There is no single review or article by Andrew Sarris that I can turn to at this moment to illustrate his impact in shaping my critical mind. For me, Mr. Sarris was part of a wave of movie critics who came before me—before all of us—who forced me, through his writing and constantly evolving thinking, to challenge myself as to why I responded to movies the way I do. Pauline Kael’s specialty was conveying her immediate, heightened response to a movie. Mr. Sarris would also do that, but then would investigate how exactly a director or an actor went about in provoking a response, good or bad, from the viewer.
Of course, Mr. Sarris’ The American Cinema is one of the cornerstones of any self-respecting critic’s approach to writing and criticism. It doesn’t even matter if you agree with the auteur theory as put forth by Mr. Sarris. What matters is the way it provides an organizing theory that attempts to put certain filmmakers’ bodies of work in a larger context. Mr. Sarris dared to offer the kind of serious consideration of movies that had been afforded to musicians, painters, playwrights, and poets. Even those who rejected the auteur theory as silly or dry or too academic (most famously Ms. Kael) would go on to practice their own form of it. (See Ms. Kael’s writing on DePalma.)
It is impossible to write about Mr. Sarris without mentioning his partner Molly Haskell, a powerful critical voice in her own right. Ms. Haskell, with soothing Southern voice and disarming yet firm demeanor, was a perfect counterpoint to Mr. Sarris’ veteran college prof easiness. Her From Reverence to Rape remains a provocative and essential examination of the portrayals of women in the movies, while Love and Other Infectious Diseases is both a harrowing and moving chronicle of Mr. Sarris’ extended stay in the hospital in 1984.
I met them once at the Museum of the Moving Image’s workshop for film critics. They were like the John & Yoko of movie critics, rarely separated and in perfect harmony. (If you want to see just how good they were together, then check out their back-and-forth discussion on the Criterion DVD of Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait.) They were generous with their time and genuinely curious about online criticism, as most of us there wrote mostly for online outlets. When it was decided that the conversation would continue over dinner, Mr. Sarris chose to be driven to the restaurant while Mrs. Haskell opted to walk. Being visually impaired, I asked if I could walk with her. She said yes and adapted to guiding me without a problem. I would speak to both of them separately on later occasions by phone. I remember one conversation with Mr. Sarris where we got into a discussion about the movies of Steven Soderbergh. He was mixed on his most recent work. After I finished a five minute dissertation on his body of work, Mr. Sarris said something to the effect of, “You seem to have thought about this. Maybe I’ll think about it.” And that’s what I take away from Mr. Sarris: the desire, the need to constantly think about why I love the things I love.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.
Andrew Sarris made a name for himself as a film critic. That’s an amazing feat in a world where critics are rated somewhere between accident lawyers and executioners in popular appeal. To do that, you must either hold a set of opinions so bold, idiosyncratic and gorgeously worded that they stand out like an outlandish hat in rush hour (like his rival Pauline Kael) or introduce an original concept that was actually always there, waiting to be named. Mr. Sarris did the latter. Importing from the French, he named the film director as the true author of a film, at a time in America when they were thought of as Hollywood’s assembly line foremen. Would an entire generation of maverick American directors have stepped out so boldly in the 1970’s if they were still regarded as anonymous, interchangeable employees of moguls?
Another great thing he did was fearlessly brush against the grain when the grain simply chafed. He is famous for his stirring, spiritually astute readings of masterpieces like Au Hasard Balthazar and Lola Montes, but my favorite review of his is a cranky pan of the beloved Southern Gothic classic To Kill A Mockingbird. Practically anticipating Phil Ochs’ bitterly ironic song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” and James Baldwin’s Hollywood essays in The Devil Finds Work, he described the film’s happy ending thusly: “This is a heartwarming resolution of the novel and the film. Yet somehow the moral arithmetic fails to come out even. One innocent Negro and one murderous red-neck hardly cancel each other out. How neat and painless it is for the good people of Maycomb to find a bothersome victim in one grave and a convenient scapegoat in the other. When all is said and done, Southerners are People Like Us, some good and some bad. So what? No one who has read the last letters of the German troops trapped in Stalingrad can easily believe in a nation of monsters, but the millions of corpses are an objective fact. At some point, a social system is too evil and too unjust for personal ethics to carry any weight. It is too early to tell, but it is too late for the Negro to act as moral litmus paper for the white conscience. The Negro is not a mockingbird.”
