For many a burgeoning cinephile, Andrew Sarris’ “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929 – 1968” was the original Netflix queue. It was followed shortly afterward by another significant guide, New York Film Festival founder Amos Vogel’s “Film as a Subversive Art.” Both authors, longstanding fixtures of New York film culture beloved by thousands of movie lovers worldwide, died this year: Vogel last April and Sarris last Wednesday.
Often, when a decent person passes away, the reminiscences come and go like a fading echo. Sarris and Vogel will never lose their relevance. They left behind something even better than track records. Both “The American Cinema” and “Film as Subversive Art” have an interactive dimension that endows them with endless influence.
They are also a reliable escape from contemporary online discourse. Words you will never find in either tome: “Spoiler.” “Embargo.” “Press junket.” “Exclusive.” In an snark-fueled media environment that eagerly documents its own declining discourse, Sarris and Vogel still provide waystations to cinema with the power of pure, unadulterated resources that have actually become more useful with each passing year. Their books are essentially maps to a destination that never grows stale with age.
While the quality of contemporary cinema is always subject for debate, nobody can deny that there are more opportunities than ever to see movies. The modern movie audience has a curatorial responsibility to itself. Forget about Sarris’ hilariously confounding categories for various auteurs in “The American Cinema.” It matters less that Frank Tashlin is relegated to “Expressive Esoterica” and Antonioni is a “Fringe Benefit;” reading entries on both directors will lead you to discovering the likes of “Will Success Spoil Rock Hudson?” and “L’Avventura” within a few pages of each other. The book provides a means of exploring the range of cinema and then drawing your own conclusions. The hype over a so-called dispute involving the auteur theory, which Sarris helped popularize, only matters for its potency as a point of inquiry.
The same value exists with “Film as a Subversive Art,” the product of Vogel’s legendary Cinema 16 screening club. The two books have little overlap, since Vogel’s categorizations related a broad spectrum of international cinema, particularly experimental cinema, rather than individual filmmaker identities. Vogel focused, as he put it, on “the congruence of avant-garde art and radical ideology” put into action. Writing with a blend of passion and keen analysis about the works of Stan Brakhage and Werner Herzog alike, Vogel chronicled cinema’s ability to push boundaries and ask questions. It was a necessary counterpoint to “The American Cinema” in that it expanded on Sarris’ ability to treat the medium as a high art by molding its status into something tangible.
The more one watches movies, the more daunting the task becomes. I would like to meet the cinephile who has seen every movie listed in both “The American Cinema” and “Film as a Subversive Art” and shake his hand, but he’s probably in a screening room somewhere. For us mere mortals, these books remain hugely beneficial guidebooks and a model for the discipline necessary to study the medium to this day. Will someone ever craft a sequel to “The American Cinema” expanding Sarris’ categories to the auteurs of today? Perhaps, but in the meantime, the existing volume will do.