ANDREW SARRIS, 1928-2012

June 26, 2012

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The influence of Andrew Sarris’ film criticism has become so omnipresent it is now invisible, part of the received wisdom of how we approach and watch movies. This has only become clearer after his death last week at the age of 83.  You can see his mark in the marketing of the upcoming “Hitchcock Masterpiece” Blu-Ray collection from Universal, and in every movie review that even mentions the name of the director. The auteur theory will be his legacy, regardless of how often it is misinterpreted as some kind of iron law rather than the policy of “perpetual revaluation” that he proposed it as.  Enough has been written about auteurism though, and not enough about the constant sense of discovery in reading his seductively winding prose. He approached films like an explorer, traveling down a multitude of paths, be it historical, stylistic or even personal, searching methodically for flashes of insight or originality, whether from the director or any of the film’s collaborative artists. His sentences would gather long strings of actors, colors and themes, as list-happy as in The American Cinema, seemingly sussing out his opinion along the way – a perambulating, open-air kind of criticism where interruption, digression and contradiction are welcome.

There are plenty of moving and detailed remembrances of Mr. Sarris around the internet (Matt Singer has gathered tributes at Indiewire, as has David Hudson at the Fandor Keyframe blog), so instead I asked a number of writers and academics to choose their favorite excerpts of his writing (Tom Gunning recited his from memory!), and to add comments if they had any. Below I have listed their responses, while including my own favorite Sarrisms at the end.

Guest Selections of Sarris’ work

Tom Gunning,  A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, Department of Art History, Department of Cinema and Media Studies

Entry on Ernst Lubitsch (Pantheon), The American Cinema:

For Lubitsch, it was sufficient to say that Hitler had bad manners, and no evil was then inconceivable.

Besides  showing how  concise and precise he could be, it shows Sarris’ ultimate values. In an era when it was claimed films were valuable only if they had Big Ideas (e.g.. Ingmar Bergman) or made Big Statements (e.g. Stanley Kramer), Sarris upheld  film style, not simply as a decorative function, but as the true means of expressing a judgement on the world and the people in it. He showed that the great directors of American cinema were great because they had style. Sarris had style. -Tom Gunning


Adrian Martin, writer, film critic, teacher

Q&A at the University of Washington, 1987 (transcription at Film Comment):

People talk about Platoon being a great war film. A great war film is Madame de… – the Stendhalian battle of love.


Miriam Bale, editor of Joan’s Digest, freelance critic and programmer

Review of Robert Aldrich’s …All the Marbles (Village Voice, 1981):

I cannot explain my feelings exactly, but when I left that theater of gutter trash, The National Theater, after a showing of …All the Marbles, I felt cleansed, exhilarated, almost sanctified.


Michael J. Anderson, Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, proprietor of the blog Tativille

Entry on John Ford (Pantheon), The American Cinema:

A Ford film, particularly a late Ford film, is more than its story and characterizations; it is also the director’s attitude toward his milieu and its codes of conduct.  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-faced shot of Bond drinking his coffee, his eyes tactfully averted from the intimate scene he has witnessed. Nothing on earth would 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 its never obtrusive enough to interfere with the flow of the narrative. The delicacy of emotion expressed here in three quick shots, perfectly cut, framed and distanced, would completely escape the dulled perception of our more literary-minded critics even if they designed to consider a despised genre like the Western. The economy of expression that Ford has achieved in fifty years of film-making constitutes the beauty of his style. If it had taken any longer than three shots and a few seconds to establish this insight into the Bond character, the point would not be worth making. Ford would be false to the manners of a time and a place bounded by the rigorous necessity of survival.


Gina Telaroli, filmmaker and video archivist

Review of Psycho (Village Voice, August 11, 1960):

Psycho should be seen at least three times by any discerning film-goer, the first time for the sheer terror of the experience, and on this occasion I fully agree with Hitchcock that only a congenital spoilsport would reveal the plot; the second time for the macabre comedy inherent in the conception of the film; and the third for all the hidden meanings and symbols lurking beneath the surface of the first American movie since “Touch of Evil” to stand in the same creative rank as the great European films.

