Thoughts on Sidney Lumet

Normally I limit myself to reviews here, but the passing of Sidney Lumet, coupled with some reading I’ve been doing of late… going back through some old film theory/criticism books. What particularly motivates this post are various bits in those books related to auteur theory, including Truffaut’s “Certain Tendency”, Sarris and Kael duking it out, etc. It remains problematic in many ways, but it’s still the approach I tend to use the most, and I want to consider Lumet somewhat in that light. All of which needs to be prefaced with the fact that, admittedly, I’ve only ever seen two of his films (those being Fail Safe and Network),  but anyway…

First things first: there’s a fascinating dissection here of the real (?) drive underlying Cahiers‘ promotion of la politique, which does need to be read with Jump Cut‘s own avowed Marxist leanings firmly in mind, but it does make some good points; I’d never realised for some reason just how much of the “Certain Tendency” piece really is just Truffaut pissing and moaning about “smut”. Anyway, there was also a somewhat more positive drive there, too, to reconsider the Hollywood industry and posit the notion that at least certain individuals inside the dream factory could be considered as artists rather than mere craftsmen. Andrew Sarris then took this idea, rebranded it the auteur theory, and used it as something of a club to smite non-American cinema with. But still the central concept that the director of a film could be viewed as its “author”, the individual with the dominating style and vision that could be traced through their whole body of work, persisted, along with the concomitant notion that an “auteur” director would always be more worthy than a mere “metteur en scène” (you know, the whole “Jean Renoir’s worst film will always be more interesting than Jean Delannoy’s best” thing).

Now from what I can gather Lumet himself seems to have been an auteur sceptic. I don’t know what Truffaut would’ve made of his films (Sarris filed him under “Strained Seriousness”, albeit that was in 1968; I don’t know how Sarris viewed him later), but he’d probably have sniffed at them as “scenarists’ films”, and Lumet might not have disagreed. Glenn Kenny linked the other day to an interview he did with Lumet; this is a terrific read and, at times, a pretty blunt self-assessment by Lumet of his own successes, failures, abilities and inabilities (there’s an interesting bit where he talks about having written whole scripts for some of his film but he said he wasn’t a “writer” of the sort needed to write others). One thing he talks about is how doing a film just for the money is a perfectly legitimate reason to do it as long as you remember that’s why you’re doing it; he evidently had no preciousness about this in the way someone who viewed themselves self-consciously as an artist might. Indeed, he generally seems to have had no particular tickets on himself as an artist, and from what I’ve been reading he seems to have been of the opinion that overt style was bad style and that the director should be somewhat subservient to the material they’re working with in making a film.

Now, not everyone necessarily shares that opinion, of course, and in between the general run of OMG WE HAZ LOST A MASTER type coverage of his passing, I’ve spotted a few examples of OMG STFU NO WE HAZN’T (an example). I suspect both of these are overcooked, and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle; at any rate, we can probably all agree that he wasn’t an auteur by accepted standards (well, maybe Rosenbaum would’ve argued otherwise). Is that actually a bad thing, though? Some of the “eh” coverage I’ve seen has sniped at the fact that he made a number of crap films… like, shit, he made over 40 films in 50 years (not to mention the TV work), surely some of them had to be dogs? The only artists who never make bad art at some point are the ones who don’t live long enough to do so or who don’t make enough art in the first place (cf. someone like Robert Bresson, whose career was nearly as long and produced a third as many works), why should Lumet be immune to failures? But I’m more interested by how many good films Lumet seems to have made.

Like I said, I’ve only seen two of his films, both of which I did like so I don’t know why I’ve never bothered seeing more of them. Maybe because he wasn’t an auteur. I never consciously dismissed him, but at the same time I never really thought about him, he didn’t seem like someone whose work was in need of my urgent discovery; there were (and I suppose still are) a lot of other filmmakers I need to get better acquainted with first. And yet it must be said in fairness that, even though I haven’t seen more than those two films, I can look at Lumet’s filmography and recognise that a good number of titles on it are very highly acclaimed and well-regarded. Hard to believe he just got lucky with those.

These thoughts aren’t really adding up to much, I know, but Lumet does have me wondering about the extent to which being an auteur “matters”. After all, auteur status isn’t really a guarantee of quality, not when people like Ed Wood and Andy Milligan fit the auteur bill; they were nothing if not the dominating visionaries behind their films which expressed their personalities, it’s just that their films include Glen or Glenda and The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! I suppose it comes down to whether one broadly assumes the greater importance of the filmmaker or the film, and I suspect that I ultimately come down on the latter side; better, surely, to acknowledge good work where it occurs rather than dismiss it just because the director is more craftsman than “great artist”. As such, it would appear to be time I finally gave Lumet his due and watched more of his work. There’s plenty of it to choose from…

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