The American Cinephile: Andrew Sarris (1928 – 2012)


Photo by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times.

So much has already been said about Andrew Sarris' importance to the art of film criticism—and, simply put, he was one of the key reasons why it is even possible to speak about film criticism as an art—that I will do my best here to offer a personal remembrance that may, in some small way, reveal something about both the man and his work.

I was all of 15 when I first met him, close to 20 years ago, at the now-defunct Sarasota French Film Festival, a glitzy (by Florida standards) annual shindig organized by the French national film export agency Unifrance and programmed for its brief existence by Sarris' wife, the great feminist critic and author Molly Haskell. For a budding cinephile from nearby, culturally bereft Tampa, it was all terribly exotic—not least the festival hospitality lounge to which I gained entrance with a press credential somehow finagled under the auspices of my high-school newspaper (the Pep-O-Plant). It was there that I one day found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with Sarris, whose monumental 1968 volume The American Cinema I knew even then to be the urtext of all "movie guides"—and one that, despite never having been updated by its author, had lost little of its handiness, or its ability to both enlighten and provoke, over the decades.

It must seem ever so quaint to the perpetually jacked-in techno-youth of today to think that, even as recently as the early 1990s, the intricately indexed annals of film history didn’t lay just a few clicks away on the IMDB. Had The American Cinema only served as a listing of directors and their filmographies, it would have been invaluable, but because it was bold enough to rank filmmakers in a humorously categorized pantheon of Sarris' own design, it became canonical. Sacred cows were demolished along the way, while other, barely remembered names from cinema's past were advocated as "subjects for further research." Thinking back on our first encounter, I can scarcely remember what was discussed, except that I somehow worked up the courage to introduce myself and Sarris was altogether more tolerant of his snot-nosed admirer than he had any reason to be. That, and some acknowledgment of our shared Greek heritage—I remember that too. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and not long afterwards Molly generously agreed to let me interview her for an article I was writing for the school paper, modestly entitled, "In Defense of French Cinema." Little could I suspect then that I would someday find myself writing in the pages of both critics' ancestral home, The Village Voice.

It was there, in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, that Sarris championed much of the most important new world cinema then crashing upon U.S. shores (to the marked indifference of most mainstream film reviewers). Many of those movies, including the work of his beloved Bresson and Fassbinder, arrived via the New York Film Festival, where Sarris served alongside the late Amos Vogel on the festival’s very first selection committee (beginning in the festival’s fourth year). And he wrote about them with a clarity, economy, insight and deadpan wit—an ability to seem at once inside and outside of a film, decoding its patterns while placing it in broader artistic and sociological contexts—that remains all too rare in criticism today. It was a way of looking at cinema that lived on at the Voice long after Sarris had moved on from the paper, chiefly in the person of his learned successor, J. Hoberman. All of which is to say that I find it unfortunate that so much writing about Sarris over the years reduced the critic and his work to misinterpretations of his writings on the "auteur theory," and hoary old clichés about his "feud" with New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.

And if, in the post-Voice years, he was somewhat less visible as a critic, Sarris continued to turn new generations on to the gospel of cinema through his classes at Columbia University. And in 2009, shortly after his abrupt dismissal from the staff of the New York Observer, it was my pleasure to  welcome him back into the Village Voice family by giving him some assignments for the Voice’s west coast sister paper, the L.A. Weekly, including a lovely piece on the British work of Alfred Hitchcock, timed to a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Around the same time, he began writing his wonderful column, "The Accidental Auteurist," in the pages of Film Comment.) And I am happy to say that Sarris' copy always arrived on time or early, by fax, in neatly typed, double-spaced pages.

One last memory: In October of last year, as the kickoff event to the Film Society’s yearlong retrospective of highlights from the 50 Years of the New York Film Festival, Sarris introduced a special screening of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel—the opening night film of the very first NYFF—and spoke beautifully about both the film itself and about Amos Vogel, who was present in the audience that night in what I suspect was his last public appearance. But that doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of Andrew Sarris. The movies have a funny way of making people immortal—not just the movie stars onscreen, but all those who somehow make their careers out of obeisance to the flickering light. So Andy’s voice will remain to guide us through the dark, making the culture of film all the richer for it.

Watch video of Andrew Sarris' introduction of Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel at NYFF '11:

Video and edit by Ahmed Khawaja

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