By Matt Singer | Criticwire June 21, 2012 at 9:41AM
While I was an intern at The Village Voice some years ago, then-film editor Dennis Lim undertook an ambitious project to create a curated anthology of the best Voice film criticism from the paper's first fifty years. There was only one problem: at the time, most of the Voice's five decade archive was not available online, and existed only in enormous volumes of brittle old newsprint. Which meant that any review dated prior to 1995 or so had to be dug out of the library and transcribed.
This was mindless busy work -- and I loved every second of it. That's because while I was transcribing, I was also reading. The vast majority of older reviews that required transcription were written by Andrew Sarris, the Voice's great film critic from 1960 to 1989, who passed away yesterday at the age of 83. By this point, I'd already been to grad school, where I'd found a used copy of Sarris' "The American Cinema" in a Greenwich Village bookstore and referred to it so frequently that the pages were beginning to separate from their binding. Being told to find and read Sarris' undigitized work was like being handed a pickaxe and pan in 1849 California. I felt like I'd hit the mother lode.
Based on the outpouring of grief and admiration for Sarris over the last 24 hours, it's clear I wasn't the only one. Sarris' work made an impression on everyone who read it, and inspired and influenced many of today's working critics. Below you'll find links to every Sarris tribute that's been published online so far. We'll do our best to keep updating it as well.
It's been interesting to note the demographics of these Sarris obit writers. By and large, the personal appreciations we've seen so far come from an older generation; with a few notable exceptions, critics my age and younger haven't reacted as emotionally to the news of Sarris' passing (at least not yet; we'll see if there are more pieces in the works). You could argue that some younger critics need to do their homework, and maybe brush up on their circles, squares, joys and Sarris. Or perhaps their muted response is an indication of just how massive Sarris' impact was. His views on film history and the importance of auteurs were so influential on one generation that they were essentially invisible to the next.
Before Sarris, there was no auteur theory in America. During his reign at the Voice, it was a much contested debate. But long before he'd been laid off from The New York Observer in 2009, Sarris' belief that the director was the singular author of a film, and that individual movies were smaller pieces in the larger puzzles of their careers, had become one of the central pillars of cinema studies and criticism. Sarris had done his job so effectively that many didn't realize just how hard he'd had to fight to do it. Perhaps these fine articles on his life and his legacy will help open some eyes.
Film Critics Remember Andrew Sarris
"Kael pounced on faults, Sarris savored beauties. Kael made each weak film seem like a blow to her intelligence. Sarris, although he could be harsh, tended to forgive. He taught that it was better to leave a door open than to write someone off -- even Bergman, whom some of us would never learn to like until 'Persona,' some not until 'Fanny and Alexander.' Sarris subordinated his personality to that of the movie and its director, which made him seem less fiery than his uptown counterpart; but his attitude suited our own somewhat adolescent amorphousness of character. The arrogant certainty of our tastes was, paradoxically, born of a passionate humility, a sense of serving wise masters named Dreyer, Murnau, Mizoguchi."
"Sarris, for his part, was resolutely independent. His following came not from the cultivation of a club or a clan but from the allure of the ideas he put forth. He didn’t embody the spirit of youth at the Village Voice, where he wrote for decades—rather, he inspired it, propelling generations of filmmakers and critics to go behind the screen, practically or virtually, in ways of their own. Whether he’s read or not, he’s the dominant figure of film criticism in the last half century. Like a director, he is present, exercising his influence, unseen, on a vast array of movie people and leaving a virtual impression on screens everywhere, from art houses to multiplexes."
"Back in the ’60s I was skeptical of Sarris’ gerontophilia -- his belief that advancing age can stoke genius, and a high hack can grow, not decline, into an auteur. But now I am touched by the sentiment. It pointed to his respect for the old moviemakers whom he had rescued from anonymity. As Disraeli said, and Andy loved to repeat, 'In the long run, we are all dead.' That is true. It is also true that, thanks to Sarris, some directors and films will never die. He was the prime reviver of our ragged, treasured art."
"In December of 1967, my first year as a film critic, I read every word of Sarris's 'Interviews with Film Directors,' which singled out those he found noteworthy. I underlined Sarris's observation: 'Even art films have to make money and even commercial films have to make some statement. To put it another way, more and more critics are demanding that there should be more fun in art, and more art in fun.... In the process... it has become possible to speak of Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni in the same breath and with the same critical terminology.' This, to me, was a signpost pointing the direction that a daily newspaper film critic might choose."
