Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Memoriam: Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012



Last year, my friend Lee Tsiantis took me to have tea with Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris in their home. It was a beautiful afternoon, of which I will tell one thing only: At one point, I mentioned John Ford.

I will cherish my memory of the way Sarris' face lit up at the very sound of that name for the rest of my life.

Andrew Sarris, from the Partisan Review, No. 3, 1972--an issue dedicated to art, culture and conservatism. I found the journal second-hand a few years ago, and saved it for this passage alone.

As a film historian and working film critic, I find most contemporary articles on film to be reactionary and philistinish not so much because of ideological influences, but rather because of the lack of sympathetic insight and dedicated scholarship. When I read a piece on any subject, and especially on film, I do not ask myself if the writer is swinging to the right or the left, but rather if he is writing out of a genuine commitment to his subject...For myself, I remain wedded to the notion of narrative cinema, and that is a view that is regarded as very conservative in some quarters and quarterlies. I do not argue this view on the basis of a unified field theory for all the arts, but merely on the single level of cinematic expression, a unique amalgam of the objective (the camera) and the subjective (the mind behind the camera). And in no other art is the lure of pastness so vivid and compelling. No matter. Only the most naive radicalism insists that we forsake the past in order to claim the future. And only the most strident journalism demands immortal masterpieces every season.

40 comments:

Kendra said...

Amazing quote and one all we film lovers and writers should adhere to. You already do, Faran (and seriously, you know so many amazing people!), so thanks for sharing this and everything on this blog!

Kendra

Sing said...

I'm so glad you of all people got to meet him. The words you quoted are indeed ones to live by, and he was a great teacher to all of us.

Tinky

misospecial said...

remarkable quote; i will reread it several times. never met him, but read him so regularly for so long that i regarded him as a mentor and distant friend.

Trish said...

Forsake the past in order to claim the future? God forbid! We need more critics like him.

Vanwall said...

Lovely passage, and remembrance. He will be missed.

Dan Leo said...

Andrew is smiling in that musty dusty movie house in the sky.

The Siren said...

He's watching Ford! And Ophuls, and Sternberg and Hitchcock...and on.

Peter Nellhaus said...

When I lived in NYC, I read him religiously. It took me a while to keep the religion without the orthodoxy.

Yojimboen said...

I never knew Sarris personally, though I was once or twice in his company and/or heard him speak; I confess my admiration for Molly Haskell is such that her marriage to Sarris elevated him no end in my eyes, which is, I suppose, the worst kind of back-handed approval.

The truth is that almost all working film writers in the contemporary American scene stand on Sarris’s shoulders to one degree or another; any carp I may have with this or that aspect of his philosophy is forever undercut by the fact that his “Interviews with Film Directors” currently sits – as it has these many years – on my bedside table.

I will take issue with the last sentence of the post, however (and I’m perfectly certain Sarris would encourage any argument): I insist we demand ‘immortal masterpieces every season’. Just as the proverbial mother advises her daughter that it’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one, so is it just as easy to make a good film as it is a bad one. However much we agreed or disagreed, one always had the sense Andrew Sarris held himself to the highest possible standards; we should insist the industry he wrote about owes him no less.

Fredrik said...

What a lovely memory!

X. Trapnel said...

Too grieved to write anything, but glad I heard about it first from the Siren in the form of a brief but lovely reminiscence. All my film-watching life I've fantasized talking movies with Andrew Sarris.

Caftan Woman said...

I will read no more perfect tribute to a man who influenced so many.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I DID know Sarris personally Yojimb. (I'm referenced in "Confessions of a Cultist" re The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom) He was aarvelous critic and a true gent.

The contretemps with Kael really got to him becuase he took it persoanlly. He was hoping for healthy exchange but all he got from her was ridicule. At the end of the day she was just as much an auteurist as he was. She just cottoned to different auteurs: Huston instead of Hawks and DePalma instead of nearly everyone.

Sarris was good on Ford but he was even better on Ophuls.

hum'n'mum said...

A sad day brightened, in a small, lovely way, by your touching reminiscence.

Sarris was the first serious film critic I took seriously. He introduced me, fresh from my fall off the turnip truck, to the auteur theory; from there, the entire world of foreign film, and, in fact, the entire world of all film, was reborn before my eyes.

Reading him- not always a comforting experience- always revivified my belief that film mattered. Artier types, ready to high-hand movies as mere entertainment, would suggest that Agee was merely slumming, and Kael was just a word-flirt. A little taste of Sarris would shut down the snobs nicely; but to those sincerely interested in honest discussion, he was a welcome voice.

