Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Andrew Sarris 1928-2012

I bought The American Cinema (1968) by Andrew Sarris as a student 32 years ago and have been trying to see all the highlighted films of that remarkable book ever since. More and more I was happy to disagree with Sarris. The capsule summaries of American directors in that book are legendary. They are often too harsh, but that Book became deservedly a cornerstone of serious film criticism. And it is only a part of a long and remarkable career during which Sarris was also able to re-evaluate some of those harsh judgments, for instance on Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick. Regarding Sarris Americans still insist on speaking about "auteur theory" while the original French "politique des auteurs" is no theory at all but a critical approach. - See The New York Times and Variety obituaries beyond the jump break.
Dave Kehr, "shall we gather at the river" web board, 20 June 2012
Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter, 20 June 2012
Jim Emerson on his website, 20 June 2012
Leonard Maltin, 20 June 2012
Matt Singer, "Film Critics Remember Andrew Sarris", 21 June 2012
Richard Corliss, 21 June 2012
Kent Jones, Geoffrey O'Brien, Glenn Kenny, Robert Horton, Philip Lopate, Film Comment, 21 June 2012
Tom Paulus, Photogénie, 21 June 2012
Ben Kenigsberg, 22 June 2012
Kent Jones 2, Film Comment, 2012
David Bordwell, 24 June 2012
Andrew Sarris "How Movies Became Cinema" I-II (1987), Film Comment, 25 June 2012
Jonathan Rosenbaum (2001), republished in CinemaScope online, June 2012 
Variety Obituary, Posted: Wed., Jun. 20, 2012, 12:59pm PT

Critic Andrew Sarris dies at 83

Village Voice sage championed auteur theory of film criticism

Andrew Sarris, the Village Voice reviewer who was one of the most important film critics of the last half century, died Wednesday morning in Manhattan from complications of an infection after a fall. He was 83.Sarris was a key proponent of the auteur theory in film, which holds that the medium, at its best, is a means of creative expression for the director. He brought Francois Truffaut's ideas on the subject to the U.S. in his 1962 essay "Notes on the Auteur Theory," arguing for the primacy of directors and declaring that the "ultimate glory" of movies is "the tension between a director's personality and his material."
Sarris helped inspire debate about countless films and filmmakers during his long run at the Village Voice. Along with such peers as Pauline Kael, who believed auteur theory ignored the inherently collaborative aspect of filmmaking, Sarris' opinions were especially vital during the 1960s and 1970s, when movies became films, or even cinema, and critics and fans argued about them the way they once might have contended over paintings or novels.
Sarris wrote for the Village Voice from 1960-89 and later for the New York Observer, to which he continued to contribute regularly until 2009.
He championed auteur directors such as Truffaut, Godard, Marcel Ophuls, Antonioni, Bergman and Kurosawa as well as some Hollywood directors, including Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Fuller, whom he believed also deserved the "auteur" label despite working in a commercial arena. He assessed the merits of American directors in his highly influential 1968 book "The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968." In later books he continued to assess and reassess film directors, placing Billy Wilder on a higher tier than Sarris had originally accorded him, for example.
Certain younger directors also received qualified approval from Sarris, including Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Sarris was a pioneer of the annual "top 10" film lists that remain fixtures in the media.
The native New Yorker attended Columbia U. and advanced his ideas through work as a teacher at New York's School of Visual Arts and later at NYU before returning to his alma mater as a professor in 1969. (He became a full professor in 1980 and retired in 2011.)
Sarris worked as a story consultant for 20th Century Fox from 1955-65 and did uncredited work on the scripts for the films "Justine" and "Promise at Dawn." He also offered his insights as an interviewee in documentaries including "Godard in America," "The Metaphysics of Buster Keaton," "Cinema! Cinema! The French New Wave" and "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood." Most recently he was the subject and star of Casimir Nozkowski's 2011 documentary short "Andrew Sarris: Critic in Focus."
Sarris also contributed to Variety, penning an appreciation of director Eric Rohmer that appeared in 2001.
"Citizen Sarris," a collection of essays about the critic published in 2001, included contributions from critics Roger Ebert and David Thomson and from filmmakers Scorsese, John Sayles and Budd Boetticher.
Sarris was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000, and he was a founding member of the National Society of Film Critics.
He is survived by his wife, fellow film critic Molly Haskell. They were married since 1969.
(Associated Press contributed to this report.)
Contact Variety Staff at

