Andrew Sarris 1928-2012

Ever since I became seriously interested in film, it was for me, the director who was the driving force behind the film. It was always Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” “Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” or Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot.”  This thought or attitude is easily attributable to the influence of Andrew Sarris and the auteur theory he championed. Sarris died today (June 20th) at the age of eighty-three. As the long time critic for The Village Voice and later, The New York Observer, Sarris was a unique voice championing film and filmmakers, ready to do battle and he did, most famously with Pauline Kael.

For years, I read Sarris’ Village Voice reviews each week. As a young cineaste I plowed through my well worn copy of “The American Cinema: Directors and Direction 1929-1968,” Sarris’ assessment and categorizing of some 200 hundred or so filmmakers.   For me, he opened up doors and behind them were brilliant filmmakers and their films to be discovered and enjoyed.

Sarris and Kael ushered in the golden age of movie criticism. It was a time when movies meant something more than just how much they cost to make or how much they made at the box office over the weekend. Movies were argued about, discussed over dinner or coffee, film theories were praised and damned. They were art and treated as art.

R.I.P.

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11 comments on “Andrew Sarris 1928-2012

  1. John, You bring back memories of my own wide-eyed discovery of the film criticism of Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael and Stanley Kauffmann. Only Kauffmann remains with us now – at age 96.

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    • John Greco says:

      Wow! Kauffmann is hanging in there. Hope he is doing well.

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      • Sam Juliano says:

        Aye John, Kauffmann is my favorite film critic of all time, and I own every one of his film volumes, including the masterful first one, A WORLD ON FILM. Like the others here I was an avid reader of Sarris, Kauffmann, Macdonald, Kael and Simon, and greatly respected their judgments even in disagreement. I got a chance to speak to Sarris back in 1998 at a Barnes & Noble book signing in Manhattan, and he answered the question I posed to he and the group convened there. He was a titan of film criticism, enormously influential and a singular voice. In college he was an idol for me. Wonderful tribute here John!

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  2. If I remember correctly, Sarris gave Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” a negative review on the first viewing, but changed his mind after a second viewing. A critical rarity!

    After disliking Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” he stated emphatically that he wasn’t going to change his mind about that one.

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    • John Greco says:

      Chris,
      You”re right about the 2001 review, it is actually mentioned in the THE NE YORK TIMES obit that was published the other day. Thanks for stopping by!!!

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  3. R. D. Finch says:

    John, I’m more of an admirer of Sarris than a fan. Still, I’ve had a copy of “The American Cinema” for many years, and it’s one of the few film reference books I refer to regularly. As you point out, he’s the one who brought the idea of the film auteur to American film criticism. And unlike most film writers, who tend to look at films in isolation, on a case-by-case basis, in doing so he aimed for a grand unifying concept of film aesthetics.

    His rankings might be subject to question, but his writing style was wonderfully direct and concise, and his characterizing of the essential stylistic traits of many directors right on the mark. And he’s responsible for many of the neglected greats of American film being rediscovered or re-evaluated and taking their place in the cinema pantheon. I may not always agree with him, but when looking for a brief quotation to punch up something I’m writing, he and David Thomson are the two people I go to first.

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D.,I didn’t agree with his rankings all the time either, for example, I would have placed Billy Wilder up higher. He himself re-evaluated his rankings some years ago. To me his importance was that he took a stand in coming out with this ranking with some serious aesthetics backing it up. He also supported filmmakers like Hitchcock who at the time was not taken very seriously by anyone except the French. I always enjoyed his writing whether I was in agreement with him or not.

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  4. jpk says:

    The key is that Sarris was triggered by Bazin and crew; indeed the very word “auteur” provides a clue. Sarris, Kael, Kauffman, Knight, Crowther… are of a bygone era, the first wave of *American* criticism. However, the great strides in understanding film as film come from the modernists, the best known being perhaps Wollen. Even further, film theory has revealed film as a thoroughly modern art whose understanding is limited by its newness and complexity, for example, in “To the Distant Observer.”

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  5. Judy says:

    I thought I’d commented on this the other day but clearly failed to do so – anyway, enjoyed this piece, John, and I must read more of Sarris’s work.

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