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.


March 30, 2010

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A massive, invaluable resource has just dropped from the internet heavens. The historian and curator David Pierce (once head of the BFI’s National Film and Television Archive) is spearheading the Media History Digital Library project. It is a privately funded effort to digitize 300,000 journal pages, including volumes of Moving Picture World and Photoplay, all to be made available for free. These scans are slowly being uploaded to the Internet Archive, where multiple volumes are available for perusal and download. There are revelations, curiosities, and surprises on every page of these glossies and trade journals, currently ranging from 1916 – 1930. I’ve been delving into their pages for a few days now, and below are some of the more intriguing nuggets I dug up.

The earliest issues are of the MOVING PICTURE WORLD, from April to June of 1913. It’s a trade publication for exhibitors, filled with studio ads for films, news from around the country, reviews, advertising notes, and the latest in projection technology. It’s a publication for insiders, so there’s a wealth of unmediated information here, including complaints about censorship, meddling clergymen, and the scourge of in-theater advertising. In the front of the issue there’s a “Facts and Comments” section, a grab-bag of incensed opinion and human interest stories. April 5, 1913:

Aldermanic statesmanship has put forth another effort to “regulate” motion pictures in the city of New York. It is proposed to create a local board of censor ship consisting of representatives of various civic and religious bodies. This is a good exhibition of that ancient pastime known as “whipping the devil around the stump.” It stands to reason that the Board of Aldermen has no legal authority to create such a board. If, as Mayor Gaynor clearly pointed out in his recent veto, the Aldermen have no authority whatever to establish censorship of any kind, this new ordinance is practically a still-born child.

It is said that there are two influences behind all this hostility to the motion picture, one is supposed to be the vaudeville and theatrical interests and the other influence is believed to be Canon Chase of Brooklyn. It is easy to understand the opposition of the vaudeville and theatrical interests, but the antagonism of the clergyman is beyond our powers of comprehension.

…the motion picture is thoroughly amenable to public sentiment and that official censorship of any kind is not needed, even if it were legally possible.

Later in the issue, they held a combative interview with John Collier, then the General Secretary of the National Board of Censorship, asking, “What arguments can you give me to show that the work of the Censor Board is adequate?” On April 19th, they rail against Pittsburgh ministers who protested against a Sunday screening to raise money for charity, calling their complaints the “ravings of these antediluvian fanatics.”

With their business interests at stake, the censors are the repeated targets of the exhibitors’ ire, a situation that changed once the power of how the films were presented shifted from their hand to the studios.

On a lighter note, the April 19th “Facts and Comments” applauds “The telephone girls of Boston [who] have protested through the press against being shown in motion pictures in the act of constantly chewing gum.” The MPW editors bemoan “the cheap sort of wit to which they are subjected”, and go on to celebrate the “Acts of heroism in times of distress and emergency often credited to telephone girls.” The MPW has a heart.

Currently the Library contains far more Photoplay, ranging from 1925 – 1930. It’s a gossipy fan magazine with glossy head shots of the stars and puff-pieces about their fashion advice and hardscrabble upbringing. It’s a rather agreeable kind of tabloid that was targeted at women, as the reams of face cream ads attests. But they reviewed movies both highbrow and low, including a pocket appreciation of F.W. Murnau’s FAUST in the Jan. 1927 issue, calling it “one of the really fine things of the screen”, and noting its similarity to D.W. Griffith’s “Sorrows of Satan”.

Photoplay is most valuable, though, for its coverage of the star system, which was “on its deathbed” in 1930 according to a bit of hyperbole. It’s easy to chart an actor’s popularity by their treatment in the mag. For example, in July, 1930, Marlene Dietrich was given space for a head shot and a brief paragraph (below, click to enlarge), which stated:

“Two portraits of quite a batch of ladies. The girl on the left is a lot like the late lamented Jeanne Eagels, about the nose and brow, and there’s a hint of Phyllis Haver. The lady on the right is very much Garbo. Both are Marlene Dietrich, new Paramount player from Germany. Now if she can act like her features…

Then, in December 1930 (below), the publicists unleashed the buzz close to the release of Morocco, and Photoplay published a long (for them) article entitled: “She Threatens Garbo’s Throne”. What a difference a few months and the efforts of the Paramount marketing team make.

There are innumerable other arcs that can be traced in the pages contained therein. One of them is the shift to talkies, which Photoplay devoted most of an issue to in July of 1929, with an expose on the “Truth About Voice Doubling”, where they profile and unveil the voice actors behind stars like Paul Lukas and Richard Barthelmess. They also mine the slapstick like travails of early recording in the piece “Trials of the Talkies”:

“Now kisses are faked, for real ones sound like a horse pulling his hoofs out of a muddy road.”


