“Fritz Lang” by Andrew Sarris
from The American Cinema: Directors and Directions (1968)
Although he is often at his best when putting a director down, Sarris knocks this analysis of a director he deems Pantheon out of the park. The opening lines exemplify two of Sarris’ trademark strengths, contextualizing the auteur (here by associating Lang with high points of German culture) and delivering him gloriously backhanded compliments: “Fritz Lang’s cinema is the cinema of the nightmare, the fable, and the philosophical dissertation. Lang’s apparent weaknesses are the consequences of his virtues. He has always lacked the arid sophistications lesser directors display to such advantage.”
“The Importance of Being Sarcastic: Sátántangó” by Jonathan Rosenbaum (1994)
Béla Tarr is the ultimate Rosenbaum filmmaker, so it’s only natural that his seven-hour magnum opus gets as Rosenbaumian a review as possible, replete with references to Faulkner, footnotes recommending works that are only available in French, and intimations that J. Ros is a much bigger hipster than his fellow film critics. Okay, so I’m being a bit smug, but we’re dealing with an essay in praise of sarcasm here. Rosenbaum has smartly fashioned himself as a more cinephilic version of Susan Sontag, and rarely does that cosmopolitan, bookish swagger come off better than in his rave of one of Sontag’s own favorites.
“The Royal Tenenbaums: Faded Glories” by Kent Jones (2002)
Simply stated, Kent Jones is the most original presence in American film criticism since Andrew Sarris in the 60s. Like Sarris, his knowledge is boundless, and he has a similarly keen eye for auteurs’ trademarks; a gift for explication, and for topping one observation with a bigger one; a knack for rooting out references in a given film hitherto unmentioned in reviews; and a penchant for writing essays that feel like orations, composed of rousing phrases about the audio-visual, intellectual, and emotional merits of a given film.
There the similarities end. Unlike Sarris, Jones is a filmmaker’s critic. His longstanding, close friendships with many of the world’s leading art film directors—Assayas, Denis, and of course Scorsese, to name a few—may explain his inimitable, humanistic understanding of what films mean and why they are made. His odes to Hiroshima mon amour, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Where the Wild Things Are have particularly inspired me. His extremely thorough, yet remarkably concise, analyses of said films communicate the awe that I feel while watching them but could never put into words.
“Neo-Neo Realism” by A.O. Scott (2009)
Debating whether or not to include this article, which had a huge impact on me when it was first published but which I haven’t thought about so much in the last few years, I googled “A.O. Scott neo realism.” The first result, a series of incredibly pedantic counterpoints to the Scott piece by Richard Brody, made me realize how major “Neo-Neo Realism” really is. Charting the movement’s influences, situating it in the broader American cultural landscape, and articulating its merits in a straightforward style reminiscent of Otis Ferguson, whom he alludes to, Scott proves his simple point: “American film is (or, three years ago, was) having its Neorealist moment, and not a moment too soon.”