Sarris wrote with the understanding that movies are not mockingbirds, giving us song to help pass the time and feel a little better about things. By most reliable accounts, he laughed easily and often but never forgot that movies are a matter of life and death.
In 1968, as a 17-year-old high school senior, I published my first film reviews in the school paper. As I recall, the first hailed Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler while the second registered my fervent but not terribly articulate enthusiasm for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The same year, I discovered Andrew Sarris’ reviews in the Village Voice, and Sarris published his magnum opus, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Looking back, I can’t say which came first: my reading of Sarris or the commencement of my own film reviewing. What I can say is that no film critic meant more to me, then or later, and that no other writer’s example was a greater influence on my eventual decision to try writing film criticism professionally.
During college, attending the campus film societies’ screenings and debating Sarris’ and other critics’ reviews were intertwined obsessions that, though extra-curricular, actually seemed to add up to the foundations of a real education in cinema for myself and a small corps of cinephile friends. When asked later what made Sarris so crucial to this era, I usually point to two things. First, while he was known for importing the auteur theory from France (and “theory” was always a misnomer; the French were right to call it a “policy”), the key idea that undergirded it was that film was an art, one uniquely capable of reaching from the grossest of lowbrow slapstick to the chilly peaks of high modernism. It’s hard to believe now perhaps, but until the auteurist floodgates opened in the ‘60s, most reviewers (people rarely spoke of “film critics”) regarded movies, good or bad, as entertainment ground out by big studios for an unsophisticated mass audience. In introducing the director as artist-auteur, Sarris helped us see the work of studio hands like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford as beacons of personal vision no less than the more determinedly individualistic and idiosyncratic work of new directors like Bergman, Antonioni, Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, and Truffaut. And his eloquent, probing reviews elucidated the films of both sets of artists in terms not just of cinema history but of other trends in art, politics and society.
The second reason for Sarris’ importance was simple: he gave us a map. In ranking directors in a hierarchy from “The Pantheon” (Chaplin, Welles, Ford, Hawks, Renoir, et al.) down to the lowliest of genre hacks, The American Cinema provided an evaluative overview of the whole history of Hollywood cinema that had no parallel in film criticism. For a college-age film nut in the early ‘70s, it was at once wildly entertaining, wittily challenging and endlessly instructive. Of course one could (and did) disagree with some of Sarris’ predilections and aversions: that was part of the fun. But on the whole, he was a remarkably generous and authoritative guide; there was simply no better way to get a sense of the whole amazing expanse of American cinema, to begin making one’s own evaluations, and to learn which classic films needed to be seen for an assiduous cinephile’s education to be considered adequate if not complete.
To flash forward a couple of decades, I ended up in New York in the early ‘90s and had the great pleasure of getting to know Andrew and his wife Molly Haskell, a Southerner like myself. Encountering the man, happily, involved very little in the way of surprises. He was in person just as he was on the page: charming, engaged, funny, warm, curious, articulate, gracious, sharp-witted and kind. If cinephile means “lover of film,” Sarris will always represent to me the consummate cinephile, because his love of cinema was so passionate, prescient and precise that it kindled and shaped that same love in myself and many others. I feel a tremendous gratitude for all he taught me. Thank you, Andrew.
Formerly the film critic of New York Press, Godfrey Cheshire is a New York-based filmmaker who directed the documentary Moving Midway.
An A+ Gent
It was my privilege to be Andrew Sarris’ teaching assistant at Columbia University’s film school in 1998. Sarris taught a large, very popular World Cinema class that admitted both undergrads and grad students. His class was a bit on the loosey-goosey side, as Andrew would sit at the front of the class and talk about his favorite films of that particular week, discussing up-and-coming directors he admired, and young actors he thought showed promise. I remember he had very high hopes for “Rennie” Zellweger, and once when an undergrad asked a particularly pretentious “look how smart I am” question, Sarris answered, “I’d rather talk about Rennie Zellweger.”
I was also Sarris’ student in a combined undergrad/grad class on writing film criticism, hands-down one of the best, most inspiring classes I took at Columbia. Once, Sarris called me out for being a bit dismissive in that “smart-ass critic” way regarding John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. Sarris reminded me that John Frankenheimer had certainly more than earned a wee bit of respect in this world. And that goes a long way to understanding Sarris. He had the long view. He had seen so much—good and bad—you’d think he’d have seen enough; but “enough” never came. He was quick to call out the over-praised empty suits, but just as quick to stand up for those directors who had earned their stripes, whose work deserved careful consideration and respect because they were (among other things) auteurs. Oh yes—that word that Sarris introduced into the English language is pretty much taken for granted now. Would anyone question whether a director was (or should be) the true author of a film? He knew it was his greatest legacy and told me so.
