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Why Americans are Ignorant About Film History

Americans, even Americans who are well educated in other fields, seem to know little about film history. The root cause of this ignorance is plain. The main systematic account of film history, the Auteur Theory, is not taught in American schools, and is rarely discussed in the mass media either. Nor has any other substituting theory or historical account taken its place. There is instead just a huge vacuum of ignorance on the subject of film.

What is the Auteur Theory?

The best exposition of the Auteur Theory, as it relates to Hollywood film, is in Andrew Sarris' classic book, The American Cinema (1968). This book covers the history of Hollywood feature film making from around 1915-1968. Sarris picks out 55 directors which he thinks are the best directors in American film history. For each one, he gives a complete list of their films, and then specifies which ones he thinks are good - typically around one half or more of the director's output. An essay then follows, in which Sarris sets forth the key features of the director's style and themes. Sarris also includes similar indexes to the work of 11 outstanding foreign directors that have occasionally made American films.

The body of work covered by Sarris is a large one. It includes hundreds of outstanding films by the 66 top directors. It gives everyone a detailed, systematic grasp of what many of the main accomplishments and high points of American film history are. It gives a logical, consistent look at one major portion of film history, the classical Hollywood film. The book is also written in literate, lively prose and is a delight to read.

Sarris' book is part of a long cultural tradition of film studies. Since the late 1940's, critics in France had been specializing in studying American film. The official launch of the Politique des auteurs, as the Auteur Theory was originally known in French, was in Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 31, January 1954. It was the creation of critic - and soon to be filmmaker - François Truffaut. Truffaut was one of a large group of pioneering young film historians centered around the journal Cahiers du Cinéma. Many of them had singled out many of the 66 directors later endorsed by Sarris as creators of outstanding films. By around 1960, critics in London and New York, including Sarris, were also writing about these top directors. Most of this work, both French and English language, was in specialized film magazines. Only a few books were published.

The publication of Sarris' book in 1968 was the first exposure many English language readers had had to this historical tradition. Large numbers of readers, especially college age students of the era, began hunting down and viewing the films that Sarris endorsed. In most cases, these viewers were overwhelmed by the beauty and creativity of the films they saw. Many other scholars began publishing books and articles on these films and filmmakers.

So the directors mentioned in Sarris' book have been widely admired and loved by a large group of film enthusiasts and scholars. They are not just the tastes of one critic, however gifted - and Sarris is certainly a highly gifted writer and historian. They have been validated by a large group of expert film lovers.

What Happened Next

Both Sarris' book, and other film scholarship of its kind, ran smack up against a deeply held view of both the American literary Establishment, and American academia of the 1960's. Both of these groups had as one of their fundamental principles that all popular art was bad. They regarded popular works, such as Hollywood movies and television, mystery, science fiction and Western books and stories, and comic books and strips to be total garbage. The literary Establishment has succeeded in hanging on to these views to this day (2002), while current academia has typically evaded the issue, neither coming out for or against auteurism, and usually trying to avoid discussing the theory altogether. Because of this, neither group has ever accepted the Auteur Theory at all.

Film critic Pauline Kael was the chief opponent of the Auteur Theory in the 1960's, when Sarris' book was first published. She poured scorn on the idea that Hollywood films could be seen as art, and that any systematic film history of them was needed. Her attacks on the Auteur Theory made her reputation, bringing her out of a position of near obscurity as a writer. She was rewarded by being given the most prestigious reviewing position in the US literary Establishment, that of The New Yorker magazine. Literary Establishment leaders also constantly hailed her as America's best film critic, from then on till her retirement in 1990. I think her writings are completely worthless. There is little interest in them today by readers. But in her day, she was considered by the literary Establishment as the Maginot Line against any incursions of the idea that Hollywood films should be systematically studied as art.

One big trouble with both the academic and literary rejection of the Auteur Theory: no substitute theory of film history was ever advanced by these groups to replace it. Instead, both groups have avoided the study of most popular Hollywood movies at all. So the hundreds of Hollywood films endorsed by the theory are simply not discussed. It is as if they had never existed. They have become unmentionables, like rival politicians who have been written out of Communist history textbooks. And the public has been left in the lurch. They have not been trained in any systematic account of film history, whether the Auteur Theory, or something else.

What Should Be Done

This writer has a simple proposal to correct this. Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema should be read by every American. It should be taught to all students in high schools, as part of their basic education. It should also be read by all college freshmen.

Legitimate Criticisms of the Auteur Theory

I hope I have not given the impression that the Auteur Theory should be beyond criticisms, or alternatives. All ideas can be improved by additions, corrections, and debate about alternatives. What does seem intolerable to me is the vast sea of ignorance about film history that currently exists in the public, due to the failure of any systematic history of film being taught. We have an immediate educational need for such systematic history, and the Auteur Theory is still far and away the best such history available.

Major criticisms of the Auteur Theory by film historians are threefold. Critics such as Richard Corliss, dealing with screenwriters, and Richard Koszarski, writing about cinematographers, felt that film scholarship should study not only directors, but other major contributors to film art. Similar arguments were made about production designers, costume designers, composers and choreographers. I wholeheartedly agree.

