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Fight!

So, there’s a tiff, evidently, in the filmy world in the early 60’s.  (I totally read these articles out of order, so I wound up experiencing these arguments as if they were thrown in a blender or something.)  Andrew Sarris gets the ball a-rolling with his Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962, in which he tries to define Cahiers’ politique des auteurs for an anglophone audience.  Basically, he presents auteur theory as the study of films through a lens that recognizes a director’s unique touches on his or her films.  For auteur critics, these touches become evident only by watching tons of films (or all of the films) by a director.  For Sarris (and Wollen), the Hollywood system, with its emphasis on the fiscal side of the film industry, is the best source for auteurist (?) texts.  Directors like Howard Hawks were consistently put in charge of films they had no say in creating, but their personality would shine through in their films by their use of formal and stylistic choices.  The repetition of these choices through their films (and their deviance from and manipulation of these repeated tropes), gave the clearest glimpse into, as Sarris puts it, the film’s soul (or elan of the soul).

Pauline Kael ain’t buying it.  She calls out auteur theory in “Circles and Squares,” saying it’s insistence on emphasizing potboiler films over films by directors like Ingmar Bergman ignores the best films.   She argues that while genre film directors might occasionally create something great, scholarship should focus on separating bad films form the great ones, no matter who the director is.  She says that by (arbitrarily, as she, perhaps correctly, puts it) declaring a director great, then elevating all that director’s works to a status worthy of scholarship, auteur critics give too much credit to bad films by good directors and not nearly enough to good films by “bad” directors.

Sarris counters by saying (and not entirely without cause), that kael has misrepresented auteur theory, and in his subsequent essay (as well as in Wollen’s), auteur theory is clarified as a  way to see films in an intertextual light.  Of course, they might go to far in insisting that films can ONLY be seen in an intellectual light.

And, again, we’re seeing a lot of “with us” or “against us” stuff going on.  Isn’t film criticism big enough to allow for multiple critical lenses?

By the way, before reading her (and I had somehow managed to get this far in my life without ever reading her, shame on me), I never would have guessed that Pauline Kael would be the Harold Bloom type in the argument.  She seems hip and cool, right?  But Bloom never seemed hip and cool, and I think their arguments about the arts that they both study are pretty similar, right?

But, my question is why were these critics placing so much emphasis on evaluative criticism?  The language both critics use clearly indicate that they are really fighting over what, umm, I dunno, the canon or something will consider to be good films and which ones will be decreed bad.  And isn’t this just about the most boring thing you can ask about a piece of art?  Is it good?  Is it better than these other films?  Is this guy better than that guy?  These are all opinion-based, yes-or-no type questions.  Aren’t there much more important/interesting questions to ask about a film?

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    Matt's Film Theory Blog › Fight!

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