C. Mason Wells, a Columbia University graduate and programmer at the IFC Center, co-curated the “Andrew Sarris: Expressive Esoterica” series which is currently running at Anthology Film Archives until March 31st. Double Exposure’s Justin Restivo sat down talk with Wells about Columbia, Sarris, auteur theory and other aspects of filmmaking.
Double Exposure: I wanted to start by asking you what your experience was like at Columbia in the Film program?
C. Mason Wells: I did the undergraduate Film Studies program. Annette Insdorf, who is still there, was my thesis advisor, and I took a bunch of classes in the department, then I took some film classes outside through someone named Paul Anderer, who taught a Japanese film class, but that was in the EALAC department. I went in wanting to basically have an excuse to watch as many movies as I possibly could in college. It seemed like a great way to be able to immerse myself in film history and just read and see as much as possible. The other thing that was up by Columbia was a Kim’s Mediapolis, which is no longer there, which was a great video store, and I would say that half of the film education was seeing things in class and half of it was just renting things on my own, and kind of pouring through all of the weird, old VHS tapes that they had and trying to find stuff that didn’t have distribution. So, it was kind of a two-fold thing. There was not much filmmaking happening among the undergrads, it was pretty academically focused, which I always liked. I’ve always been under the mindset of that if people are interested in doing film-making, they can learn a lot of those technical skills pretty quickly, but to actually have a sensibility and taste in film and knowledge about history is something that you can’t acquire as quickly, so I was really happy to have that experience. I liked the Film program there. I took classes with David Sterritt and Richard Pena, who are still there. It was a pretty rigorous program, which I liked. It’s nice that Columbia actually took film this seriously, as they should. I know there’s been a strong movement toward a lot of Film Studies programs in taking cinema seriously as an academic pursuit, but that hadn’t been the case for a long time, and I still think a lot of colleges don’t do that. A lot of them still only have Media Studies programs or something that’s sort of tangentially related or incorporates film in some way, but it’s nice to have something that’s purely just focused on film and different countries’ film histories and different aspects of film. Again, I took lots of film classes outside of the department. Hamid Debashi taught a Middle-Eastern cinema class, which was really great as well. There are lots of interdisciplinary opportunities to study film at Columbia.
DE: Did you ever have any run-ins with [Andrew] Sarris himself? Was he still teaching when you were a student?
CMW: Yeah, I took classes from Sarris. He was still there. I think he was teaching up until the very end of his life. He had been teaching at Columbia for a long time. He was a Columbia alum. His teaching style, just to be honest, was super casual. He did an International Cinema, I think 1960-1990, class where he showed some of the “greatest hits” of international foreign films. I took a writing film criticism class with him, as well, which was a little more engaged, where he, I mean, I probably shouldn’t be saying this because I think it was illegal, he would bring in screeners of new releases and he would show them to the students, sort of before they came out, because he was really interested in what his students had to say, especially about new movies. He was incredibly intellectually curious, even though he was well into his seventies, about what was going on. Even in the past, when he was doing weekly film reviews. He was doing that for a long time for The New York Observer. He was really interested by the internet and by the boom of film criticism that happened among young people. He was always someone who was adjusting to the times, even though he had this “Old World” spirit about him. He was a very genteel, witty man and a real gentleman. I remember some of his notes on my papers. I think I had written a review for the film criticism class of Battle in Heaven, that Carlos Reygadas movie, and had used some ribald in it, because it’s a raunchy movie in some regards, and he was just like, “Wow, this is not the type of thing that I could’ve ever gotten away with when I was writing for print publications, but it’s a whole new world now and I’m fascinated that you can adjust in that way.” Although I think Sarris, even if he had that opportunity, wouldn’t have ever written in a ribald style, he was much more of a suggestive writer, always.
DE: You mentioned how he was constantly adjusting to the times. I was wondering if you thought that auteur theory was still useful for considering contemporary American directors and films?
