Andrew Sarris (1928-2012): The American Film Critic

With any luck, Andrew Sarris, who passed away yesterday at the age of 83, will now assume his rightful and undisputed place in the critical pantheon as the patron saint of the film buff/movie nerd/pop-culture junkie.

A thoughtful and erudite film critic whose career spanned over 50 years — which he described as “a lifetime in the darkness” — Sarris is probably best known for his landmark 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. In it, he articulated his version of auteurist film criticism. Adapted from French film critics like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, this theory was grounded in the belief that a film’s director was its chief creative force. In his brilliant introduction to The American Cinema, titled “Toward a Theory of Film History,” Sarris argued:

…[T]he auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude, a table of values that converts film history into directorial autobiography. The auteur critic is obsessed with the wholeness of art and the artist. He looks at a film as a whole, a director as a whole. The parts, however entertaining individually, must cohere meaningfully. This meaningful coherence is more likely when the director dominates the proceedings with skill and purpose.

This meant that, for Sarris, the best way to talk about a film like Psycho focused not on Bernard Hermann’s musical score or Anthony Perkins’s performance but on the choices made by the film’s director, Alfred Hitchcock. Since its inception, this potent idea has assisted any film critic who wanted to talk about the art and style of the movies. Sarris knew that film was a collaborative art form, of course; however, as Dave Kehr of the New York Times put it, “The author may be a fiction, but he or she remains a most useful one.”

For all of the controversy and uproar Sarris’s ideas caused at the time, though, his interest in and willingness to explore and quantify the “disposable” pop culture of the movies may prove to be his greatest influence. In the late 1960s, for one guy to take such a serious and thorough look at something like the Hollywood studio film was pretty much unheard of. But Sarris not only provided an impressive list of 199 moviemaking auteurs (200 if you count the team of Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur) in his book, he grouped them into discrete categories and ranked them all in order of preference (while respecting alphabetical order). In addition, his famous “Director’s Chronology” at the end of the book provided a massive best-of movie list for every year from 1915 to 1967. Like music critic Robert Christgau and literary critic Harold Bloom, you might have disagreed with the judgments but you couldn’t knock the sheer man-hours such judgments entailed. Sarris’s value as a pathfinder and canonizer was legitimate because it felt like he had seen everything.

Sarris’s book was one of the first and best pop culture reference guides/sacred texts, a Movie Power Rankings of such breadth and thoroughness that it served as (and in some cases, still serves as) a road map for anyone trying to understand movie history. By setting himself up as a discerning yet ultimately flexible and open-minded tastemaker, Sarris paved the way for every obsessive, highly opinionated Top 10 list to come. Everything, from movies to comic books to hometown hotties to home-field advantages to rap song titles based on movie titles, was now a field for discussion and a list-making battleground. The pop culture underpinnings of Grantland itself are a legitimization of and tribute to the ultimate utility of Sarris’s critical undertaking.

Plus, Sarris had great taste. While sometimes controversial or premature, many of his aesthetic judgments in The American Cinema are tough to dispute, especially when it comes to the 14 directors he enshrined in his “Pantheon” — Charlie Chaplin, Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, Josef von Sternberg, and Orson Welles.

Those filmmakers’ best works still surprise, delight, and move today’s young moviegoers. I should know; three times a year I include works from several of these directors in my introductory film class, which is open to high school juniors and seniors. I tell my students that we don’t watch an entire sound film until the third week of the 13-week class. I also tell them we don’t watch a film in color until the sixth week. The ones who decide not to drop the course stick around and have their minds blown by movies Sarris approved of.

Three times a year I hear kids gasp at Buster Keaton’s racing locomotives in The General, chortle at Charlie Chaplin doing the dance of the dinner rolls in The Gold Rush, and squeal in fearful delight as Roger O. Thornhill tries to dodge the crop duster in North by Northwest. Every year we comb over Welles’s Citizen Kane and marvel at the long takes and deep-focus cinematography, even though Sarris once correctly described it as “neither the beginning of anything, nor the end of anything, but simply a glorious middle” of American moviemaking. And every year these 17- and 18-year-olds, who begin the class proclaiming their love for Shooter and Step Brothers and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, are shocked and delighted to find a whole new world of movies out there waiting to be discovered. I like to think that Sarris, himself a former teacher, would have been shocked and delighted by this, too.

Matthew Arnold once defined criticism as “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world” and defended its usefulness by asserting that “criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge. Then it may have, in no contemptible measure, a joyful sense of creative activity; a sense which a man of insight and conscience will prefer to what he might derive from a poor, starved, fragmentary, inadequate creation.” Andrew Sarris exemplified these critical virtues. Maybe he shouldn’t be remembered as a great critic after all. Maybe he should be recognized as a great artist.

Addison Engelking teaches English and film at Roseville (MN) Area High School and writes about movies for The Memphis Flyer. He stayed up late writing this because he’s currently on summer vacation.

Filed Under: In Memoriam, Movies, Obituary