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Andrew Sarris 1928-2012

Shall we gather at the river?

The New York Times obituary is here.

65 comments to Andrew Sarris 1928-2012

  • Some thoughts on the cultural context of auteurism.

    The great age of first-generation auteurism was 1954-1976. This is when Andrew Sarris did his most influential work. Truffaut launched auteurism in 1954, and a huge flood a auteurist writing emerged, first in France, then in Britain with MOVIE and Robin Wood, and in the USA with Sarris and others.

    1954-1976 was also the Space Age. The Soviets started plans for Sputnik in 1954, and Eisenhower launched the US space program in 1955. But by 1976, the Space Age had come to and end.
    1954-1976 was also the great creative period of computer invention. People don’t always realize it, but things like the Internet, personal computers, databases, hypermedia were all fully functional by 1976 at government institutions like DARPA and industry research labs like IBM, Xerox PARC, BBN, Bell Labs.
    In the late 1970’s radical right-wing movement conservatism rose up, opposing government spending and glorifying business. Lies were told portraying businessmen like Steve Jobs as computer innovators. All Jobs did was make products out of government and research lab developed technology of 1954-1976. Conservatives also pulled the plug on the Space Age. Their doctrinaire anti-government coup left no room for government programs like NASA.

    Writers in 1954-1976 were extraordinarily good at spreading ideas about science. Isaac Asimov on science, Martin Gardner on mathematics, and the science documentary films and books of Charles and Ray Eames brought science ideas to a wide audience, in an an extraordinarily understandable form. They didn’t simplify or dumb down: they explained complex ideas clearly.

    The auteurists were a parallel operation to Asimov and company. They too concentrated on spreading real ideas about film, advanced, complex and intellectual, in a clear form to a very wide public.

    What the auteurists were doing for film, other scholars were doing for other media of popular culture.

    Frank Buxton & Bill Owen’s “Radio’s Golden Age” (1966) documented Old Time Radio.

    Ray B. Browne, Marshall Fishwick and Russell B. Nye founded the Popular Culture Association in 1970, to spread academic study of popular art in universities.
    Nye helped found the Comic Art Collection at Michigan State University. Under archivist Randall W. Scott, the Collection now has 200, 000 comic books and countless comic strips, all open to the public to read.

    Mystery fiction got its first bibliography by Ordean A. Hagen. Several histories of prose mystery fiction were published, the best being Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, editors: The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976).

    Histories of prose science fiction were written such as Donald Wollheim’s “The Universe Makers” (1971) and Brian Aldiss’ “Billion Year Spree” (1973).

    Sarris and the other auteurists took part in an era that stressed ideas, intellectualism, and research. They were not part of our conservative age, when people’s worth was equated with founding start-up companies.
    We have a huge amount to learn from these great thinkers.

  • Tony Williams

    Mike, This is an interesting background you depict. However, as I’m currently reading Barry Maltzberg at present, especially his collection of essays in THE ENGINES OF THE NIGHT, how does this relate to the cultural conservatism of John W. Campbell in the 50s he depicts in the world of 50,s science fiction and the writing community? I’m not as versed in this area as you are but he mentions that a dystopian strain of science fiction was virtually taboo in the 1950s and it was not until the mergence of NEW WORLDS, edited by Michael Moorcock (that had a similar effect on US science fiction/fantasy as MOVIE did on UK film criticism) that the field became more diverse. Talents such as Robert Silverberg were around but it was not until the 60s thah things really began to change. You deal with the period of the 60s and 70s but like to hear further thoughts on this early trend of US science fiction as described by Maltzberg.

  • Tony,
    I’m no expert. But always heard there was no blacklist in science fiction, as there was in film, radio and TV. Left wing writers like Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth were able to publish savage satires like “Tunnel Under The World” and “The Space Merchants” in the 1950’s. Galaxy Magazine, edited not by Campbell but Horace Gold, was especially receptive.

    Dave Kehr’s article deals with peace advocacy in THE SPACE CHILDREN. My impression is that peace was widely supported in science fiction of all kinds: books, films, comics.
    I had no idea Jack Arnold had a left wing background. You always learn so much new at!

