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June 2012 Archives

June 17, 2012

Irony in the Cathedral

Beneath the storied dome and gilded mosaics of St. Paul's Cathedral, an inscription in gilt letters is embedded in the cathedral floor, bordering the stained-glass windows behind the altar: "To the American Dead of the Second World War From the People of Britain."

A fair distance away from that inscription, but still under the cathedral roof, is the monument to the memory of Charles, Marquis Cornwallis. The inscription on the monument is devoted entirely to Cornwallis' service as Governor-General of Bengal. There is no mention of his service, a world away from both London and Bengal, as commander of His Majesty King George III's forces against the rebels in the Colonies. Cornwallis was so contemptuous of Americans, and so humiliated at his defeat at their hands, that he refused to surrender his sword in person to George Washington. In the parlance of our day, he had his people contact Washington's people.

One imagines the shade of Cornwallis gnashing his teeth at the collaborators Churchill and George VI, whom he must have regarded as being on the same moral plane as Petain and Quisling. (But not Benedict Arnold, a loyal servant of the Crown.) When Tony Blair said, "Sorry about that," regarding the burning of the White House during the War of 1812, Cornwallis (who didn't live to see that war, but still) must have raised his spectral sword to cut the traitor down. And then threw a torch through the window of the Oval Office.

Whatever Cornwallis might have thought about a memorial to the rebels in St. Paul's, we will never know--at least not here, under the roof of Christopher Wren's cathedral, where thousands of worshipful pilgrims come every day to see the great edifice that survived the wrath of Hitler.

June 23, 2012

Andrew Sarris

Any American film buff who has ever used the French word, "auteur," has Andrew Sarris to thank for it. Though never as widely known as his friend Roger Ebert or his enemy Pauline Kael, Sarris wielded the most influence of all late-20th-century American film critics among the generation of reviewers who came after him. In his appreciation of Sarris, Ebert puts it succinctly: "Kael was my muse, but Sarris was my mapmaker."

Sarris died earlier this week at the age of 83, after more than a half-century of writing bracing and scholarly reviews for "The Village Voice," "The New York Observer," and other publications. Living in Paris in the 1950s, Sarris befriended the staff of the legendary film magazine "Cahiers du Cinema." Those staff members read like an honor roll of late-20th-century French filmmakers--Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard. Sarris returned to New York to preach the gospel of Auteurism--the theory that a great director is the true author of his films, his or her style as consistent and distinctive as that of a great novelist, composer, or painter.

I have read far less of Sarris than I have of Ebert or Kael, and so I cannot speak authoritatively of the exact disputes between Sarris and Kael, other than that Kael rejected the Auteur Theory. I also cannot speak as to why Sarris enshrined John Ford, Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock among his auteurs, but not David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, William Wyler, Otto Preminger or Billy Wilder. Or why, later on, that he changed his mind about Wilder and declared him an auteur. The Quiet Man, The General, City Lights, Citizen Kane and Vertigo are great films by anybody's definition. But so, to my mind, are Brief Encounter, Dr. Strangelove, Dodsworth, Laura, and Double Indemnity.

I can only say that, as a film fan who was still in kindergarten when Sarris began publishing his reviews, the Auteur Theory makes sense to me, even acknowledging that filmmaking, like theater, is a collaborative process. How often do important directors use the same actors, cinematographers, editors, production designers? To have a vision as a director, you also have to know who is sympathetic to your vision and can help you achieve it.

In any case, movies were the joy, the obsession, the lifeblood of Andrew Sarris, and his passion will inform future generations of filmgoers. In his appreciation of Sarris, Ebert writes, "I cannot call up in my memory a picture of him discussing a film without smiling." That says it all.

About June 2012

This page contains all entries posted to MDM in June 2012. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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