Sarris was never dismissive. Visiting over the years, I saw him take up a cane to help him walk, then two canes. The last time I saw him, Columbia was awarding the first annual Andrew Sarris Prize. He kissed my hand, which he often did to female students, one of the only people in the world who could get away with such a gesture. Columbia grades their film students on a pass/fail model. But since I took Sarris in a seminar that included undergrads, he was forced to give me a letter grade. He gave me an A+. So on my Columbia transcript, there’s a whole bunch of passes and one gleaming A+, which is precisely the grade I give to him.
Margaret Hames is the publisher of Media Darlings.
Kevin B. Lee
To my knowledge, the above video essay, produced last month for Press Play and Sight & Sound features the last recording of Andrew Sarris’ voice. We recorded it one afternoon in Sarris and Molly Haskell’s chic apartment filled with books, paintings and grand windows overlooking the Upper East Side; walking into it was like walking into a film critic’s loftiest lifestyle aspirations. “We bought it 30 years ago, otherwise we could never afford it,” Molly shrugged.
With Andrew’s potential for participation limited by poor health, he occupied himself in the dining room with a sandwich while we recorded Molly in the living room. Nonetheless, Molly procured Andrew’s original Village Voice review of the film and read from it. She really wanted his voice to be included, and the video is all the better for it. The selected passage, with its discussion of cinema as the beguiling dynamic between surfaces and essences, also gets at something about the relationship between film criticism and its subject, the mad pursuit of conveying the essence of one medium through another. The video is as much a tribute to the essence of Sarris’ approach to cinema as it is to Rohmer’s. And for all the talk of Sarris being the anti-Kael, there’s something about his articulation of ideas that’s every bit as sensual and sexy in its own way as what Kael was famous for.
In the midst of the recording, Andrew walked in and eased into a sofa, quietly listening to the conversation. But at one moment, in response to the discussion of scenes involving the touching of Claire’s knee, he interjects with a hearty, satisfied chuckle and a soft mumble. I’ve gotten emails asking what he says, and all I can do is wonder what thoughts went through his mind as the image of that knee flashed across the screen of his memory. But as far as conveying an essence of a lifelong love of the movies, this final sound of his laughter may suffice.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play.
I never paid much attention to the whole Kael vs. Sarris debate. I always thought it was two writers engaging in a good ol’ pissing contest. They were two film writers with two wholly unique perspectives on film criticism—end of goddamn story.
I say that to say this: What I enjoyed about Andrew Sarris was how, in his later years, he served as the sensible, introspective yin to Rex Reed’s catty, oversensitive yang in the pages of the New York Observer. Both writers had their own separate columns in the salmon-covered weekly. Since Reed’s column (titled “On the Town with Rex Reed”) dealt with movies, theater, cabaret shows, etc., it wasn’t as intense a film column as Sarris’s. However, on many an occasion, you’d see both men review the same movie in the same issue—and this is where things got fun.
Here’s a sample of what Sarris wrote about The Dark Knight:
“What is most unprecedented about the narrative, however, is its largely unsympathetic treatment of the yapping and yowling citizens of Gotham City, a gloomy echo of ourselves, at the gas pumps and grocery stores, still looking for easy answers from the highest bidders for our votes. In this respect, Ledger’s Joker brilliantly incarnates the devil in all our miserable souls as we contemplate a world seemingly without hope.”
Now, here’s Reed’s take:
“The Dark Knight is preposterous, unnecessary and a far, far cry from the old DC Comics of my youth created by Bob Kane. But before the hate mail pours in, let me confess I’m a fool for this stuff, and if “logic” is a word you cannot apply to this movie, neither is “boring.” Compared with the summer’s other action potboilers, it’s a Coney Island roller coaster ride with some of the rails missing.”
This isn’t to say one style of criticism is better or worse than the other. However, you did get an immediate sense of how both men looked at movies. Sarris = well-mannered, pragmatic, detailed, looking at something from all angles before coming to a conclusion. Reed = ornery, hyperbolic, contrarian, getting an idea of what he saw and running with it. If they were a comedy team, Sarris would be the dry-witted straight man, while Reed would be the low-brow clown.
