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An Andrew Sarris Primer

An Andrew Sarris Primer

Our collection of appreciations of the late, great Andrew Sarris, who died earlier this week at the age of 83, continues to grow; twenty pieces and counting. But while it’s great to read what Sarris meant to other critics, it’s even better to read the man’s work for yourself and decide what he means to you. I suspect a lot of younger critics and movie lovers only know Sarris by his reputation and his famous feud with Pauline Kael. That’s why I’ve put together this list as a sort of “Intro to Andrew Sarris.”

Sarris was the critic at The Village Voice from 1960 to 1989, at a time when the Internet was still just a series of tubes in the mind of Al Gore. So you’ll need to go to a library to find many of his best articles from that period. Sarris’ second home, The New York Observer, where he covered the film beat from 1990 to 2009, has a substantial Sarris archive starting in 1997, but no index — which means you have to click backwards from the most recent reviews, ten at a time, to see it all (which, let me tell you, is super fun to do). Using an intensely rigorous and highly objective formula (i.e. the ones I like best), I’ve selected these eleven pieces, spanning more than forty years in Sarris’ remarkable career. Again, this isn’t “The Best of Andrew Sarris” — but it’s as good a starting point as any. So get started already.

An Andrew Sarris Primer

1. “Psycho,” 1960

“A close inspection of ‘Psycho’ indicates not only that the French have been right all along, but that 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. What once seemed like impurities in his patented cut-and-chase technique now give ‘Psycho’ and the rest of Hollywood Hitchcock a personal flavor and intellectual penetration which his British classics lack.”

2. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” 1962

“The three premises of the auteur theory may be visualized as three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interrior meaning. The corresponding roles of the director may be designated as those of a technician, a stylist, and an auteur.”

3. “Rosemary’s Baby,” 1968

“Two universal fears run through ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ the fear of pregnancy, particularly as it consumes personality, and the fear of a deformed offspring with all the attendant moral and emotional complications. Almost any film that dealt directly with these two fears would be unbearable to watch because of the matter-of-fact clinical horror involved. By dealing obliquely with these fears, the book and the movie penetrate deeper into the subconscious of the audience.”

4. “John Wayne’s Strange Legacy,” 1979

“The Goldwaters and Nixons among his admirers have merely appropriated snapshots of Wayne as the Rugged Individualist to promote their own political fantasties. Wayne’s most enduring image, however, is that of the displaced loner vaguely uncomfortable with the very ciilization he is helping to establish and preserve.”

5. “The Truman Show,” 1998

“Still, we must resist the temptation to look at ‘The Truman Show’ primarily as a cautionary fable against the power of television and its attendant surveillance technology to pry into every nook and cranny of our supposedly private lives. That would be too easy a way to slide into the facile decline-and-fall rhetoric that shapes so much of our premillennial discourse. What makes ‘The Truman Show’ more subtle and more interesting than all that is its paranoid suggestion that we can never be sure of the sincerity and veracity of even those nearest and dearest to us.”

6. “Hitch and Me: A Case of ‘Vertigo,'” 1999

“For me the evidence of Hitchcock’s greatness is the number of times I can look at his best work without becoming jaded, and I can speak from 34 years of teaching experience. Of how many other directors can I say the same? Hardly any. So what does that do to the once prevalent assumption that Hitchcock was merely the Master of Suspense? If that were true, what possible reason could one have to see his films again and again? Once you know what happens and how, what is there left to enjoy? One can suggest subtexts, but even subtexts can get tired from endless repetition.”

7. “The Blair Witch Project,” 1999

“Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s ‘The Blair Witch Project’ represents the ultimate triumph of the Sundance scam: Make a heartless home movie, get enough critics to blurb in near unison ‘scary’ and watch the suckers flock to be fleeced. This fictional documentary within a pseudo-documentary form may be the most overrated, under-financed piece of film to come down the pike in a long time. Incidentally, when did ‘scary’ become the highest commercial accolade a movie could receive? Not that ‘The Blair Witch Project’ struck me as particularly scary even by infantile standards. Where is the suspense? Where is the involvement? Where is the identification? We know from a printed foreword that the three young filmmakers are doomed, and by the time I got to know them a little I didn’t much care what happened to them.”

8. “Dancer in the Dark,” 2000

“I would tag [Lars von Trier] less as a Marxist than as a sadist. Throughout his career, which includes ‘Breaking the Waves’ (1996) and ‘The Idiots’ (1998), he has made his protagonists suffer inordinately, painfully and, ultimately, tediously. What fascinates me the most in the acclaim awarded to ‘Dancer in the Dark’ is its implication that European intellectuals regard America as a perpetual never-never land where anything goes. In this respect, I am reminded of another Cannes Film Festival sensation, Wim Wenders’ ‘Paris, Texas’ (1984), which never caught on in the States. What I can’t understand is why American cinéastes — or indeed, anyone who understands English — can accept ‘Dancer in the Dark’ as anything but incoherent babble.”

9. “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” 2001

“It would be amusing if ‘A.I.’ should turn out to be too original and too insightful and too creative for its own good. I hope not. Perhaps I have become too cynical about the mass audience for my own good. All I can say is that I like and admire ‘A.I.’ enormously despite the fact that I have never been unduly reverent toward either Mr. Spielberg or Kubrick, and I have never particularly liked or enjoyed science fiction even at its best. That is what surprises me about ‘A.I.’: It is so good it has made me abandon my most cherished prejudices.”

10. “Black Hawk Down,” 2002

“I would be the first to congratulate Mr. Scott and his colleagues for their skill and resourcefulness in reconstructing a day and night in history with such visceral force and fury. Nonetheless, something is lost in emotional power with a collective, almost abstract hero with whom one cannot make eye contact in the way one does with single-hero narratives. When all the faces of ‘our guys’ tend to blur together, the viewer tends to become more of a voyeur gazing at the sheer horror of war. As the late Robert Warshow once observed, the distinguishable variety of actors’ faces serves the same function as stylistic tropes in literature. When a studied anonymity is imposed on a group of fighting men, as in Terrance Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998) or ‘Black Hawk Down,’ what is gained in authenticity is lost in existential identification.”

PLUS: Sarris’ Obituary For Pauline Kael, 2001

“I am always being asked to appear on panels bemoaning the state of contemporary film criticism when compared with the supposed golden age of the nouvelle vague and the Kael-Sarris contretemps. I always pour cold water on these projects by asserting, as I do now, that film criticism today is far superior to what it was back in the supposed golden age of the Kael-Sarris cat-and-dog fight, when two comparatively provincial and unsophisticated careerists — one in San Francisco and the other in New York — collided in a maze of misunderstandings that concealed the fact that they were both consumed by movies with much the same emotional intensity. So which of us was proven right in the long run? In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes or someone once said, we are all dead.”

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