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Why Criticism: Sarris vs. Kael

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Cinephiles don’t always like when facts interfere with legend. For many, it doesn’t quite matter that audiences likely didn’t run in fear when the Lumière brothers screened L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895) — we want to hold onto that foundational myth of our medium. Many film fans want to believe the fantastic world we see onscreen has its footing in the real world. Even cinema’s realists are deeply entranced in dreams and ideology, upholding manifestos and aesthetics that are no more real than the magical worlds of Georges Méliès. “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world,” as Jean-Luc Godard would say.

It should, therefore, be of little surprise, that this fantasy should also extend to the mythology of criticism. Godard himself lies at the centre of our favourite legend of film criticism: the Cahiers du Cinéma and the birth of the French New Wave. We accept Cahiers du Cinéma and the future New Wavists as those responsible for paving the way for serious film writing while also perpetuating the myth (unironically) that critics are just failed or aspiring artists. The whirl of hysterical admiration that surrounds this era has often lead to a dulled desire to investigate it deeper. As we accept myth as truth, the waters of thought become murky and we’re left with stories of romance… ones that serve as a disservice to great artists and writers in general.

The same kind of mythological grandstanding surrounds the public rivalry between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, which maybe wasn’t as pointed or intellectually rigorous as we might want to believe. The ongoing public debate that we so willfully imagine now was never a reality. They swiped at each other in reviews and articles, and Kael, in particular, would almost revel in tearing down Sarris and the auteur theory as she infamously did in “Circles and Squares”, inviting skepticism on not only Sarris but auteurism in general. After quoting Sarris, she jumps in with a mocking tone — appropriating his metaphor for husking corn and turning it against him — and willfully misunderstanding his words.

Sarris helped change the landscape of contemporary American criticism, bringing the Auteur Theory to our shores. To this date, one of the most debated and maligned theories in film studies, it nonetheless opened the floodgates for more serious consideration of cinema as not only a business, but as an artform. While I share some of Kael’s apprehensions surrounding the ranking and hierarchy of the system as initially presented by Sarris, the lifetime of criticism that followed supported the need for a canonical upheaval at that particular time and place. Ironically, as Kael condemned Sarris for his overtly “scientific” approach, she herself was far more dogmatic and inflexible than he ever was.

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(Photo: Robin Platzer/Getty Images)

Time has been kinder to Sarris than Kael, who, nearly fifteen years after her death, still inspires a great deal of vitriol. She was contrarian and stubborn. Her bias for and against certain filmmakers was legendary, and she was unafraid of making her dislike and distrust of other artists known. This often overshadows her great contributions to the medium and the inspired cut of her tone. Kael contributed not only some great arguments that challenged the status quo of criticism, she did it with style. There was a performative edge to Kael that resonates as incredibly modern, and almost transcendent for a writer…. I admire her intently. Sarris was always more reasoned and contemplative, an his legacy unsurprisingly has more weight in the contemporary critical landscape. But I assert that while Sarris was a better critic, Kael was the better writer.

In his last years, Sarris himself went out of his way to negate their rivalry as nothing more than misunderstandings. In this piece for “Scanners with Jim Emerson”, published shortly after Sarris’ death, a great summation of his legacy, rivalry and influence put into doubt the romance of their rivalry as somehow representative of an age when criticism mattered.

Rivalries, of course, still exist in the contemporary critical landscape. Social media has widened the playing field, and much of it has become rooted in personalities and performances. There are similarly ideological and theoretical camps as well, which butt heads on indie darlings and enormously blockbusters alike. There are more voices than ever before, and, as a result, more politics, more personal slights, and more perspectives.

As often as we bemoan how much uglier this landscape may be — marred by PR pieces and white noise — there is also (on occasion) a little too much saccharine camaraderie, perpetuating an old-school sort of club that I’d rather watch die than thrive. While rivalries and debates are often more romantic in retrospect — the great one-liners and the heightened emotions enduring more than the petty squabbles and bruised egos — they not only add colour but scrutinize critical discourse. Art and criticism might not be a race, but sometimes a little head-butting forces us to be more firm and more resolute in our hot takes — or even better, open to the idea that those who disagree with you might be onto something.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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