Andrew Sarris RIP

For me, the collected writings of Pauline Kael are the Bible and I don’t need or even recognize other film critics, so I’ve never read much of Andrew Sarris. But these reminiscences always make me smile:

He took his place among a handful of stylish and congenitally disputatious critics: Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, John Simon and Manny Farber. They agreed on just a single point: that film was art worthy of sustained thought and argumentation.

“We were so gloriously contentious, everyone bitching at everyone,” Mr. Sarris recalled in a 2009 interview with The New York Times. “We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much.

“Urgency” — his smile on this point was wistful — “seemed unavoidable.”

It’s become fashionable to trash critics of all sorts, but I never would have seen all those great Altman, Truffaut, Peckinpah, Kurowsawa others-I’m-forgetting movies if I hadn’t read film critic(s) when I was in my teens. So I think all those crazy 60s and 70s critics made a difference, at least for me.






43 replies
  1. 1
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    Ebert has a really nice post up about him: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com...../120629992

    I like this line: In my own first days as a film critic, Kael was my muse but Sarris was my mapmaker.

  2. 2
    Ruckus says:

    Critics of all kinds can be a complete waste unless they have passion about their medium and apply it to reviewing. One doesn’t have to be gifted at whatever they are reviewing but they need a critical eye, without pomposity, both for the work and themselves. They should be able to tell you why a film or piece of art is good or bad or just mediocre all the while recognizing that it is after all just an opinion. Many can not do that.

  3. 3
    DougJ says:

    @Ruckus:

    They should be able to tell you why a film or piece of art is good or bad or just mediocre all the while recognizing that it is after all just an opinion.

    I agree. And that is not easy.

  4. 4
    Valdivia says:

    I don’t have a lot of respect for most modern day film critics. Manohla Darghis at the Times seems to me to be vapid (is she even at the times anymore? shows you how much I read them). I also loathe Denby for reasons Doug already dwelt on last week. On the other hand Anthony Lane is fabulous and his take on Barbara Stanwyck is one of the best articles I read about film in the New Yorker. I am a huge fan of Film Noir, not the High Art DougJ speaks of but a form of story telling we don’t really have anymore.

  5. 5
    forked tongue says:

    Oh God. If the dread Kael is your Bible, does that mean Casualties of War reminded you too of Renoir?

    Actually, I went through a phase of revering both Kael and Sarris; then realized that Kael was insane; then later realized that Sarris was, well, just wrong about a lot of things. But his American Cinema turned me on to vastly more good movies than Kael did, though she had a good run with early-70s films.

  6. 6
    DaddyJ says:

    I agree with you that critics open doors far more than they close them. And once you learn their biases and peculiarities, they can be reliable sources, no matter what they write. For example, back when Gene Siskel was alive, I regarded him as Mister Dependable: if he raved about a movie I knew it was probably going to be a waste of time; if he was vaguely uncomfortable with it I knew it might be worthwhile. However, I don’t share your enthusiasm for Pauline Kael; to me she was the Maureen Dowd of 70s film criticism.

  7. 7
    DougJ says:

    @Valdivia:

    I love film noir best, actually.

  8. 8
    Valdivia says:

    I am definitely in the Kael camp too. Though I came to read her rather late, I really loved both her criticism qua criticism and her writing.

    @DougJ: big grin. I think people repeat the Goddard quote (all you need is a girl and a gun) the most but I always thought Noir was about so much more than that.

  9. 9
    DougJ says:

    This is the worst thread since eemom confused the Clash with the Cure.

    I’m not reading anymore of it.

  10. 10
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @DougJ: You started it.

  11. 11
    DougJ says:

    @Gin & Tonic:

    I didn’t know people were going to disrespect the great Pauline Kael.

  12. 12
    forked tongue says:

    DO NOT TRUST PAULINE KAEL.

    Her hatchet job on Orson Welles was the most intellectually corrupt, malicious and unprincipled act in the history of American film scholarship.

  13. 13
    Valdivia says:

    @SiubhanDuinne:

    that is a really beautiful phrase.

