Every film critic, and film-lover, owes a debt to Andrew
Sarris, who died Wednesday at the age of 83. He leaves behind his wife, critic Molly Haskell, as well as several generations of cinephiles --
and filmmakers -- whom he influenced and inspired. His former Columbia University student Kathryn
Bigelow, for example, has acknowledged in
interviews that her career might not
have taken the direction that it did had it not been for Sarris's classes.
Along with Pauline Kael, who died in 2001, Sarris would play a prominent role in defining the way film
criticism would be practiced to the present day. His seminal book, The
American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968,
helped establish the auteur theory, which, despite its
ups and downs in fashionability, has conditioned the way most people, myself
included, look at films -- as the work of a single artist, the director.
He also maintained the hallowed critical tradition of verbally sparring with those who disagreed with him. Epecially Pauline Kael. His cerebral and systematic approach
to films contrasted with her spontaneous, subjective, and stylized methodology,
and the conflict showed -- just take a look at Gerald Peary's documentary For the Love of Movies.
And both had their moments with Times
film critic John Simon. Here are a couple of choice exchanges between Sarris
and Kael, and Sarris and Simon, from the obituary in The New York Times:
"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 in 1969, 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.'"
As for the 20th and 21st,
Sarris is a strong candidate.