Film critic Andrew Sarris rose to prominence during his long tenure with The Village Voice as America's leading proponent of the auteur theory of film analysis. Inspired by the ideas expressed in Fran...
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is filled — and I mean jam-packed — with genre-bending, action-heavy, sportily tense and relentlessly sinuous, sky-high-concept and maniacally bonkers stuff. Polygonal mayhem that aims, and impressively so, to top the Marvel lot in ideas, deconstructing every thriller staple from government corruption to talking computers to odd couple agents gone rogue. But oddly enough, the moment in the Cap sequel that I find most arresting several weeks after seeing the film is our peaceful reunion with Steve Rogers, trotting merrily around the Washington Monument as the sun rises on our nation's capital.
The scene is shot from far overhead, a low pulse/high spirits Chris Evans reduced to a shapeless blur as he repeatedly (but politely!) laps fellow jogger and veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)... and yet it might be the closest we feel to Cap throughout the movie.
The Winter Soldier has a lot to worry about in the delivery of its content. Managing a plot as ambitious and multifaceted as its own, with themes as grand as the scope of the American mentality — as represented by Steve Rogers, raised in the good old days of gee-golly-jingoism — it doesn't always have the faculties to devote to humanizing its central troupe. Cap isn't left hollow, but his battles with the dark cloud of contemporary skepticism play more like an intriguing Socratic discussion than an emotional arc. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, a character who ran circles around her Avengers co-players in flavor, feels a bit shortchanged in that department here (in her closest thing to a starring role yet, no less).
Mackie's Falcon, a regular joe who is roped into the calamity thanks largely to his willingness to chat with a fellow runner — a rare skill, honestly — is less of a problem. He doesn't have much to do, but he does it all well enough. Dynamic though he may be, Mackie keeps things bridled as Cap's ad-hoc sidekick, playing up the along-for-the-ride shtick rather than going full (or even half) superhero. We might want more from him, knowing just how fun he can be, but it's a sating dose. The real hunger is for more in the way of Black Widow, Cap, and — perhaps most of all — the titular villain.
Still, these palpable holes pierce through a film that gets plenty right. As elegantly as Joe Johnston did the Spielberg thing back in 2011, Joe and Anthony Russo take on the ballots of post-innocence. They aren't afraid to get wild and weird, taking The Winter Soldier through valleys that feel unprecedented in superhero cinema. We're grateful for the invention here — for Robert Redford's buttoned-up Tom Clancy villain, for the directors' aggressive tunneling through a wide underworld of subterranean corruption, and especially for one scene in an army bunker that amounts to the most charmingly bats**t crazy reveal in any Marvel movie yet. We might be most grateful, though, for a new take on Nick Fury; here, the franchise gives Samuel L. Jackson his best material by a mile.
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But in the absence of definitive work done in our heroing couple, a pair rich in fibers but relegated to broad strokes and easy quips in this turn, most of it amounts to a fairly good spy thriller, not an ace-in-the-whole neo-superhero masterpiece... which, justly or otherwise, is what we've come to expect and demand from these things.
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If you want to get a film historian, critic, or theorist all hot and bothered, mention the auteur theory, find out whether they support it or not, and then argue the other side. It’s fun. It’s fun because the auteur theory’s not like a math equation: it’s neither completely true nor completely false.
French film critics writing in Cashiers du Cinema and the French New Wave of film that it produced had this idea that the director is the “author” of the film in the same way that a writer is the author of a novel. The artwork itself reflects the personal vision of the director, regardless of whatever industrial production method the movie may have gone through as it was being made.
On the other side is the understanding that film by its very nature is a collaborative medium. In addition to the director you’ve got actors, directors, cinematographers, designers, and editors, all of whom have a significant amount of influence on any given movie both in terms of process and product.
Hollywood’s Studio System epitomizes the film as industrial product. At its heights in the 30s, Hollywood produced so many movies a week that tasks were broken down and taken care of in sequence, like an automobile assembly line. It really was a factory. The French cinephiles of the 50s promoted auteur theory as a way of fighting for individual vision within a largely faceless industrial machine.