The New York Times, June 20, 2012

Andrew Sarris, Influential Film Critic, Dies at 83

Andrew Sarris, one of the nation’s most influential film critics and a champion of auteur theory, which holds that a director’s voice is central to great filmmaking, died on Wednesday morning in Manhattan. He was 83.
His wife, the film critic Molly Haskell, said the cause was complications of an infection developed after a fall.
Courtly, incisive and acerbic in equal measure, Mr. Sarris came of critical age in the 1960s as the first great wave of foreign films washed ashore in the United States. From his perch at The Village Voice, and later at The New York Observer, he wrote searchingly of that glorious deluge and the directors behind it — François Truffaut, Marcel Ophuls, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa.
Film criticism had reached a heady pitch amid the cultural upheavals of that time, and Mr. Sarris’s temperament fit that age like a glove on a fencer’s hand.
He took his place among a handful of stylish and congenitally disputatious critics: Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, John Simon and Manny Farber. They agreed on just a single point: that film was art worthy of sustained thought and argumentation.
“We were so gloriously contentious, everyone bitching at everyone,” Mr. Sarris recalled in a 2009 interview with The New York Times. “We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much.
“Urgency” — his smile on this point was wistful — “seemed unavoidable.”
Mr. Sarris played a major role in introducing Americans to European auteur theory, the idea that a great director speaks through his films no less than a master novelist speaks through his books. A star actor might transcend a prosaic film, Mr. Sarris said, but only a director could bring to bear the coherence of vision that gives birth to great art.
He argued that more than a few of Hollywood’s own belonged in the pantheon — Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller, not to mention a British director whom purists had dismissed as a mere “commercial” filmmaker: Alfred Hitchcock — and he championed them.
Mr. Sarris also embraced, albeit with an occasional critical slap about their heads, younger Turks like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola.
“We were cowed into thinking that only European cinema mattered,” Mr. Scorsese, who once shared a closet-size office in Times Square with Mr. Sarris, said in a 2009 interview. “What Andrew showed us is that art was all around us, and that our tradition, too, had much to offer; he was our guide to the world of cinema.”
Mr. Sarris’s book “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968” stands as his opus. If Ms. Kael more often won points as the high stylist, Mr. Sarris’s métier was cerebral and analytic, interested always in the totality of a film’s effect on its audience and in the sweep of a director’s career. He opened his essay on Fritz Lang, the Austrian-born director, this way:
“Fritz Lang’s cinema is the cinema of the nightmare, the fable, and the philosophical dissertation. Mr. Lang’s apparent weaknesses are the consequences of his virtues. He has always lacked the arid sophistication lesser directors display to such advantage.” Andrew Sarris was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 31, 1928, to Greek immigrant parents, George and Themis Sarris, and grew up in Ozone Park, Queens. His romance with movies was near to imprinted in his DNA. He remembered sitting in a darkened theater at the age of 3 or 4 entranced by a movie based on a Jules Verne story. “The liquidity of the scene and the film,” he recalled, “was truly magical, especially to someone not many years out of the womb himself.”
He attended John Adams High School in Queens, his time there overlapping for a year or two with the newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin. But his concerns lay elsewhere. As a teenager, he recalled sitting in his Queens aerie and listening to the Academy Awards and the New York Film Critics award ceremonies and developing his ideas, idiosyncratic and polemical, on film.
He graduated from Columbia College in 1951 and served three years in the Army Signal Corps. He returned to live with his mother — his father had died — in Queens, passing his post-college years in, as he put it, “flight from the laborious realities of careerism.”