    Other genres also had peace messages. THE HIDING PLACE (1959) is a Joseph H. Lewis episode of the US TV series officially known as THE DETECTIVES STARRING ROBERT TAYLOR. This is a Dragnet-inspisred cop show in a city much like Los Angeles (and plainly shot there!)
    THE HIDING PLACE opens with a sign on a Los Angeles auditorium announcing “Peace Rally 11 A.M.”. The plot follows the police as they try to track down and defuse a bomb left by a fanatic opponent of the rally.

    Westerns were full of attempts to prevent war between Native Americans and whites. See such William Castle films as BATTLE OF ROGUE RIVER (1954) and MASTERSON OF KANSAS (1954). Not to mention SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (John Ford).

  • Steve Elworth

    American science fiction both literary and film has had right wing millitaristic and left wing sociological wings. In the 50.s Campbell’s ASTOUNDING into ANALOG belonged to the first part and GALAXY and FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION belonged to the second. Some writers like Asimov wrote for all the magazine and some for only one. The center of the right wing was Heinlien. Most of the major SF writers who also worked in TV and Film belonged to the second wing.

  • Tony,

    More thoughts.
    “Cultural conservatism” is a broad term. It could refer to either politics or sex or something else.
    Much 1950’s science fiction had wild political ideas. But was extremely chaste sexually: science fiction was considered a genre for children.

    THEM! (Gordon Douglas, 1954) is a good example. This sf movie raises political issues. It looks at dark consequences of the Atomic Age. Its treatment of the woman scientist heroine is one of the most feminist portrayals of any 1950’s film. This woman is brainy, gutsy and the equal of any man.
    Yet THEM is very chaste and respectable sexually. Parents could take an 8 year old and see nothing offensive on the romance front.

  • Alex

    Of course some 50s Sc Fi was seemingly poliitcal and politically ambiguous at the same time, like SIEgel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, which can be read as anti-Communists and anti-McCarthyite

    Anti-Nuke stuff was often seen as Lefty.

  • Tony Williams

    I think Malzberg mentions the lack of sexuality in 50s sci-fi and how he (and others) attempted to insert it to the chagrin of establishment critics. Yes, it is true there was no backlash against works such as “The Space Merchants” etc. But that was because sci-fi, like B-movies, was beneath the contempt of establishment critics.

  • Rob Leith

    Since 1975, when I bought my first copy of The American Cinema, and “the scales fell from my eyes,” I always have kept it by my bedside, like many others here. Since then I have obtained other copies, one for my office at school and another that a mutual friend had autographed for me, but the original has never left my bedside. For this I have my wife to thank, who took the volume to a binder to be preserved. That was well over ten years ago. He told her that the book would last forever, and it gives every indication of doing so. I recommend this course of action to those of you who have a strong attachment to your dog-eared copies–and who don’t want to lose your checks, underlining, and additions to filmographies (how I wish there was more space around the Claude Chabrol and Sidney Lumet entries!).

    One of the more interesting books not by but about Sarris is wife Molly Haskell’s Love and Other Infectious Diseases, a work of art in its own right and a fascinating look at the first family of film criticism. No one has mentioned it yet, so I wanted to recommend it highly.

  • Hi there

    I’ve really enjoyed this thread and the serious thought going into Andrew’s legacy and contributions to film history.

    I interviewed Andrew about a year ago and made a short documentary with him that premiered at Telluride last year. I just put it up at YouTube and wanted to share the link here:

    Here’s where you can see it:

    It’s 11 minutes long. Hope you like it.
    Casimir Nozkowski

  • Jim Gerow

    Thanks to all the contributors to this thread. There are so many thoughtful pieces about Andrew Sarris’s enormous contribution to film criticism that have appeared in the past few days. Film Comment posted tributes by Kent Jones, Philip Lopate and others here:
    as well as the transcript of a delightful lecture he gave in 1987:

    Like many others here, I still have my first copy of THE AMERICAN CINEMA that I bought in the mid-70s and am holding together with a rubber band. I transferred all the underlinings from that original to a newer edition I found three years ago at a used bookstore in San Francisco. I also followed his Voice column religiously.

