Sarris Tribute: Most Influential American Film Critic

How Andrew Sarris, the most influential film critic in American history, who passed away today at 83, changed my life and shaped my career humbly but dramatically?

I believe a work is good to the degree
that it expresses the man who created it.

Orson Welles

Auteurism is the single most productive
concept in film history.

Thomas Schatz, scholar

It's time to declare publicly what most of us have known for a long time: Andrew Sarris is the most influential critic in American film history.

When people talk about movie criticism in the 1960s and 1970s, they single out two seminal figures: Sarris and Pauline Kael. However, no critic, not even Kael, has changed as much as Sarris the very way we perceive and write about movies.

That said, it's impossible to understand the formation of American movie culture without including Kael's role. Lively and irreverent, Sarris and Kael established themselves as preeminent exponents of a new genre, film criticism. Sarris and Kael have been variously described as the Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy of criticism–for their heated debates as well as for making the profession sexy.

Despite longtime animosities, they share some attributes in common. Both have shown vast knowledge of movie history, caustic wit, flair for the polemic, sophisticated style–and passionate commitment to film that was never questioned, even when they dismissed movies. Sarris and Kael belong to a small group of intellectuals who have shaped American culture, entering the lives of cinephiles as representatives of a new way of life, one dominated by movies. How did it happen

Born in 1919, Kael is older than Sarris (ne in 1928), but she began writing at the same time. Sarris became the associate editor of Film Culture in 1955, a position he held for a decade. After managing two art houses in Berkeley and broadcasting radio shows, Kael achieved prominence, when her first collection of reviews, I Lost It at the Movies, became a bestseller in 1965. Sarris's seminal book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, was published in 1968, the same year that Kael's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang came out. Both Sarris and Kael were at the height of their fame and power in the 1960s and 1970s.

Though both are products of their times, they became important critics for different reasons. Sarris's career was influenced by the European cinema, particularly the New Wave (Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Resnais). Acute awareness of the international cinema led to his assimilation of new critical sensibilities into his analysis of American movies.

In contrast, Kael was always the more “American” critic, in her pop culture orientation and emphasis on American directors. If Kael was romantically energetic in discovering hot American talent, Sarris was a classicist praising the work of gifted directors, foreign and American.

The Making of an American Auteurist

Sarris got his start as a reviewer without pay at the age of 27. By his own admission, he owes his career to Jonas Mekas: “Mekas brought me to Film Culture in 1955, and allowed me to pinchhit for him in his movie column in a new Greenwich Village publication, The Village Voice, while he was shooting his film, Guns of the Trees. Sarris's first Voice review appeared on August 11, 1960–the film was Hitchcock's Psycho. His “high-flown” auteurist critique received so much hate mail that Village Voice editor Dan Wold and its publisher Ed Fancher were favorably impressed by his ability to stir up controversy.

In his foreword to Confessions of a Cultist, Sarris observed: “I was the beneficiary as well as the victim of the intellectual vacuum that occurred in movie reviewing with the death of James Agee in 1955,” the year in which the first issue of Film Culture came out. The Film Culture group represented a different breed of critics, as Sarris recalled: “The cultural rationale for our worthier predecessor–Agee, Ferguson, Levin, Murphy, Sherwood–was that they were too good to be reviewing movies. We, on the contrary, were not considered much good for anything else.”

Whereas Agee discovered cinema through his love for movies, many of his self-proclaimed successors chose to abuse movies in the name of Kultur. There were two kinds of critics at the time: “journalists who would be equally happy in the real estate departments of their publications, and highbrow humanists who admired From Caligari to Hitler, because they, like Kracauer, were more interested in Hitler than Caligari.”

Sarris devoted his career to the refining and disseminating of auteurism, which is still associated with his name, having written what's considered to be “the Bible of Auteurism.” Sarris's inspiration derived from Truffaut's 1954 essay in Cahiers du Cinema, “Une certaine tendance du cinema francais,” in which “La politique des auteurs” was born as a rebuke to the French Tradition of Quality. Auteur criticism pointed to the tension between the director's vision and the means at his disposal for realizing it, tension that was the result of studio pressures, genre conventions, star demands, and story requirements. Auteurists felt that, because of Hollywood's strong commercial foundation, the real film artists often came through the back door.

The publication of “Notes on the Auteur Theory” in 1962 prompted a (in)famous attack by Kael, Circles and Sqaures. Actually, few people read “Notes,” fewer than those who read Kael's rebuttal. Nonetheless, the essay propelled Sarris from obscurity to notoriety, making him, as he observed, “a pariah among members of the cultural establishment.”

Within several years, Sarris was vindicated by the widespread revaluation of “unfashionable” directors such as Hitchcock and Hawks. Sarris defied the conventional decline-and-fall wisdom on Josef von Sternberg and John Ford with books exalting them as masters. As he put it: “While Woody Allen was genuflecting before Bergman, Paul Mazursky before Fellini, and Mike Nichols before Antonioni, I was writing the first serious American monograph on Hawks, influenced by Rivette's analysis in Cahiers du Cinema.

From its inception, auteurism was meant to be a pragmatic method rather than a specific theory. As a revisionist critic, Sarris realized that there were a great many good movies in danger of being dumped in the dustbin of film history by the realist and Marxist historians. Hence, when a cluster of good movies linked by the same director was found, a hypothetical auteur was postulated with a search for an individual theme and style. Though Sarris insisted that auteurism was the first rather than last stop of film analysis, he came to be regarded in Dwight MacDonald's memorable phrase, “a Godzilla monster clambering from the depths.”

