Sunday, 24 June 2012
Andrew Sarris RIP
His wife, the film critic Molly Haskell, said the cause was complications of an infection developed after a fall.
Courtly, incisive and acerbic in equal measure, Mr. Sarris came of critical age in the 1960s as the first great wave of foreign films washed ashore in the United States. From his perch at The Village Voice, and later at The New York Observer, he wrote searchingly of that glorious deluge and the directors behind it — François Truffaut, Max Ophuls, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa.
Film criticism had reached a heady pitch amid the cultural upheavals of that time, and Mr. Sarris’s temperament fit that age like a glove on a fencer’s hand.
He took his place among a handful of stylish and congenitally disputatious critics: Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, John Simon and Manny Farber. They agreed on just a single point, that film was art worthy of sustained thought and argumentation.
“We were so gloriously contentious, everyone bitching at everyone,” Mr. Sarris recalled in a 2009 interview with The New York Times. “We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much.
“Urgency” — his smile on this point was wistful — “seemed unavoidable.”
Mr. Sarris played a major role in introducing Americans to European auteur theory, the idea that a great director speaks through his films no less than a master novelist speaks through his books. A star actor might transcend a prosaic film, Mr. Sarris said, but only a director could bring to bear the coherence of vision that gives birth to great art.
He argued that more than a few of Hollywood’s own belonged in the pantheon — including Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller, not to mention a British director whom purists had dismissed as a mere “commercial” filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock — and he championed them.
Mr. Sarris also embraced, albeit with an occasional critical slap about their heads, Young Turks like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola.
“We were cowed into thinking that only European cinema mattered,” Mr. Scorsese, who once shared a closet-size office in Times Square with Mr. Sarris, said in a 2009 interview. “What Andrew showed us is that art was all around us, and that our tradition, too, had much to offer; he was our guide to the world of cinema.”
Mr. Sarris’s book “The American Cineman: Directors and Directions 1929-1968” stands as his magnum opus. If Ms. Kael more often won points as the high stylist, Mr. Sarris was cerebral and analytic, interested always in the totality of a film’s effect on its audience and in the sweep of a director’s career. He opened his essay on Fritz Lang, the Austrian-born director, this way: “Fritz Lang’s cinema is the cinema of the nightmare, the fable and the philosophical dissertation. Mr. Lang’s apparent weaknesses are the consequences of his virtues. He has always lacked the arid sophistication lesser directors display to such advantage.”
Andrew Sarris was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 31, 1928, to Greek immigrant parents, George and Themis Sarris, and grew up in Ozone Park, Queens. His romance with movies was near to imprinted on his DNA. He remembered sitting in a darkened theater at the age of 3 or 4 entranced by a movie based on a Jules Verne story. “The liquidity of the scene and the film,” he recalled, “was truly magical, especially to someone not many years out of the womb himself.”
He attended John Adams High School in Queens, his time there overlapping for a year or two with the newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin’s. But his concerns lay elsewhere. He recalled, as a teenager, sitting in his Queens aerie, listening to the Academy Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle award ceremonies, and developing his ideas, idiosyncratic and polemical, on film.
He graduated from Columbia College in 1951 and served three years in the Army Signal Corps. He returned to live with his mother — his father had died — in Queens, passing his post-college years in “flight from the laborious realities of careerism,” as he put it.
On a footloose outing he passed a year in Paris, drinking coffee and talking with the New Wave directors Mr. Godard and Mr. Truffaut, who were the first to champion auteur theory. (Later, in the United States, he would edit an English-language edition of the influential auteurist magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.) Always his love affair with movies sustained him. He recalled sitting through four dozen showings of "Gone With The Wind" as besotted with Vivien Leigh on the 48th viewing as on the first.
He began to write for Film Culture, a cineaste outpost in the East Village. But he was restless. He was 27, which he described as “a dreadfully uncomfortable age for a middle-class cultural guerrilla.”
In 1960, this self-consciously bourgeois man persuaded the editors of the The Village Voice to let him review films. He quickly asserted his intellectual writ; in his first review he tossed down the gauntlet in defense of Alfred Hitchcock and "Psycho."
“Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today,” Mr. Sarris wrote. “Besides making previous horror films look like variations of ‘Pollyanna,’ ‘Psycho’ is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain.”
To praise a commercial director like Mr. Hitchcock in the haute bohemian pages of The Voice was calculated incitement. Letter writers demanded that the editors sack this philistine.
The editors instead embraced Mr. Sarris as a controversialist; argument was like mother’s milk at The Village Voice. And he survived to review films there for 29 more years. In defense of his favorites he was ardent; but to those who failed to measure up, he applied the lash.
John Huston? “Less than meets the eye.” Stanley Kubrick? “His faults have been rationalized as virtues.” And Antonioni took such a grim and alienated turn that Mr. Sarris, who had admired him, referred to him as “Antoniennui.”
In 1966, at a screening of Kenneth Anger’s "Scorpio Rising." Mr. Sarris noticed an attractive young woman, Ms. Haskell. He wandered over. “He had this courtly-as-learned-from-the-movies manner,” Ms. Haskell recalled. “Afterward he took me out for a sundae at Howard Johnson.”
They married in 1969. She and Mr. Sarris lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Ms. Haskell is his only immediate survivor. A younger brother, George Sarris, died at age 28 in a 1960 sky-diving accident.
Andrew Sarris gained renown as an intellectual duelist, battling most spectacularly with Ms. Kael, who wrote for The New Yorker. She delighted in lancing the auteurists as a wolf pack of nerdy and too-pale young men. Mr. Sarris returned the favor, slashing at her as an undisciplined hedonist. Devotees of the two critics, in Sharks-vs.-Jets fashion, divided themselves into feuding camps called the Sarristes and the Paulettes.
A rough cordiality attended to the relationship between Mr. Sarris and Ms. Kael, but that is not to overstate their détente. When Mr. Sarris married Ms. Haskell, the couple invited Ms. Kael. “That’s O.K.,” Ms. Kael replied. “I’ll go to Molly’s next wedding.”
In another celebrated exchange of critical detonations, the often acidic John Simon wrote in The Times in 1971 that “perversity is certainly the most saving grace of Sarris’s criticism, the humor being mostly unintentional.”
To which Mr. Sarris replied, “Simon is the greatest film critic of the 19th century.”
Besides writing about film, Mr. Sarris taught the subject, chiefly as a film professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts but also at Yale University, Juilliard and New York University, among other institutions. He obtained his master’s from Columbia in 1998. And he continued to write on a typewriter into old age, eschewing a computer.
For all the fierceness of his battles — he once took a poke at his former student and fellow Voice reviewer J. Hoberman, saying he was “freaking out on art-house acid” — he remained remarkably open to new experience. Told once that Mr. Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" worked better under the influence of marijuana, he cadged a joint, went to the movie and found it a very different and agreeable experience.
Asked a few years ago if he had soured on any of the directors he once championed, Mr. Sarris smiled and shook his head. “I prefer to think of people I missed the boat on,” he said.