Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968

“If the heroes of Ford are sustained by tradition, and the heroes of Hawks professionalism, the heroes of Walsh are sustained by nothing more than a feeling for adventure.”

• The Fordian hero knows why he is doing something even if he doesn’t know how.

• The Hawksian hero knows how to do what he is doing even if he doesn’t know why.

• The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.

… Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968

I find the clarity of Sarris’s three- director comparison neither without controversy nor typical of his writing. But it is very representative of the way he looks at film, film history and the center of his focus: the director.

The American Cinema came into my life in the 1960s as it did to many of my generation. And Andrew Sarris’s film counsel has to this day remained a constant in my life. Finding representative scenes to support Sarris’s claim for Hawks and for Walsh posed little difficulty. Not so with Ford. The second part of Sarris’s premise: “… even if he doesn’t know how” eliminates many choices.


  1. Interesting post, Gerald! Sarris came up in a discussion recently but I have yet to read any of his writing, somehow. Does he then delve into a discussion of the three or leave their description as recounted above? Very intriguing.

  2. Thank you Meredith. I have had this quote in my files for years because I have been a devotee of Sarris for more than forty years. And because the three directors are of interest to me. I thought he wrote the short summary with great clarity. (Not always the case with Sarris – Kael was the better writer I think.)

    He does not delve further in this book, but his attitudes on these and other directors are written about in his volumes of collected essays. And there is quite a bit of Sarris on the Internet if one is so inclined. Much of it is buried in Archives such as those of the “New York Observer.”

    I am away from my normal resources lately and not able to go on at length about “The American Cinema,” but I recalled an interesting homage that was written about Sarris (and the book specifically) by Kent Jones. It appeared in “Film Comment.” The first six paragraphs of Jones’s article cover the book and its history rather well enough to answer your questions, I think. The rest of the long article might be too much like one of your course reading materials. I appreciate your comment.




  3. Thank you so much for the links/info! I will have to go back and read when I'm not in the midst of finals writing but to admit my inner nerd as someone who loves most of my film course reading this sounds right up my alley. Sarris aside I have yet to truly delve into any of the greats, from Kael to Agee and on down the line in terms of really getting a sense of their style and voice. It's something I look forward to discovering.

  4. Interesting article, though I find it odd that Jones feels the need to defend auteur theory, placing those who question it in some ulterior space with outside motive (which I admit to have), then at the end quotes Sarris as the man himself admits it is just a theory, a far more respectable proposition. Just because auteurism gives people an identifiable head of a film and an easy way to categorize films does not mean they have all powerful influence. More than that auteurism deifies the director in ways credible for some, laughable for others.

  5. Good observation Meredith. I sent the Kent Jones link because I thought Jones briefly described (at the outset of the article) the impact of the Sarris book better that I could.

    Given Jones’s history we know he has an appreciation of the Auteur Theory and for Andrew Sarris. (Although until this Sarris piece, I never paid much attention to Jones when I read “Film Comment” regularly.)

    And I think of Jones’s article as being more as in the nature of a homage to Sarris than to the Auteur Theory, which Sarris fished from French waters and from which he prepared an American main course. I cannot quite articulate what I want to say, because I do agree it reads like a brief for the Theory -- but I think Jones was honoring Sarris’s integrity as a critic more than Sarris’s most famous Theory, or more correctly his “tendency.”

    As to the gap between credible and laughable, I have found that those who reside on each extreme just do not understand the history of the theory or concept. Sarris has written so many afterthoughts on the Theory in the past forty years that its merits and demerits would follow an audit trail of study about the size of that of the Kennedy assassination.

    He gave good reasons for his judgments in “The American Cinema” but did not claim infallibility -- they were just his opinions. At least Sarris did his homework – as opposed to others whom he later took to task who embraced auteurism but had not done the work to support their judgments. One of the basic premises of either concurring with auteurism or not is having seen the corpus of the work of any director in question.

    Anyway it is all in good spirits and enjoyable to joust with windmills in this fashion. (Even if such windmills occasionally turn in unexpected directions.) Except I fear I keep you from your studies. It will be interesting to follow your career and see where you end up. Best. Gerald.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. oh no not at all! and as of now I am quite finished so no worries there. what I find fascinating is not just sarris' position but the importance of the interlocutor in shaping the reception. in this instance my view of sarris has been one shaped by jones given the little I know about sarris' actual writings. an excellent reminder of the power and importance of the shape and scope of one's writing.

    Another thing I always question with the 'auteur theory' is the necessity that there can only be one, or that it must always be the director, especially in films known for their sound, editing, etc where the final crown is often still placed on the head of another king or queen.

    -don quixote, man of la mancha.