Fade Out: Andrew Sarris
When I turned 7, I started collecting baseball cards. I still remember the satisfaction of opening the waxed packages, discarding the stale bubble gum and separating new acquisitions from doubles, sorting them by team, rifling through them on car trips and bringing them to school for quick but intense trading wars. Obviously, it wasn’t just the cards but the sport itself and the people who played it (this was before the era of multimillion-dollar contracts, when ballplayers were closer to actual human beings). The cards—bordered portraits with the name, team logo, position, and uniform number on the front, stats and thumbnail histories on the back—augmented and enhanced the experience of watching the games. They turned them into multicharacter dramas.
The faces of baseball players started to slowly dissolve to the faces of movie stars in coffee table books like Immortals of the Screen and The Movies, and just as the cards had led me to baseball, publicity stills of Bogart and Carole Lombard led me to movies. A couple of years later, a book of Academy Award winners and nominees offered another guide. Even at the age of 10, this was a curiously unsatisfying index—for instance, imagine the mixture of puzzlement and enervation I felt after “finally” seeing Around the World in 80 Days.
And then, in the summer of 1972, I dropped in on a family friend who was clearing out his office. He lent me a paperback that looked interesting. It was called The American Cinema—off-white cover, the title in red-blue-yellow block lettering with the words in vertical columns running (oddly) from right to left. I took it home, opened it up, and discovered a new world. Its author, Andrew Sarris, was a lifelong sports addict, and while he may not have collected cards, he certainly had a fan’s attachment to indexing. This was precisely what made The American Cinema such a revolutionary book. All those lists and categories were guideposts and markers in the terrain of this new world, which was called cinema. Cinema had nothing to do with movie history as told in the few ponderous books on the subject. It had nothing to do with awards, fan magazines, published screenplays by James Agee, or Saturday Night at the Movies. Cinema was not official, tasteful, or nice, and it was not something you could study and learn. Cinema was not a matter of being hip, and to embrace it was to know incredulity, sarcasm, and condescension, which melted in the light of the tram ride in Sunrise, John Wayne kicking away the spittoon and looking down at Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, Agnes Moorehead hugging Tim Holt for dear life in The Magnificent Ambersons, or Raymond Burr seeing Grace Kelly waving her ring finger and finally looking across the courtyard in Rear Window. Cinema was the revelation of a full-blown art form that had developed not through the creation of isolated masterpieces but under cover of mass entertainment and in constant dialogue with an audience of millions.
The American Cinema was, for many people, a bible—within three years the copy I’d borrowed was in tatters. And as I followed Andrew’s writing in The Village Voice over the years, I came to understand all the rankings and hierarchies not as edicts but as invitations to exploration. Andrew and Manny Farber occupied separate planets as human beings and as writers, but one quality they shared was an acknowledgment of the provisional nature of all judgments. Andrew was always re-thinking the categories, revising his opinions and disagreeing with himself, and his most passionate flights of rhetoric (“I would stake my critical reputation on…”) were underscored and animated by an understanding of the quickly passing instant, the sense that what is rock solid today might be as thin as tissue paper tomorrow. Which makes perfect sense. Cinema lives at the speed of life, something that Andrew grasped instantly and that many of his more dogmatically inclined followers have never understood.
When I talked with him in 2005 for a Film Comment piece, we discussed The Best Years of Our Lives, and he was absolutely amazed that I saw it as an essentially melancholy film, completely at odds with its contemporary reception as a triumphantly optimistic portrait of returning vets. Amazed and delighted, because it was yet another reminder that things change, that nothing is ever settled, that everything and everyone is a mystery and that every realization opens the way to another mystery to ponder and another world to discover.
Where would American movie culture be without Andrew Sarris? He gave us—and by “us” I mean anyone who is troubling to read these words or visit this website—more than we fully comprehend. Since Wednesday, it’s been hitting many of us in waves, each one higher and wider than the one before it.
The arrival in my life of Film Culture 28 in the spring of 1963, with Andrew Sarris’s preliminary sorting out of American movie directors which became the basis for The American Cinema, was one of those before and after moments. It’s hard even to reconstruct what it was like to have the past of American film suddenly spread out, a map of a country known previously only through rumor and fragmentary glimpses. Not just a map: a map accompanied with rich commentary by a guide at once passionate and endlessly curious. It was all so exotic then—the very titles of the movies seemed like a strange kind of recovered poetry—but it was our own past, a lost world of universal neighborhood experience that had been occulted and buried. He pointed out things that I didn’t know existed, and argued persuasively for their importance. Rarely had there been such a cascade of information and insights and urgently communicated judgments.
