Andrew Sarris, the famed critic responsible for introducing the auteur theory to America, died this morning in New York. The news of his passing was confirmed by his longtime wife and fellow critic Molly Haskell in The New York Times today. He was 83.
The cause was complications from a fall, the Times reported.
Sarris was best known for authoring the Film Culture article “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” a 1962 piece that brought the notion of the director as the principle author of a film to English language scholarship following its burgeoning popularity among French critics. He expanded on the theory with the seminal volume “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929 – 1968,” an encyclopedia of notable filmmakers both young and old that remains in print to this day and is still largely considered an ideal entry point for any developing cinephile.
Sarris wrote extensively for Film Culture and the Village Voice in the 1960’s. In later years, he contributed to the New York Observer, a position he concluded in 2011. He was also an active film professor, mainly at Columbia University.
Sarris’ lively prose was matched by a daunting knowledge of film history. He mounted passionate defenses of filmmakers dismissed for their seeming commercialism — most notably Alfred Hitchcock — but also wrote eloquently about the careers of Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni.
Sarris engaged in a legendary spat with Pauline Kael over the nature of the auteur theory and frequently poked fun at their running cold war for decades. However, while the debate on the merits of the auteur theory continue, its influence remains unquestionable: Sarris’ arguments in favor of directorial authorship remain central to the discussions of filmmaking in virtually every facet of the international film community.
On a more personal note: This critic counts himself among those chiefly inspired by the auteur theory in general and “The American Cinema” in particular to launch his own attempts at engaging with movies through the written word. As a participant in the Museum of the Moving Image’s 2008 workshop for film criticism and feature writing, I joined a few others for the brief opportunity to discuss the nature of the critical practice with Sarris and Haskell followed by an intimate dinner in which the couple laughed off our naive romanticizing of the New York film critic scene during the early years of their careers.
Longer than any other critic of his generation, Sarris held tightly to his enthusiasm for the medium and never lost his luster for writing about it. Equally wise and down to earth, he embodied the idea that criticism was a way of life and the ideal means of formalizing one’s relationship to art. His dedication inspired generations and seems destined to continue its influence for years to come.