"I admired Sarris not just for his many brilliant perceptions into directorial (and performative) style, but also for his economy. For another project I recently had to revisit his entry on Fritz Lang in 'The American Cinema,' and was stunned by how much insight he packed into such a brief essay... Here’s how he ends the Lang entry: 'Lang might argue that in a century that has spawned Hitler and Hiroshima, no artist can be called paranoiac; he is being prosecuted.' Go out into the night with that thought in your head, why don’t you."
"Many of us had reservations about Sarris’s inclusion of some directors in his pantheon and dismissal of others, but he was often the first critic we turned to when confronting a particular filmmaker, finding penetrating insights in even his most packed and unwieldy sentences. Before Sarris, most American cinephiles didn’t know you could study the body of a director’s work that way, finding echoes and interconnections and themes that stretched back to the beginning of American literature."
"I think what's most important on the occasion of Sarris's passing is to acknowledge that his substantial critical legacy cannot be defined in terms of anything Pauline Kael wrote about him and the politique des auteurs in 1963 -- and certainly not in the way his and the Cahiers du Cinema critics' views were misrepresented in Kael's famous snipe, 'Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris.'"
"Sarris’s book was one of the first and best pop culture reference guides/sacred texts, a Movie Power Rankings of such breadth and thoroughness that it served as (and in some cases, still serves as) a road map for anyone trying to understand movie history. By setting himself up as a discerning yet ultimately flexible and open-minded tastemaker, Sarris paved the way for every obsessive, highly opinionated Top 10 list to come."
"With his famous 'Pantheon List' Sarris did something equally groundbreaking. He dared to suggest, to our timid, British-bootlicking country, that American directors and the films -- make that movies -- they made, might be just as important as those by gentleman who wore white silk scarves, berets, and whispered 'Action!' in Swedish, French, or Italian."
"Sarris’s 'The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968,' first published as a special -- and almost instantly collectible -- issue of Film Culture, and later as a paperback original in 1968, boiled Hollywood history down into pithy career descriptions of some 200 filmmakers, ranked by category (Pantheon Directors, The Far Side of Paradise, Expressive Esoterica). It was a bible for countless cinephiles, including me. My undergraduate comrades and I used to call it The Book, as in 'Paul Wendkos? I don’t know — check the book!' I referred to my tattered, underlined copy so often as to have whole chunks engraved in my memory: 'What burst of Buddhist contemplation was responsible for such a haunting exception to such an unexceptional career?'”
"Though opponents such as Dwight Macdonald mocked Sarris's prose style, without every explaining why, I loved the way he wrote, as much as I did the styles of Wood and Durgnant. It was a distinctive style, with its alliteration and its stately demeanor that could just as well descend to anger as identifiable as the images of a Ford or a Hitchcock, and able to allow numerous tangents while always keeping an eye on the main subject."
"I’ll never forget Sarris’s response to 9/11 and the then-common assertion that the footage of the burning Twin Towers looked somehow 'surreal' or 'unreal.' He suggested that was only because movies had conditioned us to see “real” as something different. If the attacks were in a film, we’d have had crosscutting as preparation: a shot of an approaching plane, a shot of people in the World Trade Center, a shot of the plane’s distance from the towers and so on. What we were witnessing was something outside the grammar of conventional cinema—a horror that transcended movies."
"Longer than any other critic of his generation, Sarris held tightly to his enthusiasm for the medium and never lost his luster for writing about it. Equally wise and down to earth, he embodied the idea that criticism was a way of life and the ideal means of formalizing one's relationship to art. His dedication inspired generations and seems destined to continue its influence for years to come."
"I remember the patient way he responded to his students -- no question was too stupid or too opinionated to merit a considerate, well-reasoned reply. I remember his wife, Molly Haskell, a first-rate critic in her own right, standing in the back of his class during many of his screenings. He was a kind man. A gentle man. His book, 'The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968,' was a virtual Bible for film buffs of a certain generation. As a teacher, he was one of the best."
