“If Sarris became the critic I read and reread more than any other, it was perhaps for the sense that at the centre of his writing was a reverence for film history – his kind of film history – as a secret poem of light, whose variations were infinite and whose traces might be found in the most unexpected places.” – Geoffrey O‘Brien (1)
With the recent death of Andrew Sarris (October 31,1928 – June 20, 2012), we who lived cinema as a way of life in the sixties and seventies, are mourning the passing of someone who was our own ferryman who took us to the undiscovered shores of American and European art cinema. So it seemed to me and my contemporaries during the aesthetic, cultural and political turbulence of an era that everyday was one more day of enchantment in the Aladdin cave of a movie-house. Sarris was our supreme witty, learned, bold and opinionated cartographer of cinema’s canon, directors, and genres, who (for the first time in American film criticism) represented someone who was not simply moonlighting doing something else in journalism and who advocated cinema and cinephilia as a form of cultism and not simply as a career.
In other words, very tellingly, Sarris, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, of Greek parents, became a modern troubadour, an intellectual, who wrote on the cinema as if it was his inexorable existential choice to do so. He knew no other path to life but that of being a film critic and teacher. Sarris himself, in various articles over the years, has playfully testified to the ambiguities, doubts and wistfulness of being an obsessive, list-making film buff. Had he wasted his life living in movie-houses bathed in Roland Barthes’s ‘dancing cone’ of light? This is pointedly raised by Kent Jones in his 2oo5 Film Comment essay “Hail the Conquering Hero: Andrew Sarris Profiled”, where, on leaving Sarris’s apartment after interviewing him, Sarris himself jokingly asked Jones if he himself felt that cinema was wasting one’s life away. (2) You can just imagine how immigrant Greek, or Jewish parents for that matter, would react to the possibility that one’s son in the land of American Dream opportunity is not going to be a doctor, nor a dentist, nor a lawyer, or what have you, but a film critic, a cinephile, a dreamer completely lost in Andre Breton’s “Cinema Age.” (3)
Thankfully all of us who have shared Sarris ‘s endlessly revelatory and knowingly poetic bewitchment with cinema and his horizon-expanding Aristotelian quest to categorise it are indebted to him in so many different ways. Sarris gave us a most needed and welcome language, a tool-kit of rich associative cartographic possibilities, and he profoundly whetted our dawning curiosity about cinema and everything to do with it. Simply put, Sarris was our “ North Star” (Robert Horton puts it), we set our daily or weekly cinematic compasses to his word, he was gospel. He, and his long-time critical nemesis, Pauline Kael. As Sarris himself put it, “ We made each other. We established a dialectic.” (4) The world was carved up between the Sarrisites and the Kaelians. Over the years this binary in contemporary American film criticism has dissipated – mercifully – as it has lost its polemical edge. (5)
Sarris’s multifaceted and insightfully nuanced oeuvre is enshrined in the belletristic tradition of American film criticism. From his early first efforts as a regular movie reviewer since 1955 in Film Culture (thanks to the urbane encouragement of Jonas Mekas) and his eagerly awaited weekly reviews in the Village Voice, and later in his career in The New York Observer, Sarris transformed our understanding of cinema. Over the years, without realising it, he had cultivated a fandom of like-minded obsessive film buffs who would, to put it in the generic vernacular of a John Ford movie, ‘gather at the river’ as if it were a religious revivalist gathering. It was as if one belonged to a lost tribe of worshippers where cinema was the DNA of life itself. Something akin to the wandering book-reciting devotees of literature in Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. (6) But back then it was as much tribal as it was personal: we would speak in a secret language, comparing notes, nodding to each other across the foyers of revival movie-houses, film clubs and societies, in coffee shops, and other places, in our common shared 24 hour-fever called the cinema. And learning about it was truly a perpetual, blissful, but a hard-earned thing as we would need – out of sheer existential necessity – to search libraries, bookshops, archives, anywhere we could get our hands on film criticism, literature, essays, program notes, anything that was written on the celluloid virus that we were infected with. Without getting too nostalgic about the issue, to say that it was lean pickings back then, is to state the obvious. Today, by comparison, we are surrounded by a veritable deluge of writing on film.