On one such footloose outing he passed a year in Paris, drinking coffee and talking with the New Wave directors, Mr. Godard and Mr. Truffaut, who were the first to champion auteur theory. (Later, in the United States, he would edit an English language edition of the influential auteurist magazine Cahiers du Cinema.) Always his love affair with movies sustained him. He recalled sitting through four-dozen showings of “Gone With the Wind,” as besotted with Vivien Leigh on the 48th viewing as on the first.
He began to write for Film Culture, a cineaste outpost in the East Village in Manhattan. But he was restless. He was 27, which he described as “a dreadfully uncomfortable age for a middle-class cultural guerrilla.”
In 1960, this self-consciously bourgeois man persuaded the editors of the The Village Voice to let him review films. He quickly asserted his intellectual writ; in his first review he tossed down the gauntlet in defense of Alfred Hitchcock and “Psycho.”
“Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today,” Mr. Sarris wrote. “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.”
To praise a commercial director like Mr. Hitchcock in the haute bohemian pages of The Voice was calculated incitement. Letter writers demanded that the editors sack this philistine.
The editors instead embraced Mr. Sarris as a controversialist; argument was like mother’s milk at The Village Voice. And he survived to review films there for 29 more years. In defense of his favorites he was ardent; but to those who failed to measure up, he applied the lash.
John Huston? “Less than meets the eye.” Stanley Kubrick? “His faults have been rationalized as virtues.” And Michelangelo Antonioni took such a grim and alienated turn that Mr. Sarris, who had admired him, referred to him as “Antoniennui.”
In 1966, at a screening of Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising,” Mr. Sarris noticed an attractive young woman, Ms. Haskell. He wandered over. “He had this courtly-as-learned-from-the-movies manner,” Ms. Haskell recalled. “Afterward he took me out for a sundae at Howard Johnson.”
They married in 1969. She and Mr. Sarris, who died at St. Luke’s Hospital, lived in Manhattan on the Upper East Side. Ms. Haskell is his only immediate survivor. A younger brother, George Sarris, died at age 28 in a 1960 skydiving accident.
Andrew Sarris gained renown as an intellectual duelist, battling most spectacularly with Ms. Kael, who wrote for The New Yorker. She delighted in lancing the auteurists as a wolf pack of nerdy and too-pale young men. Mr. Sarris returned the favor, slashing at her as an undisciplined hedonist. Devotees of the two critics, in Sharks-vs.-Jets fashion, divided themselves into feuding camps called the Sarristes and the Paulettes.
A rough cordiality attended to the relationship between Mr. Sarris and Ms. Kael, but that is not to overstate their détente. When Mr. Sarris married Ms. Haskell in 1969, the couple invited Ms. Kael. “That’s O.K.,” Ms. Kael replied. “I’ll go to Molly’s next wedding.”
In another celebrated exchange of critical detonations, the often acidic John Simon wrote in The Times in 1971 that “perversity is certainly the most saving grace of Sarris’s criticism, the humor being mostly unintentional.”
To which Mr. Sarris replied: “Simon is the greatest film critic of the 19th century.”
Besides writing about film, Mr. Sarris also taught the subject, chiefly as a film professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts but also variously at Yale University, Juilliard and New York University, among other institutions. He obtained his master’s from Columbia University in 1998. And he continued to write on a typewriter into old age, eschewing a computer.
For all the fierceness of his battles — he once took a poke at his former student and fellow Voice reviewer J. Hoberman, saying he was “freaking out on art house acid” — he remained remarkably open to new experience. Told once that Mr. Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” worked better under the influence of marijuana, he cadged a joint, went to the movie and found it a very different and agreeable experience.
Asked a few years ago if he had soured on any of the directors he once championed, Mr. Sarris smiled and shook his head. “I prefer to think of people I missed the boat on,” he said.
The New York Times
July 12, 2009