"At the end of that [Howard] Hawks class, Sarris asked us which Hawks film was our favorite. By then, I had been converted. Although Sarris’s comments in class were limited, his original take on the films from years past still held true. And what I suddenly realized was that Sarris had not taught me how to love Hawks, but simply let me love Hawks on my own."
"Sarris was consummately erudite but completely down to earth. He never forgot that people went to the movies to fall in love. He never forgot that movies were a place of feelings, and this was reflected in his film criticism, which was full of his personality, though never about his personality. (He never got caught up in his own cult.) He could be acerbic or funny or naked in his emotions. His was a gut-level response, refined by reflection and raised to the level of art."
"Speaking personally, I found him an essential guide to my movie education. Like my dad, who was my first film teacher, he was born to working-class parents in a tough borough of New York City in 1928. They had a lot of tastes in common, though my dad came at his favorites through actors, stories and dialogue while Sarris favored seeing film as the work of a director. To find in the print world a writer who underscored inclinations that I'd been raised to have and used literary, philosophical and historical references in bolstering them was a revelation and an inspiration."
"I never had the opportunity to sit in on any of Sarris' classes at Columbia, and I regret that. I have a feeling that he must be a wonderful teacher. He certainly taught me, not only by example, but by prodding me to think on my own, to reach for ideas I otherwise might not have formulated. For that I'll always be grateful. And I suspect I am not the only one who was affected that way by his groundbreaking critical work and directorial research."
"Andrew Sarris was the man who taught me how to do what I do. Without him, I would never have experienced the cinema in the way that I have or been provided with such an inspiring road map to pursue what, for all of us in the critical and historical film world, is the endless quest for discovery of little-known works and artists."
"Sarris, like Kael, was one of those critics whose work remains a pleasure to read now because he was willing to dig deep into a piece of material, and his command of language allowed him to craft compelling reads, week after week, piece after piece."
"[Sarris] saw cinema as a potentially transcendent art form, capable of delivering an experience that was intellectual, sensual and even spiritual. Whatever his flaws as a person or a critic, Sarris’ work ennobled the movies, and as long as that possibility of transcendence lingers on the screen, he will not be forgotten."
"To convincingly elevate disdained 'product' to the level of art, in the face of ridicule that had the strength of received wisdom behind it, required a degree of rigorous spectatorship to ballast and back up one’s arguments that anyone working in these less-contentious times should still demand of themselves. Pick up your Sarris, and see how it’s done."
"How many critics are there left on the planet whose argument over a movie you think would be interesting to hear or read? Can there ever be a Kael vs Sarris again… not because there aren’t plenty of people who love to argue, but because few are as able to focus their beliefs in a way that is really worth fighting about?"
"Despite these dust-ups, Sarris’ tone was always more reflective and circumspect than that of his contemporaries, and he was never quite as rigid in his thinking as anti-auteurists believed. He had a modest prose style, built around strong ideas, careful argument, and an understanding of where individual films fit in the broader context of film history."
"One did not so much read 'American Cinema' cover to cover as bit by bit, consulting and digesting the sections on particular directors when appropriate. For years afterward, for instance, after making the extended acquaintance of a particular filmmaker's work, I'd reach for 'American Cinema' and see how my thoughts about it compared with Sarris'."
"In his hands, reviewing was an art... And to generations of shy kids who read him -- and through reading him, first learned who F.W. Murnau was, or how to wrap their tongues around words like “oeuvre” -- Andrew Sarris was the artist who mattered most, holding open the door to a million movie theaters with an encouraging smile and a murmured 'I can’t wait to show you this.'"
"As we move further into an era of critic-proof big-budget movies -- abetted by newspapers and other publications that happily repackage studio hype even as they've decided that professional critics are relics -- Sarris’ contributions to the tradition and craft of film criticism have come to seem even more precious. In fact, they’re immeasurable."
"Andrew Sarris put a frame around cinema itself. He turned the appreciation of movies into an art, but with elements of science. 'The American Cinema' is a taxonomy of directors, arranging them from most to least evolved, most to least artful, most to least memorable. His way of thinking about movies influenced not just film criticism, but pop music and TV criticism and comics criticism, too."
