Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012

At first, I thought it was baloney. (A little bit of me still agrees.)

Andrew Sarris, who passed away this week, was the primary American acolyte of the auteur theory of film. Greatly simplified, this view – pronounced and promoted by Francois Truffaut and seized upon by the mavens of the New Wave in the Fifties – holds that the director is the artist primarily responsible for the look, shape, and feel of a film, and therefore one can accurately regard and connect cinema history only by viewing it through the bodies of work of its directors.

I’ve been a writer all my life, so forgive me if I thought that the actual auteur was the author. I was sufficiently enamored of film that I studied it in graduate school, imagining in my naiveté that I might someday express myself through that medium. I saw many monumental flicks in a history sense, but in a production sense it didn’t take long for me to learn that, contrary to auteurism, cinema is the most collaborative form of all the arts. Unless you want to continue one-man-shooting the incomprehensible stuff you tarry with in film school (“Experimental Film,” a song by They Might Be Giants, sums it all up in three minutes), the commercial film director is more of a military general than a solitary, pondering artist.

This revelation was pounded in again when I later became a producer of advertising commercials (with Film School Experience!), which basically meant I was the guy on the set who represents the client. Yes, this was many digital iterations ago, but setting up the simplest shot (have you ever watched a film crew lay level dolly track over an undulating lawn? I have. In fact, I found a photo of same, just below) requires so many technicians that the opportunity to lose your original idea is magnified further every single day. A really good commercial movie, I suggest, might even be the result of nothing sexier than fewer things going wrong.

Me “producing” on set, showing everybody what to do with my left hand, ca. 1980.

It may be true that directors mark their own territory somehow by virtue of the projects they choose, but the audience doesn’t go out humming the scenery, and despite the best efforts of studio marketing departments, just because you directed JAWS doesn’t mean you get to do SUPERMAN (Spielberg volunteered but was turned down for the latter assignment because Alex Salkind wasn’t so sure how his fish flick would do). But if anyone’s still wondering whether the auteur theory caught on in America or not, behold the “possessory credit.” “A Michael Bay Film.” It used to be even worse: “A film by XXX.” There are a few filmmakers who may even deserve such a credit. Stanley Kubrick, who wrote, produced and directed his flicks. Hitchcock, maybe. Terrence Malick. Kurosawa. Bergman. I’m searching my mind for more. But please god, DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is not “A Courtney Solomon Film.”

I read Sarris ardently, even as a Mississippi teenager, where I subscribed to the Village Voice by mail: who else can remember that hot-type nameplate with the awful scratch on it? I drank in all his stuff, rewarded at last when I (1) got into a Film History class in graduate school, and (2) was able to tune in to the Janus Films FILM CLASSICS series on public TV, and thus see bits of this marvelous canon for myself over about two film-drunk years. He was erudite and proud to the end, and shame on both the Voice and the New York Observer for removing him. That oleaginous Rex Reed is no match for Papa Auteur.

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