It's been years since American film buffs backlashed against Andrew Sarris's quarantine of a number of celebrated English-language filmmakers in the"Less Than Meets the Eye" category in his book The American Cinema. Now I sense a growing rebellion in the blogosphere against the Cahiers critics' earlier but similar dismissal of the French "Tradition of Quality." That Sarris and Truffaut both publicly retracted many of their excommunications in later years (as alluded to in my last blog entry) gives ammunition to the rehabilitation movement.
(For those playing without a scorecard: the phrase "Tradition of Quality" originally referred to the post-World War II "psychological realism" associated with the screenwriters Aurenche & Bost and directors like Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy, René Clément, Yves Allégret, and Marcel Pagliero. Popularly, it is often used today to refer to all prestige French filmmaking that the Cahiers critics did not uphold, including prewar filmmakers like Marcel Carné, Julien Duvivier, and Jacques Feyder who had little in common with the Aurenche & Bost crowd.)
I am basically an antirehabilitationist, and would even like to roll back the rehabilitation of the "Less Than Meets the Eye" directors. But I want to step carefully around the issue, to avoid slipping into conformism or reaction. In fact, I am required to step carefully, because I have a few revisionist causes of my own. Even I would like to reclaim two directors from "Less Than Meets the Eye": Lewis Milestone (who I don't think ever fit there) and Elia Kazan (who had a "Less Than Meets the Eye" half of his personality, definitely). On the French side, I'd defend Jean Grémillon and Henri-Georges Clouzot, at least, among the filmmakers who were not in favor at Cahiers.
So I really have only one small point to make about canon revision, which is that revision means taking a side, not correcting an injustice. Auteurism is, more than anything, a historically established set of preferences. The Cahiers critics, and Sarris after them, set out to trash an existing canon and raise another in its place. The various auteurist movements have had good luck imposing their old canons on the cinephile culture at large, but that's all they imposed. They certainly were unable to promulgate the philosophical and aesthetic and political assumptions that underlay those canons - if for no other reason than that those assumptions were quickly lost or customized as auteurism went large. So auteurism has made no substantial change in the movie-watching world, except that most filmgoers now take Sirk and Fuller seriously instead of dismissing them. There is no reason to believe that undiscovered Sirks and Fullers, past or present, would fare as well, unless they landed in a category that we've already learned how to deal with.
Auteurist choices were controversial: most people didn't agree with them then, and everyone shouldn't be expected to agree with them now. In his 1968 essay "Toward a Theory of Film History," Sarris observed the unbridgeable gap that had opened up in the 50s and 60s between different camps of film lovers: "Again, these propositions cannot be seriously debated. One kind of critic refuses to cope with a world in which a movie called Baby Face Nelson could possibly be superior to The Bridge on the River Kwai. The other kind of critic refuses to believe that a movie called Baby Face Nelson could possibly be less interesting than The Bridge on the River Kwai." The mere fact that Baby Face Nelson is now an easier sell cannot have eliminated all those old differences in what filmgoers choose to value in films.
Of course it's a good thing for every filmmaker to be reevaluated. But when I decide that Milestone or Clouzot is a good director, I shouldn't necessarily assume that the old-time auteurist canon makers got it wrong. I should at least assess the possibility that I have aesthetic preferences that are different than those of the canon makers. And, if I decide that lots of filmmakers in "Less Than Meets the Eye" and the Tradition of Quality are good, then I should really assess that possibility.