Share this article

print logo

Recalling the? critic's critic,? Andrew Sarris

It's probably the grungiest and most oft-thumbed book in my entire library. The front cover of the paperback fell off long ago, and there's a black stripe along the pages on the right side where I have riffled them again and again in search of something. (It's not that my thumb is unusually dirty, you see, it's just that 44 years of constant use do tend to pick up everything.)

The book is "The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968" by Andrew Sarris, one of the great movie critics and a man who taught so many in my generation – and later – things crucial to know about American movies, how to see them and how to think about them.

I can even tell you my favorite passage from the book. In his entry on the career of the great master John Ford, Sarris wrote this: "There is a fantastic sequence in ‘The Searchers' involving a brash frontier character played by Ward Bond. Bond is drinking some coffee in a standing-up position before going out to hunt some Comanches. He glances toward one of the bedrooms and notices the woman of the house tenderly caressing the Army uniform of her husband's brother. Ford cuts back to a full-face shot of Bond drinking his coffee, his eyes tactfully averted from the intimate scene he's witnessed. Nothing on earth could ever force this man to reveal what he had seen. There is a deep, subtle chivalry at work here, and in most of Ford's films, but it is never obtrusive enough to interfere with the flow of the narrative."

The man who wrote that was, assuredly, not the most graceful of writers. The phrase "in a standing-up position" is not one you'd be likely to find in Hemingway, John Cheever, Evelyn Waugh or any other writer who cared about the music of his prose. But I knew when I read that passage that I'd be a faithful admirer of that critic my whole life – and I was. I instantly liked the way that man looked at films, I liked what he saw and what impressed him. And I liked everything he told us about it.
Andrew Sarris died last week at the age of 83, the second oldest surviving member of the greatest generation of American film critics (the great Stanley Kauffmann, bless him, is still with us at 96.). They were the generation of Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald, the ones who followed the generation of James Agee and Otis Ferguson.

What Sarris brought to America in that amazing book "The American Cinema" was the auteur theory that had been born in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, where the young and the French and the film-crazed – Truffaut and Godard – congregated when they weren't making films. It offered two very simple and eternally useful propositions to anyone who'd ever want to write about movies: that the director is the author of the film and that the artistic personality of the director is a criterion of value.
Neither are remotely true. But you're better off proceeding for years as if they might be true before rejecting them for obvious reasons: 1) that in such a collaborative medium all manner of others can turn out to be auteurs – actors, screenwriters like Paddy Chayefsky ("Network" needed director Sidney Lumet, but it wouldn't exist at all without Chayefsky) or producers (David O. Selznick, for whom Sarris briefly worked when young) 2) The mere fact of a director's identity being visible doesn't ever prevent a film from being awful. It makes the film more interesting to cognoscenti ?but not good. See at least a fourth of the works of Jean-?Luc Godard.

What was wonderful about Sarris' entry into the world of turning people's heads around was the playfulness of it. As with so many hopelessly absorbed obsessives, Sarris figured out a way to create a huge structure to systematize his evaluations of the careers of most American film directors.
He had descending categories for them: Pantheon for the top (Welles, Ford, Griffith, Hitchcock etc.), The Far Side of Paradise (Capra, Minnelli, Preminger etc.), Expressive Esoterica, Fringe Benefits, Less Than Meets the Eye, Lightly Likable, Strained Seriousness, Oddities, One Shots and Newcomers, Subjects for Future Research, Make Way for the Clowns and Miscellany. The categories that caused raging objection were "Less Than Meets the Eye" and "Strained Seriousness." John Huston, Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder in the first? Say what? John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick and Sidney Lumet in the second?

That's what made Sarris' outrageous system so much fun. It was as wondrously elaborate and artificial as a fantasy baseball league with rankings of every player by position. It was an elaborate and endlessly provocative version of the kind of systematic construction that totally absorbed boys – and the men they turn into – are often given to, whether they're baseball fans, film critics, scientists or philosophers.

Which is why Sarris' earlier systematized import of the Auteur Theory from the French earned the classic mockery of Pauline Kael in one of the more famous takedowns of its era. In his biography of Kael, "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark," Brian Kellow quotes Sarris on Kael "She was always on the boil … It was a sort of temperamental difference between us. She was a very lively writer, and she was very readable. I gave her a lot of credit for what she did. I think that a lot of people who professed to like her were a bit condescending to her. Even her supporters. … Pauline had a way of getting at people but she didn't really threaten them."

He had already admitted that their public badinage helped make them both. They weren't just temperamental opposites but substantive ones. That didn't stop the two from dealing with each other cordially, despite Kael's constant "boil."

Anyone who followed the Sarris/Kael battles was likely to see the infantile and unholy TV versions of them on Siskel and Ebert to be ridiculous pillowfights in a closet.

Ironically, Kael often proved to be the most resolute and ridiculous auteurist of them all later on (never to be trusted, for instance, in her praise of Brian DePalma) while Sarris' reviews in the Village Voice and the New York Observer proved to be far more idiocyncratic and pragmatic than those of the young systemizer who constructed a child's dream house of American film reputations.

In his later book, "You Ain't Heard Nuthin' Yet," the slovenly and decidedly anti-systematic mature man even shook up his Pantheon to make sure there was plenty of room for Billy Wilder. He was never ?a "lively writer" like Kael. ?And he came, unavoidably, to take himself very seriously, the way a good Columbia University Professor with a lot of followers might.

At the end of his gig at the Observer, they let him go in favor of their other film critic, Rex Reed, once famous as a judge on "The Gong Show" with Jaye P. Morgan. I can think of no movie critic whose most conspicuous virtues were more missed in the past few years than Andrew Sarris.

It's a much poorer world without him. Thank heaven for the books.