Of course there’s a continuum here. By every account, Stanley Kubrick held complete control over every aspect of his films, up to and including acting to the extent that he would do as many takes as necessary to get what he wanted from the actor. On the other hand you’ve got, say, the films of Judd Apatow: developed through several writers, jokes written by committee, improvised under Apatow’s direction, footage compiled by an editor, these movies are made by a large collaboration of people.
The funny thing is there’s no place on the spectrum that’s better than any other. Take, for example, what many consider to be the first example of American auteur cinema: Citizen Kane. Tightly controlled by Orson Welles, the piece is a critique of itself: a movie about a ravenously controlling man made in a ravenously controlling fashion.
Contrast that with a movie made just a year after, this week’s classic movie: 1942’s Casablanca
Casablanca represents the apotheosis of the classic Hollywood studio system. It was a play written by Murray Burnette and Joan Alison, re-conceived by story editor Irene Diamond, turned into a screenplay written by Julius and Philip Epstein, rewritten by Howard Koch, with additional uncredited rewrites by Casey Robinson during production. And after all that, it was producer Hal Wallis who came up with the famous last line.
Director Michael Curtiz, brought on by Wallis after his first choice for director fell through, was hired to serve the committee-written script. Robinson has been quoted as saying that Curtiz knew very little about the story at all, given that a great deal of the dialogue was written as they went. Curtiz directed on a shot by shot, scene by scene basis. So fractured was the production of Casablanca that critic Andrew Sarris has called it “the most decisive exception to the auteur theory.” It’s also one of the clearest, most coherent and most well-wrought stories ever told by Hollywood.
Catching Casablanca on TV the other night with my friends Erin and Greg, we were immediately pulled into the story. Casablanca perfectly balances cynicism and sentimentality, romance and intrigue, lyricism and pragmatism within a perfectly wrought story filled with memorable characters. There’s a lot to be said about personal artistic vision, but there’s just as much to be said about the power of the studio system at its best. If you haven’t seen Casablanca lately, do yourself a favor and revisit one of the greats.
Awards season has arrived!
The National Board of Review announced their 2008 picks today, naming Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire as best picture and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s David Fincher as best director.
Clint Eastwood, star of Gran Torino, and Anne Hathaway, leading lady in Rachel Getting Married, received top acting nods, while Josh Brolin (Milk) and Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) were honored for their supporting roles.
The board, founded in 1909 in New York City, determines the awards by a vote of 125 plus members composed of academics, film experts and students in New York.
And the winners are:
Film: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Actor: Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Actress: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Supporting Actor: Josh Brolin, Milk
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Foreign Language Film: Mongol
Documentary: Man On Wire
Animated Feature: Wall-E
Ensemble Cast: Doubt
Breakthrough Performance by an Actor: Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Breakthrough Performance by an Actress: Viola Davis, Doubt
Directorial Debut: Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
Original Screenplay: Nick Schenk, Gran Torino
Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Spotlight Award: Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
The BVLGARI Award for NBR Freedom of Expression: Trumbo
Top Ten Films
Burn After Reading
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Top Five Foreign Language Films
Edge Of Heaven
Let The Right One In
Roman De Guerre
Waltz With Bashir
Top Five Documentary Films
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Encounters At The End Of The World
Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired
William K. Everson Film History Award:
Molly Haskell And Andrew Sarris
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Was a member of the jury at the Venice Film Festival
Published You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory 1927-1949
Reportedly made uncredited contributions to the screenplay of "Justine," directed by George Cukor
Wrote film critiques for The New York Observer
Wrote the highly influential book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968
