Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 819-821
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You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film, History, and Memory, 1927-1949
You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film, History, and Memory, 1927-1949. By Andrew Sarris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. x+573; appendixes, index. $35.
Andrew Sarris, long one of the leading movie reviewers in the United States, has sought to write the capstone of his forty-year career. As stated in his nineteen-page introduction, in the 1960s Sarris imported the auteur theory from France to argue for serious critical analyses of Hollywood films. Before the auteur theory, critics dismissed Hollywood films as simpleminded, mass-culture industrial products; after Sarris, critics have sought to analyze rich complex texts, authored by director-creators (and in rarer [End Page 819] cases by their stars). In 1969 Sarris laid out his version of the auteur theory in American Cinema, Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Three decades later, You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet updates this influential book, following its core structure, and even at times quoting it at length. Despite the appearance of competing film theories, Sarris clings to the auteur theory as his thesis, theme, and argument. Indeed, he pointedly ignores all writing about the cinema since the early 1970s.
The book begins with a disappointing introduction. Whereas one expects Sarris to reflect on forty years of movie reviewing, instead he admits he has no method. His only defense is to mock John Baxter's quarter-century-old monograph on Hollywood of the 1930s, and sweep away all other historiographic approaches in a sentence. He then halfheartedly offers short essays on seven of the eight major studios and seven film genres and their auteurs. Finally he gets to unit three, the heart of the book: analyses of the greatest Hollywood (classical narrative) directors. Here Sarris finally seems comfortable pontificating on the great works of twenty-one white men. This two-hundred-page core reads like expanded version of the core of American Cinema. Sarris then offers--with less enthusiasm--twenty-one analyses of actors and actresses as auteurs. These musings seem to have originated from writings penned in the 1980s and 1990s, as they often begin with an obituary. Sarris is less interested in these twenty-one auteurs, allocating but a hundred pages to their collective analyses, which read like columns from the Village Voice.
There is no conclusion, only a coda with comments on "Guilty Pleasures," the low-budget films and obscure actresses Sarris admits he loves, even though he cannot deem their work complex or deserving by the standards he employs in the heart of his book. You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet contains no bibliography, no notes, but it does end with four appendices: academy award nominations and winners, 1927-1949; New York Film Critics Circle awards, 1935-1949; best directors, 1927-1949; and best performances, 1929-1949. It is not made clear who chose the names in the latter two categories, so one assumes it was Sarris himself. That sort of self-indulgence typifies this book--one man's argument, with no appeal to primary material other than Sarris' own movie-going. Technology stands as peripheral to Sarris' close readings.
I felt a wave of nostalgia as I read You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet. I had read it all before, either in American Cinema or the Village Voice or the New York Observer. Like many of the '60s generation, American Cinema whetted my appetite to think about Hollywood film. Ironically, while Sarris ignores all the topflight film history penned during the past quarter century, he surely inspired the "new film history." Rereading Sarris convinces me that while auteur theory certainly launched an age of serious and thoughtful film history, the study of how Hollywood has changed over time can (and should) be much more than simply demonstrating that [End Page 820] directors and actors can have unified visions in the same manner as painters and musicians.