historical research and social criticism, he seems to be mellowing into adult responsibilities. However, Confessions of a Cultist, containing reviews written between 1955 and 1969, displays the attitudes of the man as he has come to be known and cherished by thousands of neglected children and child-like film buffs. He does not afford nondisciples much pleasure; for them, reading his book is simply a sobering experience.