As a fellow-Greek, I'm awfully proud of him.

Yojimboen said...

(from Yahoo obituary)

Andrew Sarris on:

Howard Hawks: "He stamped his remarkably bitter view of life on adventure, gangster and private eye melodramas, the kind of thing Americans do best and appreciate least."

Alfred Hitchcock: "His reputation has suffered from the fact that he has given audiences more pleasure than is permissible for serious cinema. No one who is so entertaining could possibly seem profound to the intellectual puritans."

Raquel Welch: "I still don't believe that Raquel Welch really exists. She has been manufactured by the media merely to preserve the sexless plasticity of sex objects for the masses."

John Cassavetes: "As a director, too much of the time he is groping when he should be gripping."

Roman Polanski: "His talent is as undeniable as his intentions are dubious."

Stanley Kramer: "He will never be a natural, but time has proved that he is not a fake."

(Reprinted from The Guardian):

Pauline Kael, the New Yorker film critic – who also cheer-led for Martin Scorsese but was scornful of auteurist theory – was dismissed by Sarris as preoccupied by style over substance. The two's feud was lapped up by readers, but also had a base in real life. The New York Times reports that when Sarris and Haskell married in 1969, Kael turned down an invite, saying: "That's OK. I'll go to Molly's next wedding."

Hmm…

Ms Kael died in 2001.
Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell were married for 43 years.

gmoke said...

Sarris believed that films could change your life and wrote like it. I'm not sure that there are many who believe that now.

Dave Enkosky said...

Man, this is a bummer. I love that quote, though.

VP81955 said...

People got so worked up with the auteur theory that they began to consider Sarris some sort of doctrinaire type, which he certainly wasn't. He had a great love for film, and his genius was that he could transmit that affection on as high a critical level as possible while still being accessible to a mass audience.

I did an affectionate tribute to Sarris at my site, as some of the people he championed welcomed him to the hereafter:

http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/521504.html

My condolences to Molly Haskell.

Batocchio said...

Great passage, and great image to start your piece. Thanks.

nitrate74 said...

I had the great privilege of being taught by Andrew Sarris in the film studies department at Columbia about a decade ago. I don't think I've ever met anyone who loved the movies more, or took more joy in sharing them with others. He could talk about Psycho, Belle De Jour and other films he'd seen and written about innumerable times, with the excitement of someone making a first discovery, his face lit up in that way the Siren describes so well. Of all my professors, he was the only one who never left the room during a screening, sitting in the front row from beginning to end every time. He also insisted on conducting all the discussion seminars that went along with the main screening and lecture, which didn't leave much for his teaching assistants to do, but was wonderful for us.If there was any opportunity to talk about the movies, he was going to be there.

I won't forget his lectures, peppered with disquisitions on the matchless beauty of Catherine Deneuve, Vivien Leigh and the pantheon of other actresses who, while Molly Haskell was clearly the love of his life, also claimed space in his heart. And baseball games at Columbia in the late 1940s, of which he retained total, inning by inning, recall. He could be equally incisive about people and things he didn't like. You did not want to get him started on a certain comedian who first came to fame on Saturday Night Live in the 70s, to whom he'd regularly refer as "the most miserable person in the world."

He was fond of handing out copies of his old reviews, exclaiming, with great relish and, at times genuine bafflement, "I wrote this about this movie...and now I can't imagine what the hell I was thinking, but I was wrong!" For me, that was the most important lesson he taught: the value of reconsidering, and perhaps abandoning, even the most passionately held opinions in the light of reflection, experience and time. That's served me well far beyond the classroom and I'll always be grateful to him.

I'm glad that you had the chance to talk with him, Siren. It was an honor to know and learn from him, if only for a brief time. It's hard to realize that there will be no new Sarris writings or classes, but he's left so much behind to inspire us all. A great critic and a truly wonderful human being.

bugsy_pal said...

I have been reading and re-reading Sarris for many years, and his passion for film is inspiring. His writings led me to explore many classic films and directors that I might otherwise have overlooked.

His writing was exceptional - he just seemed to be able to rattle off beautiful prose that got to the heart of the matter. And he was a sensitive soul - he would hold directors accountable if they dared make one of his favourite actors look less than perfect.

I'm very sad to see his passing.

Kirk said...

Fantastic quote. I'd be interested in reading the larger article it was taken from.

The Siren said...

