Thursday, February 28, 2008

Announcing the "American Cinema" Anniversary Blog-a-Thon, starting April 14

About Andrew Sarris

About The American Cinema

The gist of the blog-a-thon

Known as the bible of American auteurism, Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 turns 40 this year. A compendium of critical commentary and categorization of cinema (sorry!), this enormously influential and eminently readable text tackled the history of American film as a history of dominant personalities that tend to take the production role of director.

An expansion of his article from Film Culture 1963, the explicitly polemical The American Cinema evaluates, analyzes, and ranks the major and the minor directors of the past according to the ever-elusive personal expression of mise-en-scène, borrowed, like the term auteur, from the French writers of Cahiers du cinéma. In his terrific run through of Sarris' career from Film Comment, Kent Jones encapsulates the "daring" of shifting these ideas to the US:
To embrace American movies and moviemakers in Paris was one thing. To embrace those same movies and moviemakers in the country that had made and marginalized them in the first place was a far riskier proposition. This was a systematic destruction and reconstruction of the standard view of American cinema and, by extension, all of cinema, an insistence that cinematic beauty did not come from without (the right subject, actors, set designer, cinematographer, etc.) but from within, and that it was a matter of simple logic that it was the director rather than the writer or the performers from whom the final result was generated.
The power and usefulness of Sarris' ideas, bolstered by his public persona as a major American critic, inaugurated a director-centric aesthetic movement in the heads of moveigoers that, in some ways, we are still existing in. It seems more than reasonable now to be "obsessed with the wholeness of art and the artist," to "look at a film as a whole, a director as a whole," as Sarris states that an auteur critic will, in "Toward a Theory of Film History," a lead-in to The American Cinema. Even since its original publication in 1968, we're still grappling with the "tantalizing mystery of style" that Andrew Sarris in no small way helped bring to the forefront of thinking about movies in America.

Andrew Sarris The American Cinema

But this blog-a-thon will be more about the book than about the man himself. The American Cinema was published forty years ago and itself encompasses about forty years of cinema history. Therefore, understanding that I wouldn't want Andrew to shift focus from his continued prose at the New York Observer, it could still use an update. So I propose to enlist the fine cinematic blogosphere to write up the next generation of The American Cinema by tackling the careers of auteurs since.

For those who have never read the book in question, there are three components to every entry: a complete filmography, a completely subjective subset of which is italicized as the director's most personal works; a concise but thorough discussion of the filmmaker; and a place in one of the book's hierarchical categories. Those were:
The Pantheon: "These are the directors who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world." Originally these included Chaplin, Ford, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Lang, Renoir, and Welles, among others.

The Far Side of Paradise: "These are the directors who fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their personal vision or because of disruptive career problems." Aldrich, Capra, Cukor, Fuller, Minnelli, Sirk, Von Stroheim, et al.

Expressive Esoterica: "These are the unsung directors with difficult styles or unfashionable genres or both...they are generally redeemed by their seriousness and grace." Boetticher, Donen, Dwan, Penn, Siegel, Tashlin, Tourneur, et al.

Fringe Benefits: "The following directors occupied such a marginal role in the American cinema...but a few comments may be in order." Antonioni, Buñuel, Eisenstein, Polanski, Truffaut, et al.

Less Than Meets the Eye: "These are the directors with reputations in excess of inspirations." Overrated, basically. Houston, Lean, Mamoulan, Wilder, Wyler, et al.

Lightly Likeable: "These are the talented but uneven directors with the saving grace of unpretentiousness." Berkeley, Curtiz, Korda (both), Whale, et al.

Strained Seriousness: "These are talented but uneven directors with the mortal sin of pretentiousness." Brooks, Dassin, Frankenheimer, Jewison, Kubrick, Lumet, Rossen, Wise, et al.

Oddities, One-Shots, and Newcomers: "These are the eccentrics, the exceptions and the expectants, the fallen stars and the shooting stars." Boorman, Cassavetes, Coppola, Lupino, Nichols, Peckinpah, Watkins, et al.
There are also "Subjects for Further Research," "Make Way for the Clowns!," and "Miscellany," but let's stick with the major categories.

By no means do you need to write or think like Citizen Sarris. I just hope to achieve some creativity in the framework that he set up forty years ago. Basically, pick a director who either debuted or had significant work in the period since 1968; several big names, from Coppola to Kubrick to Cassavetes, have minor write-ups in Sarris' tome but produced major works since. One of Sarris' most likable qualities is his openness for reevaluation, and even in the cases of the above, he's about-faced on some opinions. Feel free to choose anyone related to American filmmaking, and write about their about their career up to this point.

As an example, I could envision writing about John Woo in the category of "Fringe Benefits" by delving into the differences and similarities between his American and Hong Kong work. Conversely, someone like Ang Lee, despite having released several foreign-language films, has always been so firmly entrenched in the American filmmaking scene that he merits inclusion in a different category.

So whether or not you're an avowed auteurist, feel free to pick someone you love, someone you hate, or someone you just want to jot down some notes about. If you want to participate, email me or comment to let me know who you want to write about, and optionally in what category you're planning on including him or her in, or if you even want to invent your own category, just so that there aren't a million repeats and, if you email, to keep things a secret. This is the first blog-a-thon I've tried to host, but I'm confident in its potential. Have fun, and I'm looking forward to any and all entries.