With the passing of Andrew Sarris (1928-2012), we’ve lost one of our best movie critics and one of my favorites. I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple of times on the phone (he adroitly pointed out that Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho only illuminated the brilliance of the original), and finally met him in person with his lovely wife, Molly Haskell, when he was honored by LACMA in 2000. I’ve always thought of them as the Nick and Nora Charles of critics, and I couldn’t have been more pleased when he complimented me on my own tribute in the LA Times.
I learned so much from Sarris, who reviewed for The Village Voice and The New York Observer, and even replied to a fan letter I wrote in college and encouraged me to find my voice, which he described as a dialectical struggle. The greatest misconception about the auteur theory that he famously popularized, of course, was that he was merely trying to shift gears from sociological film criticism to a more personal, artistic emphasis, and that the director offered a singular voice worthy of attention. He wrote so passionately, polemically, and poetically about movies (yes, his use of alliteration influenced my own) — whether it was about directors, genres, stars, or politics — but you came away with as much insight about his own elan as his subject’s.
Yes, Sarris was fond of using elan and mise-en-scene and sublime and oeuvre in elevating the works of Hitchcock, Ford, Lubitsch, Minnelli, and so many others. He adored style but only when style became content in stimulating our emotions, imaginations, and intellects. Sarris wholeheartedly embraced his feminine side but his prose was elegantly masculine and very witty. The irony of his notorious rivalry with Pauline Kael is that they both adored Lubitsch. But, as David Ehrenstein reminded me last year, the difference between them was that Sarris was devoted to transcendence while Kael was devoted to the moment. But Sarris’ tastes were always evolving as part of his own dialectical maturity.
I highly recommend The American Cinema, Confessions of a Cultist, The Primal Screen, The John Ford Movie Mystery, Politics and Cinema, and You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet. Also, Haskell’s Love and Other Infectious Diseases is an endearing testament to their sublime love affair. And I also recommend Emanuel Levy’s invaluable tribute, Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic.