At the time of his death in June at the age of 83, Andrew Sarris had spent half a century as a highly respected film critic, so it should come as no surprise that during that time he inspired many more of them. Several generations of Sarris’ colleagues, disciples, and former students from the Columbia University film department, where the famed auteurist taught for most of his career, gathered for a moving tribute to his life at the Walter Reade Theater on Wednesday afternoon. You can find some of the highlights from the event here and some video excerpts of the ceremony on the next page along with a list of speakers.
The memorial featured many staples of New York City film culture impacted by Sarris both personally and through his work. But the speakers, ranging from critics Kent Jones (who also read a statement by Martin Scorsese), Richard Schickel and Carrie Rickey to filmmakers Robert Benton and Jonathan Demme, formed only one part of the two and a half hour ceremony. Between most of the 17 speakers, 26 clips from various films that Sarris had championed — and one clip from a documentary about him — played on the theater’s big screen. The selection of films can be found below along with samples of Sarris’ work to help explain the inclusions.
From Sarris’ notes for the laserdisc release: “Max Ophuls’ ‘La Ronde’ (1950) — adapted by Jacques Natanson and Ophuls from Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘Reigen’ — transforms the turn of the century Viennese sex rondelay into the quintessential Ophulsian romance. The film transfigures the demons of desire into a waltz-time meditation on the eternal discrepancy between le plaisir and le bonheur in the treacherous realm of l’amour.”
From a Los Angeles Times article timed to the release of the tribute book “Citizen Sarris:” “It’s my favorite Truffaut. Most great love stories have to end tragically. [Charles] Aznavour makes a wonderful alter ego as the doomed pianist. The movie had a doomed quality, commercially. I lean toward those movies.”
“The Rules of the Game”
From “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929 -1968”: “Jean Renoir’s career is a river of personal expression. The waters may vary here and there in turbulence and depth, but the flow of personality is consistently directed to its final outlet in the sea of life.”
From Sarris’ 1966 Village Voice review: “‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ plucks out the roots of existence and presents us with a very morbidly beautiful flower of cinematic art. Bresson’s vision of life and his cinematic style may seem too bleak, too restrictive, too pessimistic for some, perhaps for many. Indeed, I cannot in all candor consider myself the most devoted Bressonian, and I have long ago renounced any ambition to do a definitive analysis of anything to which my entire sensibility does not respond, and there are large gaps in my psyche Bresson leaves untouched. And yet, all in all, no film I have ever seen has come so close to convulsing my entire being as has ‘Au Hasard Balthazar.’ I’m not quite sure what kind of movie it is, and indeed it may be more pleasingly vulgar than I suggest, but it stands by itself on one of the loftiest pinnacles of artistically realized emotional experiences.”
“Andrew Sarris: Fragments on Film“ (University of Texas, Austin)
Sadly, no clips are available from this lively 23-minute portrait of Sarris talking about his love for director Max Ophuls’ films and other favorite topics, although the Museum of Modern Art apparently owns a copy of it.
“The Awful Truth”
From “The American Cinema:” “Leo McCarey represents a principle of improvisation in the history of the American film. Noted less for his rigorous direction than for his relaxed digressions, McCarey has distilled a unique blend of farce and sentimentality in his best efforts… McCarey’s moments may outlive his movies… After enough great moments are assembled, however, a personal style must be assumed even though it is difficult to describe.”
From a lecture Sarris delivered at the University of Washington in 1987: “I discovered that no matter how many times I saw Hitchcock’s films, I never tired of them. Why is that, I wondered? You’d think that somebody working in a supposedly minor genre, dealing with suspense… Once you know how it comes out, where’s the excitement? And yet, I never tire of looking at ‘Shadow of a Doubt,’ or ‘Notorious,’ or ‘Vertigo.’ I can look at them endlessly, and I do, I teach them all the time. I look at them, I study them… I love them. And they always yield new things, new meanings.”
From “The American Cinema:” “The cinema of Max Ophuls translates tracking into walking. His fluid camera follows his characters without controlling them, and it is this stylistic expression of free will that finally sets Ophuls apart from Murnau and Hitchcock.”
From Sarris’ Claude Charbol obituary in Film Comment: “‘Les Bonnes Femmes’ remains one of the great films of the Sixties and one of the precursors to the cinema of cruelty and compassion.”
Sarris’ review of Zhang Yimou’s 1992 drama isn’t available online, but he included it in on his top 10 list that year.