Most scholars who constructed the Auteur Theory wrote about feature length, fiction films in a number of national cinemas: French, Italian, German, Japanese and American. This is just part of World Cinema. They also did not write as much as they wished about silent films, because many silent films were extremely hard to see. They also rarely studied television, experimental films or documentaries. Clearly, the study of film history should encompass all these areas. There are an increasing number of good books about all of these subjects, and they should be studied just as much as the fiction films traditionally examined by many auteurist critics.

Finally, there are excellent studies of films by genre, instead of by individual directors, for example, the writings on film noir collected in The Film Noir Reader (1996), edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini. These genre studies should be seen as complementary to auteurist criticisms. The two schools have much to learn from each other.

A Note

The 55 top directors in Sarris' book are those in his first three sections, "Pantheon Directors", "The Far Side of Paradise" and "Expressive Esoterica". The 11 outstanding foreign directors are in "Fringe Benefits". Sarris goes on in other sections to discuss directors that he views as less accomplished than all of these. He also has a section on directors who were feature filmmaking newcomers in 1968, and just starting out on their careers. Some of these, notably John Cassavetes, Curtis Harrington, Sam Peckinpah, Peter Tewksbury and Peter Watkins, should now be considered as outstanding filmmakers, too.

The Era of Auteurism

The 1960's and 1970's in France, England and the United States are often seen as a Golden Age of film appreciation. Young people, especially, were intensely interested in film. At the time, they were called the film generation. Today, people sometimes refer to this era as the era of cinephilia (meaning "love of film"). There is much discussion of how this enthusiasm can be recaptured today.

What is less often discussed are the root causes of this era of film enthusiasm. Undoubtedly, factors in the production, exhibition and distribution of films played a role. But the prevalence of auteurism in this era also seems important. Much public discussion of film in France, England and the United States was couched in terms of some version of the auteur theory. The foreign film directors whose works were so popular in theaters in the era were the gods of the auteurists. One of the most loved directors of the era, François Truffaut, was the inventor of the auteur theory. Another, Jean-Luc Godard, the most intellectually prestigious of the foreign directors, also doubled as a film critic. His collected writings, translated as Godard on Godard, are a classic of auteur criticism. Rivette, Chabrol and Rohmer were also early pioneers of auteurism. Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Bresson, Resnais, Makavejev, Rossellini: these were the directors championed by the auteurists. The long lines that greeted their movies at theaters, and the cultural excitement they generated, were directly related to the auteurism that was nearly universal in the era.

Not only foreign directors, but also new American directors also championed auteurism. Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese doubled as auteur critics themselves, while John Cassavetes praised Sarris as an outstanding critic.

Huge numbers of auteurist studies of directors were published in this era. These books were widely read, especially by students. Sarris' The American Cinema was widely read by young people. Auteurism gave everyone an informed intellectual background to discuss film.

However, in the late 1970's commercial publishers stopped publishing most film books. This brought the flood of auteur books largely to an end, at least till the revival of commercial film book publishing in the 1990's.

Today, film people mourn the era of cinephilia, and talk a lot about how it might be brought back. But they rarely admit how auteurist based this era was. The collapse of foreign film distribution is likely to be related to the collapse of auteurism. Without the Auteur Theory, people will continue to be deeply ignorant about film history. And people will never feel enthusiasm for something about which they are ignorant. You have to have knowledge and understanding about a subject, before you can love it. Until we bring back auteurism, and give the public a solid grounding in the history of film, the mourning for the era of cinephilia will be purely crocodile tears.

Reasons for Optimism

I am not trying to paint a too rosy picture of the past, or criticize the present. Opportunities to see films in the 1960's were mainly restricted to campus film societies, and some big cities. Today, millions of people can see great films, thanks to video, DVD and cable television. The rise of the Internet makes it much easier for people to communicate ideas, as well. So there is great reason to hope that we are at the start of a period where millions of people can take part in film culture.

Academia: Still Sitting on the Fence

Academic critics have tended to evade the twin issues of the Auteur Theory, and whether popular art has real value. Academia is full of expert cinema scholars, who know a great deal about film history. But Academics have also tended to write less about classic Hollywood films than of other kinds of cinema. Instead, they will publish scholarly books about less controversial areas, such as very early silent cinema, or high prestige foreign film directors. This has allowed them to make contributions to the serious scholarly study of film, without committing themselves publicly pro or con about either auteurism or popular art. Another evasion tactic: during the 1960's and 1970's it was considered normal for critics to publish lists of who they thought were the top film directors in world film history. Contemporary Academics have tended to avoid any such discussion. One can read a very good 500 page professorial study about early silents or Antonioni, and have no idea what the critic's views on film history as a whole are. What does the professor think about Hawks? Welles? Mizoguchi? Renoir? Satyajit Ray? Brakhage? Cocteau? It is impossible to tell. (By the way, I love all of these directors.)

Oddly enough, auteurism would normally be a good fit with academic scholarly values. The careful, in-depth study of films made by auteurist critics is similar to academic ideals, while the broad synthetic interpretations of film history by auteurists represent the careful theorizing based on close attention to evidence supported by academic scholarship. In terms of scholarship and methodology, auteurism would closely fit the most rigorous academic ideals of scholarly research.

However, the big sticking point between Academia and auteurism has never revolved around issues of scholarship or methodology. The big question has always been: do the best works of popular art, once merchandised to the public as commercial entertainment, qualify as full-fledged works of art? I strongly believe the answer to this question is "Yes". But Academia has had great difficulty making up its mind about this issue.