Andrew Sarris, the most influential movie critic of his generation, died today at age 83. From 1960 through 1988, Sarris was a fixture at the Village Voice where, over the course of his hundreds of learned, yet colloquial, reviews, he — more than any other individual — educated American moviegoers on the history of the medium.
Most famously, it was Sarris who popularized and explicated the French notion of auteurism — basically that Hollywood directors like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks and many, many others were artists, no less and perhaps a bit more, than Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and other highly touted foreign directors. Hard to believe that this was ever controversial, and yet … (On the other hand, Sarris was also an unabashed Francophile who championed early Godard, mid-period Chabrol, and Rohmer’s entire career.)
Sarris’s “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968,” first published as a special — and almost instantly collectible — issue of Film Culture, and later as a paperback original in 1968, boiled Hollywood history down into pithy career descriptions of some 200 filmmakers, ranked by category (Pantheon Directors, The Far Side of Paradise, Expressive Esoterica). It was a bible for countless cinephiles, including me. My undergraduate comrades and I used to call it The Book, as in “Paul Wendkos? I don’t know — check the book!” I referred to my tattered, underlined copy so often as to have whole chunks engraved in my memory: “What burst of Buddhist contemplation was responsible for such a haunting exception to such an unexceptional career?”
I knew Andy for over a decade as a colleague at the Voice. He was a vivid character, a big guy with deep-set, raccoon-ringed eyes (too many movies?), an instantly recognizable hearty laugh and a roguish sense of humor. We had our critical differences, and even a few battles, over the years, but I never doubted — or was less than inspired by — his devotion to the two media we shared, movies and newspapers. His capacity to make a deadline was also impressive.
I also knew Andy, before I could call him that, when I was a grad student at Columbia and was, as one of my work-study obligations, the projectionist for a class he taught in Hollywood melodrama. Projecting can be a tense job — things can go wrong — and professors, who are “on stage” themselves, are not always patient with a snafu. Sarris, however, was a brick. If there was ever a problem, he simply flung himself into the breach and launched an extemporaneous lecture.
I can hear his voice now and I expect I always will. Andy, I salute you.
Image: © Patrick McMullan