An Excerpt from The New American Cinema by Andrew Sarris
The following text is the only known excerpt from Andrew Sarris’ final, unfinished book, The New American Cinema. This short chapter was discovered over the summer of 2021 underneath the remains of MoMA (soon to be Manhattan’s newest Apple Store) along with a set of notes that, though incomplete, give an insight into Sarris’ updated canon of auteurs working in American cinema that he was working on at the time of his death.
The general structure of the book is difficult to discern; however, what we do know from these excavated pages is that the excerpt re-published here, a chapter on Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee, was to be part of a section entitled ‘Darkness on the Edge of Hollywood’. Lee was to sit alongside the likes of James Cameron; Oliver Stone; Kathryn Bigelow; and several others. Several post-it notes found inside the pages also suggest that his original ‘Pantheon’, featuring famous analyses of Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang and Howard Hawks, has its new counterpart in ‘Masters’. Among those selected for this upper echelon were David Lynch, Wes Anderson, and Spike Lee. Reaction to this suggested top tier has brought criticism of Sarris’ apparent reliance on male directors, once again sparking discussion over the male-centricity of Sarris’ auteur theory.
Few directors can lay claim to admiration as widespread as Ang Lee. He would win the Golden Bear in Berlin twice in the 1990s for The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Sense and Sensibility (1995), seem to have compromised his claim to the cult and arthouse by 2003 with Hulk, and then perform a similar festival feat again winning two Golden Lions at Venice in three years for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Lust, Caution (2007). He can step through Potsdamer Platz and straight to the Dolby Theatre to pick up his Oscar, before donning a sports cap and standing outside a local AMC Theatre to whip up a sizable crowd for his new film. He is versatile, but not uncommitted: no film of his is completed in half-measures. He so well embodies how each film should look and feel that his skill is in danger of pointing to an absence of self. Yet, he is also remarkably consistent in his interests. Lee has respect for each film’s size and scope, whether epic or intimate; yet the drama remains between no more than a few characters.
His preferred aspect ratio of 1:85:1 gives him the best of both worlds. It sacrifices neither the height of 4:3 nor the breadth of widescreen. It does, in fact, resemble a painter’s canvas. It can facilitate striking landscape shots and moving close-ups, between which Lee will often fade softly instead of cutting harshly. His fades meld psychodrama into every project – invited in rather than snuck under the wire. Like Douglas Sirk, Lee’s object of attention is often misunderstood as pure repression rather than negotiation. His celluloid films are an interplay between lust and caution, sense and sensibility.
Opening up the scope to his full career, another understandable misreading must be rectified. The early films from his native Taiwan give people the impression that the family unit is central to his work; what his digital works reveal is an affinity with the travails of youth. Families are lost in Life of Pi (2012), relegated in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), and built in Gemini Man (2019). But through all three, a young man must negotiate desire with duty, sense with sensibility. Digital technology and the promise of youth go hand-in-hand for Lee just as they do for Jean-Luc Godard. Lee’s high frame rates conjure unreality, though for different ends in each of his digital films. Unreality creates a natural fantasy in Life of Pi, a national estrangement in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and a nurtured schizophrenia in Gemini Man.
Lee’s seemingly universal appeal has morphed into a deep technological sophistication that appears to have warded many away from his art. In his most beloved moments, Lee has proven that a middlebrow, adult cinema can still exist amidst the infantile juvenilia that cakes the multiplex today. Contrary to apologists for digital technophobia and critics of Lee alike, he is still making those brilliant works today. It is not he that has changed; it is the world around him. How apt for a director who consistently places figures in landscapes: the cowboy atop the mountain, the warrior amidst the trees, the boy upon the sea.
Though the film does not get a mention in the passage, another of the post-it notes cited Ride with the Devil (1999) as ‘LEE’S GREATEST MOVIE’, all emphatically underlined. It is unknown why this sentiment does not appear in the excerpt.
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