Rodney Powell on Andrew Sarris (1928-2012)

June 21, 2012
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Andrew Sarris—film critic, teacher, and auteurist foil to fellow critic Pauline Kael—died yesterday in Manhattan at the age of 83. Though it will be hard for anyone to follow up his friend Richard Corliss’s touching remembrance over at Time (this is perhaps the only memorial in recent memory I’ve read where one’s eyes well-up at the use of a carnivoric metaphor, as in: “When I entered that trapezoidal classroom on East Ninth Street, I saw a panda man.”), the Village Voice has assembled a tribute of clips from his decade at the paper, and it’s always worth a visit to Eric C. Johnson’s archive of Sarris’s Top Ten lists from the past fifty years. Though I’m familiar with his criticism, I will admit that much of my interest stems from his feisty takedown of Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies.  I hope Sarris isn’t rolling over as I write this, but it’s worth mentioning his engagement with two women—not just Kael, but Sarris’s longtime partner, fellow critic Molly Haskell—and the ways in which these relationships alternately contributed to the defense, development, and evolution of his own writings, as the screen went from Welles and Preminger to Godard and Nichols to Cronenberg and Demme. A lot of the Kael–Sarris feud gets misconstrued, and Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog (Team Sarris) revisits that history, citing Sarris at his best, on the days when film critics—be it Kael, Sarris, Manny Farber, John Simon, and others—did more than pass along their take:

“We were so gloriously contentious, everyone bitching at everyone. We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much. Urgency seemed unavoidable.”

With all of this in mind, I asked our own film editor Rodney Powell, a devoted connoisseur of film criticism’s golden age, to give Sarris a fitting send-off. His words, along with an excerpt from Sarris on John Ford (from The American Cinema), follow below.
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Andrew Sarris has moved on to the great pantheon in the sky, leaving us mere mortals behind to mourn his passing and to celebrate his achievements. There is no question that his legacy will endure.

Although in his reviews for the Village Voice and later the New York Observer, he applied his deep historical knowledge of film and his keen intelligence to contemporary releases, his primary legacy is contained in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968. In a piece I wrote several years ago discussing essential books on American cinema, Sarris’s masterpiece headed my list (as it still would):

For cinephiles of a certain age, this is the Citizen Kane of film books. Spurred by his exposure to the film culture of France, where American movies were taken seriously, Sarris promulgated his own version of the auteur theory, emphasizing the director as the primary creative force in filmmaking during the studio era. Although battered by detractors (most notably Pauline Kael), Sarris stood his ground and this book remains the best starting point for an appreciation of the art of the American cinema.

 At this point, plenty of other paeans to Sarris and The American Cinema will have been written, and anything I add will be superfluous. So here’s my minor superfluity:

As with many another, I first read Sarris when I was just beginning to understand that there was an “art of the cinema.” Also like many another, I too was reading Pauline Kael at the same time (in fact, a little earlier) and was excited by her engagement, her freewheeling prose, and, perhaps most of all, her conspicuous way of dividing the with-it “we” who agreed with her from the rest of the audience who disagreed with her (make that us) about what we loved in the movies.

Sarris was different. Although he was polemical, his writing was more measured, and, at his best, he was writing at the service of the works he discussed. He provided a way of thinking about a whole group of movies—particularly those of the classical period in Hollywood—that still seems to me an essential starting point, even for those who may disagree. A fearless defender of his pantheon favorites—particularly John Ford and Charles Chaplin—he generously made it possible for his readers to see and understand what he valued in them. In brief, if The American Cinema was used initially as a guidebook to what movies to see, it became a guide to looking at movies with greater awareness and perceptiveness. It is a work to be consulted for a lifetime.

So, farewell Mr. Sarris. May a bugler from one of Ford’s cavalry trilogy play taps in your honor.

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Andrew Sarris on John Ford (1894–1973), from The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968

Ford’s failures tend to be objective rather than subjective in that he tends to be faithful to his own feelings at the expense of his material. Mary of Scotland is patently biased in favor of Mary against Elizabeth even in Maxwell Anderson’s blank-minded verse version. Ford completes the travesty of historical objectivity by treating Katharine Hepburn’s Mary as a soft-focused, unfairly slandered Madonna of the Scottish moors. (Curiously, it is not until Seven Women that Ford can bear to look at women with a degree of sexual ambiguity.) When Willie Comes Marching Home seemed to be a Preston Sturges project that Ford directed with undue seriousness, and The Last Hurrah lost much of its satiric sparkle in the transition from novel into film. The Fugitive, like The Informer, runs counter to Ford’s sense of order. Graham Greene’s renegade priest and Liam O’Flaherty’s renegade informer are clearly beyond Ford’s comprehension, and in both instances Ford’s casual Catholicism cannot grapple with the causal Catholicism in the two novels. Nor with the Left-wing politics of the two novelists. Cheyenne Autumn is a failure simply because Ford cannot get inside the Indians he is trying to ennoble.

Ultimately, Ford’s cinema must be considered a continent full of mountain peaks and desert valleys. The Horse Soldiers is weakest when the characters are talking abstractly about war, but the march of the little boy soldiers lingers in the mind long after all the dialogues have been forgotten. Tyrone Power may have played very broadly in The Long Gray Line, but who can forget the first materialization of his family at the kitchen table or Maureen O’Hara’s standing in the doorway and watching a son-substitute go off to war. Ford is more than the sum of his great moments, however. A storyteller and poet of images, he made his movies both move and be moving.

For more on Andrew Sarris, see:

Roger Ebert’s introduction to Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert, as well as Sarris’s contribution to the “Symposium from Film Comment” in that same collection

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition, which offers a consideration of Sarris’s contribution in “The American Cinema Revisited”

Dave Kehr’s introduction to When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, which discusses Sarris’s foundational influence

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