A day I was dreading for a long time. Andrew Sarris has died.
Now this page moves from real estate to mourning our early influence, Andrew Sarris. It becomes a sad day.
That’s a jolt for sure. For about a year, back in the 1980s, we thought he was going to die. But he made it. And now this comes out of nowhere.
The New York Times obit (which has been online for less than an hour as I write this) is excellent. Obviously they’ve had it ready for a while. I thought I knew everything about Sarris, but I didn’t know that he took Molly Haskell to Howard Johnson’s on his first date with her, or that he watched “2001: A Space Odyssey” (and enjoyed it) while smoking a joint. So that’s the key.
He’s the most consequential film critic in history by a mile, and exclusive of film he’s been one of the great intellectual influences in my life.
Andrew Sarris, rest in peace. I bought The American Cinema forty years ago in Helsinki and have been trying to see all the highlighted films ever since.
Rest in peace, Sarris. And for those who keep up with Southeast Asia, Mario O’Hara is in the hospital with leukemia, according to his niece, Janice O’Hara, on facebook.
The NY Times obit is indeed well written, but it misspells Howard Hawks as Hawkes!
I too still have my dog-eared copy of American Cinema, certainly one of the most important and influential books on the subject ever.
I wonder if anything like it could be written about today’s cinema.
That misspelling was in the Guardian, not the NYT.
Just read the Sarris news on Vulture. Bummed. Will read the the Times review and brood. Send him a fan letter once back in the late 1970s and he was nice enough to respond … still have his letter. Been re-reading a lot of his material in the last two years.
I’m very sorry to hear about the passing of Andrew Sarris. I can’t think of a better source for finding good films to watch than his book “The American Cinema”.
I’m curious about one thing in the NY Times obituary: Reading about Sarris you often come across the story with a Vivien Leigh movie he watched a great number of times, sometimes it’s GONE WITH THE WIND (like in the obituary), but other times it’s that he watched THAT HAMILTON WOMAN more than 80 times (as many or more than Winston Churchill, who considered himself a great fan of the film).
Considering that Andrew Sarris went to the movies a lot in his lifetime it is of course possible that he saw both GONE WITH THE WIND four dozen times and THAT HAMILTON WOMAN eighty plus times. I’m sure someone here will know the correct version of the story.
As a 28 year Italian cinephile, I have only recently bought a copy of his American Cinema, but it instantly became my livre de chevet. Rip (and thank you).
Johan Andreasson, you’re right, the NYTimes has bobbled that Vivien-Leigh-movie ball more than once. I’m sure Andrew Sarris was in the presence of Gone With the Wind on many occasions, but the Leigh film he loved and specifically cited as having paid money to see dozens of times was Lady Hamilton. His essay about that great love–his, not hers and Lord Nelson’s–is one of his warmest, sweetest, and most endearing. In it I believe he says that once he was knocked down by some motor vehicle while rushing to get to a screening. As for revisiting and reappraising 2001, he did indeed undertake that mission after partaking of a substance that he had been assured was “somewhat stronger than a King Sano.” He reported appreciating the movie a little better and also getting a bit of a buzz off the weed, but preferred to stick with vermouth cassis thereafter.
His Voice essay on seeing That Hamilton Woman 80 times is printed in one of his three review collections, probably Politics and Film, but it might be Primal Screen. Coming out of a theater after one viewer, Sarris says he was knocked down by a car. Which is a few degrees of separation from Margaret Mitchell, who was killed by a cab in Atlanta.
One bummer is that being computer-phobic or unfamiliar with the Interlace or a Luddite, Sarris was probably unaware of this website, and its periodic celebrations and debates over his views and influence.
I have before me his review of Bang the Drum Slowly, VV, 6 September 1974. In the course of the review he cites: Fat City, Brian’s Song, Darwin, Catch-22, Catcher in the Rye, Mean Streets, Odd Man Out, the Keystone Cops, Best Years of Our Lives, women’s lib, Pride of the Yankees, Lou Gehrig, Maurie, the NBA, and Hamlet. As my colleague Shawn Levy said once, Sarris approached each review as if he were making the definitive statement on the movie under consideration.
Google has reprints of most issues of the Voice on line.
Great image, and great tag line, Dave.
Aside from the essential AMERICAN CINEMA book, I adore his little monograph THE JOHN FORD MOVIE MYSTERY. Aside from the famous passage on THE SEARCHERS which captures the essence of Ford’s elliptical and poetic style better than any of the tomes that have come down before or since, there are little observations and insights–particularly of the revisionist variety–throughout.
Sarris’s judgment–at least when it came to movies–seem to falter in the last decade. He didn’t seem interested in closely following some of the more interesting pathways that the cinema had taken, and as a result his famous end-of-year lists became relatively pedestrian, populated to a surprising extent with the kind of “humanist” indie movies that he once would have chastised for their patness. But his actual writing remained generous and sharp and I enjoyed reading his columns to what is now the end.
I feel for Molly Haskell, an excellent critic in her own right.
Andrew Sarris now gone…a sad day for those who love cinema. His AMERICAN CINEMA still reigns, for its time and for now. What a delight to read!
Andrew Sarris was my idol.
I still have my broken down copy of The American Cinema too.
In 2005 Sarris announced:
“So why am I leading off this week’s column with a movie, the subject and genre of which I have found singularly unappetizing for all of my adult life? The answer involves a resurgence of my auteurist inclinations. Since I decided recently that I was going to live forever, I figured that I had enough time to update The American Cinema, Directors and Directions 1929-1968 to the 21st Century, beginning with Richard Linklater, whom I am tentatively placing in the category “The Far Side of Paradise.”
Still in his 40’s, Mr. Linklater may have a stab at making my pantheon of English-language auteurs, which takes in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the British Isles. Among the other recent auteurs I am following (though sometimes from a great distance) are: Robert Altman, Harold Becker, Robert Benton, the Coen Brothers, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Clint Eastwood, the Farrelly Brothers, Peter Jackson, Jim Jarmusch, Ken Loach, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Errol Morris, Mike Nichols, David O. Russell, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Terry Zwigoff … but I am still very early in my research.”
Andrew Sarris Story #1: As a teenager, I would make sure either a) my father brought the Voice home with him; or b) we stopped at the local stationery store and purchased one of the two copies they got every week. My parents were a bit dubious when they saw some of the other content in the 1970′s Voice, but I must have loved movies even more than boys since I always opened to the center immediately and only later discovered that there were photographs of penises in the front half.
Andrew Sarris Story #2: Years later I have published an auteurist article on Mankiewicz, started posting on a_fim_by, and decided I would propose to the University of Mississippi Press that I edit a book of JLM interviews. Amazingly, they approved my list of interviews, one of which was by Sarris from the time of the release of THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN… Someone had posted on a_film_by that he was listed in the phone book. I duly called, left a message with his wife (I think), and he called me back. He was graciousness itself – shared a story of how JLM (after reading a draft) had asked him to tone down the anti-Zanuck comments he had made – Sarris said he thought JLM probably did not want to burn that bridge just yet – and granted me rights to republish, wished me luck, and thanked me for wanting to include his piece. I am very glad it is there, since it is one of the few interviews JLM gave between the CLEOPATRA fiasco and his assumption of the role of grand old man of the cinema, retired division.
Andrew Sarris Story #3: I read where he wrote that he was always re-considering his previous views of movies (I think it was in relation to Francis Ford Coppola) – that nothing was ever settled and he never gave up on a director. I remember when the lost Hitchcock’s came out, he wrote about certain things he had not noticed before in the films. And (referring to Story #2), in that article he showed a willingness to consider that JLM’s movies may have values that were not obvious to him at the time of his first watching.
More than any single review or his championing of auteurism , it was his willingness to revisit and revise and be open about such a process that was, for me, the greatest inheritance I received from Andrew Sarris and his writing.
I learned about this at a screening from someone I first met over 35 years ago. My being at the screening and knowing this person were both a direct result of the influence Andrew Sarris had and has in my life.
Reading “The American Cinema” when it came out while I was still in high school did more to change the course of my life than any other book. It crystalized my nascent interest in film beyond those of recent years, and set me on a course to ultimately make working in the film industry (so it would make it easier to see films) despite other plans when I went to college.
He was always a delight when I had the honor of being in his presence – funny, down to earth, patient.
My thoughts are will Molly and others closest to him.
I think we can all agree that we all owe Andrew Sarris everything.
THE AMERICAN CINEMA was/is the bible I have carried around for decades, underlining titles
of films I have seen and searching out the ones I haven’t seen in all his categories, pro or con (a common
experience for film scholars of my generation and later ones as well). One of the great
virtues of this polemical work is that inspired debate and invited reasoned disagreement. Sarris
is large; he contains multitudes. I agree with Brian Dauth that one of Sarris’s finest attributes was his willingness to evolve
and reexamine his views on directors he once dismissed. That is a rare trait in anyone, especially in a critic. Billy Wilder backhandedly
admitted to me his pleasure that Sarris and others who used to knock him but later came to appreciate him “just don’t feel like kicking an elderly man in the ass anymore.”
Sarris wrote many beautiful sentences (they were not only true
because they were beautiful but also beautiful because they were true,
to paraphrase Godard on Rossellini), but the line of Sarris’s that has always meant the most to me
is from THE AMERICAN CINEMA:
“The last champions of John Ford have now gathered around
7 WOMEN as a beacon of personal cinema.”
I have always found that thrilling and inspirational not only as a guide
to my Ford research but as a general statement of cinephilia and why it matters. When I heard
the sad news of Andrew Sarris’s death, I still had THE AMERICAN CINEMA right
next to my desk. The cover has fallen off because I’ve been using it so long. It still has
the original underlinings.
What a sad day it is.
As much as any filmmaker, Sarris taught me what film was and is. His taste always seemed open & willing, rarely letting preconcived ideas rule his writing.
THE AMERICAN CINEMA is still my film bible. I think I’m on my 5th copy now. My 1st was in the mid 80′s at age 15. Having more lists than I’d ever seen, I was instantly hooked. Having decided to see as many highlighted films as possible, I began my quest.
All was VHS then & I started slowly. Soon after, BONJOUR TRISTESSE was showing on cable & I taped it at 2am. The few film books I knew then rated it 2 stars with little to say about it. When I watched it I was enthralled & wondered how he could be so right & everyone else so wrong.
From then on, I would track down anything he recommended & while sometimes disappointed (THREE WOMAN, THE LAST WOMAN or THE MAN BETWEEN) I was more often thrilled (KEATON, WAGONMASTER, JET PILOT, TIME TO LOVE TIME TO DIE & TRUST).
True his later taste could be rather pedestrian (though, I agree beautifully written), but his battles were fought & won when things I now take for granted were both radical & ridiculed.
Thank you sir. RIP
Robin Wood often spoke of his admiration of THE AMERICAN CINEMA as a book one should have often at one’s side to refer to. As everyone has stated, it is a key text and a work always used whenever I ponder a film and then see what he has to say about it. A truly unique work by an important critic of his time – and beyond.
The last time I bought THE AMERICAN CINEMA I decided to buy two copies so I could have them close at hand in different rooms. I have long wished for an updated edition and wonder why he never did one.
A few years ago I heard Sarris say in a radio interview that he was working on a follow-up to YOU AIN’T HEARD NOTHIN’ YET that would cover 1950 forward and ever since I have been waiting for word of its publication. Does anyone know if he actually was working on that book and whether there is any chance we will ever see it?
Count me as another custodian of a taped-together, trying-to-disintegrate-if-only-I’d-allow-it-to, red-lined and blue-dotted paperback of Andrew Sarris’s inestimably vital bible, “The American Cinema.”
Over the years I’ve shed many film books, for various reasons and not always by choice. But this dilapidated survivor? No chance.
Agreement or disagreement about any particular film or director cited in this seminal volume is a secondary matter. The generous and insightful portrait of then-neglected popular US cinema as a whole (as well as plenty of hitherto unsung movies and their directors in particular) that it continues to offer will not cease to be an inspiration no matter how smothering today’s domination of the filmmaking scene by nine-and-ten-figure-grossing but so often pea-brained blockbusters becomes.
Part of this inspiration must surely be not to neglect or idly dismiss even these blockbusters, some of which surely contain their own veins of artistry awaiting discovery. Do not write off any filmmaker or genre without close examination; always be open to the most unlikely possibilities — these also represent a prime element of the Sarris legacy.
Goodbye but not farewell to this irreplaceably distinctive voice.
I agree with what’s been stated above, with particular appreciation of the eloquence of Brian (“it was his willingness to revisit and revise and be open about such a process that was, for me, the greatest inheritance I received “), Michael (“always be open to the most unlikely possibilities”) and Joe (“‘The last champions of John Ford have now gathered around 7 WOMEN as a beacon of personal cinema.’ I have always found that thrilling and inspirational”).
RIP. I’ve been waiting for the second coming of The American Cinema since the 1970s. Query — who’s in the Pantheon, 1968-2012?
PS — I’ve just noticed the 1963 issue of Film Culture Dave has used as this board’s illustration. It’s a fascinating task to compare Sarris’ 1963 write-ups with those of 1968.
I just heard about this. I’m a little speechless. I had been trying to prepare for this moment the last couple of years, but it seems like nothing really lets you anticipate someone who’s guided your thought passing away. It’s like the difference between “eventuality” and “loss.”
How near is Andrew Sarris’s writing to me? I keep a paperback copy of “The American Cinema” always at the top of a stack of books beside my reading and viewing chair.
Sarris’s grasp of philosophy and deft application of it to movies is what first grabbed me, and always kept me coming back for more. The man’s wit was a sharp-edged jewel which I still marvel over. I fell for the backing intellect, the breadth of knowledge, the breathtaking alliteration. Along with “The American Cinema,” my favorite Sarris book is his collection, “Confessions of a Cultist,” which I think represents Sarris at his most stimulating writing on the most stimulating movies during his career. I can’t really find a casually compacted, Sarris-like way to sum up what I think is his vast and fundamental craftsmanship in the framework we have now for understanding film. He will be missed, yet I think his teaching on film remains in those he reaches.
Very sad news, but it sure is comforting to be in a group so at one in its response and its warm and appreciative remembrances of him and of the key formative influence he was and remained in our critical thinking and study of an art that means so much in our lives.
It’s enjoyable to read about people’s copies of THE AMERICAN CINEMA and how some have moved on to replace it while others have somehow kept their first copy together. My original copy fell apart some years ago but I tried taping it together for awhile, then had to patch more than one piece together, finally let it go and bought the later edition with the new afterward. Happily though, my wife kept her original copy in good shape so have that too.
My favorite line of Sarris has always been exactly the same one that Joe quoted and I really appreciated that he remembered it here–it was exactly the kind of inspired phrase that auteurism needed and it needed to be applied exactly as he did, to a great film by a master that had been scorned and ridiculed by the mainstream critics of its day.
I also agree, as Brian and others have noted, that his mind was never closed to reevaluation, and especially appreciate about him his saying that he had not turned against any of the directors he had most favored earlier but only regretted that he had underrated others. Another aspect of this is that THE AMERICAN CINEMA was plainly meant to be a starting point, and if someone wasn’t in it, it didn’t mean they shouldn’t be given consideration and there was not more rediscovery to be made–this is something that Dave himself has especially taken to heart and done wonders with in his “Subjects for Further Research” pieces in FILM COMMENT, which have all been fascinating and opened up some careers that are really deserving.
