Adieu, Monsieur Auteur
An obituary in last Thursday's New York Times took me back in spirit to some of the happiest and most influential hours of my student years at UConn. These hours weren't spent in the classroom, though I'm grateful for the excellent musical education I received in Storrs. They didn't take place in the radio studio, though my career path was set at good ol' WHUS. No, these hours took place in assorted auditoria, lecture halls, or basically any room that could be filled with a projector, a screen, and a few dozen chairs. Yes, movie fans, I was a proud, card-carrying member of the UConn Film Society.
Not that being admitted to the society took anything more than a few bucks at the beginning of the semester. But the benefits were, if you'll pardon the expression, eye-opening. Avid film viewer as I had been, given to staying up to all hours in order to absorb the vintage flicks shown on New York's independent TV stations, I had no idea that most of the movies shown even existed. A certified and insufferable jazz & classical music snob, I had only the dimmest notion of film as an art form worthy of serious discussion, beyond perhaps the "important" (i.e., foreign) films we learned a little about in junior year English class. Besides, we didn't sell Cahiers du Cinéma at Squash's, the news, office and cigar store I clerked at through my school years.
But I got the idea right from the first semester, when the cinéastes who ran the society put on a excellently curated and annotated retrospective of American director George Cukor. I knew nothing about Cukor, though I had seen his "Dinner at Eight" and "The Philadelphia Story." Yet here was a filmmaker — a Hollywood filmmaker — being deemed worthy of the respect I only accorded to the likes of Béla Bartók or Duke Ellington (I told you I was insufferable). And the movies! "David Copperfield." "The Women." "Pat and Mike." "A Star is Born" (the Judy Garland-James Mason remake, and an all-time favorite). Not only did I love 'em all, but the cumulative effect of the retrospective was to drill some Big Ideas into my obsidian skull. Film directors, even (gasp) Hollywood directors, mattered. A director like George Cukor could have a style, evident in all of his work. Not that I, not knowing my montage from my mise-en-scène, could have told you how he did it; I just knew I saw it in the way the films looked and the actors acted. Popular films were worth discussing alongside their arty imported counterparts. If that was true about movies, maybe it was true about the other arts, including (could it be?) music. Who'd ever have thought such things?
Well, the man who not only thought them, but spent a lifetime preaching them with every atom of passion he could muster died on Wednesday at age 83. Andrew Sarris, long-time film critic ofThe Village Voice and later New York Observer was a spirited advocate of the "auteur theory," which holds that a film's director is its "author," and that a director's vision shines through all of the many factors that go into producing a film. I first encountered Sarris through his seminal book "The American Cinema," which I discovered at about the same time as the Cukor series. Consisting of capsule assessments of American directors from silents to then-current, divided into great, near-great, overrated ("Less Than Meets the Eye") and other qualitative categories, Sarris's book became my bible, his taste impeccable, his judgments definitive. Of course, I eventually began to make my own mind up about my cinematic leanings, but this was a pretty great place to start. To the extent that Sarris had a similar influence on the curators of the UConn Film Society's offerings, I have him to thank for some of my most important early discoveries. So, Monsieur Auteur, thank you for Frank Borzage's "A Man's Castle." For Akira Kurosawa's "Dodes'ka-den." For Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of Life." And especially for John Ford's "The Searchers," my all-time favorite movie, soon to be on the big screen at a cinema near you!