Worked as assistant professor at NYU School of the Arts
Served as story consultant at 20th Century-Fox
Served in U.S. Army Signal Corps
Reportedly hit by a truck crossing the street c. 1948 "after seeing 'That Hamilton Woman' (1941) for the 37th time or something"; during convalescence (on crutches for about a year), he started going to movies all the time
Worked as an associate editor of Film Culture
Wrote Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955/1969
Wrote the liner notes for "The Voice: The Columbia Years 1943-1952," a collection of recordings of Frank Sinatra
Worked for a time in the early 1960s as a case worker in NYC social services and city government
Did uncredited work on screenplay of Jules Dassin's "Promise at Dawn"
Wrote film reviews for The Village Voice
Named Editor-in-Chief of Cahiers du Cinéma (English-language edition); coined the term Auteur Theory in his 1962 essay "Notes on the Auteur Theory"
Hired as film instructor at School of Visual Arts, New York
Began lectureship at Columbia University School of the Arts as assistant professor; became associate professor in 1972; appointed full professor in 1980
Film critic Andrew Sarris rose to prominence during his long tenure with The Village Voice as America's leading proponent of the auteur theory of film analysis. Inspired by the ideas expressed in Francois Truffaut's landmark 1954 essay "Une Certaine tendance du cinema francais," he introduced to American readers the notion that film, ideally, was a medium of personal expression for the director, who deserved recognition as an "auteur" in his 1962 essay called "Notes on the Auteur Theory." Almost immediately, he found a virulent opponent in Pauline Kael who engaged in a decades-long debate with Sarris over the theory, which she deemed immature, vague and derivative. Sarris' best known book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (1968), expanded his "notes" to full-fledged theory, and Kael responded with Raising Kane (1971), her repudiation of Sarris citing "Citizen Kane" (1940), supposedly the quintessential auteur film, as a collective achievement for which the contributions of scenarist Herman J. Mankiewicz and cameraman Gregg Toland had been severely underestimated. As the decades passed, Sarris and his theory remained relevant to generations of new writers and filmmakers, while Kael had fallen from her lofty perch over allegations of kowtowing to Hollywood. Throughout it all, Sarris was among the key figures in American film criticism, and his collected body of work wielded considerable influence on film studies, as well as Hollywood's concept of the director's role in the conception of a film.
Born in Brooklyn, NY on Oct. 31, 1928, he was the son of real estate investor George and Themis Sarris, Greek immigrants who raised him and his brother George in Ozone Park. He fell in love with the movies at an early age, enduring his family's poverty, caused by his father's reckless investments, by following film awards and critical circles with the same dogged, highly opinionated passion as baseball fans or opera lovers. Upon graduating from Columbia College in 1951, he served three years in the Army Signal Corps before returning home to Queens to live with his mother after his father's death. He spent much of his time avoiding the rigors of a 9-5 job, working briefly as a story consultant at Fox and a case worker for New York City's social services department. He also traveled extensively to Paris, where he befriended members of the French New Wave, including Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Upon his return, he began writing film criticism for Film Culture, but found the job wanting.
In 1960, he persuaded the editors of The Village Voice to let him review films for their pages. He immediately ignited a firestorm of controversy among cineastes for a spirited defense of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960) - the epitome of crass genre filmmaking by an unquestionably commercial filmmaker. Despite vigorous demands for his dismissal, The Voice kept Sarris on staff, noting that his viewpoint kept film criticism from becoming stale and single-minded by generating such spirited debate. In 1962, shortly after being named the editor-in-chief of the French film magazine Caheirs du Cinema's English language version, he penned "Notes on the Auteur Theory," an essay inspired by the writings in Caheirs about the significance of the director as the film's primary author. Among those filmmakers championed in the essay, and in subsequent works, were such Hollywood figures as Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks, who were joined by iconoclasts like Orson Welles and Samuel Fuller. Dismissed in the work were such legendary figures as John Huston, David Lean and Elia Kazan.
