International cinema has lost a brilliant mind and passionate advocate with the passing of critic, author and teacher, Andrew Sarris.
For 29 years, Andrew Sarris was the voice of film criticism – or, more precisely, film appreciation – for progressive newspaper The Village Voice. His passing in Manhattan on Wednesday June 20, at age 83 from an infection that developed after a stomach virus, drew fond remembrances from both his journalistic colleagues and those that often bore the brunt of his insightful prose.
"Andrew Sarris was a vital figure in teaching America to respond to foreign films as well as American movies," said fellow critic David Thomson, referencing Sarris’ vocal support of the one-vision theory of filmmaking that was very much in vogue in the wake of the French New Wave. Sarris’ 1962 essay ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory’ and 1968 book ‘The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968’ remain landmark works. In the latter tome, he speaks of ‘The Panthenon’, a mythical home for filmmakers "who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world." In addition to Sarris’ Euro-favourites such as Truffaut and Godard, those to achieve such exalted status included Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.
This belief in film as a singular vision brought him into direct conflict with America’s other great cinematic commentator, Pauline Kael, resulting in a rivalry that lasted both their lifetimes. In response to Sarris’ essay, she wrote a piece in The New Yorker entitled ‘Circles and Squares’ in which she derided his obsession as vague, derivative, trivial and immature. She defined Sarris’ adored filmmaking style as "an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence." Upon her passing in 2001, Sarris revisited the feud, saying that they "never much liked each other".
Others, however, were far more obliging of his opinions. In his foreword to the 2001 book ‘Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic’, longtime friend Martin Scorsese wrote, "His writings led me to see the genius in American movies at a time when the cinema was considered a mindless form of entertainment, worthy of serious attention only if it came from Europe or Asia." Fellow critic, the esteemed Roger Ebert, said, “"More than anyone else, he was responsible for introducing Americans to the belief that the true author of a film is its director. Largely because of him, many moviegoers today think of films in terms of their directors."
Upon leaving the Village Voice, he would write for the New York Observer until 2009 and held the position of Professor of Film at Columbia University, where he lectured in film theory and criticism (he also tenured at NYU and Yale). Shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000, his most recent honour was a 2012 endowment of US$10,000 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for "progressive, original, and experimental" criticism.
He is survived by wife and fellow critic Molly Haskell, whom he married in 1969. Upon his death, Haskell said, “"He was never unhappy. He wanted to go on living as long as he could — watching movies and talking about movies and being with me."