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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968
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on September 20, 2007
If you don't know this book, buy it immediately. It takes American film criticism up to about 1970 and coincides with the time Sarris was involved with the (real) Village Voice, Jonas Mekas, American Cahiers,and the founding of the NY Film Festival and the national society of film critics. It took me about five years of reading his reviews until I finally got it - Sarris had understood that the most profound thoughts and themes were played out with style and panache by genre filmmakers with personal obsessions and ideas that did not require Western Union to spell it out.

There's some things to quibble about (I never could see why he thought so highly of Blake Edwards, but I keep trying because I trust his insight. Even Sarris can change his mind as he did on Billy Wilder a few years back).

If you are a film buff and have not discovered his work (also recommended:
Confessions of a Cultist; The John Ford Mystery Book; You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet are among the best) start here. That goes double if you experience guilty pleasure and see things no one else does in people like Anthony Mann, Michael Powell, Sam Fuller, Max Ophuls, Budd Boetticher or James Whale. I have often given this book as a gift to film loving friends. It opens a world of discovery and rapport when a friends "gets it" and suddenly, you both have a shared sensibility and frame of reference.
Also, check out his website for yearly top ten lists and also the work of his wife Molly Haskell (especially good on Howard Hawks).
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on January 9, 2015
This book is a classic and was a Christmas present for a relative who is a film freak. It covers American film directors and their films/film careers through 1968. Welles, Von Sternburg, John Houston, etc. Most of the directors worked in black and white first. For those who are not aware of the old masters (and a few losers) this is a fine book for film study.
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on January 3, 2015
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on March 20, 2015
Read this many years ago and am planning to re-read it. The part about the tension between the material and the artist never made much sense and Sarris never applied it during his movie reviewing career. We all read it because it was a touchstone on what to watch and a tool for organizing your thinking about films and what separates a good director from a great one. You can pretty much find the bad ones on your own. The fight between Sarris and Pauline Karl enriched film criticism. They were equally matched great critics. There willnever be another pair like them or as illuminating as they were. David Debby and Anthony Lane apparently no longer work at the New Yorker and the magazine isn't saying why. I called the magazine to inquire and never received a return call. I'm discovering RogerEbert's writing after years of thinking he was a jerk on television.Anybody worth reading that I'm overlooking?
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on June 21, 2012
Sarris's book started a salvo the equivalent of the battle of Tushima Straits between those who bought the French idea of the director as "author" or auteur, and those who did not. Filmmakers bought the auteur theory whole hog, and why not, since it put directors into the same rank as poets, painters, composers and novelists. Sarris approached his analysis by ranking directors by his view of their worth. His ideas on certain directors will madden some, particularly in his "Less Than Meets the Eye," category, but overall, Sarris presents us with a well-thought-out view of American film, arguably the most important cultural force since the printing of the Bible in vernacular languages. Some drawbacks, for which Sarris is not at fault: the work is dated, stopping in 1968, right before the massive burst of new directors who would change American film for a brief time, until blockbusters stifled them. If you are interested in Cinema, in film studies, in writing film criticism, this book is worth your while.
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on August 24, 2014
I am not a contrarian by nature but there are several points that require clarification among the many reviews of Sarris’ seminal “The American Cinema.” In an historical context, the book is of interest because he is an early proponent of the director as auteur theory. I would compare it to an early English dictionary in that word origins are delineated and classifications and definitions are from years ago. Meanings have remained the same for many but others have changed and new words have been added. Sarris was wise in his introduction to state that this work was not the last word on the subject but more of springboard for further discussion.
Surely no one would argue that Mr. Sarris is very erudite and an excellent writer very similar, in fact, to David Thompson. These characteristics may sway many even though his opinions may be erroneous. Although true that various directors’ works are reevaluated, it is hard to conceive that Billy Wilder was not recognized as an important director. I know that he later admitted this transgression and corrected himself. Still other now esteemed directors such as Sidney Lumet, John Huston, Elia Kazan, and Stanley Kubrick are not given their true value. He stated that Robert Mulligan never directed an entirely satisfactory film yet he helmed one of the great films of the sixties “To Kill a Mockingbird. “. In Sarris’ defense some of the artists’ better films were yet to be made. I was impressed that he recognized Francis Coppola’s talent before “The Godfather.”
In summary, “The American Cinema” is interesting to read in its historical context. It is not a reliable reference book due to its antiquated inaccuracies and the cursory treatment of many of the subjects covered. Mr. Sarris’ scholarly approach is impressive but does not convince with his incorrect assessments of several directors of major talent.