Amongst our treasured books then, stood –definitely the most cherished of them all – Sarris’ particularly arresting striped-coloured book The American Cinema (1968). (7) It was simply our Baedeker. Everywhere we went it was close by. Always within reach – now let us see what Uncle Andy had to say about this director or film. Which category of critical assessment is the director in? Is this film in italics? The book itself was a full-scale history of American commercial cinema in a series of allusive, finely-calibrated and perceptive aphoristic essays informed by the guiding belief that nothing in print is forever – film criticism is always an experimental enterprise, always for re-evaluation and judgement, and it is motivated by a core critical credo that criticism is taking a risk, calling it how you see it, and appreciating it is about the written word itself as much as it is about the movie screen. Criticism – whatever kind it is – is, on one basic level of fundamental importance, about criticism itself. What is it? Is it an occupation or a vocation? What does a critic do? And why does it matter? In a word, to be a critic you need to make judgments about the value of an artwork and give your reasons for doing so. You also need to be familiar with the philosophy of criticism. As Daniel Mendelshon reminds us, the classical Greek word krino suggests ‘to judge’. (8) Sarris’s uncompromisingly dedicated life in this context is a sterling and timely example why these questions do really matter.
By all accounts, it appears that Sarris was a genial, meditative, iconoclastic and existential humanist whose untimely cosmopolitan discriminating intelligence insisted on an historically informed revisionist cinephilia that emphasised, above all, as a critical touchstone, evaluation. Otherwise, as James Naremore rightly points out in that very rare thing in film criticism, a festschrift dedicated to the critic–theorist, that, “Like an ideal investigator of Kane’s estate, Sarris provides us with an immensely useful map of the bewildering and bizarre maze of American movies, separating the junk from the treasures and making sure that nobody tosses a Rosebud into the furnace.” (9) Sarris wrote as if what mattered at the end of the day was to open up an individual conversation about cinema as an aesthetic, cultural, performative and ethical force in our daily lives. For a film buff like myself and my ‘baby-boomer’ contemporaries who were drifting in the hurly-burly of the cultural zeitgeist of the sixties, Sarris’ s The American Cinema was avidly read (as were his other books that followed) as if it was a raft of sorts germane to our existence inside and outside a movie-house. After all, not to stretch the proverbial bow in this context, it was immediate to his readers in the main that he was in the parlance of the era a ‘‘movie freak.” He was, to echo Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), “one of us.”
As Sarris himself attested in his autobiographically inflected foreword to Confessions of a Cultist, that he –not unlike Andre Bazin who once saw film festivals as religious revivals– believed that “ film not only demanded but deserved as much faith as did any other cultural discipline.” (10) After his “long soujorn in Paris in 1961”, Sarris says that he “never really recovered from the Parisian heresy (in New York eyes) concerning the sacred importance of the cinema. Hence I returned to New York not merely a cultist but a subversive cultist with a foreign ideology.” (11) Sarris called a spade a spade in his critical judgment and he never kowtowed to the critical and ideological fashions of his times, though he would always be prepared to re-evaluate his assessments of filmmakers (as he did with Billy Wilder). He insisted from the outset of his career that film was not subservient to any other more ‘legitimate’ art form or discipline in terms of its totemic social value and acceptance – far from it – film to him had its own critical autonomy and worth. And true to the best of our film critics and essayists, Sarris’ s epigrammatic eloquence, wit and erudition stemmed from an attribute Philip Lopate termed “a well-stocked mind.” (12) Sarris himself regarded this as a very vital quality to his praxis as a film critic-theorist, “every aspect of culture is relevant to every other aspect, and the best criticism, like the best poetry, is that which is richest in associations.” (13) Connected to this cardinal tenet of Sarris’ s approach to film criticism is the related one of his polemical insistence on the necessity of being prepared to accept critical abuse as to give it. Despite Sarris’ s gentle demeanour, humility and vulnerability (qualities that according to people who knew him increased over the years) he was quiet capable of looking after himself in a critical skirmish if need be. (14) Sarris held his own ground in in an era when film critics, of many different persuasions, from left-wing figures like Dwight McDonald, conservative, highbrow types like the snooty John Simon, to the feisty, vituperative Pauline Kael, engaged in many ferocious ad hominen squabbles.
