David Liu | 20 June 2012
It is perfectly appropriate that an online image search of Andrew Sarris today offers more pictures of the luminaries and fictional worlds illuminated by his half-century body of work than it does of the man himself. Of the multitude of 20th century wordsmiths who devoted their life’s pursuits to writing about the cinema, Sarris towered above the majority — sagacious and sophisticated, authoritative and indispensable.
Sarris’s death today at 83 marks the end of a long, venerable career in film criticism, one responsible for the entry of the “auteur theory” into the American consciousness — a French New Wave concept that elevated the place of the director to the level of novelist, painter and composer. In “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968,” Sarris produced an anthology of major filmmakers that proved radically refreshing and career-altering; in his incisive, literate reviews for The Village Voice, he spearheaded the emergence of foreign cinema as some of its finest selections arrived en masse in the 1960s. To gaze upon a list of artists Sarris championed into the American imagination is to take in an Olympic roster of cinema: Griffith, Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Antonioni, Bergman, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray.
Sarris was no less a visionary himself. More than any other critic, he breathed meaning into the term “cinephile” — an illogically passionate, stubbornly authoritarian, never-less-than ecstatic love for movies that eclipsed the medium’s restrictions and landed somewhere in the realm of intellectual entertainment. Take, for example, the opening line of Sarris’s August 6, 1970 review of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West:
“Once Upon a Time in the West begins with a gunfight at a train station shot as a low-angle panorama of Western wasteland psychology and ends after another shootout near a railroad in construction with a last shot of a high-angle panorama of Western expansionist history.”
Or his enchanting re-evaluation of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, two years after he excoriated it:
“I must report that I recently paid another visit to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’ while under the influence of a smoked substance that I was assured by my contact was somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano on a King Sano base. (For myself, I must confess that I soar infinitely higher on vermouth cassis, but enough of this generation gap.) Anyway, I prepared to watch ‘2001’ under what I have always been assured were optimum conditions, and surprisingly (for me) I find myself reversing my original opinion. ‘2001’ is indeed a major work by a major artist.”
Like great figures in any profession, it is virtually impossible to put Sarris’s achievements in context without also mentioning Pauline Kael, whose equally memorable career at The New Yorker completed the other half of film criticism’s finest rivalry. To familiarize oneself with Sarris’s and Kael’s diametrically opposed opinions and styles is to appreciate the sedentary equivalent of Ali vs. Frazier or Magic vs. Bird: larger-than-life individuals who brought out the best in each other and elevated their craft to new heights.
For the record, I grew up a Sarrisite, albeit 3000 miles and decades removed from the time and place — New York in the 1960s and 1970s, the birthplace of new American cinema — in which Sarris found his most enduring audience. My mother bought me an anthology of Village Voice film criticism on my 15th birthday, hoping to encourage me after I had tried my hand at some movie commentary for the school paper. It wasn’t long before I fell in love — with movies, the people who devoted their lives to them, the joy of thinking and writing about them. Then and now, it was Andrew Sarris who opened my eyes.