And From The Members of The Criticwire Survey:
"In lieu of sharing a favorite review or passage, I would prefer instead to remember my first encounter with 'The American Cinema,' which I continue to page through as much as any film book I own -- despite the fact that it is now little more than an unwieldy set of loose-leaf pages on my bookshelf. As an undergraduate at a rural Michigan liberal arts college, I happened to take a day-trip to what I believe was and probably still is the world's largest used book store (in Downtown Detroit). Somewhere in the dusty carousels of the third or fourth floor of that warehouse, I found that familiar book with the red, yellow and blue lettering, not having any clue who Andrew Sarris was, but being sufficiently intrigued as a burgeoning cinephile (and whether or not I knew it, auteurist) to make it my lone purchase. Glancing through my copy as I rode home that evening, I was taken with the feeling that I had lucked into something truly extraordinary -- some kind of key to the vast and mostly unexplored artistic universe that was and is classical Hollywood cinema. As an advanced PhD candidate today -- a dozen years later -- who happens (not at all coincidentally) to be specializing in the same classical Hollywood subject, let me confirm that 'The American Cinema' has lost none of its initial magic, and that it continues to unlock more of the art than any other book I know."
"Unlike many of those paying their respects to Mr. Sarris in this article, I myself never had the opportunity to meet the great man. Our paths never had the good fortune to pass, be it at a festival or in general, and nor was I lucky enough to study under his tutelage at any point in my academic career. All I know of the man is through his work, and most specifically 'The American Cinema,' which has become nothing less than a bona-fide dictionary for me over the course of the past fifteen years.
'The American Cinema' is notable for being the first book-on-cinema-that-didn't-have-pictures picked up by the teenage I, following a screening of 'Breathless' at 16 years old; the accompanying program notes in which contained the scribblings of Mr. Sarris. Intrigued by the prospect of the auteur theory I sought out his masterpiece, and suitably definitively titled 'The American Cinema' and have referred to it ever since. At my lowest ebb it has proven inspiring, and is always to hand whenever I've been in a position of introducing a fresh audience to the work of an unfamiliar filmmaker. It's one hell of a legacy to leave behind. RIP Mr. Sarris."
"Auteurism, as imported by Andrew Sarris, is a strange, troubling thing. You can't make it go away, but you can't quite put it into words, either. It doesn't cohere -- but it can feel a lot like truth. On one hand, Sarris' original rankings, which can be found on the internet and in 'The American Cinema,' adhere to the specific moments that witnessed their creation. They're time-stamped. On the other hand, Sarris' deed, releasing the starlings into Central Park, as it were, tipped over a long chain of conceptual and perceptual dominoes, and they're still falling. Film students presume the 'auteur' label before they've so much as put together a shot list. Skeptics point out that auteurism rests on brazen assumptions about intentionality, and is therefore held together by nothing more than double-sided tape and prayer. And, if you like, there are supposed to be these psychotic extremists who insist that everything a great director directs is great, and that he is responsible for every creative decision on the itinerary.
I guess my idea of properly observing the passing of Mr. Sarris would be to endeavor to protect auteurism from misuse, distortion, and caricature. It was never supposed to cure cancer, and it would be foolish to subscribe to any notion that Sarris was an infallible kingmaker. But the idea of auteurism is seductive -- more than that, it can actually change the way you see, the way you experience art. It seems more correct that the work done by Sarris, his contemporaries, and his heirs, is 'search and rescue' -- saving directors from anonymity by saying their names and raising their work above that of their peers. Saving them from the anonymity required by industry groupthink. Accepting auteurism into your heart comes with a price: you will find yourself combing the basements of the cinema, seeking a subtle shade of personality in the most apparently impersonal of films, all the while turning your nose up at the movies we're supposed to be talking about this week or next week.
Whether you've 'bought in' or remain a skeptic, there can be no doubt that Sarris' words and deeds affected cinephilia for the better, probably for all time. It was as if he'd struck oil, and we're the beneficiaries. Because our lives are finite, and there isn't enough time to see every movie ever made, it's only natural that we crave the guidance of someone who seems to have the good leads -- the Glengarry leads -- that can point us in the direction of ecstatic encounters with art, and not just time-fillers. The auteurist cinephile will understand that such experiences often coincide with films where the director's personality has taken corporeal form, right there in the emulsion. Thanks to Sarris, it won't seem like coincidence at all."
