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.