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Decline and Fall of a Film-Watcher

By Michael Sragow

When I lived on Washington Square and took film courses at NYU, the Village Voice was indispensable. By 1969, it had developed a unique, headily erratic collection of liberals, neurotics, and neurotic radicals, avant-garde critics and Jules Feiffer.

Its lead film commentator was Andrew Sarris, who boasted quite a reputation among film school cliques. He was the valiant proponent of auteur criticism (the reviewing wave of the future), banking in movies for their own sake and American ones in particular. The argument for him went this way. Sarris is the only critic to catch every flick in town, and immediately tell you the history behind the credits. He also cares about camera movements. The other critics and reviewers are politicos and literati in disguise.

But the actual impulse behind the Sarrisites seemed more psychological than aesthetic. Who needed to stop the world with politics or drugs when you could get off on Celluloid? A photograph of Sarris which appeared sometimes on Voice ads showed a rough looking character with a pugnacious glare, decorating a dingy sidewalk with a middle aged version of the James Dean slouch. He was the perfect role model for misfits who used suspicion of general culture to alibi for their own lack of discipline. In Confessions of a Cultist in 1970. Sarris admitted that he had inadvertently modeled a career out of escapism. And while he moved he attracted hordes willing to follow him to the paradisial loges of the Paramount.

After a year, I left film school and left New York City. My Voice lingered unsold in the racks of the Waverley Smoke Shop, Some time has passed, and much history. But social values don't change in three years--particularly those held by egoists. Even after one term of Nixonism, with another to come. Don Siegel's director cult is still ready to defend Dirty Henry for its mise on scene. Even if the film craze has slowly puttered out, every adolescent artiste still yearns for an Eclair or an Arriflex. The Village Voice has gotten slightly better--it featured some good convention coverage. Andrew Sarris has gotten slightly worse.

Sarris simply hasn't written much at all lately, and what he has written has been listless at the core. You could once imagine his effusions as if they emerged from a fevered monk of an arcane order. They now seem merely monkish. And the decline can be attributed both to the burning out of an inherently neurotic talent, and the barrenness of Sarris's critical dogmas.

Many film critics have quit writing regularly on film after stints much shorter than Andrew's (which has continued, in one form or another, since 1956). Macdonald, Morgenstern. Sheed and Kanfer come swiftly (and recently) to mind. But these men then moved into the different fields to which they were committed even while they handled their film chores. Sadly, Sarris hasn't dealt with anything but movies, most of the time in a tone of directorial hero-worship. That he has made a business on the basis of pop culture dreams and apologia is a phenomenon that only a youthful art and industry--just reaching its maturity in America--could support.

As I perused Sarris's collected criticism two years ago, it appeared that Sarris was mellowing, speaking more often than before with some logic and extra-film development, indulging once in what to most acteurists was anathema--social criticism (in a useful review of The Great White Hope). Judging from the Voice's last volume, and sundry other writings. I was wrong. His current critical canon has included predictable praise for Frenzy (and a pre-review luncheon with Hitchcock himself), approval of The Man because it at least wasn't critical about politicians (some deep cynicism in an order, I would think), and the first step in doubtless a long series to come in the reclamation of John Huston for auleurists on the tenuous excuse of Fat City. Sarris has retreaded old hopes and arguments with new sources, struggled to keep interest in prevalent debates. But he hasn't managed to conceal the poverty of his film philosophy, of which even he seems to have tired.

His main retreat has been the traditional academic one. He mentions his Columbia appointment incessantly. In fact, one of the deadliest experiences I've encountered since reading Cleero in translation is Sarris's film curricula in the original. He has almost achieved dignity, and it has spoiled his original persuasiveness. He knows people expect certain arguments from him now, and he trundles them out cut and dried (if not neatly). Can anyone really care about language and write a sentence as clumsy as this next one?

Instead there is nothing but rasping and tearing all through the proceedings until finally one of the brothers has been killed, and the other trudges home where the grandfather is screening old home movies showing the two brothers on the beach long before when their sandcastles were more safely made of genuinesand and yet I was emotionally distracted because I was too aware that Rafelson was bring self-consciously cool...(100 more words).

That veritable essay sprouts from a review of The King of Marvin Gardens which supposedly marked a heightening in Sarris's social consciousness (or so one of Sarris's pupils thought). Maybe it has. The purpose of the political prelude actually is to color the lackluster points of this piece with a tinge of pre-election blues.

I mention the matter of this time gap between my writers and my readers not to push the Voice deadlines to publication, but rather to explain my time lag when I look of supposedly "New" pictures like The King of Marvin Gardens.

He analyses Bob Rafelson's style, pulling out on route some of his favorite baseball cards--Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, Hitchcock, Ford, Welles, Walsh, Nichols, Mazursky, Grosbard--all in one short and easy review. Past the intro, there's no more social consciousness. It is pretty nervy for Sarris to condemn "disconnection with the Other" midway through as a misinterpretation of auteurism's roots. At that point he's already lost three quarters of his non-acolyte audience.

If Sarris manages any role well, it's a clumsy one--the scholarly tough who's given his all to the art he studies while the world goes on uncaring. A Casaubon with balls. In a recent Partisan Review symposium on Culture and Conservation, Sarris spoke, he said, as a humble representative of film art, and after dreary argumentation, summed up his personal attitude.

As a film historian and working critic. I find most contemporary articles on film to be reactionary and philistinish, not so much because of ideological influences but rather because of the lack of sympathetic insight and dedicated scholarship. When I read a piece on any subject, and especially on film. I do not ask myself if the writer is swinging to the left or right, but rather if he is writing out of a genuine commitment to his subject ... it in about time that film stopped serving as a dumping ground for tourists from other disciplines.

The man who legitimated screwball comedies and action epics has become--can it be so?--the latest defender of over specialization.

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