Commentary Magazine


Film Buffs & Critics

To the Editor:

“Historicity”? Could Andrew Sarris [“An Aesthete at the Movies,” February] be kidding? No, he could not. Kidding is too subtle for him. Sarris is nothing if not depressingly straight. He is also much narrower and cagier than his rhetoric, in this ostensible review of my two earliest film books, pretends. I think I can reveal this to readers who might be casually deceived by Sarris’s genially masked pontificating. Your critic begins by attacking a lecture I gave in the late 40’s at Butler Library, Columbia University, as a “humorless diatribe against Hollywood philistinism, then, especially, the deadest of dead horses.” When Sarris goes all out, he has no luck.

The ill-grounded terminology is as meaningless as the dateline. Sarris himself has carried that “deadest of dead horses” on his back ever since, and all these years he has been praising it as alive and well, and giving it pet names borrowed from Cahiers du Cinéma. Its true identity? Mere Hollywood mediocrity, rampant in petrified postures. My view of it and my lecture (for which Sarris conceived at once a morbid fixation) would remain a basic conundrum to an observer such as he, whether at nineteen or thirty-nine. Sarris could never appreciate my daring, my wit, or my camp. He is allergic to wit, absolutely doesn’t dig camp, and like all liberalism-coated philistines, is suspicious of daring. Yet, with the second wind of a hungry animal, he scented something “good” about that lecture (as we shall see) and wanted it all. When he saw how I carried off the affair, his reflex anticipated the achievements of LSD. Hence his description of me as “self-possessed and academically chic” becomes a bowdlerized version of the effect I had on him (if you think I exaggerate, go on reading). He was flipped by the possibilities I opened up. But he was also utterly spoiled for writing the “history” he imagines he is constituting word by word.

Sarris’s “review” would have it that the premises of that fatal lecture were the basement of “what now is Butler Library” (it was Butler Library then): “the cultural catacombs,” he absurdly characterizes it, “to which serious discussions of the cinema were consigned in those days.” Flap-doodle, fried a la Sarris. My talk was part of an august series mostly on recognized academic subjects by recognized academic lecturers. If I appeared an oddity among them, it was a special distinction, for Meyer Schapiro had been instrumental in inviting me to participate on film. The whole event was considered important enough by Columbia for it to be commemorated in a pamphlet containing the lecturers’ own précis of their talks, and I daresay the document still exists.

Sarris’s developed masochism (de rigueur in a popular teacher these days) drives him to paint himself in that scene as one of the “emotionally immature” listeners bound and gagged by my histrionic magic. With the tactics of a dishonest memoirist, he also paints himself as the only rebel-hero present to beard and taunt me with an unanswered question. Now a totally different side exists to this episode, a side for which Sarris is entirely, arbitrarily responsible but which, with typical possum-playing, he doesn’t mention in this review or in his book, Confessions of a Cultist. Not at all surprising, for he used to borrow my phrase “the Hollywood hallucination,” without always bothering to attribute it to me.

The point is that his account of the Butler Library event does not faintly suggest that, in 1965 and 1966, when he was on critical panels with me at the New York Film Festival, he twice gratuitously—once in a private aside—invoked that haunting lecture of mine as the original push that made him a film critic (something like: “You remember that talk you gave at Columbia: it made me want to become a film critic”) Surely some members of the Festival audience, and one or two panelists, must recall that Sarris made the same plug for me from the platform, during the discussion period with a panel composed of Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, Arthur Knight, Hollis Alpert, Sarris, and myself . . . after I had given another lecture seemingly not as fatal as the first Sarris heard.

Your critic gives the impression of having wanted to say something to or about me all these laborious years of his and now, finally, of having decided on the form it should take: Slander, the Journalist’s Friend. A prime example of it is his alleged device for refuting that distant lecture’s theme (an attack on the commercial film’s grotesque ignorance of artists and its vulgar disrespect for them) by citing Korda’s respectful Rembrandt, which he says that I denied having seen. Such a denial is unthinkable of me. The film had been made in 1936 and the record of my regard for it is in my Classics of the Foreign Film. For the purposes of that book, I had elected to bring out a film’s merits and scant its defects. I considered Laughton a gifted actor who behaved well on some film occasions; later, he became the usual decadent hack the movies produce. But being an ornamental and decent Rembrandt, which Laughton was, was far from being a perfect one.

