Criticism



MAY 1968 AND THE REVOLUTIONIN FILM CRITICISM

The student and worker riots in France in May 1968, hailed somewhat optimistically as the "Second French Revolution," transformed Cahiers almost overnight, inspiring a similar revolution in Godard's films. The massive swing to the Left, the fervent commitment to Marx and Mao, demanded not only new attitudes but also a whole new way of thinking and a new vocabulary to express it, and a semiotics of cinema was born and flourished. Roland Barthes, Christian Metz, and Jacques Lacan became seminal influences, and traditional criticism was (somewhat prematurely) pronounced dead or at least obsolete. A distinguished and widely influential instance was the meticulously detailed Marxist-Lacanian analysis of Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) produced collaboratively by the new Cahiers collective; it deserves its place in film history as one of the essential texts. British critical work swiftly followed suit, with Peter Wollen's seminal Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969, revised 1972), which remains an essential text. Whereas Movie had adopted many of the aims and positions of the original Cahiers , it was now Screen that took up the challenge of the new, instantly converted to semiotics. The magazine published the Young Mr. Lincoln

ANDREW SARRIS
b. New York, New York, 31 October 1928

Eminently sensible and perennially graceful in the articulation of his views, Andrew Sarris has been one of the most important of American film critics. His influence upon the shaping of the late-twentieth-century critical landscape is inestimable—both for his hand in developing an intellectually rigorous academic film culture and for bringing the proselytizing auteur theory to popular attention. The acumen and resolve of his writing set a benchmark for the scrupulous and cogent close analysis of cinematic style.

Among the pioneering voices of a new generation of self-proclaimed cinephiles—or "cultists," in his own terms—Sarris began his professional career in 1955, reviewing for Jonas Mekas's seminal journal, Film Culture , where he helped develop one of the first American serial publications dedicated to the serious critical investigation of film. After a brief sojourn in Paris in 1960, he began writing reviews for the fledgling alternative newspaper, the Village Voice , in New York City. His polemical reviews generated considerable debate and helped secure Sarris a position as senior critic for the Voice from 1962 to 1989.

As an intellectual American film culture exploded during the 1960s, Sarris was able to provide a newly professionalized critical establishment with two enormously influential (and controversial) concepts imported from the Cahiers critics in France: the auteur theory and mise-en-scène . His development of a director-centered critical framework grew out of a dissatisfaction with the "sociological critic"—leftist-oriented writers seemingly more interested in politics than film—whose reviews tended simplistically to synchronize film history and social history. While his attempt to establish auteurism as a theory may not have been entirely persuasive, it generated considerable debate regarding the creative and interpretive relationships between a director, her collaborators, and the audience itself. Further, in his own critical analyses, Sarris was one of the first critics to focus on style rather than content. This reversal was not an apolitical embracing of empty formalism, but rather a unified consideration of a film's stylistic and mimetic elements in the interests of discerning an artist's personal worldview. For him, a film's success does not hinge on individual contributions by various creative personnel, but on the coherence of the auteur 's "distinguishable personality," made manifest in the subtext—or "interior meanings"—of the work.

Along with his sometime rivals, Pauline Kael at The New Yorker and Stanley Kauffmann at The New Republic , Sarris was among the first of a new generation of critics dedicated to elevating the cultural status of film, particularly American cinema. In his efforts to promote film as an expressive art rather than a mere commercial product, he co-founded the prestigious National Society of Film Critics in 1966 and offered a new auteur -driven history of Hollywood in the canonical American Cinema (1968), in which he mapped and ranked the work of all the important directors ever to work in Hollywood.

FURTHER READING

Levy, Emmanuel, ed. Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic . Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema, Directors and Directions, 1929–1968 . Revised ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1996.

——. Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955–1969 . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970.

——. The Primal Screen: Essays on Film and Related Subjects . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973.

——, comp. Interviews with Film Directors . Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

Aaron E. N. Taylor

Andrew Sarris with his wife, the critic Molly Haskell.

article in translation, and it was followed by much work in the same tradition. In terms of sheer ambition, one must single out Stephen Heath's two-part analysis and deconstruction of Welles's Touch of Evil (1958).

Semiotics was expected by its adherents to transform not only criticism but also the world. Its failure to do so resides largely in the fact that it has remained a dauntingly esoteric language. Its disciples failed to bridge the gulf between themselves and a general readership; perhaps the gulf is in fact unbridgeable. Its influence outside academia has been negligible, though within academia it continues, if not to flourish, at least to remain a presence, developing new phases, striking up a relationship with that buzzword du jour, postmodernism. Its effect on traditional critical discourse has however been devastating (which is not to deny its validity or the value of its contribution). "Humanism" became a dirty word. But what is humanism but a belief in the importance for us all of human emotions, human responses, human desires, human fears, hence of the actions, drives, and behavior appropriate to the achievement of a sense of fulfillment, understanding, reciprocation, caring? Are these no longer important, obsolete like the modes of discourse in which they expressed themselves? Semiotics is a tool, and a valuable one, but it was mistaken for a while for the ultimate goal. Criticism, loosely defined here as being built on the sense of value, was replaced by "deconstruction," debate by alleged "proof." It seemed the ultimate triumph of what Leavis called (after Jeremy Bentham) the "technologico-Benthamite world," the world of Utilitarianism that grew out of the Industrial Revolution and was so brilliantly satirized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times (1845), which in turn was brilliantly analyzed by Leavis in Dickens the Novelist . During the reign of semiotics Leavis was, of course, expelled from the curriculum, and it is high time for his restoration.

The massive claims made for semiotics have died down, and the excitement has faded. In addition to the articles mentioned above, it produced, in those heady days, texts that deserve permanent status: the seminal works of Barthes (always the most accessible of the semioticians), Mythologies (1957, translated into English in 1972) and S/Z (1970, translated into English in 1974), with its loving, almost sentence-by-sentence analysis of Honoré de Balzac's Sarrasine ; Raymond Bellour's Hitchcock analyses (though it took most readers quite a time to realize that Bellour and Heath actually loved the films they deconstructed). And, more generally, semiotics has taught us (even those who doubt its claims to supply all the answers) to be more precise and rigorous in our examination of films.

Out of the radicalism of the 1970s there developed not only semiotics but also a new awareness of race and racism and the advent of radical feminism. Laura Mulvey's pioneering article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975) rapidly became, in its concise few pages, enormously influential, opening a veritable floodgate of feminist analysis, much of it concerned with the exposure of the inherent and structural sexism of the Hollywood cinema. It was impossible to predict, from Mulvey's dangerous oversimplification of Hawks and Hitchcock, that she would go on to produce admirable and loving analyses of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Notorious (1946); but it was the very extremeness of the original article that gave it its force. Mulvey's work opened up possibilities for a proliferation of women's voices within a field that had traditionally been dominated by men—work (as with semiotics itself) of extremely diverse quality but often of great distinction, as, for example, Tania Modleski's splendid book on Hitchcock, The Women Who Knew Too Much (1988, with a new expanded edition in 2004).



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