Polemics aside, from a reader’s point-of-view, Sarris’s enduring characteristic as a critic was his inviting, empathetic and nurturing voice (putting aside for the moment, his awesome historical erudition, polemical energy and his Barthesian capacity to create sinuous writerly prose.) Stanley Cavell, in discussing film critics as welcoming conversationalists who write as if they are your absent friend, put it best when he said, “ the writing which has meant something to me has the power of the missing companion. Agee and Robert Warshow and Andre Bazin manage that mode of conversation all the time; and I found it in, among others, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris.” (15)
At the time Sarris started contributing to the Village Voice, he was not typical of the radical authors who wrote for the Voice, nor was he specifically situated in the countercultural margins of the arts and politics. This is something that Sarris’s partner, the film critic Molly Haskell, acknowledges in her extraordinary memoir Love and Other Infectious Diseases. (16) Haskell’s memoir centres basically around Sarris’s sudden illness (viral meningoencephalitis) in 1982 and on their married life. In it Haskell describes Sarris as a “man without a country” whose contradictory mixture of having a melodramatic Mediterranean temperament and a moral polemicist’s slant meant that he was ironically one of the more individual voices writing for the magazine. Yet, Sarris was, as Haskell reminds her reader, at heart a classicist who valued Hollywood commercial narrative films over the more abstract, surrealistic, semi-narrative films of the avant-garde/independent cinema. On this critical point Sarris has often expressed his non-interest in experimental cinema without wishing to polemically deride the filmmakers who were making these particular kinds of films. This is quite significant given Sarris’s early work for Film Culture in the 1950s, when Sarris meet his early influential friend Eugene Archer through Roger Tilton’s film course – and it was Tilton himself who introduced Sarris to Jonas Mekas back in 1954. In Tom Gunning’s excellent 1990 interview with Sarris, the contradictory characteristics of Sarris’ s person apropos of working with bohemian authors, artists and journalists at the Voice, and even earlier on at Film Culture with the ambivalent split between a radical American cinema as advocated by Mekas and Sarris’s interests in American commercial cinema, are acutely foregrounded. (17)
Nevertheless, Haskell’s succinct general overview of her husband’s auteurist critical concerns, methods and advocacy in America in the sixties (according to her, it was also Richard Roud who explained Andre Bazin to Sarris in 1959) and in the context of his rather sedentary, protected childhood and his pronounced argumentative character merits quoting at length: “Under the influence of the French New Wave critics – Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, writing for the small periodical Cahiers du Cinema before they began making films – Andrew came to champion visual style and directorial signature , and to “rediscover” American movies in ways that would help form the tastes of a new generation of film buffs…… He was a contradictory mixture, a polemicist with a moral, humanist slant, a visually oriented critic who nevertheless appreciated not only narrative and character but all the fleshy and sensual delights that drawn him to the movies in the first place. Going out on a limb was what he did best and most lyrically, extolling the virtues of Raoul Walsh over Stanley Kramer, of Psycho over Through a Glass Darkly, acknowledging personal preferences.” (18)
And it was with Sarris’s original review of Psycho that he applied his ‘theory’ of auteurism for the first time. Thus, as many previous commentators have suggested, it was with The American Cinema and its various categorical rankings of “Pantheon Directors,” “The Far Side of Paradise,” (one of my own favourite listings in the entire book), “Expressive Esoterica,” “Fringe Benefits,” “Less than Meets the Eye,” “Lightly Likable,” “Strained Seriousness,” “Oddities, One-Shots, and Newcomers,” “Subjects for Further Research,” “Make Way for the Clowns,” and finally, “Miscellany” that Sarris had profoundly tapped into the American popular imaginary concerning the transformative worth of American movies. This was, as Kent Jones rightly points out, no mere feat to accomplish in itself. (19) What Sarris did in fact was to also in the process overhaul American film criticism as well. By his rankings of American movies of the sound era, from the most personal to the least, classified according to the indispensable role of the film director as espoused by Cahiers’ politique des auteurs, Sarris introduced this radical idea of film aesthetics and criticism into America. Remember this was at a time when cinema was still annexed to other disciplines for critical legitimacy, especially literature. The book’s framework was first articulated in the Spring 1963 Film Culture issue, but it was elaborately delineated in the essay “ Toward a Theory of Film History “ that precedes Sarris’s categories in The American Cinema that spelled out a finely written, nuanced exposition of the author’s rationale to overhaul American movies according to the two related concepts of the auteur and mise-en-scene. Relatedly, with this book the term “pantheon” became a very popular term in the film buff’s lexicon of the time. Sarris’s pantheon includes fourteen of the greatest directors that had worked in the USA; six Americans: Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton, and Orson Welles; five Germans: Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, Max Ophuls (a director that Sarris wanted to write an entire book on), and Josef von Sternberg (Sarris’s MOMA 1966 book on Sternberg is regarded by many as his finest work on a single auteur); two British: Charles Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock; and one Frenchman: Jean Renoir (who else?).