    Oh, don’t go DougJ!

  14. 14
    Amir Khalid says:

    I’d never heard of Sarris until I saw his obituaries, I admit that. But from what they say about him, he met my definition of a good movie critic: not necessarily the one you agree with most of the time, but one who educates you on how to think about movies and consider their merits. By all accounts, he shaped a lot of moviegoers’ (and movie critics’) thinking that way. I reckon that puts him among the great movie critics.

  15. 15
    JGabriel says:

    __
    __
    DougJ @ Top:

    For me, the collected writings of Pauline Kael are the Bible and I don’t need or even recognize other film critics, so I’ve never read much of Andrew Sarris. …
    __
    It’s become fashionable to trash critics of all sorts, but I never would have all those great Altman, Truffaut, Peckinpah, Kurowsawa others-I’m-forgetting movies if I hadn’t read film critic(s) when I was in my teens. So I think all those crazy 60s and 70s critics made a difference, at least for me.

    Same here — Kael as near Bible, appreciation for critics I read in my teens introducing me to films and directors. It’s a little eerie, sometimes, how many touchstones we have in common.

    Anyway, the first thing I remember reading by Andrew Sarris was a either a review of To Live And Die In LA in the Village Voice, or his justification for choosing it as one of his Best Films that year. I was regular reader of the Voice back then (and The New Yorker), so I must have read more of his work, but it didn’t stick with me the way Kael’s or Hoberman’s reviews did. Sarris may have been publishing less at the Voice at the time, the mid-80s, so that may be why.

    .

  16. 16
    Brachiator says:

    I greatly admired the work of Sarris, Stanley Kaufmann and Pauline Kael, and looked at them as a Trinity of film criticism and film history. I also liked the work of Molly Haskell, Sarris’ wife.

    Along wit Ebert (and even Siskell), the work of these critics convinced me that art is a three way conversation between artists, critics and audiences. They are all essential to understanding, appreciating, loving movies.

    And unlike some critics that I quickly dismissed, such as John Simon, Sarris was passionate and obviously had very strong preferences, but rarely seemed nasty or underhanded or personally vindictive about either film makers or other critics.

    And I think that pound for pound, Sarris did some of the best criticism ever of Truffaut and Hitchcock.

    And people forget, or take for granted, the degree to which Sarris championed American directors when the cultural custodians insisted that film was inferior to novels and plays, except for a few European directors.

    I like how the Times obit notes that the poseurs sucking at the hind teat of highbrow culture demanded that Sarris be sacked from the Village Voice for praising Alfred Hitchcock as “the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today.”

    Like Doug with respect to Pauline Kael, Sarris was invaluable to me in discovering the richness of film. Not in slavishly following his advice or hanging on his every word as though it were Scripture. But he was my Guide, the Master of All Who Know, as I ventured through the world of film.

    I will miss him greatly.

  17. 17
    gogol's wife says:

    @Brachiator:

    If Sarris said that about Hitchcock, then he must have been very perceptive. I’ve been on a Hitchcock binge lately, and I think he was a very great artist.

  18. 18
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    If any of these people DARED to criticize in any way George Lucas, I will hold my breath until I turn aquamarine!

    /dumbass nerd

  19. 19
    Ruckus says:

    @DougJ:
    It is actually quite difficult. Was discussing art last night with a young girl and she was asking about the art she could see in my friends house and how does one go about creating them. My answer was to have a critical eye, but not too critical. To practice and practice and… And to not be too full of one’s self or one’s talent. I think critics have to put in the effort as well, otherwise it’s just some asshole complaining or selling a product.

  20. 20
    Anthony says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:
    Kael’s review of Star Wars pretty much predicts all of the issues of Lucas that would come to a head in the prequels. It’s actually pretty amazingly prescient.

  21. 21
    Mnemosyne says:

    Count me as another Kael non-fan. I never understood the hype.

    I read Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape from cover to cover more than once. To me, film criticism is about more than your initial reaction to a movie, which is one of the reasons I could never really get interested in Kael.