A wonderful riff on the importance and joys of repeat viewings, with my favorite movie as the subject. -Gina Telaroli


C. Mason Wells, IFC Center

Entry on Buster Keaton (Pantheon), The American Cinema:

The difference between Keaton and Chaplin is the difference between poise and poetry, between the aristocrat and the tramp, between adaptability and dislocation, between the function of things and the meaning of things, between eccentricity and mysticism, between man as machine and man as angel, between the girl as a convention and the girl as an ideal, between the centripetal and the centrifugal tendencies of slapstick.


Brynn White, film researcher and writer

Review of Marnie (Village Voice, July 9, 1964):

Eisenstein may be spinach, pure iron for aesthetic corpuscles, and Dreyer high protein for the soul, but Hitchcock has always been pure carbohydrate for the palate.

Cinema was, as this quote literally illustrates, Andrew Sarris’s subsistence. Its a hearty twist on the Sarris categorization impulse, complete with unrealized fantasies of an auteur nutritional pyramid or all-you-can-eat buffet. To see Sarris and Molly Haskell introduce a film in all their symbiotic majesty was perhaps the most delectable treat; the duo’s fluid extemporization offered an intimate peek into a long evolving, near cosmic shared life in cinephilia, more seemingly pure than today’s blogs and internet forums. He showed film lovers how to build a happy home, body and mind in the dark. He excused us for letting the medium into our bloodstreams. -Brynn White


David Phelps, film critic and programmer

Entry on Raoul Walsh (The Far Side of Paradise), The American Cinema:

The Fordian hero knows why he is doing something even if he doesn’t know how. The Hawksian hero knows how to do what he is doing even if he doesn’t know why. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there. There is a pathos and vunerability in Walsh’s characters lacking in the more self-contained Ford and Hawks counterparts. Where Ford shifts from the immediacy of the slightly depressed heroic angle to the horizon line of history, and Hawks remains at eye level, Walsh often moves to the slightly elevated angle of the lost child in the big world…If there is no place in the cinema for the virtues and limitations of Raoul Walsh, there is even less place for an honestly pluralistic criticism.
The last line is, of course, revealing: the filmmakers may plug into big themes of Americana, but it’s for the critic to take the role of Walshian explorer in a morass of movie-history, to be “less interested in the why or the how than the what”—as Sarris’ own passage shows in discussing thematics with blithe concern for anything other than how they structure the movements of the movie and the experience watching it. -David Phelps


Raya Martin, filmmaker

“Godard and the Revolution” (Village Voice, April 30, 1970):

The death of an artist is too high a price to pay for the birth of a revolutionary, even when the revolution seems to make more sense than ever before.


Michael Lieberman, filmmaker, filmgoer

Entry on Jean Renoir (Pantheon), The American Cinema

Renoir’s career is a river of personal expression. The waters may vary here and there in turbulence and depth, but the flow of personality is consistently directed to its final outlet in the sea of life.

After BAMcinematek’s 2010 retrospective of Renoir, I glanced over these two sentences, repeatedly. How often had a writer managed to nail the heart of the matter of a great artist, while also elevating their work? In that typically brisk and gorgeous summation, Sarris did just that. -Michael Lieberman


Aaron Cutler, critic

Review of Easy Rider (Village Voice, July 3, 1969)

We are simply too close to the popular cinema of today to read it correctly. If American movies today seem too eclectic, too derivative, and too mannered, so did they seem back in the twenties, the thirties, the forties and the fifties…Out of all the mimicry of earlier times emerged very personal styles, and there is no reason to believe that the same thing will not happen again and again. Hence beware of all generalizations, including this one, perhaps especially this one, because it is just remotely possible that after all the false cries of doom, the cinema might actually be racing to the creative standstill so long predicted for it. But I doubt it. It is not the medium that is most likely to get old, tired, and cynical, but its aging and metaphysically confused critics. This particular critic has never felt younger in his life.