"As I wrote on my own site, quoting Godard on Welles, 'All of us will always owe him everything.' I stand by that. I see that another critic I owe much to, Joseph McBride, reiterated that in the comments thread on Dave Kehr's site. As I've also noted, I was honored that another critic I owe, Kent Jones, asked me to contribute to the Sarris eulogy at the Film Comment site.
Beyond that, I haven't much to add, except, that I still make sure that I have not one but two copies of 'The American Cinema' in my house, and that whenever I get into one of those 'Sarris was wrong about Wyler/Wilder/Milestone/Wellman' arguments, I find it instructive to remember that whether he was 'right' or 'wrong' in his assessments (and the deeper you read into his apologias, the more layered and complexed and nuanced they are; despite their relatively short length, these are not glib dismissals), it was his critical spadework that set the ground on which we are having the argument in the first place. I hope I never forget that."
"I never got to meet Andrew Sarris, but for anyone who read him, he seemed to exist as a perpetual sounding board for one's own opinions about this movie or that director. More than just a weekly critic even when he was that, he crafted in his books (most especially the epochal 'American Cinema') and his reviews a combined taxonomy and treasure map to that elusive X marked 'film style,' the glory of why many of us care about the aesthetics of cinema at all. Much of his writing showcases a remarkable, precious balance between film buff authority and chivalrous self-effacement, best revealed in his willingness to reevaluate his opinions and open up his taste even as he got older. It's a way of embracing cinephilia that I hope younger film fans will emulate.
In a more personal way, his evaluations, rankings, and categories of forty years ago in 'The American Cinema' (not only of directors but of single years, many forget) stirred in me a nascent love of lists, that prime organizational tool of cinephiles the world over, whether expressed in Top Tens or in a chronological viewing journal. That book's mix of rigor and playfulness, research and pleasure, purely preferential ordering and solid yet witty rationale, became a guide not only on what to watch but how to write about what I watched. Every Top Ten I publish is in silent dedication to Sarris, the man whose comprehensive quest to share his experiences of the cinematically divine informs my relationship with whatever readers I have the good fortune to ever possess."
"One thing I've always appreciated about Sarris is that, for a giant of criticism, he brought a wonderful sense of humility to the page, the voice of someone genuinely seeking to understand art rather than seeking to proclaim the final word about it. His great insights were so humbly expressed, you sometimes almost miss them. Consider this gem, tucked into opening paragraph of a 1967 piece on 'La Guerre est finie': 'Who is to say that people should not admire the right films for the wrong reasons? It is for the critic to register the right reasons.' What a timely challenge for critics in an era when we often spend time belittling audiences rather than analyzing the films themselves."
"I'll keep it short and sweet: I never got a chance to meet Andrew Sarris at a screening or interact with him in any way (I'm only 25, so it's only in the past year or so that I've started being invited to press events), but during my college years I feel like I knew him quite well in a way. I say that because when I think of Mr. Sarris, the first thing that comes to my mind is "auteur theory,' and during my senior year I spent a great deal of time championing his work in a Film Theory class. The professor didn't want to focus on auteur theory, but I kept coming back to it, writing what feels like a whole semester's worth of papers on the subject. When I first started writing reviews, I looked to Sarris and Roger Ebert as the summit to climb (I've since developed my own style, probably to the detriment of the world of criticism), and to this day I consider him one of my biggest influences -- and one of the most influential film critics of all time. He will be missed."
"Like most aspiring film buffs from small Midwestern towns, I grew up hungry for ways to learn everything I could about the movies. Fortunately, I stumbled onto my library’s dog-eared copy of 'The American Cinema,' which was like a Rosetta Stone for the identical, unwelcoming boxes at the movie-rental store. But despite my early exposure, my all-time favorite Andrew Sarris memory came in college, when I was challenged by an unusually prickly film professor to defend my lack of enthusiasm for Stanley Kubrick. Sarris’ still-controversial take on the 'tragedy' of Kubrick -- that 'he was hailed as a great artist before he had become a competent craftsman' -- formed the basis my opening remarks, and gave me the critical grounding I needed to mount my defense. I'd always appreciated Sarris’ uncanny ability to pin down a director’s virtues or vices in a single sentence, but this time, it determined whether or not I’d pass a class -- and as always, Sarris came through.
