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Andrew Sarris: Thinking About Movies

Features
by Leonard Maltin
June 20, 2012 6:10 PM
6 Comments
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Photo by Robin Holland

Film buffs who weren’t around in the 1960s and ‘70s might not appreciate how important Andrew Sarris was in those days before home video, the Internet, and the blogosphere, where everyone has an opinion and isn’t shy about expressing it. His landmark essays about the auteur theory and reviews of current films were highly influential—almost beyond description—and got people talking, as did his longtime feud with his contemporary contrarian, Pauline Kael.

Sarris was always gracious to me when we chanced to cross paths over the years, but I met him first on the printed page. That’s where he earned my respect and gratitude for prodding me to think seriously about films for the first time in my life. I tried to express that in an essay I wrote in 2001 for Emanuel Levy’s book-length collection of tributes to Sarris. It may seem a bit naïve, and it’s as much about me as it is its purported subject; I’m reprinting it here because it sums up the reasons this formidable critic lingers in my thoughts today. My condolences go out to his wife, fellow critic Molly Haskell. 

ANDREW SARRIS

by Leonard Maltin

Andrew Sarris helped teach me to think about movies...but he didn't do it in an easy way.

I had gotten the movie bug quite young, and by the time I was twelve I was traveling from my home in New Jersey to the New Yorker Theatre on Broadway and 88th Street in Manhattan on a regular basis.  The New Yorker was a haven for movie buffs, and a godsend for a budding one like myself, because it programmed an endless series of great double features from the vast reaches of film history.  Upper West Siders like Peter Bogdanovich, William K. Everson, and (I believe) Sarris himself helped theater owner Dan Talbot with ideas and program notes.  This was the mid-to-late 1960s, and it was a great period for this quintessential revival theater.

One day I read that someone was opening a movie bookstore around the corner to be called The New Yorker Bookshop.  I wandered in on its opening weekend, and there discovered a magazine I'd never seen before:  Film Culture.  It was, in fact, the issue in which Sarris' manifesto on American cinema was first published.  I bought it on the spot. (Having half-naked Busby Berkeley chorus girls on the cover was, I thought, an amusing nod to salesmanship.)

As I started to read the issue, I became confused and angry. Why was Billy Wilder--already a hero of mine--relegated to a section called "Less Than Meets the Eye"?  Why was Lewis Milestone a lesser director because he made both a great anti-war movie (All Quiet on the Western Front) and a probing look at war itself (A Walk in the Sun)?  And why was Sarris so enthusiastic about filmmakers whose names I barely knew?  How could they rate more enthusiasm and approval than, say, Otto Preminger?

Please understand:  I was a kid.  I was just feeling my way. I was immersed in The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, and hadn't yet encountered Sam Fuller or Budd Boetticher.

The first director I ever saw  in person (when I was about sixteen) was Rouben Mamoulian.  My awareness of filmmaking up to then was superficial.  I was so enamored of stars, especially stars of the "golden age," that I seldom thought about writers or directors.  Mamoulian changed all that, during a week-long visit to the then-Huntington Hartford Museum, when the notorious Raymond Rohauer presented a retrospective of his work.  Mamoulian cut a very impressive figure, especially to my youthful gaze. He had an imperial bearing, and was irresistibly eloquent. (When Rohauer presented him with an award in the form of a bronze sculpture, depicting a sticklike human figure, Mamoulian thanked him for "this emaciated Oscar.") Suddenly, hearing this man talk about the many creative decisions--and mundane problems--involved in making Becky Sharp, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, orQueen Christina, or even High, Wide and Handsome, I became aware of the power of that man behind the camera, and how completely he fashioned the finished product on-screen.

And now, I had to contend with Sarris and his argumentative evaluations.  (Mamoulian, incidentally, was not exactly dismissed, but pigeonholed with the eccentrics.)

To this young and impressionable film buff, Sarris' writing--and his polemicizing--had a profound effect. It urged me to form my own counter-opinions, and to find a way to express them.

Then, a few short years later, I had occasion to meet Sarris. By this time, I was editing my own film-buff magazine, though still in my teens. We were both scheduled to speak before a conference of schoolteachers in New Jersey, and I did my presentation first, which had something to do with vintage Hollywood short-subjects. I can't remember much about it except that I showed a very funny Joe McDoakes comedy from the 1950s called So You Want to Go to a Nightclub.