    ETA: Heh — reading the Ebert obituary of Sarris, he pinpoints my problem with Kael. Her reviews are always about her — her opinions, her ideas, her impressions. Sarris and others take a look at the larger view of the world of film instead of being all mememememe!

  22. 22
    Mnemosyne says:

    Also, it’s hard to quibble with Sarris’ list of film’s greatest directors (as quoted by Ebert):

    Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D. W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Josef von Sternberg, Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir.

    I might leave off Flaherty, but other than that …

  23. 23
    forked tongue says:

    Kael made it a point of pride not to watch a movie more than once. That’s it. She’d watch it once and write her review. In fact she wouldn’t even watch it again EVER, just for pleasure. Absent intense deadline pressure, that not only seems slightly shabby to me, it even puts in question her real love of the movies she claims to have loved.

  24. 24
    Maude says:

    Kael made the best remark about Barbara Streisand. Kael said that Streisand upstaged a blind man, for god’s sake.

  25. 25
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Valdivia:

    that is a really beautiful phrase.

    Even when I don’t agree with his movie reviews (which is not often), I always enjoy reading Roger Ebert. I think he loves the English language and the written word even more than he loves film, although he’d quite possibly punch me in the neck for saying that he loves anything more than movies.

  26. 26
    NobodySpecial says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: What I like most about Ebert is that he doesn’t get offended by crappy cookie-cutter movies, and he recognizes that not every movie can be or should be an art-house flick. Checking your brain at the movie house door should be an option for everyone once in a while.

  27. 27
    Tokyokie says:

    Probably the single most influential piece of writing for me personally was the review of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers by Benny Green, the film critic for Punch magazine back in the day. (Green, in his introductory column, claimed that the two greatest movies of all time were La grande illusion and A Night at the Opera, so I liked him from the get-go.) The movie played in the States before in opened in the U.K., so I’d already seen it and wanted to like it, because I was a young college student and thought it was the sort of thing that young intellectuals (which I hoped I was) would find splendid. Green wrote his entire review from the perspective that it was a two-hour advert for red wallpaper and floor coverings. (I believe that was pretty much his exact turn of phrase.) Now Benny was a snarky old bastard, but he got to the heart of that pretentious piece of crap by deliberately not considering it on the terms that Bergman demanded and exposing it to ridicule. Critics who took it seriously were ones who’d already assumed its brilliance and therefore had nowhere to go in evaluating the film. And ever since reading that, I’ve always tried to look beyond the mere surface of any movie I see — or any argument I hear. So there are lessons to be learned from the best of critics.

    And I considered Pauline Kael to be one of them. Way back when, I’d subscribe to The New Yorker, just to read Pauline Kael’s reviews of movies (that would probably never play near where I was living in Oklahoma) and write about directors with whom I was unfamiliar. (Please recall, that back in the ’70s, before home video, your chances of seeing, say, a Carl Theodor Dreyer film or even the latest from Claude Chabrol if you didn’t live in L.A. or NYC or have access to a good college film program or a revival house that didn’t show Le roi de coeur every two months, were practically nil.) And during the months when Penelope Gilliat filled in for Pauline, well, I’d mostly read the comics. And although I didn’t always agree with Kael (Her defense of Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite borders on hallucinatory), she got me thinking about movies in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    And I felt the same way about Andrew Sarris as well. I never got to read as much of his writing as Kael’s — copies of The Village Voice were a lot harder to find outside New York than The New Yorker was — but I always found him perceptive and a champion of American filmmakers but lacking the capacity for acid wit that has made some lesser critics more quotable. Which is to say that he seemed like a truly nice guy. I’m sad he’s gone, and I’ll miss him.

  28. 28
    handsmile says:

    @DougJ:

    This is the worst thread…I’m not reading anymore of it.

