In my eight years as a professional film critic, this is probably the article I have most looked forward to writing, yet least looked forward to writing. Andrew Sarris, the most influential voice in American criticism and scholarship, and an overall brilliant individual, died last week at the age of 83. His life not so much concluding, as drawing to a close, since by his own admission–when he lost his last steady writing position, with the New York Observer–there were still many more movies he wanted to see and discuss. His last published review, in 2011, was of the acclaimed Peruvian movie, “October”.
Sarris is the principle reason that I pursued film as a vocation and a calling. My life might have taken a very turn if I had not chanced upon, at the age of 14, his review of “The Birds” in his first published anthology of reviews “Confessions of a Cultist”. By that time I had discovered via public television in New York “serious” foreign films such as Fellini’s “La Strada”, Truffaut’s “400 Blows”, and Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”. I was seriously intrigued by that such art hinted as to the greater meaning of life. This idea meant more to me as I entered adolescence.
Writing about “The Birds”, Sarris argued that Hitchcock was not only a master entertainer, but the equal of European directors or literary novelists in terms of his artistry, albeit in much more subversive manner. For somebody who grew up under the influence of highbrow academia, with its rigid distinctions between lowbrow and highbrow, this was a shock to the system.
I not only began to follow Sarris in the Village Voice and read his books, but read everything related to cinema-as-art, including a subscription to Film Comment and American Film. Thus I learned how until the 1950s, academic approaches to film were largely Marxist, held cross-cutting dialectical montage as the essence of film language, and regarded all but a few films as not only frivolous, but poisonous in distracting audiences from pressing social issues outside the movie theater.
I also learned of these young French film critics (and eventual filmmakers) who, along with their mentor, Andre Bazin, at the magazine known as Cahiers du Cinema, revolutionized film criticism by discovering in Hollywood cinema creative passion communicated via mise-en-scene, the visual style of directors, whom one critic, François Truffaut, described as “auteurs”.
Andrew Sarris began writing the 1950s as well, mostly for small film journals, and with a focus on “serious” foreign films that were attracting attention at the time, such Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”. He admitted to enjoying Hollywood movies without finding them very meaningful. A year spent in Paris in 1960, being introduced to a more liberal French perspective on life and art impacted him deeply, and he returned to New York as an enthusiastic ambassador of “auteurism”.
Little did he know what was in store for him. His modest tome on the subject in a small film journal, proposing a renewed appreciation of Hollywood directors and disreputable genres like the western provoked a cry of unbridled, hysterical outrage from California by an equally marginalized writer on film named Pauline Kael, who broadly suggested that Sarris had sinister, even perverted intentions with what he was doing, and that auteurism be stopped dead in its tracks.
The resultant publicity over Kael’s howl ushered in a passionate era of film criticism the likes of which will never happen again; the studio system in Hollywood was collapsing, veteran directors were rounding out their careers, censorship was in retreat, and new films from Europe and Japan were redefining not only movies, but seemingly culture itself.
Back in 2005, I attended a panel on film criticism at the Miami International Film Festival which included such known names as CNN’s Leah Rozen and New York Newsday’s Gene Seymour, who spoke of reading both Kael and Sarris growing up, and glibly claimed that for Sarris, who admired Otto Preminger, “Preminger could do no wrong”. This was the argument Kael and many of Sarris’ critics made against him from the beginning, yet not only did Sarris not claim that, but he frequently panned the films of his favorite directors.
The real issue, however, was Sarris’ argument that some, not all, Hollywood movies be regarded as great art, and not just ones that had an overt, socially conscious “message”. For an upcoming generation of film enthusiasts, it was a notion that was understood not wisely (to quote “Othello”), but too well. Within a decade, film departments and film schools would be flooded with would-be auteurists eager to showcase their aptitude at visual razzle-dazzle at the expense of a story, much less a meaning, and the quality of popular filmmaking suffered as a result. It was a development that Sarris not only warned about as far back as the 60s, but deplored when it arrived. Ironically, it was at this point that Pauline Kael became the most hysterical of auteurists hailing Brian DePalma’s substandard imitations of Alfred Hithcock as great art, and denouncing her colleagues for not appreciating his visual pyrotechnics.
There were many more dimensions to Andrew Sarris beyond auteurism however. Despite his resistance to “messsage” cinema, a compassionate and morally rigorous humanism was a recurring theme in his reviews. He was virtually alone in criticizing movies, particularly political films, that manipulated an audience’s sympathy, by dehumanizing a villain and glamorizing a hero, rather than showcasing the virtues in the former and and the shortcomings of the latter. He was also freely capable of revising his judgments and admitting his errors, particularly with Billy Wilder, whom he once denounced as overrated.
Back in the 1980s, I could neither qualify, nor afford, Columbia University or NYU, where Sarris taught, but in 1987, a film society in Westchester County, New York, organized a series of lectures on film with him and his equally brilliant film-critic wife, Molly Haskell, and thus I had an opportunity to meet my idol, who proved himself to be a combination congenial affection and impassioned ideas. I tried, in vain, to think of something that could impress him, but I did at least convey my gratitude to the man, as I did on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2008, by means of a birthday card. And thanks once again, Andy, for the professional risks you took in your life that made such a difference to all of us.