Far from the Madding Crowd
Whether his film is lush or rolling in the muck, it always has a tactile quality that makes it accessible, which is also true of…
Andrew Sarris, who loved movies, is dead at 83. He was the most influential American film critic of his time, and one of the jolliest. More than anyone else, he was responsible for introducing Americans to the Auteur Theory, the belief that the true author of a film is its director. Largely because of him, many moviegoers today think of films in terms of their directors.
Sarris died Wednesday morning in Manhattan. His wife Molly Haskell, herself a formidable film critic, said the cause of death was complications after a fall. He remained active until recent years, teaching film courses at Columbia University and writing for the New York Observer.
If Sarris didn't set out to be a film critic, he certainly didn't set out to become anything else. From an early age he was entranced by the movies, and after college and three years in the Army his career plans remained vague and he attended as many movies as he could. In the late 1950s he spent a memorable year in Paris, where a new generation of critics and directors were advocating the Auteur Theory in opposition to prevailing opinion that valued story and production values above direction. It was there that he met the many of the founders of the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, some of whom were in the process of becoming directors, including Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard.
Returning home, still living in his mother's house in Queens, he persuaded the Village Voice to begin running his reviews, and from that pulpit he converted a generation of young cineastes to auteurism. The other great critical luminary of the 1960s was Pauline Kael, whose own approach was more personal, rejecting schools or theories in favor of her immediate visceral experience.
Kael and Sarris had a celebrated feud during that time, played out in the pages of various film magazines, that had younger critics choosing sides and giving more thought to the philosophy that supported their own opinions. If I claim Sarris was the more influential, it was because he laid out his orthodoxy in objective terms, while Kael's was always more impressionistic. Sarris' book The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 suggested a Pantheon of great directors who had made films in the U. S., enthroning 14: Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D. W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Josef von Sternberg, Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir. He later added a 15th name, Billy Wilder, while directing criticism at such well-regarded names as Otto Preminger, Stanley Kubrick, William Wyler, Stanley Kramer and David Lean.
It is hard to believe that some of the names in Sarris's Pantheon were ill-regarded when Sarris began on the Voice. His first Village Voice review was praise for Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), which had stirred up a firestorm of outrage. In my own first days as a film critic, Kael was my muse but Sarris was my mapmaker.
In December of 1967, my first year as a film critic, I read every word of Sarris's Interviews with Film Directors, which singled out those he found noteworthy. I underlined Sarris's observation: "Even art films have to make money and even commercial films have to make some statement. To put it another way, more and more critics are demanding that there should be more fun in art, and more art in fun.... In the process... it has become possible to speak of Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni in the same breath and with the same critical terminology."
This, to me, was a signpost pointing the direction that a daily newspaper film critic might choose. One might also remember that for a nickel, then the price of the paper, the reader might reasonably expect to be entertained, since 95 percent of the readers would not go to 95 percent of the movies and yet might read the review.
I began to read Sarris regularly in the Voice, and found his voice to be clear and energetic, free of jargon and self-importance. Although he was famous as the leader of the auteurist critical school in America, he was not particularly theoretical or doctrinaire, and seemed in close touch with the actual experience of seeing the movie itself. The next year, his The American Cinema was published, and helped guide my frequent visits to the Clark Theater, a repertory house in the Loop that showed a different double feature every day.
In the 1970s I went to the Cannes Film Festival and met Sarris and Haskell. They were staying at the Hotel Splendid, which was then at the unfashionable end of town (although the new Palais was later built across the street). We'd met before at the New York Film Festival, but now Andy and Molly and I became friends, sitting late at night in the bar of the Hotel Majestic in a crowd that included the few other American critics who were then regularly at Cannes. Andy, already a legend, found festivals infinitely amusing and a great deal of fun. I cannot call up in my memory a picture of him discussing a film without smiling.
The last time I saw them at Cannes would have been in the early 1980s, when Billy (Silver Dollar) Baxter hosted a post-festival party at the Voile d'Or, a hotel down the coast at Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. They were in superb shape on the tennis courts. At some point after this Andrew contracted a rare disease that rendered him all but immobile for several months. Recreating this period in her 1990 memoir Love and Other Infectious Diseases, Haskell wrote: "My husband awoke one night with a fever of 105.9. I rushed him to the emergency room of a New York hospital, and there began a six month drama in which doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with him, while I alternated between hope and despair. For the three months that Andrew remained critically ill and deranged, hallucinating most of the time, he was no longer the lover, friend, fellow critic and confidant I was used to."
But he recovered, and their marriage endured, and he remained an inexhaustible force, going to the movies, writing, teaching, holding court.
I remember him the year "Apocalypse Now" was being premiered at Cannes. A half-dozen American critics were invited to visit Francis Coppola on his yacht and talk about his film. That was the fateful night he expressed his doubts about its ending. Coppola told us he considered Cannes his "out of town try-out." Sarris asked, "Where's town?"
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