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OBIT: Pioneer Film Critic Andrew Sarris is Dead at 83; He Changed How We See Movies

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by Anne Thompson
June 20, 2012 3:22 PM
4 Comments
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Robin Holland www.robinholland.com Andrew Sarris.

The great critic Andrew Sarris, who wrote for The Village Voice and more recently, The New York Observer, is dead at age 83. According to his wife Molly Haskell in The NYTimes, he died from an infection after a fall. My best wishes go to Haskell ("From Reverence to Rape"), who was as erudite and passionate about film as her husband.

When I was growing up in Manhattan, feeding on movies at the Thalia, New Yorker and Elgin and working at the Bleecker Street Cinema during my stint at NYU Cinema Studies, Andy and Molly were the gracious and generous first couple of cinema, looked up to and admired.

No one, not New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, not anyone, has done more to change the way we watch, interpret and think about movies, than Andrew Sarris.

Yes, Sarris is famous for the "Circles and Squares" roundelay with Kael. Why did she see fit to attack Sarris's tossed-off 1963 piece in Film Culture about the Auteur Theory? (Sarris had no idea it would be the most widely read and influential article of his career.) She was challenging an arch-rival.  Over the years, she championed younger critics who admired her colorful prose style, who were known as Paulettes, among them the New Yorker's David Denby, EW's Owen Gleiberman, The Baltimore Sun's Michael Sragow,  and ex-NYT critic Elvis Mitchell. Sarris's more scholarly followers were called auteurists, among them Time's Richard Corliss, the NYT's Dave Kehr, THR's Todd McCarthy, and Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Finally Kael held onto her fave filmmakers as much as Sarris.

Inspired by the French New Wave, Sarris's signature accomplishment was to create a way of organizing, categorizing and evaluating directors. In his must-read 1968 classic "The American Cinema," he provided for generations of film fans and critics a way of indexing what had been a completely chaotic hodge-podge of movies. Before Sarris there was no pantheon. People didn't think Hitchcock, Hawks, Welles and Ford were the great master auteurs. Sarris popularized that way of thinking, basically. We could all disagree with him--I thought more highly of John Huston and Billy Wilder than he did (he later recanted on Wilder)--but man did he know his stuff.

What we've lost, what cinema has lost, is one of the great critical minds. Sarris had seen it all. (Okay, so maybe he wasn't as showy a writer as Kael. But no one knew as much about as many movies as he did.) Hitchcock's "Psycho" confused and dismayed many critics when it came out in 1960. But Sarris recognized his genius:

“Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today. Besides making previous horror films look like variations of ‘Pollyanna,’ ‘Psycho’ is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain.”

He was my hero.

I am collecting pieces on Sarris. Stay tuned.

Here's Carrie Rickey. Todd McCarthy, Bill Desowitz, Annette Insdorf, Leonard Maltin. Corliss's Sarris tribute is here.

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More: Critics, Reviews, Obit

4 Comments

  • Brian | June 21, 2012 1:38 PMReply

    My mentor in film school, nearly 40 years ago, was an older student who was a disciple of Sarris and had worked for him as a research assistant, so I would say that Sarris was a key influence on the development of my interest in and knowledge of film. I remember the first Sam Fuller film I saw. I was a freshman in college and I had to set the alarm and wake up at 4AM to catch "The Steel Helmet" on the Late, Late Show on Channel 2 (WCBS-TV). It was quite a revelation and an auteurist was born. I began to appreciate Kael more later in life, but Sarris was, in his way, an important teacher in the crucial years.

  • Tom Brueggemann | June 20, 2012 8:20 PMReply

    My whole life, my whole existence is due to Andrew Sarris. My reading of The American Cinema in early 1969 when I was still in high school basically changed my priorities and goals of my life (though film became a profession rather than a hobby only after college).

    His championing of so many directors who had not until him gotten their due - even Hitchcock and Ford, but even more importantly almost totally unacclaimed ones (in the US at least) like Don Siegel, Sam Fuller, Raoul Walsh, Budd Boetticher to name just a few makes him arguably the most influential critic in film history. Obviously introducing auteurism to an American audience, and its perversion into meaning things he never intended, has been a mixed bag. (Sarris never claimed every director was the author of his films, but rather than a great director could control the means of becoming the author even within the studio system).

    I had the pleasure of meeting him all the way back in college (I asked him more than 40 years ago what American film he had not seen that he most wanted to - his surprising choice was Garson Kanin's "A Man to Remember," which finally showed up, and promoted as a rediscover, on TCM a few years ago). Later in New York I was able to spend more time with him, and more than anything remember his humor, his friendliness and his generosity in answering whatever questions posed him.
    Condolences to Molly and all those closest to him.

  • Joe Beatty | June 20, 2012 7:59 PMReply

    Sarris was a giant.

  • DJAY | June 20, 2012 4:03 PMReply

    Was fortunate enough to enroll in a few of his 'auteur study' seminars at Columbia. A lovely man, humorous, laconic but always insightful. Never have forgotten his memorable, bottom line quip about the movies (if I can paraphrase): "We go to movies to watch the eyes of beautiful women .... movie stars. " Camera don't lie. RIP, Professor Sarris.

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