CMW: Yeah, I think he, sort of, has won. I mean, you go into any sort of, not that there are many video stores that still exist anymore, but any video store that has an artistic leaning, like a Kim’s or somewhere, the movies are organized by directors’ last names and that’s Sarris. The amount of precedence on any movie theater’s website that a director’s name gets, that legacy is still with us. You look at most film criticism today and a lot of it is auteurist based. I think there are some people trying to do different things, but a lot of it really takes his ideas very seriously. I mean, it’s almost received wisdom at this point, it’s not even questioned, which is I don’t think, necessarily, what he would want, that we have advocated it that much. He was a very open minded person, and he was never so stringent to suggest that this was the only way of looking at movies. It has permeated through every aspect of film, not necessarily the production side, in Hollywood, because it’s still such a big operation to make a movie. I think it is the way most of us look at movies. The number of retrospectives that a Film Forum will do around a director’s work and include lesser known movies along with classic ones, and play them side by side, that’s Sarris. It’s completely inescapable from where we are now, and it’s almost crazy to think that he was talking about this fifty years ago and things have come around toward him, in that time, but I don’t think we’ve progressed past that. We’re still grappling with this way to look at movies and we’re still using it, and no one else has come along with as galvanic of an idea as he did as a way to look at these things. I mean, you can look at them through other people who make the movies or through genre study, but there’s nothing that has been as lasting or an influential as what he did. It’s still amazing to me.
DE: On the topic of “Expressive Esoterica”, who do you think is currently making films that would fall under this category?
CMW: A lot of what Sarris was doing was correcting past oversights in film history. He was trying to find these directors who had fallen through the cracks, or who weren’t taken seriously because they were working as genre filmmakers, making “B movies.” And now there’s this incredible awareness among younger people, which is really great, to make sure that doesn’t happen again, that there are no filmmakers who fall through. Recently there’s been the rise of, what’s been called, the “vulgar auteurists” essentially, people like Tony Scott, who recently passed away, and had this out flood of critical support after he did. MUBI did a long symposium that I wrote something for that talked about taking his work very seriously and it was nice to see. Paul W.S. Anderson is someone else too; he makes movies based on videogames starring his action heroine wife. There has been an effort from people like Dave Kehr, who has definitely worked in Sarris’ spirit for a long time, who really like Paul W.S. Anderson and take him very seriously. Even Michael Bay, at this point, is someone who people are taking more seriously because the style is so distinctive. Whether you like it or not, there’s a consistency there, on a film to film basis, and there is a personality at work, which was what Sarris was all about. Those are the big ones because they’re working with these pretty hackneyed stories oftentimes adapting, they’re doing sequels. I think sometimes that can lead to overpraising filmmakers as well, because there’s this hyper awareness that we must take everyone seriously no matter what they’re doing. Tony Scott did one of the Beverly Hills Cop movies, so it’s material that’s often not the most interesting things, but sometimes they’ll get something like, Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu, which seems like a very personal movie to him and something he’s able to do something really spectacular with. A lot of these movies really are the modern equivalent of “B movies,” so they’re released in theatres, they might even make a lot of money, but they’re not given the critical support in that same way. I think it is really refreshing to see younger critics who are so aware of taking these things seriously, of seeing action movies. A friend of mine, Rob Sweeney is, I think, is a very good critic, and he sees almost every new Hollywood action movie that comes out and really gives them serious attention to their formal properties, and that’s something that doesn’t happen nearly enough. A lot of critics are so dependent on a movie’s prestige – these types of things that Sarris was always rallying against, this kind of “white elephant” art, this bloated, self-important, script heavy sort of filmmaking that is less visceral, less personal.
DE: That’s interesting, because I watched Dark Waters and I was amazed at how difficult it was to categorize. It’s a Southern gothic, psychological thriller…
CMW: But also a film noir.
DE: Absolutely. And I was thinking about Netflix. I assume you use Netflix.
CMW: I do.
DE: Streaming instantly? And I was fascinated by how they use algorithms to match your tastes and create sub-genres right on the spot. Do you think this fragmenting reinforces the broader genres or do you think it makes them unnecessary?
