In Memoriam: Andrew Sarris, An American Original

Film Historian & Critic Broke New Ground

Andrew Sarris, who died recently, was the greatest American film historian and, over a more than fifty year career, one of its most accomplished critics. He also was my teacher and mentor at Columbia University in the 1970s, where I studied with him and taught alongside him for several years in the graduate program.

Searching for himself in Paris in the 1950s Andy discovered the French New Wave, which included critic-cineastes like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who were also filmmakers. Andy’s passion was not for making movies but understanding them and their creators in the context of film history and the body of their work. He was equipped with the intellect and film-going experience that permitted him to be authoritative in ways that others could not.

Many Mortals, Few Gods

Andy’s American Cinema: Director and Directions 1929-1968 was and still is a bible for anyone serious about movies.  It remains on Time’s one of the 100 most important works of non-fiction.  Wryly opinionated and dismissive, only 14 directors made Sarris’ original Pantheon.  In it are both obvious and innovative choices like Howard Hawks and Buster Keaton, and for me the most compelling one, Robert Flaherty, a documentary filmmaker with the vision of an artist.  (In the 1990s Andy began reviewing and ranking annually non-fiction films for the New York Observer, coverage that he and I had discussed twenty years earlier.)

While I was to go on to receive the masters and complete my course work for the Ph.D., but not the doctorate, I don’t think Andy saw me as anything less than a colleague.  He was less interested in academic credentials than in having something to say.  While he was obsessed with films, he did not expect everyone else to in precisely the same way. I believe that he was somewhat puzzled when they were.  He did not see film history as aAndrewSarris2 competition but as a journey and, for him, at least, a calling — something that I have adopted in 30 years of looking at intellectual property.

Andy never quite knew what to make of me. Like most of his students, I was a little afraid of his brilliance and intrigued by his demeanor.  Shy and aloof, he also could be quick with a kind word or a helpful observation.  We were friendly but not close, yet not a day goes by or a word I write that is not influenced by him.

Andy was a jumble of contradictions and a challenging if seemingly under-prepared lecturer.  A 1951 Columbia alum, his school was more new journalist-gunslinger, something of the outsider-cum-good guy that he so admired in Westerns and film noir.  If he shot before he looked, and occasionally he did, he was usually man enough to admit he was wrong, or that his opinion was more personal than theoretical.

Innovative Educator

In addition to Columbia where he taught for over 40 years, he lectured at Yale and NYU. Often cryptic and frequently engaging, highly literate and intellectually honest to a fault, following Andy’s eccentric logic could be a challenge. His lectures were like modern jazz: long solos sprinkled with moments of unbridled brilliance.  He had extraordinary recall, a mixed blessing for a film critic who when he was at the top of his game considered to be the man to topple.  Often when you thought you had agreed with his position, he would gently pull the rug out from under you, pointing out your misinterpretation, and leaving you with more to think about.

Despite his strong polemics Andy did not necessarily want his students to agree with him all of the time. He was too confident an historian and innovative a teacher for him to expect total reverence.  Still, for the many readers and students worshiping at the church of Sarris, and who memorized his directors’ categories in American Cinema like a catechism, angsting over who should be moved where and why, he was not the only thing, he was everything.

The leading exponent of the auteur theory in the U.S., Sarris’ categories in American Cinema are, I believe, not meant to be taken as literally as some readers do. The book came at a time in new journalism of Tom Wolf and the divisive anti-war politics of Vietnam and the counter-culture. Young people were challenging the norm, and Andy was no exception. His movie analysis was a simultaneous leap-ahead and a throw-back that provided a semblance of order amidst chaos of new. It was something to believe in. The Pantheon, ultimately, was a tool to help viewers reconsider cinema’s brief history, and genre movies as art, and their directors as artists, the way some Europeans did. Westerns, screwball comedies and crime dramas, through consistency of theme and quality of vision, could transcend their conventions.

The critics Andy despised most were “middle brow” reviewers who felt compelled to provide a social or literary context in order to elevate a film’s importance.  First and foremost Andy was an historian. Simultaneously understanding the body of a filmmaker’s work within movie history and the conventions of genre was what interested him most.

“Psycho,” he once said, “will be admired long after A Man for All Seasons is forgotten.”

Entertainers as Artists  

The auteur theory could elevate those who appeared to be mere genre entertainers like Hitchcock, and cut down respected movie makers like David Lean and Stanley Kubrick. It favored the thematically obsessed and visually consistent, and disdained literary heft and political correctness.

The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s public attacks on Andy and the auteur theory in the 1960s helped to fuel both of their careers. They left emotional scars on Sarris. Fortunately, Andy never sank to Pauline’s level of vitriol, and I’m glad that history has proved him the more enduring analyst and generous person. (See the incisive exploration of Kael’s life and work, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Darkby Brian Kellow to understand the nasty competition between film critics and approaches in the 1960s and 1970s.)

I respected Andy for many reasons, and in retrospect, especially for succeeding as a political moderate at the Village Voice in the 1960s.  Sartorially conservative in his perennial blue blazer and grey slacks, he refused to politicize his criticism when all around him were either dropping out or dropping acid.  Far from apolitical, he was able to acknowledge the changing world around him, without letting it dominate his aesthetics.  Politics was not Andy’s focus nor did he believe it should be an artist’s.  It is no accident The Voice featured much of the best non-fiction writing of the era, and to its credit, its editors had the good sense to support Andy and let him be himself, a gift for any writer.

A Old Way of Seening New

Sarris’ Pantheon, like the one built in Rome as a temple to the gods, helped to form a method for looking at the best by linking a director’s vision to his thematic focus and visual style.  Ford, Hawks and his beloved Max Ophuls were up there, directors of singular, if obsessive vision.  Andy celebrated the quirky and unconventional. In American Cinema important but content-driven directors like Stanley Kubrick John Huston, and fellow Greek, Elia Kazan, were relegated to second or even third class status. (“The Far Side of Paradise,” “Less Than Meets the Eye,” “Strained Seriousness.”)

*     *     *

Andy’ aesthetic was based in part on the work of French film theoretician Andre Bazin. Some directors got it and some did not; only a few could achieve god-like heights, while others were relegated to the status of meremortals, albeit sometimes intriguing ones.

A large oeuvre was not necessarily meaningful, but it could help to discern an artist. In movies, as in pop music, there were plenty of one-hit wonders but few Beatles. For Andy, great artists’ lesser work could be among their most interesting — something that could not be said for the best work those “metteurs” (roughly translated at “stagers”) who failed to rise above the material.

Andy believed that a single film alone could have meaning. However, seen within the body of an artist’s work it could achieve transcendence. Andy’s own body of work reached similar heights.

Forever in the Pantheon. Rest in peace.

“Additional Thoughts on Sarris and the Pantheon”

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