Some of the top figures in New York film culture of the past five decades paid tribute Wednesday to the late Andrew Sarris, the iconic film critic most noted for championing the “auteur” theory in America. Sarris died in June at the age of 83.
The afternoon tribute, which played to a packed house at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, included speeches by friends of Sarris as well as an eclectic amalgam of classic film clips from movies that Sarris loved.
Kent Jones, the newly appointed director of programming at the New York Film Festival, read a letter from Martin Scorsese, who couldn’t attend because he was on location. Scorsese recalled getting to know Sarris in his early 20s and loving to speak to him about movies.
“He was brilliant, passionate, energizing and inspiring, and I always wished that the conversation could go on forever,” wrote Scorsese. In celebrating the role of the director as the single visionary of a film, Scorsese continued, “Andrew, you gave me and all of us a great and lasting gift. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.”
Director Robert Benton called Sarris a “prophet” who in the early 60s, when he first met him, was “crying in the wilderness.” Benton recalled parties where you would find people clustered in small groups arguing with great intensity about “L’Avventura” verses “Dolce Vita” About Truffaut, Godard. About Bergman… And more and more I became aware that people were talking about an unknown film critic from an obscure weekly called The Village Voice. The young man’s name was Andrew Sarris.”
Film critic Philip Lopate, in reflecting on Sarris’ contributions, praised him for never being interested in the “obvious.”
Sarris, who wrote about film for years at The Village Voice, taught film at Columbia, where he was a colleague to several speakers, including departing NYFF director Richard Pena and professor Annette Insdorf. Insdorf said that when she was a student at Queens College she read The Village Voice every week, “just so I could have Andrew Sarris’ reviews and essays inspiring me to think seriously about film.” She recalled one day, on the subway, an older woman leaning over to her while she was reading one such article, and the woman said, “That Andrew Sarris, is he good? And I responded, ‘Oh, yes.’ And she said, ‘I’m so glad. He’s my son.’”
Many speakers affectionately remembered Sarris’ infectious laughter, and his mysterious way of playing tennis.
Toby Talbot, of the old New Yorker Theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, recalled Sarris at the center of a vibrant film culture centered at her and husband’ Dan’s theater, when it played the foreign films that Sarris adored.
Filmmaker Jonathan Demme said that Sarris respected what he wrote about, and that his writing “ennobled” his readers…that’s one of the things that made it great to read him.” Continued Demme, “His love of film translates so fluidly into his love of art and his love of humanity…Sarris saw the poetry in camera movements in the way that few others told us about.” In closing, Demme said, “Forgive me for saying this… I honestly I think of him as a great American, a magnificent human being that I feel so proud to have been on the same continent as.”