CMW: You look at something like The River’s Edge, The Allan Dwan film, that’s another film that is easily operating within five different genres over the course of a fifteen minute sequence. It’s set in the California mountains – it’s like a border crossing movie and it also has this heist element that happened off screen earlier in the movie. It’s a noir, but it’s in color and in Cinemascope. It just has all these different conflicting elements at work inside of it. I think that’s part of what makes a lot of those movies, in that section, interesting. They’re directors who worked within a lot of different genres, a lot of them were journeymen, so they not only made standard westerns or crime pictures at various points in their career, but also, like Joseph H. Lewis, were mixing tones and styles in a single film, and that’s part of what makes these movies so different, so exciting, and also sometimes unsuccessful. I think that Sarris was very upfront about that, but they have a certain level of adventurousness to them that is really fascinating at play. So your question was more, “Do you think it makes the genre irrelevant?” I’m not sure. I think that it sort of reinforces the normal properties of the genre, there are only so few of them, but it also points to the many similarities between them, which I always think is interesting – how a musical and a martial arts film and a porn film are all essentially the same thing, when you think about it, because they all have these small bursts of what’s really exciting, what you really come for, the fights, the musical numbers, the sex scenes, but then they have these drawn out scenes that fill the space in between, and those genres are ultimately not that different. Or like the western and a lot of film noir, those films are not that different, they’re just different approaches to similar material or similar themes. And I think that’s what’s exciting about it, the genres are just a way to couch, which is what Sarris was coming back to, these very personal ideas that the directors come to again and again, that it’s just this way of getting at it. It’s a commercial way, it’s a way to sell something. It’s “Oh, this is western.” You kind of know what the rules of the game are, but I’m going to usher in these personal thematic concerns that I have that are going to differentiate it from any other western, but it still fulfills all of the rules of the genre.
DE: You also act and write as well?
CMW: I do. I do some of that, yeah. I like to do a little of everything.
DE: That’s wonderful. Are you working on anything currently?
CMW: Yeah, I’ve just written a script and I’m hoping to make it sometime in the near future. I’ve always been someone who likes to dabble in different aspects of film. It almost feeds into the same channel, that it’s all just different ways of looking at movies and understanding them better. I think anyone who writes about movies should have some knowledge of how film sets actually operate and how films are actually made. Of course, it’s impossible to go back in time, when looking at older movies, and actually be on a set for that, but to learn as much about how that works, to learn the biographical information of the people who were involved, the historical period. I think all of those things are really significant. You find that a lot of people who write about film, now, which is really surprising to me, have no idea about the technical aspects of films or how they’re even made. Even small low budget ones, which are pretty easy to find someone making something like that and go on the set and just see what it feels like, what the rhythms are like how the actors work. Obviously, it’s different from filmmaker to filmmaker and actor to actor, there are no universal truths with it, but do some of that gives you such a greater understanding of how it all works. And I think, also, filmmakers should be watching lots of movies, should be writing about lots of movies. To me, they’re all different sides of the same coin and they all feed into one another. Just trying to act, even just a little bit – I don’t think I’m very good at it, but it can be fun and it also gives me so much better understanding about screen acting, which is something that most critics have no idea how to discuss or so few of them are good at pinpointing what is good or interesting about a performance. Again, maybe that’s a Sarris hold-over, that the director is given so much authority when talking about a film text, that acting is this very mysterious thing to a lot of people still, and we still haven’t figured out a language as to how to write about it. I think a lot of film writers, that I like, have tried, at least, to dabble in the different sides of it. I’m not saying that everyone has to be making films all the time, writing films all the time, or watching them all the time. I just think those things are really important, they feed into understanding, and I’ve certainly become a more sympathetic viewer once I’d recognized how hard it is to make a good movie, and how every time a decent movie is made, it’s some sort of a miracle. It’s something that I think would behoove a lot of academics to know more about, because there’s only so much you can get from watching the films. You need to sort of be on the other side of them as well.
“Andrew Sarris: Expressive Esoterica” is running at Anthology Film Archives until Sunday, March 31st.