Arts and Culture

Paying Homage to an Apostle for the Beautiful

by Father Robert Lauder

ONE EVENING a few months ago, I was watching Turner Classic Movies (TCM) during the station’s tribute to anyone who, related to the film industry, had died during 2012. Photos of those who had died appeared on the screen. Those honored included actors, producers, cinematographers, costume designers and critics. There were photos of Ernest Borgnine, Jack Klugman, Charles Durning and many others. When a photo of critic and film historian Andrew Sarris appeared, I was stunned. I discovered that Sarris died in June, 2012. I have no idea how I missed the death announcement.

Since learning of Sarris’ death, I have been recalling how much he influenced my way of viewing and appreciating film. Though he may not have known it, he was one of my mentors. He helped me to take films seriously. In fact, I think I began to read Sarris’ essays just about the time when I discovered that there was much more to film than I had realized, though I had been enjoying movies for years.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there were eight movie theatres within walking distance from my home. All these theatres played double features and changed their program at least once a week. This meant that in any week, there might be as many as 30 films available for viewing. I did not see all of those films, but I suspect I saw most of them.

Looking back, I am amused to think that neither I, nor any of my contemporaries, were concerned about entering a theatre after a film had begun. We could try to figure out what was going on in a movie even though we had missed as much as the first hour of the film. To understand the plot completely, we would sit through the other feature and then view the film we had walked in on until we recognized the scenes that we had already seen.

I first saw Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life when it opened in 1946. I can recall that it was a snowy day, a perfect Saturday for a sixth grader to spend an afternoon at a movie theatre. I entered the theatre when George Bailey (James Stewart) was discovering what the world would be like if he had never been born. I could make no sense of the film until I sat through the other feature, watched a newsreel, saw the trailer of the coming attractions and probably saw a cartoon.

Once I saw the first half of Capra’s film, I knew I had seen something special. Years later when I began to read Sarris’ reflections on the film, I discovered that there were many films that were special, that should be taken seriously as works of art.

I began to take films seriously when I was in graduate school in the mid-1960s. Each day I had a plan: Celebrate Mass, have breakfast and then work from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. studying philosophy. Each day, around three or four o’clock, I ran out of energy and looked in the newspaper to see if any interesting films were in local theatres.

This was around the time that foreign films, such as those films by Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Bunuel, Robert Bresson and others, were beginning to appear in this country. After seeing some of these films and not understanding them, I was determined to learn more about films, American as well as foreign, so that I could spot a masterpiece when I saw one. In my efforts, Andrew Sarris became a wonderful guide.

I suspect that Sarris’ insights and observations changed the way that many viewed film. Since I learned of his death, I have been thinking about his career as a “vocation” or even a “mission.” Though I know he would never describe himself this way, I have come to think of him as “An Apostle for the Beautiful.”

What did Sarris do through his writing and teaching but try to call people’s attention to the beautiful? Serious commentators on film and other art forms try to help the rest of us discern beauty. St. Thomas Aquinas claimed that the beautiful was “id quod visum placet,” or that which, when seen, pleases. St. Thomas did not mean only seen with the eyes but seen with the mind. A great film can reveal beauty to us, help us to see something of the mystery of creation and of the human person.

I think that through his love of film and his exceptional intelligence Andrew Sarris helped many to experience beauty. When I learned of Sarris’ death, I offered Mass for him. Using St. Paul’s imagery, my hope is that he no longer sees through a glass darkly but now face to face.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.