An Unregenerate Auteurist

Film Critic Andrew Sarris (1928-2012)

Although I never met the man, he has made a lasting impression on my taste in films. It all started around 1964, when I was a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I ran across the Spring 1963 issue of Film Culture magazine. Most of the contents was a 68 page article by Andrew Sarris, then movie reviewer for The Village Voice.  I remember photocopying the entire article while several other students fumed at the time I took to set up every page perfectly. In the end, I had the best survey of the work of American filmmakers then available.

My Original Encounter with the Auteur Theory

By the time I came out to Southern California, Sarris was working the same material into a book to be called The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. The book became my bible, a guide to the real artists of the American cinema, the directors. In both the book and the Film Culture article, Sarris was adapting the work of critics at Cahiers du Cinéma and other French film magazines who were reacting to the French classical cinema and rediscovering American film.

I and my fellow auteurists at the UCLA Film Department ran into heavy opposition from the faculty, especially from my thesis adviser, one Howard Suber, whose idea of film criticism was to do a shot-by-shot analysis of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. I quickly discovered that the people who were most opposed to the auteur theory were not terribly interested in seeing films. In fact, they did not know very much about film. Where my friends and I were viewing upwards of fifteen films a week, I doubt that most of the UCLA professors saw that many in a year.

The Book Version of the 1963 Film Culture Article

Although over the years, my take on films has changed somewhat, I still love the great auteurs such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Charley Chaplin, Josef Von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles, Raoul Walsh, and Budd Boetticher. Now I am willing to admit that, in certain rare cases, the producer could be the main artist of the film. The only example I can think of offhand is Val Lewton, who as producer, created his own style that overrode such excellent directors as Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise.

Yesterday, I attended the Cinecon 53 Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. The very best films were auteur classics: John Ford’s The Brat (1931), George Stevens’s Boys Will Be Boys (1932), and William S. Hart’s Shark Monroe (1918). But where I diverge from the auteurists is my enjoyment of some films by relative nobodies,. most particularly John Blystone’s Woman Chases Man (1937)—which ended up involving three directors and five writers—and Alfred S. Rogell’s No More Women (1934), itself a sequel to auteur director Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), starring the same leading actors.

There are indeed many terrible filmmakers whose work I would think nothing of walking out on. But at shows like Cinecon, there are some wonderful films by people I have never heard of.