October 6, 2009

The Library of America has released a wriggling mass of Manny Farber’s prose, and now the world is a (slightly) better place. Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings of  Manny Farber (edited by Robert Polito) is a maddening, insightful and frankly thrilling collection of his writing on movies (and a little on TV) from 1942 – 1977. It includes the work that made up his previous compilation, Negative Space, plus a massive trove of reviews from the The New Republic, The Nation, and lad mags like Cavalier (he requested that his capsules for Time be left out, feeling that the editors rendered them unrecognizable).

In his valuable introduction, Polito says “his writing can appear to be composed exclusively of digressions from an absent center.” To borrow his own term, Farber approaches his subjects termite-like, gnawing at the edges of the films, ignoring plot summary and character psychology to focus on movement and composition, informed by his long career as a painter. He does not treat a film as a monolith, a hunk to be labeled as good or bad and then forgotten. He engages with every aspect of a film, emphasizing its collaborative nature. He breaks down performances, compositions, and dialogue with equal vigor with his jagged, jumpy and allusive prose. It’s often impossible to tell whether he likes a film or not, as he builds up and tears down a production from every angle.

Reading his reviews is like witnessing an archaeological dig, nosing around his celluloid sites for objects of interest, or for banalities worth exposing. And when he digs in to something, his descriptions pop off the page. In a 1943 New Republic piece, he analyzes the Bogart species:

“[he] looks as though he had been knocked around daily and had spent his week-ends drinking himself unconscious in the back rooms of saloons. His favorite grimace is a hateful pulling back of the lips from his clenched teeth, and when his lips are together he seems to be holding back a mouthful of blood.”

Or this Artforum piece on Howard Hawks from 1969 (one of my favorites):

His Girl Friday is one of the fastest of all movies, from line to line and gag to gag. Besides the dynamic, highly assertive pace, this Front Page remake with Rosalind Russell playing Pat O’Brien’s role is a tour de force of choreographed action: bravado posturings with body, lucid Cubistic composing with natty lapels and hat brims, as well as a very stylized discourse of short replies based on the idea of topping, out maneuvering the other person with wit, cynicism, and verbal bravado.

This isn’t just pungent writing, although it’s certainly that (it’s impossible to see a Bogart film now without peeking for a trickle of red down his lip), but it also prescribes a way of seeing. This emphasis on a performative detail, his “pulling back of the lips”, reveals a sensibility that is specifically cinematic. He’s concerned about movement that reveals character, facial tics or otherwise, as well as its relationship to the frame it’s traipsing about in. He offers due respect to a well-turned phrase, but he rarely pays much notice to plot, which is often described as a cliched nuisance. He praises Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt because it “is an example of what the movies might do in breaking with the idea that the story is more important than the movie.”

He’s concerned with what is buzzing beneath the strained scenario, the people who imprint their signatures on a film regardless of pedigree. Cary Grant’s grace and Jean Arthur’s Arthurness (“she is both an ordinary girl with ordinary reactions and a scatterbrain who wears birds’ nests on her head and at normal times is out of breath from running or screaming or hitting someone on the chin”) transcend their roles. They are still just people in front of the camera. In this vein, Farber also has a fascinating series of articles on WWII documentaries, and in which he prophetically states, “the difference between the documentary and the story film in the final esthetic evaluation is unimportant”. International auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami and Jia Zhangke have been pursuing this line of thought for the last decade with astonishing results.

Then there are his hugely entertaining reflections on movie-going itself. There is his famous statement in “Underground Films” (1957) that:

The hard-bitten action film finds its natural home in caves: the murky, congested theaters, looking like glorified tattoo parlors on the outside and located near bus terminals in big cities. These theaters roll action films in what, at first, seems like a nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience, prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, sound tracks infected with hiccups. The spectator watches two or three action films go by and leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged from a giant sponge.

But he was a brave sociologist since 1943, when he complained: “Who builds movie theaters? If you seek the men’s room you vanish practically away from this world, always in a downward direction.” His roving eye was always searching for the errant telling detail, even when it was off the screen and down the stairs.

In a fascinating panel discussion upon the release of the book last week, Polito was joined by Greil Marcus, Kent Jones, and Geoffrey O’ Brien to discuss Farber’s life and work, which informed a lot of this piece. There are a few other stray items from their talk I wanted to bring out. First,  that Farber’s interests were circumscribed by the distribution patterns of the ’40s and ’50s. He discussed mostly Hollywood product because that’s all he could see at the time. Once foreign and experimental film became more readily available in the U.S., Farber expanded his taste likewise, becoming an articulate interpreter of Michael Snow, Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Jean-Luc Godard, among others. Kent Jones also discussed Farber’s teaching notes, which he was able to look at for a book he’s helping to publish with Farber’s wife and collaborator Patricia Patterson. Farber lectured on cinema at UCSD until the late 80s, after retiring from film criticism to focus on his painting. Jones divulged little as to their contents, only that they were “amazing” and further represented the constant re-evaluations Farber engaged in with the works he was intrigued by.

I’ll close by paraphrasing Kent Jones again: The publication of Farber on Film is not just a landmark for American film criticism, but for American literature as a whole.