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Auteur criticism is, in my opinion, a profoundly flawed theory of cinema that nonetheless was instrumental in emphasising the important role the director. Anyone not in the grip of a theory and aware of the myriad of factors that goes into the making of a good film has to realize that a vast array of factors goes into the final product. Only in rare instances can a film be said to be the expression of the will of the director and treated as such. Frequently a film can be carried not by the director, but by the cinematographer, the editor, the actors, or the screenwriter (anyone who has read the original screenplay of CITIZEN KANE can enjoy a graphic instance of the role a good screenplay can play in the production of a masterpiece).
Having pointed that out, Sarris did help America take directors more seriously than they had ever been taken before, and for that he must be applauded. That took many took the director to be the only game in town doesn't undercut the value of this book
Stepping off my soapbox, let me just say how much fun this book is. It is great fun to argue with Sarris about which directors he places in the Pantheon (the best of the best of the directors to have worked in the U.S.) and which he leaves out. It would be wonderful if he were to turn his attention to producing an updated version of the book, extending into the current decade. I would be interested to see to what extent he revised the Pantheon, to see where he placed Coppola, Scorsese, Sayles, and Spielberg.
Recommended to anyone with a more-than-casual interest in American cinema.
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on June 19, 2009
No book I've ever owned has influenced my life more than this one. It has remained in continuous use as a single very well-worn copy since purchased in 1974. Not only the precepts, but the very words are burned into my brain. Is it good or bad that I can't get "Inconsistency is the hobgoblin of Tay Garnett's career" out of my head? I doubt it is as easy to fall under Sarris's spell with 40 years having passed since the book's publication, but perhaps I'm wrong, with TCM and Netflix providing fairly easy access to the films I sought out like a pilgrim based on Sarris's writing. I still can't imagine a better way to delve into film history than through this amazingly articulate work.
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on May 28, 2002
This volume parses the good guys from the bad guys, tells you whom you should love and why, and summarily dismisses the ones not worth taking seriously. In other words, for good or bad, it arms you, as will no other film book ever written, with a set of eloquently-stated prejudices that may seal off certain directors from your serious consideration for all time. (It would be too glib to say that this is the books best and worst point.) Suffice to say, it has taken years for me to tear down the wall Sarris built between me, as a budding cinephile, and William Wyler, Billy Wilder, John Huston and even John Frankenheimer, for that matter. (These are just a few of the ones I think he was, or may have been, wrong about.)
But I love this book and always find it worth picking up to reread a few entries, for two or three reasons that never grow old:
1) Sarris IS an absolutely remarkable writer. His prose bristles with alternately apt and acid phrases and insights. The parallel between Ambrose Bierce and Sarris has grown on me through the years. (I think it was Sarris who brought currency to the word "pretentious"-- possibly THE serious put-down word from the 70s to the 90s, possibly to the present-- by the way. He used it with unerring surgical delicacy, as a bludgeon.)
2) He is hard to argue with in his negative evaluation of certain other respected directors. Thirty-five years ago, Sarris renounced Kubrick, noting, in typical form, that the very fact that he made one film every 5 years seemed to be all the proof his advocates needed of his integrity. Ouch! And he said that Kubrick is the director of the best coming attractions in the business.
This last is highly prophetic of the present general situation, when Hollywood has made a sort of science of over-selling weak films with absurdly hyperbolic trailers that often have little to do with the tone or experience of the films they advertise. This comment indicates also how much of Sarris is audaciously arguable, and out of synch with conservative academia re Kubrick and just about everything else. --Not a bad thing, as far as I am concerned.) And I think he was also decades ahead of the curve in recognizing Keaton as Chaplin's better.
3) He has been, for decades, an antidote to Pauline Kael. Period.
If you know the directors covered well enough to take it all with a grain of salt where needed, this book is probably the best read on movies and their directors from the second and third quarters of the 20th Century that will ever be written. THE great mapping out of this seminal period by the auteur theorys chief surveyor-- and a fun and drolly amusing place to pick up your snazzy-looking anti-philistine, anti-pretentious attitude off-the-rack.
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on January 22, 1999
Since 1973, when I bought the book for a college course, the book is a permanent part of my library. I should have replaced the original by now, but I owe to it my appetite and appreciation for movies. Even when I don't agree with Mr. Sarris (as with his estimation of John Huston) I know why; his erudition is so clear I am forced to explain myself. Reading him has taught me how to watch, explore, compare and contrast films and directors at least. I credit him with having deepend my entire experience of movie going.
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