If Molly reads this, I hope she knows our thoughts are with her and that even those of us who had no personal relationship with him loved him for what he gave us.
For what it’s worth, here is my modest contribution to Sarris eulogies.
I have heard but failed to confirm that in an earlier issue of Film Culture Sarris published a ranking of actors and actresses. Does anyone know if this is true, or if there is an online index to the magazine?
Thanks D.K. — especially for the letter. The last three sentences of the third paragraph are amazing.
“I have heard but failed to confirm that in an earlier issue of Film Culture Sarris published a ranking of actors and actresses.”
I have a vague recollection of this, but I don’t have my copies of “Film Culture” at hand.
Speaking of “Film Culture,” in some ways I prefer Sarris’s original article in issue 28 (issue 29 continued with a list of American avant-garde filmmakers, not written by Sarris) to the later “The American Cinema.” I remember buying that back issue at Larry Edmund’s Cinema Bookstore in Hollywood, CA from Milton Subotsky who happened to be at the counter that Saturday afternoon. Milton told me that an expanded version, “The American Cinema,” would be published shortly but I couldn’t wait. I’d already heard older cinephiles referring to it as “the Bible.” Of course I bought “The American Cinema” too.
The only questionable behavior I ever heard attributed to Sarris concerned the dismissal of Jonas Mekas from “The Village Voice.” Sarris either failed to support Jonas or helped get rid of him, one. Whatever happened, Sarris never had an appreciation of the a-g, his main weak point in my view, and he didn’t stop at saying “I don’t get it” or “It’s not my cup of tea,” but actually pronounced it worthless.
Still, he opened the gates to auteurism in the US, and no one can take that away from him.
X, Sarris was interviewed by Tom Gunning for David E, James’s collection on Jonas. The title is something like Loved Him but hated it. I do not think that Sarris could have prevented Jonas from being squeezed out but he should have mentioned since Jonas was the originally Voice critic and bought Sarris to the Voice. Both of them invented an amazing section that lasted over 50 years until their mutual heir and synthesis, Jim Hoberman was fired.
I too have a stained and dog-eared copy of the original paperback edition of THE AMERICAN CINEMA which I bought in the Museum of Modern Art bookstore in September of 1968, the first week I arrived in New York City. Not a week goes by that I don’t refer to this volume at least once or twice. My favorite passage is the following, taken from the entry about Jerry Lewis, which I think both sums up Andrew Sarris’ feelings about cinema as well as a way of seeing, feeling and making film that he has given to us all. “What I always hoped the auteur theory would contribute to the American film scene was an expanding vision of cinema as far as the eye could see.”
I’ve read THE AMERICAN CINEMA, but if I own a copy it must be stuck in a box somewhere. I do have YOU AIN’T HEARD NOTHIN’ YET close at hand, so I’ll be dipping into that again. I, too, hope a 1950 and beyond version is out there, ready for publication.
I don’t know about an article ranking actors, but I get a kick out the appendix in YOU AIN’T HEARD NOTHIN’ YET in which Sarris lists his favorite performances from the years covered in the book (1927-49). It’s Oscar-style, with five nominees in each of the four categories (Actor, Actress, Sup. Actor, Sup. Actress), sometimes with the extra category of Ingenue, which allowed him to single out various comely lasses.
DK – I have a xeroxed copy of that list – as I recall, he listed the 5 top performances by year in lead and supporting actor and actresses categories for a few decades. It’s pretty manic but certainly curious. He first listed a group for silents, then every year from 1929-1964.