From Sarris’ 2008 review of “Ashes of Time Redux:” “In a year in which Max Ophüls’ ‘Lola Montès’ is being revived for the third time at the New York Film Festival, and rereleased at Film Forum, Wong Kar-wai suddenly strikes me the Asian Max Ophüls, and I can think of no higher praise.”
“The Shop Around the Corner”
From “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet:” “Unlike the artificial and arbitrary stasis of upper-class characters in parlor plays-into-films, the rigorously observed work-a-day restrictions on wage slaves, however genteel, make a virtue of necessity. Every morning except for Sunday the ‘staff’ gathers in front of the shop in order to await the royal entrance of Mr. Matuschek for the ritualistic unlocking of the portals. The plot thickens with intrigue which is the resolved eventually both satisfactorily and sentimentally.
Only the most exquisite delicacy and tact keep the plot from overheating into overblown whimsy. There is sad wisdom at work here. When the avuncular go-between Pirovich is privileged to monitor the progress of the romance, his benign smile of indulgence escapes smugness by suggesting instead a nostalgia for his own lost illusions. Similarly, when Kralik watches the ailing Klara perk up when she received a letter from her admirer otherwise unknown to her, but known to us and Kralik as Kralik himself, Kralik’s gaze is made tender by the quiet happiness he derives from observing the innocent joy of his beloved. Though Kralik has written the letter in a comically manipulative fashion, he is not any less moved by Klara’s response. The viewer is made to feel the deep respect Kralik expressed for Klara’s vulnerability. The decency and generosity revealed here transcend the mechanics of the contrivance. And the stellar electricity generated by Sullavan and Stewart energizes even Lubitsch’s style to a new peak of emotion.”
“Trouble in Paradise”
From Sarris’ 1972 Film Comment article about director Ernst Lubitsch: “Never again was Lubitsch to experience such rapport with his audience and his medium.”
“Odd Man Out”
From Casimir Nozkowski’s video interview with Sarris shot last year (video below): “I was very moved by ‘Odd Man Out.’ It’s a very theatrical movie, very emotional. For a long time, it was my favorite movie.”
“That Hamilton Woman”
From Sarris’ Criterion essay (not online): “I have seen ‘That Hamilton Woman’ some eighty-three times at last count, and that doesn’t include free television viewings. That is to say that on eighty-three separate occasions I plunked down coin of the realm for the privilege of watching Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier impersonate Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson in history, Emma and Horatio biographically, Viv and Larry iconographically. By any reasonably objective standard of aesthetic worth, this admission should come under the heading of ‘Confessions of a Misspent Youth.'”
“Belle de Jour”
From Sarris’ Village Voice review (not online): “The film progresses inexorably upward, an ascent of assent, from the reverie of suppressed desires to the revelation of fulfilled fantasies. But whose desire and whose fantasies? Buñuel’s? His heroine’s? Actually, a bit of both.”
From “The American Cinema:” “‘The Letter’ still reverberates somewhat with the repressed passion of Bette Davis and James Stephenson.”
Mizoguchi’s classic topped Sarris’ list for the first edition of Sight & Sound‘s poll of the best films of all time in 1962. You can see his handwritten list from that year here.
“The Marriage of Maria Braun”
Sarris called the Rainer Werner Fassbinder film “a masterpiece” in the Village Voice (not online).
From “The Films of Josef Von Sternberg:” “One is treated to the paradox of characters unostentatiously impulsive, expressing most delirious feelings with the most delicate gestures.”
From Film Comment (not online): “The economy of expression that Ford has achieved in 50 years of filmmaking constitutes the beauty of his style…’The Searchers’ is his greatest symphony.”
From a conversation with Museum of the Moving Image curator David Schwartz timed to a Howard Hawks series: “‘Bringing Up Baby,’ in its own time, was a big flop, because it was just non-stop zaniness. Cary Grant has this great line in it, ‘You know, Susan, in quiet moments, you’re what I would call very attractive. But there haven’t been any quiet moments.’ So that was the trouble, there were no quiet moments in that. You know, most screwball comedies have a romantic, sentimental side.”
From “The John Ford Movie Mystery:” “‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ is a political Western, a psychological murder mystery and John Ford’s confrontation of the past — personal, professional and historical. The title itself suggests a multiplicity of fictions… As a political instrument of reactionary interests, Liberty Valance represents the intransigent individualism which Stewart is dedicated to destroy.”
