Q&A: MOLLY HASKELL & ANDREW SARRIS
Highlights from Issue 23: The Auteur Issue
Film critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris
Photographs courtesy of the authors
Monday, November 07, 2005
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What follows is an excerpt from Issue 23: The Auteur Issue
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE: Molly Haskell + Andrew Sarris
Interview moderated by Annie Nocenti
Partners in life and in cinema, Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris are two of New York's foremost film critics, and are largely responsible for introducing auteur theory to the United States. In this interview excerpt, they stress the importance of the venerable film journal, Cahiers du Cinema.
Molly Haskell: Let's talk about you and the auteur theory, aka la politique des auteurs.
Andrew Sarris: In 1963 I wrote an article, “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” for Film Culture magazine. François Truffaut had written an article in 1954 called “Une certaine tendance du cinéma francais” in Cahiers du Cinema, in which he used the term la politique des auteurs. The article, which I hadn't actually read at the time, was a very controversial attack on certain French directors and screenwriters for being too slavish to the literary element in their work. The interesting thing about Cahiers du Cinema was that the writers were postwar people.
MH: Yes, they were not swept up in the prevailing crypto-Marxist thinking that shaped most of prewar intellectual life. They were young and hadn't inherited all the political orthodoxies. They were sort of apolitical. These writers' great impact in America was that, up until that time, American genre directors were considered inferior to the art-house European directors.
AS: As a good example, the first serious book about Alfred Hitchcock, which was written by Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer in 1957, was the first time Hitchcock was treated as a major artist. I picked up on that because, like most people, I always liked Hitchcock. In my auteur article I rediscovered Hitchcock and Howard Hawks and a lot of the action directors who were never included in film histories because they weren't serious — they didn't contribute to the development of mankind.
MH: Let's talk about this “revolution of taste.” During World War II, there had been no American movies shown in France. Suddenly after the war, the Cahiers writers, most of whom would become directors — Chabrol, Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and Truffaut — were seeing some of the great American works.
AS: Four years of American movies were being shown in one year. They were showing movies made in 1939 alongside movies made in 1946. This gave these critics a context for discussing careers.
MH: And because they didn't understand the English language that well, they were looking at these movies in ways that people hadn't looked at them before. They were seeing a visual style — the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the different directors.
AS: That's true. Most of the Cahiers directors would later become famous as part of the Nouvelle Vague, the New Wave, although Chabrol once tried to put a damper on that speculation. He said, “There are no waves, there's only the ocean.” That's very much how I feel now. Things are much more complex now. Now you have films from national film industries all over the world that were once completely unknown to American moviegoers.
But back then, for example, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times — who was probably the most influential critic of all time — when he reviewed a film, his credit list would begin with the screenwriter and then the director. Now you can't find any reference books where the director doesn't come first. Sometimes they don't even mention the screenwriter. So it's gone too much the other way since I wrote “Notes on the Auteur Theory, 1962.”
MH: So without really meaning to, you made a bold strike with your article.
AS: The one thing I'll claim, in all modesty, is that I brought the word auteur into the English language. That's all. People in America had never read what the French actually said. Now, Truffaut's article was an attack on certain French screenwriters, particularly Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, a team of writers that made a lot of the films that were considered the tradition of quality in America.
MH: Good-taste films. With literary pedigrees.
AS: But now it's gone too far the other way. There's too much suspicion of well-written screenplays or anything even vaguely literary appearing on the screen. Every director has to show his wild visual style in order to establish himself and blaze a trail immediately.