    Then, you’ll really not want to link to this infamous 1980 NYRB essay by Renata Adler, (Kael’s New Yorker film colleague), “The Perils of Pauline.” Reviewing When the Lights Went Out, a collection of Kael’s film criticism, Adler denounced her work as “worthless.”

    http://www.nybooks.com/article.....tion=false

    I find myself standing out in the lobby with those here who never or rarely understood the cult of Kael. For me, her writing on movies was often clever and amusing, but rarely illuminating, on the work(s) under review. She emoted. She ardently enthused or ardently condemned. Kael was a film fan, but passion alone is inadequate for insightful criticism of any art form.

    When I was a young man developing a keen interest in cinema, those who most helped me see in the dark were Sarris, Stanley Kaufman (TNR), Vincent Canby (NYT), Manny Farber (various), and on experimental film, P. Adams Sitney. Film historians Molly Haskell and Jeanine Basinger were invaluable in providing a broader context linking film as art, film as social document, and film as industry.

    DougJ, recent evidence to the contrary (Godard, Wes Anderson, now Kael), I’m sure that eventually you and I will agree on some film or filmmaker. Inasmuch as you were less familiar with Sarris’ work as a film critic, it was especially lovely of you to post this thread. Efxaristo!

  29. 29
    SFAW says:

    I didn’t know people were going to disrespect the great Pauline Kael.

    This from someone who put Peckinpah and Kurosawa in the same class. Outstanding.

    Wait, I know! Let’s also talk about which (or who) was the best Dr. Who! That’s REALLY auteur-ish!

    EDIT: I was going to add “Or am-auteur-ish” but thought it too obvious. On the other hand, it is DougJ.

  30. 30
    hamletta says:

    Some of the best writing about film is on blogs these days: Self-Styled Siren is my fave, but I’m also rather fond of Some Came Running.

    I’ll have to send a note to Ms. Haskell. She and I corresponded once about our love for Sirk’s Written On the Wind, and Robert Osborne’s incomprehensible disdain for it. (I also mentioned that my Grandmom was, like her, a graduate of Sweet Briah.)

    She loved my WOtW drinking game: Take a drink every time you see a phallic symbol, and by the end of the movie, you’ll be as drunk as Kyle Hadley!

  31. 31
    Tom Q says:

    Since we’re choosing up sides, put me on the Kael bandwgagon. I was in college during the great movie years 1969-73, and she was as essential a part of that era as Altman, Coppola and the other filmmakers. Her writing was so vivid, so perceptive, she seemed at one with the period. Even when I deeply dissented from her ultimate opinion, I enjoyed the ride of following her take.

    I always viewed Sarris as more an academic. His taste was perfectly acceptable, but he wrote in a fussy sort of way that didn’t have the compulsive readability of Kael.

  32. 32
    Valdivia says:

    @SiubhanDuinne:

    I have deep respect for anyone who loves the English language too. Just joy in its lusciousness. Rare nowadays, I think.

  33. 33
    Tim I says:

    I had the great good fortune to take a year long film course with Andrew Sarris when I was an undergrad at Columbia, in the seventies. Truth be told, many of us were there because it was considered an easy course. We would watch a movie on Monday night and Sarris would lecture on it the following Wednesday. Whatever brought us to this course, we learned a great deal and, I suspect, none of us ever viewed a film the way we had prior to encountering Sarris.

    Sarris was brilliant and mesmerizing. He never used notes, but he could talk about a film for two hours without pausing for breath. Many times he would be describing a film in minute detail that he hadn’t watched in ten or twenty years.

    The course covered the history of film from ‘Birth of a Nation’ through the mid-seventies. He would always explain what it was about each film that made it an important development in cinematic history.

    I regret his passing, but he must have lived a very full life.

  34. 34
    forked tongue says:

    Yeah, well, it strikes me as pretty funny that in the very next thread DougJ mentions people who grumble that “some people see anti-semitism everywhere!”

    Tip to those who take Kael as scripture: Do not view Shoah! Lanzmann will annoy you with his will to find anti-semitism even in Poland, for god’s sake!

    Or at least according to the Paulineian Testament.

    Hoberman tells a funny story about being confronted by The Kael after his Village Voice takedown of her utterly clueless New Yorker review. “You’re making it difficult for me,” she whined.

