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Picture This

<i> Richard Schickel reviews movies for Time magazine. He is executive producer of the television series "AFI's 100 Years . . . 100 Movies."</i>

If history is, as Carlyle said, no more than a distillation of rumor, then movie history--perhaps the most benighted of all our attempts to recapture the past’s sweet cheats--is something worse: an anthology of unexamined premises, endlessly repeated.

These assumptions are themselves a compound of nostalgic mooning, academic aridity, slovenly show-biz journalism, faulty memory and a ton of attitudes--political, sociological, moral. What’s worse, we now live in an age when the historical imagination has in general withered and is near to moribund when it comes to movies that are more than a decade or two old.

The silent era is now essentially lost to us, with only a few cultists, huddled for warmth in their film societies, perusing the finer points of, say, Louise Brooks’ filmography. The first two decades of the sound era are, it seems, poised on the edge of history’s dustbin because--Heaven forfend--most of the period’s masterpieces were rendered in black and white and none of them was shot in wide-screen. You run into young people who are actively offended by this carelessness and avert their eyes from it. They believe the furthest reach of the usable movie past is “Star Wars.” For them, the rich, scarcely boring, hardly uninstructive history of the medium has dwindled to a handful of iconic movies (“Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca”) and a few iconic careers like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, largely irrelevant to the sweep of that history but hugely relevant to our desire to sentimentalize those we are pleased to perceive as its victims.

The appearance in this climate of “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet” engenders a mix of emotions: exhilaration that someone like Andrew Sarris is still insisting on making fine distinctions among the films and filmmakers of the past, and depression over the sure and certain knowledge that there are perhaps no more than a few thousand readers knowledgeable enough about movie history to follow his arguments and eccentric enough to care about their conclusions.

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It is important to understand what Sarris’ book, toiled over for two decades and obviously intended as his magnum opus (if not his Apologia Pro Vita Sua), is and is not. It has the heft and the subtitle of a formal history. But that’s misleading. There’s no attempt at chronology, no attempt to anatomize the little society that produced the insinuating movies of what younger scholars have taken to calling “The Classic Era” (a distancing term that suggests seeing its works may be about as much fun as conjugating Latin verbs). Nor does he have much to say about the larger society that once doted on the movies and made them the most powerful mass medium the world had yet seen. This is, very simply, a critical history, an attempt to discern what was best, therefore most influential, most worth remembering, about the sound film’s first two decades.

Probably the best way to describe Sarris is as our great Reader of the Lost Arcs. By which I mean that his book consists of some 60 essays about exemplary institutions, genres and individuals and is devoted to discovering how studio style developed, how genre conventions grew and how an actor’s manner or a director’s preoccupation evolved into a discernible, discussable screen personality or authorial body of work. At the end of each piece, we feel that we are firmly in possession of its topic. At the end of the book, we also feel that we are in possession of an accurate portrait of an era, selective yet aptly detailed and, above all, passionate in a way that most film histories--moved by academic dutifulness or a journalistic search for scandal--are not.

Sarris is, of course, famous as the critic who, in the early ‘60s, brought the auteur theory over from France in the face of powerful opposition, and the manner of the embattled polemicist continues to cling to him. But even though he remains convinced that most worthwhile movies are the lengthened shadows of their directors, his acknowledgment here of the force of other factors in shaping film history is a sign of a sensibility more flexible than it may have first seemed. So is the fact that he has revised upward his evaluations of a number of directorial careers that he rather cavalierly dismissed in his influential 1968 book-length statement, “American Cinema,” of his personal politique des auteurs, admitting in a manly and generous way his previous misjudgments of King Vidor and Billy Wilder, among others.

This does not mean that Sarris has grown soft as he approaches 70. He is still not about to concede much to William Wyler, despite the romantic felicities of “Dodsworth,” or to George Stevens, despite the antic delights of “Gunga Din.” On the whole, their work is too high-minded, too obviously aimed at the humanist-liberal camp, for his taste. Nor has he abandoned the good fight against those humorless commentators--some of them highly politicized, some of them cultural elitists--who during the period he’s writing about constantly disdained Hollywood for its lightsome ways. They never noticed--to cite just one example--the class critique (and the often subtle sexual politics) implicit in so much screwball comedy.

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Sarris’ continuing dispute with these writers at first seems a querulous eccentricity. But the fact is that they did permanent harm to our tastes. Their definition of what constitutes higher humanistic seriousness still informs a good deal of reviewing, and it is what the industry inveterately falls back upon at Oscar time, when it bestows its best picture prize on earnest bores like “Gandhi,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Braveheart” and, yes, “Titanic.” Worse, this essential--and essentially literary--contempt for an inherently populist medium imposes what Sarris (correctly) sees as a kind of cultural segregation in it. For most people who take art seriously, movies--particularly American movies--remain second-class citizens in their world.

In his introduction, Sarris makes an impassioned plea for admitting film studies to full membership in university humanistic programs. The argument seems self-evident. If we oblige students to read Joyce closely, why not that other complex modernist (and tormented Catholic), Alfred Hitchcock? If Hemingway can inform them about the ways of traditional masculinity, why not have them consult, as well, the complimentary works of his friend Howard Hawks? Why can’t we admit that Preston Sturges’ barbaric yawps and John Ford’s lyric idealism are as instructive in their ways as Walt Whitman’s are in his? Most important, why can’t all of us, scholars or not, see that movies have a coherent, intrinsically interesting tradition, capable of informing not just this weekend’s moviegoing but the way we understand the world we have inherited?

The problem begins with the fact that movies speak a language essentially foreign to literary people--a language of skittering images that are often lost to us before we fully apprehend them. Worse still, even in the age of the VCR, it remains hugely difficult to retrieve them for the kind of close study that we can apply to words patiently awaiting us on the printed page. The serious film critic or historian is unique in his dependence on flaking memory to inform his arguments.

Sarris’ memory is capacious. He not only recalls a pair of tracking shots in “The Last Command” but can build a significant part of his reading of that film on the differences between them. Instead of gushing vague generalities about the delights of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, he guides us to their highest points and persuasively explains what makes them transcendent. Discussing the gangster film, he moves beyond the standard “Little Caesar"-"Public Enemy"-"Scarface” trilogy and makes us yearn to see the ones that have largely eluded history--"The Doorway to Hell,” “Quick Millions,” “Blood Money.”

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We are not talking cultishness here. Or idiot savantery. We are talking the kind of profoundly engaged, even romantically inflamed criticism any art requires if its traditions are to live on in ways that are useful and informative to the present--and to the future. Sarris seems to feel that the value of historical perspective is so self-evident that he need not state it overtly.

I’m far less optimistic on this point. But then, I’m writing this review a few days after seeing “Godzilla,” still peevishly wondering why its makers didn’t learn from the highly relevant past--from “Frankenstein” or “King Kong"--that the trick to working well (and memorably) in this genre lies not in making the monster scary but in making him human. If so simple a historical lesson is now lost on us, what hope do we have for the larger ones Sarris so generously offers? Or for other writers who follow in his path?


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