The film world lost one of its most influential voices last week, when renowned critic, author, and educator Andrew Sarris passed away at the age of 83. Born in Brooklyn to Greek immigrant parents, Sarris began his career in 1960 at the Village Voice, where he became America’s foremost champion of auteur theory — a philosophy pioneered by French director Francois Truffaut and his Cahier du Cinéma contemporaries, who believed that any film should be made and interpreted as a reflection of a director’s artistic vision or voice. By espousing and popularizing this theory within the US, Sarris effectively elevated Hollywood directors to the level of artists, and spurred a more intellectual and aesthetic approach to popular film criticism. For Sarris and his acolytes, the director has as much agency over his film as an artist does over her painting — and the film will reflect that.
As Sarris rose to the forefront of American criticism, so too did his influence, bolstered by the publication of his seminal book The American Cinema. With Sarris and longtime rival Pauline Kael leading the charge, film criticism entered a Golden Age, and soon began remolding the way audiences conceive of film, and film history.
A recent New York headline sums up his impact rather pointedly: “You Obsess About Movie Directors Because of Andrew Sarris.” Indeed, Sarris’ philosophy is at the root of virtually every water cooler debate over “Director A vs. Director B.” It’s thanks to him that films in the Miramax Library can be categorized not only by genre, but by persona — the Tarantino collection, the Rodriguez oeuvre, or the Smith opus.
This was evident in Sarris’ own criticism of some Miramax films. Below, for instance, is an excerpt from his review of Kill Bill: Vol. 2, for the New York Observer. Sarris concludes his review by putting the film in the context of Tarantino’s broader career:
Mr. Tarantino knows enough about old movies to know that the best of them were ultimately richest in talk. Nothing fancy, mind you, and nothing abstract, just the kind of stylish patter that Preston Sturges seemed to find on every street corner, in every town hall, in factories and offices-the bawl and brawl of millions of outsiders distilled into a steady stream of vigorous verbiage. Mr. Tarantino has heard this sound in many old movies, and he has come closer than anyone around today to replicating it on the screen.
Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown , from a screenplay by Mr. Tarantino, based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, is too good an action movie to be dumped in Santa’s bag with all the impossibly numerous movie bonbons and stale fruitcakes of this holiday season. Mr. Tarantino has returned after a long directorial hiatus with his wisest, warmest, subtlest and most suspenseful effort without sacrificing his patented outrageousness and his exhilaratingly clever narrative strategies.
Andrew Sarris created a new paradigm of American film criticism, and in the process, gave us an entirely new way to consume and discuss contemporary cinema. He is survived by his wife, critic Molly Haskell, countless essays, and one large, indelible fingerprint.
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Since Sarris’ death, there’s been an outpouring of essays and tributes from critics, fans, and admirers across the web. Below are some of the most insightful.
Observations on Film Art: David Bordwell – Octave’s hop: Andrew Sarris
Bordwell describes one of his first encounters with Sarris, during a 1965 debate with rival critic Pauline Kael:
Kael was witty and acerbic, tossing off judgments with a wave of her cigarette holder. The Cincinnati Kid was the best of the current crop; Jewison showed great promise. She was riding high because I Lost It at the Movies had come out that spring and was greeted with hosannas. The New Yorker review contrasted her with “the far-out Sarris.”
He didn’t look so far-out. In a crumpled suit, he was resolutely uncharismatic, looking mildly unhappy to be dragged blinking out of the Thalia and shipped upstate. He talked fast, interrupted himself, and, finding few recent movies to praise, celebrated Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir. He delivered enigmatic observations like, “All movies should probably be in color.”
At evening’s end, I knew which camp I belonged in. I got an appropriately nerdy autograph for my Film Culture issue: “Cinecerely yours, Andrew Sarris.” More important, I exulted in a sense that my almost grim obsession with movies had been validated. Not for some time would I realize that I had enlisted, to put it melodramatically, in a fight for American film culture. The battle lines were drawn more sharply in Manhattan than in Albany, but everywhere one thing was clear. Kael was clearly the standard bearer for them, and Sarris was ours.
The New Yorker: Richard Brody – Andrew Sarris and the “A” Word
Brody on Sarris and auteurism:
Auteurism is the mode of criticism through which burgeoning directors identify those established filmmakers in whom they see themselves—and the future of the art form—reflected. It isn’t a matter of seeing patterns but of seeing directors (as if present and holding forth on the other side of the screen) and identifying with them—not by self-abnegation but by elective affinity and imaginative sympathy.
One of Sarris’ final interviews, directed and edited by Casimir Nozkowski
Time: Richard Corliss – Remembering Andrew Sarris: A Great American Film Critic
Corliss discusses Sarris’ trademark ranking system for directors:
The Galileo of film critics, Andy constructed a Hollywood cosmology of 200 directors, who were listed not alphabetically but in categories with titles either honorific (“Pantheon” for, say, Howard Hawks, “The Far Side of Paradise” for Preston Sturges) or proscriptive (“Less Than Meets the Eye” for John Huston, “Strained Seriousness” for Stanley Kubrick). Thus by its format, the book automatically exalted opinion, and a judgment was urged on readers before they ever began reading. The tactic was described as an “insane mnemonic device” by Film Quarterly editor Ernest “Chic” Callenbach (another prime source of movie enlightenment, who died two months ago, also at 83). At the time, I thought of Sarris’s ranking system as baseball stats with attitude. Anyway, Chic was right. More than 40 years on, I can still recall the place settings for each director at Andy’s banquet, as well as the ones he consigned to dine downstairs with the servants.
This rating hints at two hallmarks of the Sarris brand of auteurism (which is like saying “the Jesus brand of Christianity,” for both are radical systems that become orthodoxy, and both have been exploited for commercial purposes). One is its genesis, not just in sympathy with the French proponents of director worship, but in antipathy to the comfortable stodginess of Bosley Crowther, for 27 years the film critic of the New York Times. As much as Sarris yearned to canonize Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, he also needed to cauterize the work of directors laureled by front-line movie reviewers.
Time Out Chicago: Ben Kenigsberg – Andrew Sarris: 1918-2012; or Notes on the Theory of “Whadya Think?”
On Sarris the teacher:
The class I took was International Film History, 1930–1960, but Sarris, in a sly inconsistency with the categorization in his magnum opus The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968, had included three weeks of British Hitchcock. He’d seen The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young and Innocent countless times, but before giving us his spin, his first impulse was always to find out what we’d thought. “Whadya think?” he’d growl to the class—it was a friendly growl—as soon as we reconvened from our post-film break. It’s a phrase I’d hear again, both as I audited subsequent courses and on the few occasions when I was fortunate enough to sit with him at screening rooms. The credits would barely have started before he’d lean over and utter those words.
Film Studies For Free has published a collection of articles written by or about Sarris, which you can find here. David Hudson of Fandor’s Keyframe Daily has taken a similar approach, gathering an extensive array of quotes from recently published tributes and postscripts. You can find them here.