What made Andrew Sarris a great critic, more so than any body of knowledge, I think, was his consistent approach to movie-reviewing: To be as generously open-minded as possible within personal limits, of which one always does one’s best to stay good-naturedly self-aware. -Aaron Cutler


My Selections

“Preston Sturges Recalled by Andrew Sarris” (Film Culture, No. 26, Fall 1962):

What distinguishes Preston Sturges from his contemporaries is the density and congestion of his comedies. The Breughel of American comedy directors, Sturges created a world of peripheral professionals – politicians, gangsters, executives, bartenders, cab drivers, secretaries, bookies, card sharps, movie producers, doctors, dentists, bodyguards, butlers, inventors, millionaires and derelicts. These were not the usual flotsam and jetsam of Hollywood cinema, but self-expressive cameos of aggressive individualism. With the determinism of the Sturges plots, these infinitely detailed miniatures served as contingent elements, and it is these elements, and the single-take, multiple viewpoint sequences formally demanded by these elements, which establishes the comedies of Preston Sturges once and for all as comedy/not tragedy.


The Films of Josef Von Sternberg, p.15 (The Museum of Modern Art, 1966):

No director in the history of the cinema can match Sternberg’s preoccupation with the harmonies of hand signals. This realm is usually restricted to actors only, but Sternberg ignored the tabu at his own peril. To light a cigarette, to grasp a coffee cup, to fondle one’s furs is, for Sternberg, equivalent to baring one’s soul.


Review of Seven Women (Village Voice, May 26, 1966):

Seven Women is a genuinely great film from the opening credit sequence of a Mongolian cavalry massing and surging in slashing diagonals across the screen to Anne Bancroft’s implacable farewell to Mike Mazurki’s Mongolian chieftain: ‘So long, you bastard.’ No lingeringly bitter tea of General Yen for Ford.


Review of Gertrud (Village Voice, June 2, 1966)

How can you have cinema when two people sit and talk on a couch as their life drifts imperceptibly out of their grasp? The academicians are right of course. Dreyer simply isn’t cinema. Cinema is Dreyer.


Review of El Dorado (Village Voice, July 27, 1967):

So much is coming to an end in El Dorado. Wayne, Hawks, Hollywood, the heroic western, the classical cinema. Or, as Shaw has said of Shakespeare, ‘The lot of the man who sees life truly and thinks about it romantically is despair.’ Fortunately, El Dorado is a western that sticks to its guns by affirming the spirit of adventure instead of trampling it in the dust of a fashionable misanthropy. Humor and affirmation on the brink of despair are the poetic ingredients of the Hawksian western. And now memory. Especially memory. Only those who see some point in remembering movies will find El Dorado truly unforgettable.


Review of Up The Down Staircase (Village Voice, October 19, 1967):

There is a five-or-six-minute sequence in Up the Down Staircase that is better than anything I have seen on the screen this year. The sequence begins with an act of compassion at a high-school dance and ends with an adolescent’s suicide the next day. The lyrical link between the two time sequences is composed of a gliding camera movement that follows the young girl as she shuffles away from and back to the teacher’s letter box in which she has deposited a note of heartfelt gratitude the night before. The teacher summons her for a cruel lesson in ‘composition.’ As he corrects her grammatical (and emotional) errors, Mulligan’s camera glances at the girl’s poignantly inexpressive face and then cuts to her hand clutching the sleeve of her coat. Between them, Robert Mulligan and Ellen O’Mara have resurrected the behavioral beauty of those old Hollywood movies that amaze us with their privileged moments in the midst of punk scenarios.


Opening line of his review of Weekend (Village Voice, October 24, 1968)

Weekend consolidates Jean-Luc Godard’s position as the most disconcerting of all contemporary directors, a veritable paragon of paradoxes, violent and yet vulnerable, the most elegant stylist and the most vulgar polemicist, the most remorseful classicist and the most relentless modernist, the man of the moment and the artist for the ages.


Entry on Max Ophuls (Pantheon), The American Cinema (1968):

This is the ultimate meaning of Ophulsian camera movement: time has no stop. Montage tends to suspend time in the limbo of abstract images, but the moving camera records inexorably the passage of time, moment by moment. As we follow the Ophulsian characters, step by step, up and down stairs, up and down streets, and round and round the ballroom, we realize their imprisonment in time. We know they can never escape, but we know also that they will never lose their poise and grace for the sake of futile desperation. They will dance beautifully, they will walk purposively, they will love deeply, and they will even die gallantly, and they will never whine or whimper or even discard their vanity.

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