From a review of “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet:” “[Sarris] now feels that he ‘grossly under-rated Billy Wilder, perhaps more so than any other American director.’ He asserts that the director’s ‘apparent cynicism was the only way he could make his raging romanticism palatable.'”
“The Magnificent Ambersons”
From “The American Cinema:” “The world of Orson Welles is the world of the runaway artist who pauses every so often to muse over what he has lost or left behind. Quiet and frenzy alternate in this world, as do nostalgia and adventure. There is stylistic alternation as well between dynamic progressions through the plot and décor and very formal compositions of the characters.”
Source unknown, quoted here: “When I first saw ‘Colonel Blimp’ — the American release title for a badly butchered print of ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ — more than 40 years ago, I never imagined I’d live to see the day when I would have the effrontery to write that I preferred this Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger production to ‘Citizen Kane.’ A matter of opinion or a matter of taste, to be sure. It may be that my radically revisionist turnabout reflects nothing more than my lifelong critical inclination toward the redemptively romantic and away from the derisively despairing. Forty years ago, however, I had much less confidence in my convictions than I do today. Also, I may now be unduly influenced by my sadly brief acquaintance with the late Michael Powell. Yet long before I knew very much about film history or had any inkling of the flesh-and-blood artists hiding behind the target-hitting logos of ‘The Archers,’ I sensed that ‘Colonel Blimp’ had something. I wasn’t sure what, but after these many decades I think I can take a stab at describing my changing impressions of this very strange work.”
From “The American Cinema:” “The best of the Astaire-Rogers musicals.”
Next page: Highlights and video of the Andrew Sarris memorial.
A lot was said during Wednesday’s ceremony, but here are a few highlights:
- Kent Jones read a statement from Martin Scorsese, unable to attend because he’s shooting a movie. The director recalled meeting Sarris early in their careers. When Scorsese started making movies, “the nature of our relationship changed,” but the chemistry between them remained stable. “It didn’t matter whether you agreed with him,” Scorsese wrote. “Andrew, you gave me a great and lasting gift.”
- Jones also noted several personal connections to Sarris: Buying “The American Cinema” as a 14-year-old, interning for Sarris at the Village Voice in the early eighties, watching “Gone with the Wind” with him and Sarris’ wife Molly Haskell at the couple’s apartment shortly before he died. But he also quoted Sarris’ own work: “Beware of generalities, especially this one,” Jones said, quoting Sarris with a chuckle. He concluded by saying, “New pathways in his work always inspired me.”
- Wendy Keys read an excerpt from a letter that Meryl Streep wrote to Haskell upon Sarris’ death. The critic had initially panned Streep’s acting style during an early stage of her career, but she won a New York Film Critics Circle prize anyway. “It was a tough night for her,” Keys said, recalling that she had referred to the critic as “Andysauras.” But several years later the critic presented Streep with another acting prize and recanted his perspective. “He was never too grand to reconsider his positions,” Streep wrote. “I never thought I would cry for a critic.”
- Haskell was present at the ceremony but did not speak. She had asked the guests not to delve into discussion of her and Sarris’ marriage, but many did anyway. “You can’t speak about Andrew without speaking Molly,” said screenwriter Robert Benton. Time critic Richard Schickel recalled playing tennis with the couple over the years. “All I know is we were in a situation of constant pleasurable communication,” he said.
- David Thomson delivered the penultimate speech. A characteristically expressive piece defined by Thomson’s lively prose, it contained high praise for his longtime colleague. Sarris, Thomson said, “defined the job we’ve tried to keep alive.” He closed with an evocative and witty bit imagining Sarris in a screening room in heaven watching a pristine 35mm print of Max Ophuls’ “The Earrings of Madame de…” from “the best cinema seat he had ever known.” The magical experience is ruined when Pauline Kael enters the room and starts scribbling notes in the front row. “He wonders if he should take notes too,” Thomson read, “But he cannot. Molly is holding his hand.”
- Filmmaker Jonathan Demme recalled moving to New York in the sixties and working in film publicity. He knew Sarris would attend a screening because he saw the critic’s name on a list. “It wasn’t like meeting a deity,” Demme said. “It was meeting a deity… His writing helped me understand why I loved the films I did.”
Here’s the full list of speakers from the event in order of appearance:
Watch two clips from the ceremony below: