This legendary film book is often maddening, occasionally cute or silly, often rather too brief or incomplete in its assessments, now and then even quite unfair (see the entry on Stanley Kubrick, for instance) - but it's utterly indispensable, endlessly readable, hugely informative and thought-provoking and a book you'll turn to again and again. (How many times have I had to tape up the binding or loose pages of my copy to stop it falling apart?) Sarris is an eloquent enthusiast, a genuinely knowledgeable critic (and how rare that is!) and a master of the pithy phrase. Has anyone ever summed up Roman Polanski more concisely ("Polanski's talent is as undeniable as his intentions are dubious" - that's it, right there, in ten words) or made a more poetic case for Buster Keaton? Sarris always declined to update the book, or to write a sequel, so, annoyingly, there are lots of baffling omissions - he includes items on, say, Jack Smight, Robert Gist or Roy del Ruth, but where are his notes on Daniel Mann, Martin Ritt, Rowland V. Lee, H.C. Potter, George Seaton, George Roy Hill, Henry Levin, Delbert Mann, Joseph Anthony, Mark Robson, Daniel Petrie or Charles Vidor? Not liking their films is no excuse. This book appeared relatively early in Sarris's long career, and there is no way for a casual reader to recognise from it what was perhaps most important of all about Sarris - he developed constantly throughout his life, changing as a critic as he changed as a man, becoming ever more broad-minded and accepting, never sinking into dogmatism and - unlike his mortal enemy, the dread Pauline Kael - never using criticism as a tool for feeding egomania. Most unusually, he got better as he got older, and, towards the end of his days, was quite willing to allow that he'd been wrong about John Huston and Billy Wilder (or even to find good things to say about Kubrick) and to stress humanism above directorial personality. He was a fine critic, and he should be read.
In brief, beautifully written essays, Andrew Sarris summarizes the careers of perhaps 80 to 100 American directors. Each essay is preceded by a filmography, with the films Sarris judges to be the director's most important in italics. (An appendix gives the author's lists of most important American films by year.) Sarris groups directors into categories including "Pantheon Directors," "The Far Side of Paradise," "Lightly Likeable," "Expressive Esoterica" and "Less Than Meets the Eye." Sarris is an avowed auteurist, meaning that he considers that in the great majority of films, the director's contribution is decisive. I have used the book as a guide for my movie and video viewing for the past 20 years, and the rewards have been vast.
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Auteur criticism is, in my opinion, a profoundly flawed theory of cinema that nonetheless was instrumental in emphasising the important role the director. Anyone not in the grip of a theory and aware of the myriad of factors that goes into the making of a good film has to realize that a vast array of factors goes into the final product. Only in rare instances can a film be said to be the expression of the will of the director and treated as such. Frequently a film can be carried not by the director, but by the cinematographer, the editor, the actors, or the screenwriter (anyone who has read the original screenplay of CITIZEN KANE can enjoy a graphic instance of the role a good screenplay can play in the production of a masterpiece). Having pointed that out, Sarris did help America take directors more seriously than they had ever been taken before, and for that he must be applauded. That took many took the director to be the only game in town doesn't undercut the value of this book Stepping off my soapbox, let me just say how much fun this book is. It is great fun to argue with Sarris about which directors he places in the Pantheon (the best of the best of the directors to have worked in the U.S.) and which he leaves out. It would be wonderful if he were to turn his attention to producing an updated version of the book, extending into the current decade. I would be interested to see to what extent he revised the Pantheon, to see where he placed Coppola, Scorsese, Sayles, and Spielberg. Recommended to anyone with a more-than-casual interest in American cinema.
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