As the primary and most "systematic" (he might have bristled) exponent of auteur theory in North American film criticism, Sarris maintained that a director's career should be understood as a total body of work, with newer films shifting our original impressions of the older ones. That is, a good oeuvre is an argument of sorts, and it's never really finished until the great bell chimes.
This means we have to see and re-see films we care about (or perhaps thought we didn't), and above all, you can never write off a "bad" director, no matter how much you think you've got their number. It's not just that he or she may grow, of course; there may well have been a blind spot that you, the viewer, didn't recognize, and some subsequent film could be the one that results in the aha! moment. In short, Sarris' theory of viewing was one of patience and generosity — one that grappled with "interesting failures" and demanded that we never give up on an artist.
This brings us to the latest feature by Todd Solondz, Dark Horse. Solondz is still best known for two of his earliest films, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. I detested them, finding their worldview cynical and repugnant. The former struck me as an exercise in kick-the-dog cruelty disguised as black humor. Happiness, meanwhile, still hailed by some as an indie-cinema masterwork, seemed little more than a calculated shock tactic neatly tied with a glittering bow of smug middle-class moralism. Later films, like Storytelling and Palindromes, only cemented my opinion. I was done with Solondz.
Then I was assigned to review his film before Dark Horse, Life During Wartime. In it, I discovered that the director's formal style — hard, flat and artificial, with a hint of distance between the performer and the character — seemed to invite a new degree of empathy and sorrow. Had this been there all along? Instead of moralism, I saw exhaustion and fear. And much to my surprise/relief, Solondz's latest is even better. In fact, it may be his very best film to date.