What I will never forget is the way Andy picked up on my presentation and wove it into his extemporaneous talk. He cited scenes from the comedy short--bringing up points I hadn't thought of, naturally--and talked most pointedly about the difference between real life and real-life-as-seen-in-movies.  He used as a dramatic example an incident everyone in that auditorium knew far too well: the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. At that time, closer to the events of 1963, everyone had committed that television coverage to memory.

But it took Sarris to point out, to this lay audience, that if a movie director had staged the same event, he would have had "coverage." There would have been shots of Ruby approaching the area, close-ups of Dallas cops reacting, shrieking faces in the crowd, etc. All this may sound obvious, but to us sitting there that day, it wasn't; it was a perfect way to lead us into a deeper discussion of how a director manipulates "reality."

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.

What's more, he was right about Fuller and Boetticher...and he's long since apologized in print to Billy Wilder and elevated him to his pantheon of great directors. How can we not admire, respect, and pay homage to this most influential of critics?

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6 Comments

  • Kevin Barry | June 22, 2012 4:46 PMReply

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Sarris and his lovely wife at a performance of a play by Vincent Canby at the HB Studios on Bank Street in Manhattan. Mr. Canby, who I had met before, introduced me to Mr. Sarris, Molly Haskell and Uta Hagen that night, and I walked home on air. I gushed to Mr. Sarris about how my copy of The American Cinema: Directors and Directions was crumbling to pieces but I referred to it frequently. I still do, even though it is 45 years out of date. I kept hoping he would revise it.

  • Joe Beatty | June 22, 2012 3:26 PMReply

    Thank you for this very touching tribute to Andrew Sarris. He was not only a superb critic, but a wonderful human being. He will be greatly missed.

  • Robert Koehler | June 21, 2012 9:09 PMReply

    Sad news about an important American film critic, who demanded respect for taking a polemical stance, even if that stance was the byproduct of cross-Atlantic misunderstanding. Much as Lee Strasberg bravely brought Stanislavsky's techniques for acting to the American stage, yet greatly misunderstood them, Sarris brought the French politiques des auteurs to America, but applied a faulty approach to the auteur theory. This problem has been written about at considerable length, so I won't belabor it. I do believe that Sarris' brand of auterism has been greatly helpful in one regard: The myriad fallacies of auteurism, starting with a lack of understanding of Hollywood film production and the mistaken diminution of the importance of screenwriters in the making of Classical Hollywood movies (and no, I'm most definitely not a Paulette!!), have been gradually but eventually comprehended by cinephiles, critics and anyone else interested in who is responsible for the ultimate results on screen. While Sarris played a crucial role in the renewed appreciation of the great Hollywood directors (well, most of them, if not Stanley Kubrick, until 1975), his elevation of a faulty auteur "theory" prompted a counter-argument that only helped invigorate the conversation. A problematic thesis that triggers a salutory outcome is nevertheless quite useful. I think this will, in the course of time, be paradoxically seen as one of Sarris' prime contributions.

  • mike schlesinger | June 21, 2012 7:30 PMReply

    Like so many of our generation, I bought "The American Cinema" in college; it became my bible for decades afterwards, and I even dutifully updated it for those directors who were still active. I was incredibly thrilled when he came to LACMA a few years ago (Molly was giving a presentation). I approached him as so many others must have done, handed him my now-battered copy and asked "God" to inscribed it. He grinned modestly and did so. Ebert says he was our most influential critic, and he's right. Sarris not only saw Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, et al as not merely popular entertainers but serious artists; he also rescued Siegel, Boetticher, Fuller, et al from the shadows of (presumed) B-movie hackery, where they might still be today were it not for his passion and perception. We could never hope to repay our debt to him.

  • Ed Casey | June 21, 2012 6:19 PMReply

    Thank you for the personal article your visits to the revival film theatres, your first encounter with a director and your discussion about Mr. Andrew Sarris. It's remarkable that fifty years after Sarris popularized the auteur theory, it still holds up strongly in the film world!

  • Michael van den Bos | June 20, 2012 7:24 PMReply

    That is a lovely tribute to Mr. Andrew Sarris. I have long admired Sarris's perspective, analysis and passion about the movies. I also love listening to Sarris speak about film history in the various documentaries that feature him. He was an eloquent and incisive writer when it came to his reviews or film history analysis. I highly recommend his 1998 book, You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film - History and Memory, 1927-1949. I often reference this wonderfully written book for my own film class lectures, classic film event introductions and film writing. Thank you, Leonard, for posting your tribute to Andrew Sarris.

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