A Survivor of Film Criticism’s Heroic Age

THE aging duelist sits in his Upper East Side apartment and contemplates all that is past, the polemics and late-night arguments and denunciations in one magazine or another.
His life in the 1960s was a blur of darkened screening rooms, celluloid epiphanies and running back to his desk to type with an eye on his competitors. What will Pauline Kael say? Or that snapping crab of a stylist, John Simon?
And always there were the films and directors that stir his passions to this day. Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Avventura” is a “modern ‘Odyssey’ for an alert audience.” Stanley Kubrick? “His faults have been rationalized as virtues.”
“We were so gloriously contentious, everyone bitching at everyone,” said Andrew Sarris, 81, nattily attired in gray slacks and a blue sport jacket, his hair slicked back. “We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much.”
He peered up through his owlish eyes. “Urgency seemed unavoidable,” he said.
Mr. Sarris, who in June experienced a sort of slow-motion layoff at The New York Observer for which he had written reviews since 1989, is one of the last refugees of the heroic age of film criticism. From the 1950s to the early 1970s the movies of François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Jean-Luc Godard broke like ocean swells upon the United States, followed in time by no less astonishing American films. A handful of critics — Mr. Sarris, Ms. Kael, Mr. Simon, Stanley Kauffmann and Manny Farber — argued that this was art worthy of sustained thought and argument.
They defined a cultural moment. (“Don’t Go to the Movies to Escape: The Movies Are Now High Art,” The New York Times proclaimed in a headline in 1969.) As moviegoers lined up at art houses like the New Yorker and the Thalia in Manhattan, arguments turned on the merits of the films — “Shoot the Piano Player,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Psycho,” “Bonnie and Clyde” — and of the critics.
“This was a period when film truly spoke to the modern experience, and this wonderful handful of critics transmitted that to the broader culture,” said Morris Dickstein, who teaches English at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Mr. Sarris contributed to this ferment twice over. He introduced to Americans and argued for the French auteur theory, which holds that a great director speaks through his films no less than a novelist speaks through his books. A brilliant actor might transcend a mediocre film, but only a director can offer the sustained coherence and sensibility that yields great art.
And he argued that Hollywood had produced auteurs, championing the distinctive voices of Orson Welles, John Ford and Sam Fuller, not to mention younger Turks.
Mr. Sarris once shared a tiny office with Martin Scorsese on 42nd Street; the critic typed while the director cast films for which he had not yet raised money.
“What Andrew did, especially for young people, was to make you aware that the American cinema, which you had been told was just a movie factory, had real artistic merit,” Mr. Scorsese said. “He led us on a treasure hunt.”
The quarrelsome critics mostly lived in genteel poverty, but their dialectical rumbles were delicious and widely advertised. One Sunday in 1971 The New York Times devoted acreage in the Arts & Leisure section to a mano-a-mano between Mr. Simon and Mr. Sarris. Mr. Simon’s pen came acid dipped, and his disdain for auteurism, which he believed devalued narrative, was fairly overwhelming. “Perversity is certainly the most saving grace of Sarris’s criticism,” he wrote, “the humor being mostly unintentional.”
To which Mr. Sarris later rejoined, “Simon is the greatest film critic of the 19th century.”
Mr. Sarris and Ms. Kael, who died in 2001, defined a more primal rivalry, to the extent that their followers came to be known as the Sarristes and the Paulettes, the Sharks and Jets of the sun-starved cinephile crowd.
Mr. Sarris, who is also a film professor at Columbia University and author of “The American Cinema,” was steeped in film culture, and his reviews read as if he had turned a movie over in his hands. He was fascinated by integrity of vision and mise-en-scène, the gap between what the screen shows and the audience feels. (He hosted a radio show on film for WBAI-FM, and could talk unscripted for an hour with nary a semicolon misplaced.) Ms. Kael was scarcely less learned, but being a film intellectual struck her as a drag. Writing in The New Yorker she sought a visceral engagement with film. Her book titles summed up her view: “I Lost It at the Movies” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”