    I was lucky to see him on three occasions in recent years, where he was obviously in frail health but still passionate about film. He autographed a copy of the VILLAGE VOICE FILM GUIDE after a screening of AU HASARD, BALTHAZAR and a panel discussion that included Sarris, Jonas Mekas, Jim Hoberman and Dennis Lim all on one stage. I stumbled out a few words of appreciation for his great influence on my life, which caused him to light up with that smile that others have mentioned. For some reason I can’t help thinking of great cinematic eulogies in films like LIBERTY VALANCE and TOUCH OF EVIL.

  • stephen

    I was 18 when I picked up my first copies of the Voice and the New Yorker, reading simultaneously Sarris and Kael religously every week. I truly relished their differences of opinion and can still hear their voices in my head every time I see a film today. It was an education that sent me on a lifelong exploration of the history of world cinema that still enthuses me today, though I always wonder what the hell they would make of todays Hollywood. Oh, to hear their thoughts!

  • D. K. Holm

    David Bordwell has an authoritative survey of Sarris’s ideas on his blog:

  • Robert Garrick

    Casimir, that’s a nice piece. It’s short, but there are some things in it that will surprise some people.

    First, it unveils a little bit of Andrew Sarris’s “secret history.” We learn that his favorite film, “for a long time,” was “Odd Man Out.” In “The American Cinema,” Carol Reed is not treated well, but if you read Sarris’s comments you can see the affection for Reed’s early films. “Odd Man Out” is also the third-rated film for 1947. That’s ridiculously high for a “Less Than Meets the Eye” director. Still, in his book, Sarris says that Reed’s style in “Odd Man Out” was “too turgid.”

    Along the same lines, it’s my understanding that Sarris used to be a Billy Wilder fanatic before he was a Billy Wilder detractor after which, of course, Sarris once again became a Wilder fanatic. In Wilder’s last years Sarris called him the greatest living director. Back in 1950, Sarris made a daily trip to Radio City Music Hall to see “Sunset Boulevard.”

    You also discuss Sarris’s screenplay work for George Cukor’s “Justine” (1969). That is almost never discussed, by Sarris or by anyone else. Sarris is uncredited, but he confirms his work in your film. Sarris is also an uncredited writer for Jules Dassin’s “Promise at Dawn” (1970). I don’t know the backstory there, but Dassin, obviously, was in the “Strained Seriousness” category–a category for overrated directors who were not major enough to be listed in “Less Than Meets the Eye.” So if Sarris worked on the film, I’m guessing it was not with Dassin directly.

    For those of us who knew Sarris back in the 1970s, it’s always a little shocking to see him post-illness, which means post-1985. But his mind was as sharp as ever, and he could easily have lived another decade, writing important pieces for “Film Comment.”

  • Hi neighbors. I love reading all the tributes in this thread. I set down a few words on Indiewire, which I’ve linked here:

    (scroll down to the second section of quotes)

  • I have a column in today’s Town Topics, Princeton NJ’s weekly newspaper, celebrating FrankBorzage and Moonrise and Andrew Sarris, who introduced me to Borzage’s work back in the 1970s. Dave Kehr wrote the first and best appreciation of Moonrise (apparently at age 19) for Chicago’s film journal FOCUS. The occasion of the column was also the coincidence of Borzage’s death, 50 years ago June 19, and Sarris’s 50 years later, almost to the day. My excuse for Moonrise (they give me free rein here, so it didn’t take much) was the fact that Moonrise Kingdom has moved an occasional reviewer to mention Borzage’s work, which I’vebeen touting every chance I get, still fondly hoping that Sony will get it together to put Moonrise, Man’s Castle, History Is Made at Night, among his other sound work, on DVD.
    Here’s a link to today’s column
    Best wishes
    Stuart Mitchner