What of Sarris’s complaint? Choked up, historically and hysterically, with film-buff sentimentalism and self-righteousness, he points out “Laughton’s uncanny incarnation of Rembrandt, an incarnation so memorable that it haunts me whenever I see a Rembrandt self-portrait.” On these grounds he proceeds to indict me for irresponsibility to art, artists, and film criticism! My mellow association with art criticism, as some of your readers surely know, is no professional secret. I had not the least reason, even then, to be shy of committing myself on the issue Sarris alleges he brought up, for I had been practicing art criticism even before I began practicing film criticism. To Sarris’s pretentious tribute to Laughton as Rembrandt I can reply that anyone compulsively reminded of Laughton’s impersonation “whenever he sees a Rembrandt self-portrait” has either atrocious taste or eyesight too poor to see anything properly. There’s no second alternative.

Sarris’s transparent strategy (insulting, I think, to readers) is to give a carefully-edited side of the past and present, distorted by his own calculating prejudices. Nobody would know from the Sarris version that the two books of mine he calls into question were endorsed and admired by a roster of prestigious scholars and intellectual critics, all well known to serious readers. One of the art scholars was the late Erwin Panofsky, whose eminence Sarris makes the misstep of slyly using against me; others (enduring in their regard) include Allen Tate, Kenneth Burke, Wallace Fowlie, and Meyer Schapiro. Then Sarris uses the enshrined name of James Agee against me as if nobody recollected or might learn that men such as David Riesman, Eric Bentley, and Richard Schickel have bracketed me with Agee. Sarris himself agrees with Schickel that Gore Vidal is indebted to me not just regarding the joke of Myra Breckinridge, but also in its deep conspiracy with offbeat sex, because of my earliest writings on Hollywood erotics.

Sarris’s boobish tactic is to throw a casual air of history-writing over the core of his personal malice. With perfect blandness he writes that these reprints of mine (1944 and 1947) “have dated badly,” by-passing the relevant fact that two men not belonging to his coterie, Eric Bentley and David T. Bazelon, still adhere to their original opinion that The Hollywood Hallucination—and for Bentley also its successor—has a resonant, indispensable importance, and that these men still urge their readers to consult it. As to my five subsequent film books, Sarris safely corrals them in one equivocally extenuating parenthesis. And why? Because to relate their contents to his categoric dismissal of me here would pull the carpet from under his more grandly generalized judgments such as: “He [Tyler] never sees movies in the process of evolution.” It is Sarris who will not see me in the process of evolution, instead evoking a factitious historical situation in film criticism so as to embarrass me at all costs.

His true motivation becomes clear, astoundingly clear, in his climactic peroration, where I am “exposed” as one who “prefers to pose, from the 40’s till now, as the high priest of high art in the temples of the philistines” as well as a Wildean homosexual “expressing his own aesthetic under the guise of educating the reader.” These statements are due, first, a big ha-ha. Then Sarris might be reprimanded for utilizing so shameless a totalitarian gambit, worthy of the secret police. Yet that is still not the crux of the matter. This bursts out with his grossest gaffe of all: “The fact is that Parker Tyler has never come out in the open on the real-life basis of his bias.” To honor this barbarism with a specific answer: How much farther can one come out into the open than by publishing, as I have done over several decades, enough confiding erotic poems to make a book?

Anyway, my forthcoming book of criticism, Homosexuality in the Movies, should quite remove all public doubts about “the real-life basis of [my] bias.” Sarris should be more than satisfied with it since his careerist’s game is to have me get myself so deeply committed homosexually that I shall seem to be disqualifying myself as a film critic. I am afraid, however, his is the silly, overprofessionalized delusion and wish of a man who imagines film criticism is sexlessly computerized scholarship: an exclusive trade specialty. No! Film criticism, like the arts, is about something. And it’s about much, much more, than the professional robots Sarris devotes himself to legitimizing while under “the Hollywood hallucination” that film-buffing makes film criticism.

Parker Tyler
New York City

_____________

 

Andrew Sarris writes:

Parker Tyler’s response to my article is to be commended for illuminating the differences in our outlooks. I have never questioned the size or scope of his influence and importance in film criticism. Indeed, much of my critical writing has been dedicated to the proposition that there are more things in Hollywood movies than are dreamt of in Parker Tyler’s philosophy. That I have more respect for his criticism of subjects with which he is culturally more congenial goes to prove only that conviction yields richer insights than condescension.

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