    “Well, Pauline, you know, you were the one who wrote the review,” he said.

    Gaaah…I am not objective on this question. Kael was somewhere between crazy and contemptible.

    DePalma as greater than Hitchcock, anyone?

  35. 35
    Vico says:

    @forked tongue: Absolutely correct. Her magnum opus was full of errors, weak arguments and downright meanness. Meanwhile Sarris, with his American Cinema: Directors and Directions, made a major contribution to American culture. Kael got me reading about films as a child, but it didn’t take me long to discover that she was an unreliable critic with shifting standards depending upon whom she was trying to curry favor with.

  36. 36
    Batocchio says:

    I liked both Kael and Sarris, and many more, not that I always agreed with them. The best film critics love the medium, and aren’t just out to score points.

    Roy Edroso also has a good piece up on Sarris:

    http://alicublog.blogspot.com/.....7999056374

    As does Kenneth Turan:

    http://www.latimes.com/enterta.....2817.story

  37. 37
    Clean Willie says:

    You venerate that idiot Pauline Kael, you tout a ridiculous waste of time and money like dappered.com, you declare yourself a proud party man a la Gary Wills like it’s the height of moral responsibility … and yet I still enjoy reading your stuff. Who knows why. It’s quality, somehow, I guess.

  38. 38
    David in NY says:

    When Sarris wasn’t getting all theory-invested, he wrote a lot of clean, insightful prose about movies. I always thought about Kael the way I think about Maureen Dowd, all style and not so much substance, though the stye was often more fun than Dowd’s.

  39. 39
    David in NY says:

    @Tim I:

    history of film from ‘Birth of a Nation’ through the mid-seventies

    You picked a great moment to take that course from Sarris. I wonder if he agreed with Sontag that the cinema as art, which was so exciting from 1950 to 1975, died at the end of that period. Of course I’m old, but when I want to revisit a movie, it is most often something from that period.

  40. 40
    Clean Willie says:

    though the stye was often more fun than Dowd’s.

    I agree. Kael’s fans love to quote the short & sweet bon mot, and admittedly Kael had more than a few good ones.

    I used to enjoy her New Yorker column; it wasn’t till I made the mistake of reading one of her books that I saw clearly what she was up to. Years afterward I discovered the famous Renata Adler takedown where Adler describes the same thing. Once you read a few essays in a row, the preening “look how cute I am” mannerism makes you want to vomit; read a few more, the tyrannical bullying dogmatist tone becomes apparent and you’re ruined for her forever. She was as much a rabid one-note shill for her whackjob point of view as Ayn Rand, except she could write, kind of.

  41. 41
    DanF says:

    Manny Farber was a drawing professor of mine at UCSD in the 80’s. He brought Chuck Jones (of Bugs Bunny fame) in one day to discuss his cartoons with the class. Manny apparently wrote seriously about his cartoons as forms of art back in the day and Chuck was grateful. Manny was quite passionate and articulate about art; and movies in particular. I missed the golden age of the movie critic, but was glad to catch some of it’s flavor from Prof. Farber. He was thought-provoking, a bit crazy, absurd, contentious and oddly likable.

  42. 42
    Brachiator says:

    @gogol’s wife:

    If Sarris said that about Hitchcock, then he must have been very perceptive. I’ve been on a Hitchcock binge lately, and I think he was a very great artist.

    It’s great that all (I think) of Hitchcock is available on DVD. You can follow his progression as a filmmaker from silents to his last works, and even his TV stuff.

    One thing that amazes me is how he will often include a scene of “pure cinema” in which picture and sound, but no dialog, tells the story. For example, the scene in North By Northwest in which Cary Grant is told crucial information about Eva Marie Saint. The audience already knows what this is about, so they don’t need to be told again, so Hitchcock focuses on Grant’s reaction. Sidney Lumet borrowed this, I think, in a similarly beautiful scene in The Verdict.

    Have fun with your Hitchcock, especially his British films (loves me some The Lady Vanishes and The Man Who Knew Too Much).

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