Unfortunately, Sarris was laid off from the Observer in 2009, making Reed the last critic standing there. It’s sad now that not only Sarris has passed, but that fascinating balance will never be replicated again at that paper.
In my opinion, Andrew Sarris will always be seen as a great critic and writer because, quite simply, he knew what he was doing. And whenever you read him, you knew it too.
Craig D. Lindsey is one of the earliest contributors to Press Play.
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. Critics of any art form that was previously too young, awkward and humble to dare to define a pantheon were emboldened to try it thanks to Sarris, who insisted that movies could be art as well as entertainment and found the words to explain exactly how that could be so.
I was in the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics for a number of years with him and always looked forward to seeing him at screenings and voting meetings. He was an affable man who seemed to always be taking notes, and he’d been around so long by the time that I got into those groups that he didn’t seem to be flustered by anything that happened in the room—though of course by that point, the 1990s, the arguments were pretty mild compared to what I’d heard went on the 60s and 70s. Even when critics were sparring with each other over whether this film or that actress deserved an award, he just grinned, glancing back and forth between the antagonists as if he were sitting courtside at Wimbledon and chuckling a bit. I went up to his house one time to take his picture for the then-new New York Film Critics Circle Web site, which my brother and I built. I felt as if I were making a pilgrimage. He was charming. While I was taking his picture, his wife Molly Haskell—a giant in her own right—came into the room, introduced herself, then told her husband that he should sit in front of a different window because the light was better there.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.
Mr. Sarris was quite generous to me. I was a young screenwriter in New York City. I remember writing a critical appreciation of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in the early 70s and sending it off. Surprisingly, Mr. Sarris published it in the Village Voice. Meeting him years later, he struck me as a gentle soul, and although over the years his reviews could be tough, I never felt a bone of meanness.
Oliver Stone is the director of Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers and the upcoming Savages.
Sarris silenced them. By them, I mean the group of people I met and befriended when I started at Columbia University, fresh from Dallas, Texas, in fall 1988. Silenced in what way? Every way. These people didn’t talk like the people I grew up with. They were affectionate at their core, and you could tell that when you talked to them about things they loved, from the Velvet Underground to William Carlos Williams to Bob Dylan to Lorca, but it was buried under several very thick layers of toughness and aggression. It took a while for me to get used to it, but I learned; I remember ending one conversation by overturning a glass of soda on someone’s plate, for no reason I can recall. It seemed to make sense at the time. But Sarris.
Sarris shut them up. We brought the Village Voice to lunch in high-ceilinged John Jay Dining Hall in those days, and every week, the same ritual lionizing of certain names would occur: J. Hoberman. Greil Marcus. Andrew Sarris. When Sarris’s name was mentioned, though, only he got the kind of hands-in-the-air, I-won’t-even-humor-any-other-name response awarded to people deserving of great reverence. He wasn’t a “tough guy,” but his mind was tough, and that brought all the aggression to a halt. There was no question: when one of his pieces appeared in the Voice, that was a treat. The dense, surprising, literary prose seemed to me far more stimulating than anything I was reading in class, in an academic structure seemingly designed to encourage distraction. And it silenced students in a generation which viewed everything from classroom lectures to poetry readings to the level of service at a diner as an opportunity for review, of some kind.
Sarris’s death feels symbolic, a sign of the erosion of a tendency. Towards what? Towards more courage in criticism, towards engagement, towards saying something that might seriously dismantle a reader if there was a thought it might change their thinking. Think Lester Bangs! When Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung came in for review at the Columbia Spectator, everyone was on it. Who would attract that kind of interest now? Our premier critics are plenty sassy these days; they know what they like, and they know what they can’t tolerate, but they don’t necessarily have the erudition necessary to put weight behind their punches. Sarris taught at Columbia when I was a student there, as did Martin Scorsese, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Milos Forman, and as with many people I admired, I stayed away. I wanted to preserve my reverence. I did hear one lecture, though, almost by accident—and he said something during that lecture which has stuck with me, for years. He told a student, “As a critic, you understand, I can’t make the sun rise. However, I can tell you it has risen.” Who knows if that was original with him, or if he said it once a year and I was the last to know, I still feel sorry I didn’t see more of those lectures; that kind of sunrise I could have seen over and over.
Max Winter is the Managing Editor of Press Play.