It wasn’t necessary to share those judgments. If Pauline Kael’s reviews tended to be monologues, asking nothing beyond mute assent, Sarris didn’t merely leave open the possibility of dialogue: he positively insisted on it. To read him was to converse. He even argued with himself (sometimes literally in dialogue form), taking pleasure in revisiting and revising his earlier opinions. For a young auteurist zealot this was sometimes hard to grasp; I remember reeling at his rejection of Marnie in 1964 as at some unlooked for apostasy. In time the frankness with which he laid out his reactions to what he saw would seem the rarest kind of critical honesty.
No doubt he loved lists, but there was a deep emotion that shaped those lists. Looking back at “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” I find his list of auteurs—beginning “Ophuls, Renoir, Mizoguchi, Hitchcock, Chaplin, Ford, Welles, Dreyer, Rossellini, Murnau”—and it seems like shorthand for a catalogue of mystical experience. If Sarris became the critic I read and reread more than any other, it was perhaps for the sense that at the center of his writing was a reverence for film history—his kind of film history—as a secret poem of light, whose variations were infinite and whose traces might be found in the most unexpected places.
My mom has a picture of me lying indolently on a couch of hers some time in the ’70s, my nose buried in a copy of “The American Cinema.” It’s probably a bit ahead of Carlos Clarens’s sci-fi and horror history in the film-book-I’ve-read-most-
And so I always held Andrew in a kind of awe. I did not speak to him or to Molly Haskell the time in the late Seventies when My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™ and I went to see them lecture at some Passaic County library. Instead I just watched and laughed as they engaged in repartee that was to me the cinephilic equivalent of Nichols and May. Saturday Night Fever was a big thing at the time, and Andrew got mondo yucks by striking Travolta disco poses in his boxy brown suit. He said something that I’ve never forgotten, or, rather, that I forget at my own peril. Talking about the odd tensions in cinema between artistic sophistication and boffo blockbusterism, and the ways they can sometimes intersect, he allowed that someone self-consciously trying to write a potboiler in the Harold Robbins or Arthur Hailey mode (he might not have used those specific names, but that was the general idea) would inevitably fail to strike that chord that makes such material “work,” for better or worse. You can only write what you can write, you can only film what you can film. Striving to do otherwise was courting disaster. Seems like a simple prescription, but he put it in a way that struck me as very… well, sound. It struck me in a sense as a very practical inverted iteration of the Coptic Gospel bit frequently quoted by Nick Tosches: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.” When I’m trying to pull a con on myself, trying to create something that I’m really not seeing, to force the issue, I think of Andrew.
I did meet him for the first time in 1987 or ’88, when I was an associate editor at Video Review magazine. VR’s publisher Richard Eckstract was VERY big on getting what he referred to as “name” reviewers, and the mag’s freelance stable included Richard Schickel, Jeffrey Lyons, Robert Christgau, and Carola Dibbell, and a bunch more. One year we sponsored a home video contest that was to be judged by our TOP CRITICS (the boxes of entrants were later raided by the producers of the then-fledgling show America’s Funniest Home Videos), and I had to supervise the screening of the finalists. There were a bunch of critics in the room, and some were a little nicer than others (Neil Gabler is as well-mannered as you’d expect; back then, Michael Medved was perhaps surprisingly so) but in terms of delightful self-effacement Andrew was tops. He and Molly treated the jury duty as a kind of afternoon date. And again, I didn’t say anything to thank him for at the very least being one of the people who pointed me to my at-least-avocation. I just made what I hoped would be amiable, non-intrusive small/shop talk. He was affectionately amused by my story of showing William K. Everson how to operate a laser disc player.
And then one day years later I found we were actual colleagues, on similar “beats.” And I remember shaking my head, reading his review of Notting Hill, praising it as a “civilized entertainment.” I made “civilized entertainment” something of an axe to grind for a while; as kill-the-father gestures go it was pretty weak. It had to be. To tell the truth, whenever I was in a screening room with the man, there was always a shadow of a feeling over me. As much as we were slight, nodding acquaintances, I always felt, in his presence, that I was in some kind of holy realm. And one reason I never thanked him was because Sarris the person, in the way he presented himself, seemed like someone who did not need the implied responsibility of my worshipful regard, a regard that sustained itself even as I found, and still find, the freedom to diverge from his conclusions. (Some of the passages I best recall from his Voice work, incidentally, are self-effacing almost to the point of flagellation, as when, for instance, he recalled his tortured relationship with Peter Bogdanovich and his confession to Polly Platt on how jealous he was of Peter’s more ingratiating manner.) People still argue over the categories in The American Cinema, and they argue angrily, lustily, and sometimes with a “who does he think he is” indignation that I think ill-befits consideration of a book that is now over 40 years old. And beyond that it’s a book that still, whenever I open it, makes me feel, yes, like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.