The results were decidedly explosive, with Sarris going mano-a-mano in the pages of the New York press with such established figures as John Simon, whom Sarris described as the "greatest film critic of the 19th century." But it was his verbal brawls with Kael at The New Yorker which inspired the most substantive press, as well as a loyal division of followers on either side of the argument who were dubbed "the Sarristes" and the "Paulettes." Among his acolytes were such noted critics as J. Hoberman, A.O. Scott, Kenneth Turan and the controversial Armond White. Despite the inherent problems of the auteur theory (i.e., it did not account for the collaborative nature of creative filmmaking nor for the role of the film viewer in interpreting the film), it found a niche in circles both academic and popular. Sarris even wielded some influence over Hollywood filmmaking by spurring the rise of billing even the most routine director's efforts as "A Name-of-Director Film" in its opening credits. In 1966, Sarris co-founded the highly influential National Society of Film Critics. He continued to write for The Voice while promulgating his ideas as a teacher, first at NYC's School of Visual Arts and later at New York University. Beginning his association with Columbia University in 1969, he rose to full professor in 1980, shortly before being made Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters in France. He even dabbled in the creative end of films, making uncredited contributions to the screenplays of "Justine" (1969) and Jules Dassin's "Promise at Dawn" (1970). In 1989, Sarris moved to The New York Observer while continuing to write and edit authoritative books on the cinema, including You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949 (1998), in which he revisited many of the auteurs discussed in his landmark American Cinema, revising some opinions, none more radically than his new appreciation for Billy Wilder. He also hosted a radio show on New York's WBAI-FM, and proved to be a pleasurable interviewee on such TV documentaries as "John Wayne Standing Tall" (PBS, 1989), "Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer" (PBS, 1990), "Billy Wilder: The Human Comedy" (PBS, 1998) and "Charlie Chaplin: A Tramp's Life" (A&E, 1998). In 1998, he obtained his master's degree from Columbia University.
Sarris left the Voice in 1989 to write for The New York Observer, where he remained into the new millennium. His lasting influence on the critical community was feted by the Pulitzer Prize organization, which named him a finalist for criticism in 2000; the following year, an essay collection Citizen Sarris, featured tributes by Roger Ebert, critic David Thomson and filmmakers Martin Scorsese and John Sayles. Budget cuts forced his layoff from the Observer in 2009, after which he moved to Film Comment. Though his output had slowed with age, he was still among American film criticism's most skilled practitioners, as evidenced by a $10,000 prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his "progressive and original" work. On June 20, 2012, Sarris' wife, the critic Molly Haskell, announced that he had died at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan after complications developed from a stomach virus.
By Paul Gaita
Met in 1966 at a screening of Kenneth Anger's "Scorpio Rising"; Married May 31, 1969; She wrote "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies" and "Love and Other Infectious Diseases" (1990), about Sarris' battle with cytomegalovirus-associated encephalitis; artistic director of the Sarasota Film Festival
Greek immigrant; described by his son as "very grandiose...very Victor Hugo"; ran a boat rental business (row boats) in Howard Beach, NY c. 1946; prior to its loss in 1931, owned a lot of real estate
Columbia College, Columbia University
Sarris was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1969.
In 1982, he was made Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et Lettres, Centre National de la Cinematographie in Paris, France.
In 1986, Sarris was one of the runners-up for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.
Sarris was incapacitated for more than a year in the late 1980s with a mystifying disease which was most likely cytomegalovirus-associated encephalitis.
In 1989, Sarris was named officer in the Ordre des Arts et Lettres, Centre National de la Cinematographie in Paris, France.
"With very little money I took off in 1961 to the Cannes Film Festival. I had three letters from The Saturday Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Village Voice. I didn't write a word about the festival, I got writer's block. I spent six or seven months in Paris, you know, went to the Cinematheque. When I came back from Paris I just walked into the Village Voice, I hadn't given them anything, I right away resumed doing my column. I was lazy, disorganized and very casual about the whole thing. When Pauline Kael attacked me I was amazed that I was considered so important. I didn't react very quickly. I didn't realize what had happened. I had just been plodding along." - Sarris quoted to David Walsh at the World Socialist web site (www.wsws.org), July 1, 1998
Founding member and former chairman of the National Society of Film Critics