(Thx for mentioning this – I had looked at it for years)
Random example (listed in order of preference):
1961 – lead actress
Lola Albright – A Cold Wind in August
Audrey Hepburn – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Deborah Kerr – The Innocents
Marilyn Monroe – The Misfits
Lili Palmer – The Pleasure of His Company
Looking at it, amazingly he didn’t mention either Tippi Hedren Hitchcock performance
X, that guy behind the counter at Larry Edmunds Bookshop (no apostrophe in “Edmunds”) was Milton Luboviski, who co-owned the store with his wife since the 1950s until fairly recently. (The shop was founded in 1938 by Hollywood playboy Edmunds, who killed himself a few years later.)
Luboviski had a couple of relatives working there with him, but they’ve all died in the last ten years. I last saw Milton in 2002, one year before he died, and he told me that he “hated movies” and “never saw them.” But he was in a good mood on that day because I was spending a lot of money.
Larry Edmunds Bookshop hangs on under new ownership, heroically, and it deserves our support. But like most bookstores in 2012, it’s struggling.
Back to Andrew Sarris. In my experience he always spoke well and with affection of the Mekas brothers. But he wasn’t bashful about saying that avant-garde film was “boring.” He didn’t make a crusade out of it, though. He’d respond to questions, and otherwise he left it alone. I don’t believe he ever went out of his way to attack the avant-garde in writing, save the occasional aside in an essay about something else, though I could be wrong about that.
When I interviewed Sarris back in 1975 and asked him about his start in criticism, the first thing he did was credit and thank Jonas Mekas.
And yes, there was an early 1960s “acting” issue of “Film Culture,” assembled lovingly, with lots of yearly lists and categories, much like the director issue. (We should recall that Pauline Kael once insulted Sarris by calling him a “list queen.”) Sarris, who loved sports (and who by the way was an excellent tennis player), was indeed fond of lists and statistics. He tried to quantify his critical judgments to the extent possible, rather than wallow in a morass of penumbras and qualifiers. That Sarris tendency is one of the keys to the success and greatness of “The American Cinema,” in my opinion.
That book said: These are the directors you need to familiarize yourself with, and here’s a list of all their films. I’ve highlighted the best ones for you. Also, I’ve provided you with a list of the best films, in order, for every year in film history. And in case you remember a title but can’t remember who directed it, I’ve got a complete alphabetical listing in the back of the book. Now start watching.
And we did.
Sarris has all sorts of dimensions that are worth taking a close look at.
Sarris was radically pro-Art.
My literature professors in the 1960′s suggested there were only eight writers in the USA of artistic stature: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, J.D Salinger and Robert Penn Warren.
By contrast, Sarris recommended 66 directors in the first four categories of THE AMERICAN CINEMA alone. That’s Pantheon to Fringe Benefits. And he suggested that many others in later categories were worth seeking out.
Plus the many foreign directors he enthused over in CONFESSIONS OF A CULTIST and other reviews.
This is an utterly different approach. It suggests that there is a vast world of Art out there, which we should value highly.
While Establishment critics were deconstructing the idea of canons as worthless, Sarris was busy building a Canon, and showing us all how to do it.
AFter all, if there are only 8 good artists we need to study, we hardly need a formal canon. But if there are 66 just here in one country and one medium, canon-building is essential.
Sarris focussed relentlessly on the artistic qualities of the films he studied.
He was always trying to bring out artistic dimensions. Sarris used aesthetic traditions that were often in disrepute among Establishment and Academic Americans.
Sarris endorsed story telling. He praised and explored story telling skills in directors like Budd Boetticher.
By contrast, Establishment figures preached that story telling was bad, something vulgar that had no place in art. Plotless tales like Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” were the only valid writing.
Sarris endorsed characterization, harking back to literary traditions such as Coleridge’s study of characterization in Shakespeare in the early 1800′s.
Sarris was relentless about highlighting visual style. THE AMERICAN CINEMA emphasizes visual style in Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, Joseph H. Lewis, Douglas Sirk. At a time when most literary people in the USA knew virtually nothing about visual style in painting and photography, Sarris was able to recognize obscure men like Joseph H. Lewis were major formal creators of visual patterns.
