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The best books on Film Criticism

recommended by Andrew Sarris

The legendary American critic, Andrew Sarris, sounds off on auteurism, his own career and the value of the traditional film-writing canon over internet innovations such as IMDB. He picks the best books on film criticism.

Andrew Sarris

Andrew Sarris was a film critic and professor of film studies (1969–2010) at Columbia University. In 1960 Sarris began writing for the Village Voice. Sarris outlined his radical approach to film criticism in the essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory” (1962). He also applied the approach in his influential book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 (1968). Sarris left the Village Voice in 1989 to write for the New York Observer, where he remained for 20 years.

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Andrew Sarris

Andrew Sarris was a film critic and professor of film studies (1969–2010) at Columbia University. In 1960 Sarris began writing for the Village Voice. Sarris outlined his radical approach to film criticism in the essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory” (1962). He also applied the approach in his influential book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 (1968). Sarris left the Village Voice in 1989 to write for the New York Observer, where he remained for 20 years.

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Before we talk about film criticism’s golden era, let me ask a question about its future: Do you think the paring of print payrolls, the proliferation of viewer reviews, and the emergence of Internet aggregators, like Metacritic, will spell an end to serious criticism? And if serious criticism no longer pays, what will fuel the arguments among cinephiles that used to occur under theatre marquees (at least in Woody Allen movies)?

I disagree with those who say film criticism is in crisis. There might be fewer people looking for a fight; it might be less polemical than it was when subscribing to a certain film theory could make you a marked man among your fellow critics. But I think as long as filmmakers keep making great work – like The King’s Speech – the work will resonate and we will continue to wrestle with it.

As a professor of film, I find that my students appreciate their predecessors and have greater access to good writing on film than people of previous generations.

Let’s move on to that writing, starting with James Agee. He is best remembered for his sober social reporting and his posthumously-published Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family. Agee on Film assembles essays he wrote about film during the 1940s.

I read Agee in high school. He was deeply humanistic. He was an inspiring force for me as well as for many other critics. He was a message critic, very much concerned with what film said, and very sociologically oriented.

“Before the auteurists, Hitchcock was considered trivial. Now the notion that Hitchcock’s body of work was important is not so controversial.”

As someone who experienced so much success writing about topics other than film, he brought a great deal of style and a great deal of prestige to film criticism. I’ll give you an anecdote: When I was at Columbia, I applied for a creative writing course. During a personal interview with Professor F W Dupee, a legendary literary critic, I was asked what I wanted to write, and I said film criticism. He said: ‘Oh no, you don’t want to do that.  We’ve already lost Jim Agee to movies. He was a good writer until Hollywood got to him.’ That was the attitude that people had. But Agee blazed a path that other great writers would follow.

Let’s move on to The Immediate Experience, a collection of criticism by Robert Warshow, who died in 1955. His analyses of the archetypes of mid-century cinema, including cowboys and gangsters, were so canonical that this collection was published in 1962 and then republished in 2002.

He died at a very young age – he was 37 – but he had a tremendous influence on many contemporary critics. You read him to get a different slant on film and criticism. He took movies as they were, and didn’t ask them to bear the weight of social messages.

Warshow focused on the ‘immediate experience’ of the viewer – how a movie moved a man. He, in fact, preferred the term ‘movie’ to the more highfalutin ‘film’. He suggested that we should judge films based on the emotional effect they have on us.

He concentrated on films that were not fashionable and directors that were not fashionable.  He was a great champion of the B-picture and the action picture, movies that were dismissed by mainstream critics. He didn’t look down on films because of their genre. He had a tremendous effect on people in academe. He made people rethink films and rethink what made a great film. When you read him today, what he wrote still jumps off the page.

The next collection you chose, if we go in chronological order, has a very different point of view. This is What is Cinema by André Bazin, France’s most esteemed film critic.

Bazin was the antithesis of Russian film theorist and director Sergei Eisenstein, who posited that film didn’t become film until it was sliced up and served montage-style.  Eisenstein advocated for the collision of images and conflict of classes in films. Bazin believed that films should be smooth, and needn’t be so socially weighty; he felt that films should have a realism to them. He focused on mise-en-scène, as opposed to montage.

Bazin was one of the founders of the Cahiers du Cinema, which popularised the auteur theory of film.

You are credited – and were at times blamed – for importing Bazin’s theory of auteurism to the States. Can you explain the theory and how it influenced the course of film criticism?

Auterism acknowledged that the director was the dominant personality in films and that films reflected a director’s vision. That was how it changed the trajectory of criticism. It was accused of ignoring every other contributor and technician involved in film – unfairly so.

Auteurism helped us understand that a director’s work should be judged on its artistry rather than its subject matter. Before I became familiar with the work of Bazin, I felt that film had to be ambitious and socially conscious to be valuable. Bazin and Cahiers helped me realise that cinema was sui generis, that film didn’t have to prove its social relevance, and that film should be judged on its own terms.

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But back then, bucking mainstream American criticism and showing appreciation for commercial pictures was a risky proposition. My first review (for The Village Voice) was of Psycho; because I treated Hitchcock as a major artist, and Psycho as a masterpiece, I got a major, major amount of hate mail. Before the auteurists, Hitchcock was considered trivial. Now the notion that Hitchcock’s body of work was important is not so controversial.

Let’s move on to the work of a very different critic. Manny Farber (the author of Negative Space) wrote about film for Time, The Nation, and Artforum from the late 40s through the early 70s. 

Manny Farber was the ultimate iconoclast. He pointed out the ways in which some of the most revered directors of the era, such as John Huston, were pretentious and insensitive to the medium. At times he would underrate people who were overrated. On the other hand, he brought to broader attention some directors who had previously been dismissed as insignificant, such as Samuel Fuller. Like Warshow, Farber uplifted action movies.

Some credit Faber with creating a prose style that matched the fluidity of film. 

He was a great writer. I think his reviews read better now than they did at the moment he wrote them.

Farber is remembered for favouring what he called ‘termite art’, art which burrowed into its subject matter in a down-to-earth way, over ‘white elephant art’, which pretentiously trumpeted its own importance. Did his focus on the value of ‘termite art’ alter perceptions of popular cinema? 

Farber took unpretentious films seriously, and encouraged others to do so too. He influenced not just filmgoers, but also filmmakers. He had the same kind of influence on the new directors of the 70s that Bazin had on the Nouvelle Vague of the 60s. I think the cinema of Spielberg and Scorsese was much influenced by Farber.

Your final choice is The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson. It was first published in 1975, and a fifth edition just came out in October. Tell me why you selected this over other reference works. 

This volume is a compendium of biographical profiles of just about every major figure in film. But it is really much more than a movie reference book; Thomson writes better than almost any other encyclopaedic critic. And he writes with a great deal of humour. He packs a lot into each entry in his Dictionary. 

Thomson is a great analyst of acting. He did the same thing with actors that Bazin did with directors: he ennobled their work and made us all see how cinema depends on them.

Why is Thomson’s work still worth reading in the age of IMDB? Why is any of this criticism still worth reading?

The work of these critics is just much more nuanced than what you can find on Internet movie databases. Agee, Bazin, Faber, Warshow, and Thomson still make great reading today. They don’t just broaden our knowledge of film; they deepen it.

Are today’s critics serving more as consumer guides?

All critics were in some sense consumer guides. There is nothing wrong with being a consumer guide. I know that the term is used in derogation. But the best writers were also the best consumer guides.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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