When I heard that Sarris had passed, I spent a long afternoon poring over his collected 'best films of the year' lists, which began with the Village Voice in 1958 and ended with the New York Observer in 2006. His early lists, which are packed with directors like Bergman and Godard and John Ford, read like obvious choices today, but that’s largely because he originally made the brilliance of those director seem so obvious. And every point of disagreement Sarris and I would have had -- like 1997’s list, which features 'My Best Friend’s Wedding' at #3 and 'Boogie Nights' at #19 -- would probably just have left me with a new appreciation for the former. He was convincing that way."
"What a loss. His infamous debates with Pauline Kael invigorated film criticism to a point that could only be matched, with somewhat less intellectual grounding, by the Siskel and Ebert era that followed years later. His and Kael's generation of criticism came from an understanding of film history that I fear we've lost in today's age of blogosphere criticism. Some labeled Sarris an elitist for his strong arguments for auteur theory, but I found his criticism to be refreshingly intelligent and eloquently written. Any critic that can stir debate has done their job correctly. In his review of 'A Clockwork Orange' he called the film 'a pretentious fake.' I'd love to see the debate that opinion would stir today. There is a certain boldness in criticism, and Sarris certainly possessed it. True criticism is an art-form in itself; we've lost one of the form's greatest artists."
"At an early age of 13, without any knowledge of the auteur theory, I would try to watch all the movies I could get my young hands on from any director I was interested in. This is how I sought out movies, by director. Then, when I was 16, I learned there was actually a theory behind this method of movie watching. Now as an adult, I take the auteur theory with a grain of salt. It's not the end all, be all of film criticism theory, but it's a very helpful way to put a movie in context. I've taken this theory for my own section of the Internet with my podcast, the AuteurCast. A podcast dedicated to filmmakers, their movies and film criticism. Almost every week my co-host and I, West Anthony (a writer for BattleshipPretension.com), struggle with the question, is an auteur director better than a 'gun for hire?' If not for Andrew Sarris' work, I wouldn't be a critical thinker when it comes to watching movies. His writings have taught me how to be an active moviegoer and shown me how cinema can benefit from an artist's point-of-view."
"I had one class with Andrew Sarris, which was enlightening. I honor him as one of many Greek-Americans who have left a permanent mark on cinema... Spyros Skouras, Elia Kazan, John Cassavetes, and yes, even Zach Galifianakis."
"I met Andrew Sarris once, at a press screening in New York in 2009. I guess the critics who are based in New York saw him all the time, but for me, an out-of-towner, it was kind of surreal. It was like going to your regular college class one day and for some reason the president of the university is there. Sarris was sitting on the edge of a low wall in the lobby, because there weren't any chairs and he was 80 years old. In fact, that was my first thought on seeing him: This is one elderly film critic. Then I realized who he was, and now it seemed weird to me that all the other critics in the room weren't huddled around him, sitting at his feet, talking to him about movies. But like I said, I guess they were used to him.
I said hello and introduced myself, told him I admired his work, and he was kind and polite in response. That was the end of our interaction. But I remember being impressed that -- well, impressed that he was THERE. He was 80 years old, for crying out loud, and still going to screenings, still pluggin' away. He struck me as being dignified, thoughtful, and in love with his work. (The film, by the way, was an indie thing called 'Management.' Here's the review he wrote. )
"I was hesitant about adding anything to Criticwire’s Andrew Sarris tribute, because, as Matt wrote on Friday, 'a lot of younger critics…only know Sarris by his reputation and his famous feud with Pauline Kael.' And that’s true. While I’m more familiar with Sarris’ work than the average twentysomething, can I really say he’s influenced me the way he’s influenced the older generation of critics? I can’t. I never met him and I didn’t grow up reading him. And yet, as young as I am, I wouldn’t be striving for the goals I’m striving for were it not for the standard he still represents, a standard that can be matched but not surpassed.
But even beyond that, Sarris has unmistakably influenced how I, and others of my generation, look at and talk about movies. We were auteurists before we even knew the word, which just goes to show how rooted in American culture the idea has become. It’s almost instinctual -- young cinephiles don’t become auteurists as much as they are born auteurists. To be a great writer is one thing, but to cast such a deep shadow that you influence an entire culture is something else."