Sarris wrote whole books about two of the great visual stylists, Josef von Sternberg and John Ford.
Even today, this is extraordinarily radical. Try button-holing an educated person, even someone with a Ph.D., and ask them to explain in concrete terms the visual style of Lang, Tourneur or Lewis. You will soon discover that they have no idea, and don’t really consider this important.
But it was important to Sarris.
Because Sarris thought ART was important.
He had a radical pro-Art vision.
Three cheers to Andrew Sarriss, quite likely the most broadly enlightening and influential film critic and film scholar this nation has had.
Long Live Andrew Sarris!
Taking a look at Sarris’s acknowledgements, preface, and introductory essay in “The American Cinema,” it’s fairly evident there is humility beneath the bold assertions of taste. In the first paragraph of text in the book, he writes, “I am grateful also to Jonas Mekas for his kindness in providing a haven for my critical opinions in the pages of ‘Film Culture’ and ‘The Village Voice.’” Unless he wanted to truly bate Mekas for abetting, as has been claimed, his ouster from the “Voice,” those appreciative sentiments don’t sound like the words of a man who led to Mekas’s downfall. Incidentally, I find Mekas’s collection “Movie Journal” vital and thoughtful writing.
In the fourth paragraph of his preface, Sarris lays down his definition for the American cinema he has in mind. His boundaries couldn’t be clearer. But even here, he proposes rather than laying down by final edict. His specific purpose was trying to rescue from anonymity the artists within the studio system. Avant-garde directors working outside that system suffered from neglect, but generally not from due credit for the artistic ownership of their films. Thus, to a large extent avant-garde filmmakers fell outside the perameters of Sarris’s project.
The introduction continues this spirit of exploration and arriving at tentative conclusions which are nonetheless stirring and thriving, instead of handing down dogma. He admits candidly, “Ultimately, the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude.” But it is an attitude he upholds, and he provides reasons that numerous critics since have found sublime. It only makes sense that Sarris continued to re-evaluate directors because he did not position auteurism itself as an inflexible method, but as a best bet. Perhaps it is analogous to Pascal’s wager? Sarris’s next book, “Confessions of a Cultist,” continues to reinforce that method by examples drawn from his years of criticism.
Mike, I like the last part of your post the most, starting where you credit Sarris for identifying visual styles. The introduction to “The American Cinema” supports your assertions. From the same paragraph I quoted, there’s this, which I think gives a picture of Sarris’s combination of postulation and restless questioning. After sending a warning signal that auteurism might, after all, carry the pitfall of devolving into “directorial autobiobraphy,” he holds out, “The auteurist critic is obsessed with the wholeness of art and the artist. He looks at a film as a whole, a director as a whole. The parts, however entertaining individually, must cohere meaningfully. This meaningful coherence is more likely when the director dominates the proceedings with skill and purpose. How often has this directorial domination been permitted in Hollywood? By the most exalted European standards, not nearly enough.”
Yes Robert, Luboviski. I’d forgotten. I first visited Larry Edmunds at age 14 and my last visit was in 1989 or 1990, and the youngest brother was still there. I didn’t know the family sold it.
But in the day I went there every week to buy the latest film magazines including “Cinema” (Beverly Hills version,) “Movie,” “Film Culture,” the short-lived “Cahiers du Cinema in English,” (edited by Sarris) and a few other obscure publications only obtainable at Larry Edmunds.
About Sarris v. Mekas, I’m going by my memory of what I read in the Voice in 1977 or thereabouts when Jonas was dismissed and Sarris’s lack of public support at that time, and then the gossip that was floating around NYC cinephile circles in the immediate aftermath suggested that Sarris wasn’t going to stick his neck out for Jonas.
But they were both forgiving and generous, and I never heard Jonas say a word against Sarris, so if he felt betrayed he never gave voice to it.