She wielded style like a stiletto. “The auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence, that period when masculinity looked so great and important,” she wrote of Mr. Sarris.
Ms. Kael’s devotees note that she seldom attacked him after that, even as he fumed. But that is like knocking a fellow flat then puzzling at his foul mood.
When Mr. Sarris married Molly Haskell, a fellow critic, in 1969, they invited Ms. Kael, Mr. Sarris said. “That’s O.K.,” she replied. “I’ll go to Molly’s next wedding.”
But these gunslingers had one another’s backs when shooting at establishment critics. And they often championed the same directors. “Pauline turned out to be a most dedicated auteurist,” noted J. Hoberman, now the senior film critic for The Village Voice. “She loved everything by De Palma and Scorsese.”
Mr. Sarris cut a curious figure at the congenitally contentious Village Voice of the early 1960s. He had passed a year in Paris, he said, drinking coffee with New Wave directors and later would edit an English-language edition of Cahiers du Cinéma. But back in New York he lived with his Greek monarchist mother in Queens and went to “Gone With the Wind” four dozen times, as besotted with Vivien Leigh on the 48th viewing as the first.
In his first review for The Voice in 1960, of “Psycho,” he threw down the gauntlet in service of a commercial director, Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. Sarris was characteristically assertive. “Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today,” he wrote. “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.”
The Voice was an inverted universe, in which the mainstream was regarded with deep suspicion. Angry mail piled up: Who was this philistine? But Voice editors embraced Mr. Sarris as another controversialist.
Mr. Sarris guarded his reviewing territory with the glower of a medieval duke guarding his fief. When The Voice put Mr. Hoberman’s essay about the director Chantal Akerman on its cover, Mr. Sarris facetiously grumbled in print that he had taken “mainstream, white-bread assignments” while “Hoberman was freaking out on art-house acid.”
“He was pretty full of himself, although I’m not clear to what extent that was a real reflection of his character or just his manner,” said Robert Christgau, the longtime rock critic for The Voice, who left the paper in 2006.
Still, Mr. Sarris was more enthusiast than ideologue. He had no love of rock ’n’ roll but described “A Hard Day’s Night” as “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of jukebox musicals.” His willingness to revisit old judgments on “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kent Jones wrote in Film Comment in 2005, resulted in a “one of the most charming passages” in film criticism:
“I must report that I recently paid another visit to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’ while under the influence of a smoked substance that I was assured by my contact was somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano. (For myself, I must confess that I soar infinitely higher on vermouth cassis, but enough of this generation gap.) Anyway, I prepared to watch ‘2001’ under what I have always been assured were optimum conditions, and surprisingly (for me) I find myself reversing my original opinion. ‘2001’ is indeed a major work by a major artist.”
In 1989 Mr. Sarris left The Voice for The Observer, where he wrote reviews until June. The critical wars are long past but he is not in mourning.
“I was a solipsist and a narcissist and much too arrogant,” he said. “I have a lot more compassion now, but it took a long time.”
Are there favorites he thinks less of now? “I prefer to think of people I missed the boat on,” he said. “Truffaut talked me into rethinking Billy Wilder, and I finally apologized to Billy.”
When The Observer pleaded financial difficulties and took Mr. Sarris off staff last month, editors suggested he write periodic reviews. But, Mr. Sarris said, that relationship has now ended. For now he will write essays for Film Comment, although he noted he’s not as fluid as in the past.
He peered up, his brown eyes intent.
“There’s a part of me that looks beyond everything now,” he said. “I don’t approve of Woody Allen’s view of death. I acknowledge it, but I hope there’s more time, as there’s a lot of movies I’d like to see and think about.”

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