Kirk, the article in its entirety is quite combative. For example, and for the record, the two sentences that I put into ellipsis are: "Unfortunately, most articles on film are written in a spirit of proud, invincible ignorance and dull spite. The sheer quantification of artistic activity makes it virtually impossible for scholars in one field to pose as scholars in another, and it is about time that film stopped serving as a dumping ground for tourists from other disciplines."

I snipped those two sentences because while it's as true as the day he wrote it, that isn't the part I took to heart; and my general aim with a memorial post is to pay tribute and not to dig up old battles. I didn't want to get sidetracked onto "tourist critics." But yes, it's an interesting article overall, very much Sarris wielding the pen as a sword. He had good manners, but he was no pushover.

I don't know what the Partisan Review archive situation is online, I have never checked. Just the other day I was emailing with a friend who'd dug up a 1963 Esquire with a couple of wonderful film articles. There's so much out there that isn't online.

mas82730 said...

Those 1963 film pieces in 'Esquire' may have been written by Dwight Macdonald, Siren. I've read a few of Macdonald's pieces, all of them suffused with common sense and a disdain for fancy cinema club theory. His derisive review of the ballyhooed 'Morgan!' is one of the funniest film pans you'll ever read. Ever.
So sorry to hear about Sarris.

mas82730 said...
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Rozsaphile said...

I'll remember Sarris for his interview/review of Fred Zinnemann on the occasion of his last, unsuccessful film, Five Days One Summer. He didn't exactly recant his trashing of Z. as "less than meets the eye," but somehow he managed a generous appraisal. Also for his appreciation of Empire of the Sun when most other critics were condescending to Spielberg for daring to undertake an "adult" subject.

The Siren said...

Mas, I got the date wrong - it was 1967. My friend is going to show me the Esquire when I see him next so I will get to check it out.

Roszaphile, it's been said often, but is still true--all critics write best on what they love best. My friend Kim Morgan quoted a bit of Sarris on von Sternberg, at her tumblr, that was marvelous.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Off-Topic (though Sarris would have loved it) Jacques Rivette's Out 1 complete on Dennis Cooper's site

Yojimboen said...

The new banner (if I had to guess): actor Brad Dexter, Lana Turner, Fernando Lamas celebrate – most likely at the post-party for the L.A. Premiere of An American in Paris 9th November 1951.
Here’s a reverse angle including writer Leonard Hershe, composer Roger Edens and Ms Judy her ownself.

Yojimboen said...
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Jeff Gee said...

I was going to say the guy at the far right in the new banner is obviously Henry Hull in "Werewolf of London," but the others puzzle me...

X. Trapnel said...

Damn, I thought it was Betty Hutton auditioning for the title role in King of Kings.

RayRay said...

For what it's worth, my one connection to Mr. Sarris:

A week or two following his mostly positive review of Brian De Palma's Blow Out, Mr. Sarris briefly mentioned in his column a letter sent to the Village Voice, a largely incoherent rant chastising the critic for what its author deemed an overall lack of taste and a need to reign in any and all members of the press who support such drek as Mr. De Palm'a third- and fourth-generation retreads of Alfred Hitchcock themes and scenes. It was a mess of a letter that left the critic confused and amused.

I was the author of that letter, a missive hammered out during my vodka period, sometime in the middle of a blackout night and mailed during a run to the neighborhood liquor locker.

Yojimboen said...
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Yojimboen said...

@ RayRay - For what it's worth, I suspect most people who read the Siren's blog would, sight unseen, cheerfully co-sign your letter.

G said...

Long before the advent of the web, I used to gobble up Pauline Kael's reviews in the New Yorker, but as the Village Voice was not the kind of publication a suburban high school like mine would carry - I had to wait till going away to a big university to read Sarris and other critics at the VV (including James Wolcott's wonderful TV reviews).

IMO, Sarris was a very, very good writer who was unlucky enough to be around at the same time as Kael, whose writing voice I think is still unparalleled to this day. Since I had no real-life exposure to these people, I felt bad for him that that he often sniped at Kael in his columns but she seemed to take the 'high road' and never answered back.

David Bordwell has a terrific appreciation of Sarris on his blog - he is such a smart guy he really teases apart the similarities and differences between Kael and Sarris in ways even a long-time reader like me had not thought of.

http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/06/24/octaves-hop-andrew-sarris/

Noel Vera said...

Sad news, for those who follow Philippine cinema. Filmmaker Mario O'Hara succumbed to leukemia on the morning of June 26, 2012.

mischy said...
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rcocean said...
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rcocean said...
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