You know, X, there IS a Milton Subotsky, and he was in the film business. I didn’t think he would be behind the counter at Edmunds, but you never know.
“Cahiers du Cinema in English” was terrific, while it lasted. Sarris used to wait until there was enough interesting translated material, and then he’d put out an issue. I bought a bunch of issues while I was in New York, mostly at the Thousand Eyes bookstore in the Bleecker Street Cinema. I got a lot of early copies of “Movie” there too. Sometimes I’d pick up a stray magazine at the Gotham Book Mart, at Cinemabilia, or at Wilentz’s 8th Street Bookstore. All of those places are gone now.
The first book I bought after I arrived in New York in 1976 was Sarris’s “Confessions of a Cultist,” at Wilentz’s. I’d already read a copy that I checked out of my college library, but I’d never seen it for sale before, and it was thrilling to see it on the shelves of a local bookstore. Then I bought a copy of the Village Voice, opened it up, and there was a big feature article on Sam Fuller, with an interview.
Why was I in New York at all, why was I excited about Fuller, and why was I buying the Village Voice? Almost entirely because of Andrew Sarris. As Joseph McBride said, we owe him everything. There probably isn’t a person on this board whose life he didn’t change in a positive way.
“Why was I in New York at all, why was I excited about Fuller, and why was I buying the Village Voice? Almost entirely because of Andrew Sarris. As Joseph McBride said, we owe him everything. There probably isn’t a person on this board whose life he didn’t change in a positive way.”
I share your conclusion about Sarris, but my experience was somewhat different. What I got was, “How can you like a stupid movie like ‘Shock Corridor’,” and Sarris gave me the talking points to answer that question and affirmed my own judgement. As for reading the Village Voice, I bought it because I also read the Berkeley Barb, the Los Angeles Free Press and the East Village Other (their common thread was their coverage of the counter culture.) The Voice had the best film criticism of all of them thanks to Sarris and Joans Mekas (though the Free Press had Gene Youngblood.)
Does this mean that Andrew Sarris will now get his Library of America edition?
To Tom B.: If you would care to share that photocopy, you can reach me via my email address which should be linked here.
Here’s a succinct definition of auteurism as enunciated by Sarris in the course of his rejoinder to Kael’s “Raising Kane”:
” … auteurism was never intended to enthrone all directors above all screenwriters but rather to identify the source of a style in movies worthy of memory. Often there is more than one source, and it is up to the critic to track down every contribution whenever possible.”
This is reprinted from the Voice on page 123 of Primal Screen … which also reprints the That Hamilton Woman essay on pages 265 – 268.
I see that emails are not published here. It’s on my blog, anyway, and is email@example.com.
Mike, your post is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on this site. Really inspiring.
This is sad news, I was a big fan of Sarris and especially The American Cinema.
I remember when I first got into film criticism you could still read Sarris in the New York Observer, and also Stanley Kauffmann who was writing in The New Republic. These reviews brought forth the kind of film criticism these guys were writing, which I’ve been reading in collections at the library, to discuss the films of today – which I found to be really interesting.
I’m happy that Sarris’ The American Cinema is still in print. Da Capo Press also publishes quite an impressive collection of movie-books: like those by James Harvey, Capra’s The Name Above the Title, McBride on Ford, Godard on Godard, Truffaut’s The Films of my Life. I think it’s important that there is someone who is still publishing these important books of film history, making them accessible to a new audience.
Andrew Sarris was a thinker and a man of ideas, if there ever was one.
The post was just trying to get at some of his ideas.
Mike, Let me second Gregg’s congratulations on your posting. D.K., You’re right in terms of that quote from PRIMAL SCREEN especially in terms of Larry Cohen’s screenplay contributions transferred for better (PHONE BOOTH) or worse (CELLULAR, MESSAGES DELETED) to the screen. The UK DVD version of the last film actually ascribes authorship to Cohen himself.