Andrew Sarris came to Seattle for a talk on the night of March 12, 1987. My friend Tom Keogh and I had recently founded a non-profit organization dedicated to showing movie repertory, the Seattle Filmhouse, at just exactly the wrong moment to found such a thing. But before that enterprise fell apart, we managed to get Sarris out to talk about what a film critic was, and what film criticism was for, and—oh, whatever he wanted to talk about.
His arrival at the airport, and his presence over the next couple of days, somehow embodied every idea I had about a vintage New Yorker. The rumpled trenchcoat, the garrulous manner, the roving intellect, the way food would not stay in his mouth as he talked over some urgent subject at dinner—all these things seemed exactly from that classic world of the East Coast, so juiced-up in comparison to our laid-back Northwest ways. (In leaving a restaurant, he grabbed someone else’s raincoat, which we had to return the next day—a mix-up discovered when Andrew found parole papers in the guy’s pocket.)
The day of his lecture, Tom and I schlepped him around to radio stations for publicity interviews, and I got worried. He looked pretty exhausted, though gracious in beating the drum on our behalf. Then came the talk in Kane Hall at the University of Washington, and Sarris was on, gliding from autobiographical anecdote to concise recaps of the Kael rivalry to piercing quick takes on movies in release at that moment (the Oscars were imminent—Platoon was the odds-on favorite, but he said his favorite of the year was Eric Rohmer’s Summer). He could ramble, yes, but then yank back the train of thought with some arresting observation.He went on, fielding questions, for about three hours, and indicated that he was very willing to continue—even if his body language, weaving from foot to foot like a punchdrunk boxer, suggested otherwise. It really was an epic performance, and I’ve often thought of what he said that night. Some of his comments have made defining impressions on me, such as his insistence that he always thought of himself as “a writer with a capital W,” engaged in belles lettres, lest anyone think a film critic was not a real writer. I’ve held onto that—said it in classrooms and workshops—and it’s kind of a North Star for me.
Specific movie points were just as memorable. The idea that the great American film might be Red River, or that Rear Window‘s multiplane field of play presented the talking cinema (the foreground) and the silent (the background), or that Hitchcock and Keaton were the two filmmakers who were wholly of the artform of film somehow. So many ideas, and so genially presented, without rancor or loftiness.
I was far too shy to say much to Andrew Sarris the couple of times I met him again when I went to the New York Film Festival during the 1990s. It was enough to keep reading him, as I had with interest since age fourteen, when someone in my family gave me Interviews with Film Directors. There he was, still slugging away in the 21st century, and able to engage with something like The Dark Knight in an exciting and utterly open-minded way, even if you could imagine he’d probably rather be watching That Hamilton Woman or something.
It was lovely to meet the man who made those books and those ideas. Imagine starting all those conversations amongst all those people, including those of us in farflung places—more conversations than he could ever have imagined.
Andrew Sarris occupied quite a place in my mental and emotional development. I’m sad, sad, sad that he’s gone, and have been visited by a stream of memories ever since I heard the news. He was a friend, yes, but he was also something like a spiritual father or benign older brother, in my mind. I began reading him in Film Culture and The Village Voice and, being a huge fan, took a course with him on screenwriting at the New School. I was surprised to find him in person rather diffident and humble—maybe humble isn’t the right word, more like self-questioning. Rather than coming on like the dogmatic Law-Giver, he conveyed a courtesy which was all the more remarkable for being so at odds with the dominating manner of many other film critics. He would never say, “If you don’t like such-and-such movie, we can never be friends.” He knew too well the subjective factors that went into taste formation. Yet with all that, he was stubbornly honest, even when it might give offense, as when he expressed his lack of enthusiasm for experimental cinema. I think he was wrong, in that particular instance, but he was mostly right: and anyway, you don’t judge a critic by some batting average of correct or incorrect opinion. What I loved most about Andrew was his humanity, which is to say, I loved the kind, complex man he was, and the way that came through both on and off the page.