For further info on Farber and the book, well, buy the book, but also read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article at the Moving Image Source, and Paul Schrader’s remembrances at the same site. For insight into his painting, the exhibition book About Face is a great introduction.


June 16, 2009


Early last week, news broke that the NY Observer were cutting a third of their editorial staff, and that Andrew Sarris would be among those let go. Dave Kehr later posted that Sarris was indeed laid off from his staff position, but would continue contributing as a freelancer. This was unsurprising news, considering the state of the newspaper business and film critic gigs in particular, but it’s still the end of an era.

It’s unlikely that a writer starting up today will ever have a perch like the Village Voice or the Observer to build an audience for over 50 years like Sarris has done – film criticism today is more of a part-time job or hobby, for better (a diversity of voices, Movie Morlocks) and worse (you know, not getting paid). Collating all of one’s stories from different outlets on Twitter and Facebook might one day serve the same function, but…..not quite yet. It’ll be interesting to see where else Sarris decides to publish, and I’m counting down the days until he fires up a Twitter feed (although, note the typewriter above).

In any case, Sarris abides, and it’s past the time that I engaged more with his work. Any U.S. critic who has approached a film and detected the style and themes of a director, whether it’s stating that Todd Phillips is obsessed with frat-boy humor or noticing the affectless performances in Bresson, has been influenced by his writing. So that’s everyone. In adapting Cahiers du Cinema’s politique des auteurs to American audiences, Sarris opened up the possibility of investigating a film’s style, not just it’s plot mechanics and themes, which the more literary minded critics of the time were focused on. Nobody seemed to notice that these were moving images before Sarris took up the cudgel (there were others, of course, but no-one was as vocal about making a big deal of it. Manny Farber had already done stylistic analyses of directors, but hadn’t stuck a name to it. So, rhetorical license, and all that).

For a deeper, and more personal analysis of Sarris’ influence, read Kent Jones’ excellent 2005 encomium in Film CommentNot only was Jones of the first generation affected by Sarris’ work, he was a friend. His key (and closing) line: “He gave me, and many, many others, a framework, a way of seeing and understanding an art form that was and still is culturally disreputable. I owe him a lot, and so does anyone else writing about cinema.”


I was morose enough after the Sarris news to tour a few Manhattan bookstores to see what Sarris-iana I could pick up. Perhaps still enthralled with film literature from our mini blogathon here at Morlock central, I wanted to dig further into his writing. I was mainly searching for a copy of The American Cinema, which I had sped through a few years ago when I borrowed it from the library.  After trips to four fine retailers (two used) and some clipped dialogue with their fine information desk personnel (“Sarris, American Cinema, No?, OK”)I could find no trace of the American Cinema. It’s been in and out of print, but I thought any legit re-seller would have one on hand. Not a trace.

It’s readily available online, but I’m not concerned about myself buying it. I’m more concerned about the younger me wandering around a suburban Barnes & Noble, seeking affirmation for his cinephilic addiction. David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary is readily available, on which I already gave my thoughts – but let’s just say it’s limited in scope and doesn’t offer much of a stylistic basis for viewing the art. So I worry that there are a gaggle of younger mes running around with Thomson as their only guide…and I shudder. These kids need to hear the following, from the first page of the preface of The American Cinema:

A serious approach to old movies is particularly indispensable at a time when the very existence of old movies is jeopardized by the shocking negligence of the so-called film industry, and at a time when the appreciation of old movies is hindered by the pernicious frivolities of pop, camp, and trivia. The enemies of cinema have found their new battle cry in the condescending cackle one hears in so-called art houses. This book is intended for those perennial ciniphiles, the solitary moviegoers.

If I had read this at 16, I would have felt a chill in my spine and become a Sarris acolyte. Instead I came to the same conclusions on my own (a few jackals laughing at a screening at The Umbrellas of Cherbourg will do much to disillusion a man), but I wish I had his intellectual firepower on my side. As with most topics, let’s place our faith in the power of the internet (it’s available on Kindle!) and hope for the best.

So, no American Cinema, but I did manage to pick up a dustier bit of print in the Sarris library: a volume of interviews he edited in 1967, Hollywood VoicesThe centerpiece (at least by my standards) is an elegiac piece by Sarris on his never-published interview with Preston Sturges in 1957, upon the release of his final film, Les Carnets du Major Thompson (1955). In this wide-ranging piece, Sarris discusses his ambivalence regarding interviews (“The link between artistry and psychology is a tenuous one for me…”, and he adds a joshing, “Note: Sturges was not interested in baseball. Does that make his work less American?”) and an investigation of Sturges’ apparent decline (“Although clowns supposedly yearn to play Hamlet, they usually end up playing Lear.”) It is a very strange document, an anecdote of a forgotten interview for a forgotten film, but Sarris turns it into lingering series of questions about the nature of the critc-filmmaker realationship and the bruised dignity of one comedic genius. Just another example of why we should be grateful to still have his thoughts to kick around.