What brought Sarris into the critical mainstream was “The American Cinema” issue of Film Culture in spring 1963, with its directorial chronology from 1915 to 1962, and a cover of the Goldwyn Girls on a circular platform in an ancient Roman slave market from Frank Tuttle's Roman Scandals. Sarris had little to do with Busby Berkeley's outrageous metaphor for Hollywood directors enslaved by the studio system but he was still praised for his sense of humor.

The New American Movie Culture

Sarris and Kael flourished during–and benefited from–the New American Cinema, a loosely structured movement that lasted for a decade (1967 to 1976) and saw the production of stylishly entertaining movies that could be enjoyed both emotionally and intellectually. The prime directors of that era–Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols, Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg–who regarded themselves as artists, adopted the formal devices of the New Wave (fractured narrative, freeze-frame, slow-motion), never before seen on the American screen. Their thematic and stylistic innovations represented a radical break from Hollywood's classic paradigms.

Film criticism underwent changes, too. Under Sarris's and Kael's joint influence, movies were perceived as personal art works rather than mass products. In 1966, as charter members of the National Society of Film Critics, Sarris, Kael, and others created an association to counter the middlebrow sensibility of the New York Film Critics Circle, whose taste were deemed too similar to those of the Academy and its Oscar Awards. Indeed, the first movies cited by the National Society were Antonioni's Blow Up, two Bergman masterpieces, Persona and Shame, and Rohmer's Claire's Knee.

The publication of Kael's lengthy New Yorker review of Bonnie and Clyde showed the immense power critics could have on audiences and on the industry too. A new generation of critics began to write for major publications: The N.Y. Times appointed Vincent Canby, a former Variety writer, as its chief critic in 1968. In the same year, Sarris's magnum opus, The American Cinema, forever changed the direction of film criticism. Films were no longer evaluated in terms of their stories, but as art works whose style and mise-en-scene were more important than their contents.

Writing with fresh viewpoint, witty candor, and heightened perspective, Sarris and Kael introduced new criteria of evaluation. However different their approaches were, they contrasted sharply with the middlebrow “realist” orientation of Crowther, who was the N.Y. Times critic for 25 years. Sarris and Kael were eager to show their rapport with the New Hollywood, a trend that became clear when Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces won the 1970 Best Picture from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Both Sarris and Kael wrote for powerful publications. It's doubtful that either would have provoked such extreme reactions without the base they shared at their magazines: Kael at the highbrow New Yorker, Sarris at the hip downtown weekly Village Voice. Arguably no American magazine had the clout of the New Yorker at its prime–its minimal editorial interference and high pay were major rewards for writers. As Louis Menand pointed out, Kael joined the New Yorker at a time when movies suddenly caught up with the rest of American culture, when movies seemed to mean a great deal. The New Yorker made it possible for readers to feel that anti-sophistication was the true mark of sophistication. Kael's challenge was to make popular culture respectable for people whose education told them otherwise. She was also effective in teaching readers how to think critically about movies without any training or academic jargon.

As for Sarris, it's improbable that his ideas would have spread so quickly had he not written for the Village Voice. The New Yorker and the Village Voice implied both mainstream and highbrow acceptance. It was also significant that Sarris and Kael were brought from the outside, as Sarris once observed: “Both Pauline and I were outsiders, provincial, sort of screwballs.” This outsidedness gave them a large measure of intellectual freedom.

Unlike their peers, Stanley Kauffman and John Simon, who wrote for smaller magazines (New Republic and National Review respectively), and who considered film to be aesthetically interesting only when it was thematically interesting, Sarris and Kael drew no line between varieties of film seriousness. They had no prejudice against American movies just because they had mass appeal. Sarris endorsed a John Wayne Western with the same enthusiastic passion as a deconstructive Godard meditation, a Rohmer romantic comedy, or a Truffaut melodrama.

Unlike Kael, Sarris emphasized form rather than contents, based on his feeling that humanist-realist critics (Crowther, Kracauer) talked too much about ideas but not enough about style. There was need to redress the balance, to end the prevailing stylistic illiteracy among critics. However, for Sarris, sheer technique never transcended conviction, and style was never an end in itself–style cannot be defended except as it relates to directorial sensibility. Any style can be reproduced but, without the link to directorial vision or personality, the effect is mechanical.

Sarris's approach was dominated by two European concepts: montage, which tends to subordinate ideas to rhythm and to emphasize the value of editing, and mise-en-scene. And while he appreciated the montage of Eisenstein and Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad), he also argued that the best moments in Birth of Nation occur when Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall reveal the “visual subtleties of screen acting in front of a static, unblinking camera.”

Good filmmaking was deemed a contemplative act that reveals the director's emotional attitude toward his material. Since the term mise-en-scene comes from the theater, it defends the theatricality of the cinema. Through the use of long takes and deep-focus, filmmakers create a world that's psychologically and spatially coherent. Wrote Sarris: “mise-en-scene emphasizes the content of a frame rather than the relationship of one frame to the next. Based on the notion that cinema records something that already exists, mise-en-scene accepts the cinema as it is and enjoy it for what it is–a sensuous conglomeration of all the other arts. If montage implies the fragmentation of the world, mise-en-scene implies a more unified world. However, both methods can be excessive: Extreme use of montage is too jazzy for the meanings it seeks to express, and extreme mise-en-scene results in boredom.

If you want to know more about Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, and American Movie Culture, please consult my edited volume, Citizen Sarris: American Film Critic: Essays in Honor of Andrew Sarris (Scarecrow Press, 2001). The book can be purchased for Film Studies programs and your university library at 1-800-462-6420.