It is worth pointing out that Sarris’s pantheon of directors is not some hermetically sealed category isolated from art, history, time, memory and space. This was emphasised in 1987 when he was asked to contribute to a ‘desert island’ choice of his favourite movies. (20) At the heart of Sarris’s critical outlook on cinema is his reflexive, informed, contextual understanding of how cinema as art has also a Proustian dynamic to it. As he put it in his ‘desert island’ contribution, “ The problem with the desert island hypothesis for film – and it’s true for all art – is that if art has any value at all, the value is how you live within a social context with other people and how you live in history. […] You’re always seeing a “ newness” of the way film has evolved. It’s always breaking through. You see people getting old and dying on screen, passing by and so forth. And that, I think, is a part of it, and it’s a dynamic process. I don’t believe in isolating film.” (21)
Despite the numerous critical charges against Sarris’s auteurist approach as being too rigid, he always maintained it did not constitute a theory as such but more accurately, as he enunciated it in “ Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”, it “ was written in what I thought was a modest, tentative, experimental manner. It was certainly not intended as the last word on the subject.” (22) Ever the revisionist, Sarris saw the auteur theory more as the multifaceted and necessary opportunity to re-evaluate and discover directors, resurrect genres and individual films. He regarded the auteur critic as someone who looks at the total combination of art and the artist in a movie. James Naremore makes a good point in this context when he observed that Sarris’s originality as a film critic and scholar was his perennial project to emphasis the personal style of a director’s vision indicating an unceasing cardinal belief in cinema as art, not as technology, science, sociology or any other positivist discipline. (23) In Leos Carax’s extraordinary new film Holy Motors” (2012) there is an encounter between Oscar (Denis Lavant) and Michel Piccoli (as the man with the winemark) in a white stretch limousine where they discuss cinema and its changing fate over the years, and what counts at the end of the day is cinema as “ the gesture of beauty.” That is what mattered to Sarris, that “ The art of the cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much what as how.” (24)
In Casmir Nozkowski’s 2010 video interview with Sarris, he attests to his ‘catholic tastes’ as a cinephile, but who over the years, as a film critic and an academic at Columbia University since 1969, had opened up to other cinemas around the world. (25) Including the films of Wong Kar Wai’s, especially Chung Kung Express (1994). Amongst his favourite films he includes Carol Reed’s 1947 Odd Man Out (for many years his favourite one), Jean Renoir’s La règle du jue (The Rules of the Game, (1939), Max Ophuls’s Madame de… (1953), and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953). Sarris reminiscences about how as a young child in his stroller he jumped out and ran into the Marine Theatre in his early childhood neighbourhood and was ‘struck by this alternative universe’ called cinema. Always, for Sarris, ‘the pleasure principle’ was what informed his life: as a new breed of film critic-scholar who did not have to rationalise his cinephilia by annexing it to another discipline, or talking cinema down as his earlier peers would do who had middle-brow aspirations. He was ever grateful for being paid doing what he loved to do best – watch movies. Seeing Alfred Hitchcock to the nth degree! What a lucky so–and- so, to quote Duke Ellington!
Sarris, along with Parker Tyler, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, and others, was one of the innovative critical luminaries of the post-war American film scene. Sarris’s early years at Columbia University in the 1940s and the amazing convergence of revival theatres around Times Square, as Hayden Guest indicates, were responsible for his awakening cultist sensibility as an obsessive film-goer who gave us in his provocative magnum opus The American Cinema a new way of thinking about the paradoxical context of the Hollywood film director as an artist capable of expressing a world-view in an industrial-capital intensive ethos. (26) Like Bazin, Sarris was critical of montage cinema and the modernist avant–garde, instead he favoured directors who used long takes and continuity and had the overriding impulse throughout their careers to transcend the industrial rationality of the Hollywood studio system. All of us who care for cinema in its passage through time in all of its mutability as an art form, owe something to Sarris, for his poetic, discriminating and encyclopaedic cinephilia, guiding us to find our own steps of cinematic enlightenment and pleasure in a possible world of endless curiosity.
- Geoffrey O ‘Brien, Film Comment, Online 2012 http://www.filmcomment.com/entry/andrew-sarris-eulogy
- Kent Jones, “ Hail the Conquering Hero: Andrew Sarris profiled,” Film Comment, 2012, http: //www.filmcoment.com/article/hail-the-conquering- hero-andrew-sarris-profiled.
- Cf. Andre Breton, “As if in a Wood,” in Paul Hammond (ed), The Shadow and its Shadow, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1991 (1978), p. 81.
- Andrew Sarris quoted in the entry “Andrew Sarris” for Wikipedia. See Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew
- For a recent description of the Andrew Sarris/Pauline Kael divide in American film criticism see James Wolcott’s mordantly funny memoir of Manhattan in the seventies, Lucking Out, New York, Doubleday, 2011. Wolcott, who is a columnist for Vanity Fair, was one of Kael’s protégés back then. The legendary competitive savagery of New York is wonderfully captured by Wolcott.
- Hauntingly filmed by François Truffaut in 1966, and whose own book The Films in My Life (1978) remains one of the great unforgettable film books of its time.
- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, New York, E.P.Dutton, 1968.
- David Mendelsohn, How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken, New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 2008, p. xiii. For a very valuable recent examination of criticism as an essential humanistic element of life as conversation see, Noel Carroll, On Criticism, New York and London, Routledge, 2009.
- James Naremore, “An ABC of Reading Andrew Sarris,” in Emanuel Levy (ed), Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic, The Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland and London, 2001, p. 182.
- Andrew Sarris, Confessions of A Cultist, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1971, p.13.
- Philip Lopate (ed), American Movie Critics, New York, The Library Of America, 2006, p. xxiv.
- Sarris, Confessions of A Cultist, op.cit., p. 14.
- When Sarris visited Sydney a number of years ago and I had the rare opportunity to hear him on a panel, what struck me uppermost was his almost Bressonian-like gentility. And back in 1979 in New York I remember catching a glimpse of Sarris at a Lower Manhattan repertory movie-house carrying a shopping bag and looking like a solitary ‘ tribal elder’ of modern cinephilia.
- Stanley Cavell quoted in Philip Lopate (ed), American Movie Critics, op.cit., ppxxiv –xxv.
- Molly Haskell, Love and Other Infectious Diseases, New York, William Morrow and Company Inc., 1990.
- Tom Gunning, “ Loved Him, Hated It: An Interview with Andrew Sarris,” in David E. James (ed), To Free the Cinema, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1992,
- Haskell, op.cit., p99.
- Jones, “Hail the Conquering Hero: Andrew Sarris profiled,” op.cit., p. 2.
- Ellen Oumano, Movies For a Desert Isle, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
- Sarris in Oumano, ibid., pp. 162-163.
- Sarris, The American Cinema, op.cit., pp. 25-26.
- Naremore, op.cit., p. 176.
- Sarris, The American Cinema, op.cit., p36.
- Casmir Nozkowski, “Andrew Sarris Critic in Focus”, video , 2010 . See www.blogs.indiewire.com/carynjames/andrewshortfilm#
- Hayden Guest, “ Experimentation and Innovation in Three American Film Journals of the 1950s,” in Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson (eds), Inventing Film Studies, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2008, p. 238.