Andrew Sarris died this week. My father got the news before I did, which means it was news. When I checked my e-mail upon emerging from a screening of a just-irredeemably-awful movie on Wednesday, questioning my choice of profession, much as I am wont to do from Monday to Friday of every week, dad had forwarded the New York Times obituary by Michael Powell into my inbox.
I never so much as developed a passing acquaintance with Mr. Sarris, author of some of the most indelible epigrams in American film criticism, whose book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 is one of those references that should be on the shelf of any person who so much as pretends to want to understand what exactly movies are, along with Film as a Subversive Art by the recently-departed Amos Vogel. Will we ever see the likes of such men again? It’s about as likely as anyone currently playing in the MLB hitting .400 for the season (Joey Votto?).
To my knowledge, I was only once even in the same theater with Mr. Sarris. This was at a Film Forum screening of Gone with the Wind which was introduced by his wife, Molly Haskell, whose superlative book on Victor Fleming/ David O. Selznick/ Margaret Mitchell/ Clark Gable/ Vivien Leigh’s film had recently been published (Ms. Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape was, incidentally, one of the first book-length volumes of film criticism that I ever read, along with Joan Mellen’s The Waves at Genji’s Door [!] I can only assume that Wyoming High School must have had a feminist cinephile librarian in the 1970s.)
Ms. Haskell noted that her husband, despite having conflicting feelings about Gone with the Wind, had seen the film twenty-some times, lured back again and again by Leigh’s violet eyes. Mr. Sarris’ presence was noted, and he stood, hesitant but seemingly chipper, to acknowledge his public. This was all there was to it, but I will remember and revisit the memory as it is the only physical linkage that I have to that extraordinary body of work; I will remember it as frequently as I remember seeing an aged and depleted Manny Farber onstage at the Film Society of Lincoln Center after a screening of Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, still cantankerous enough to be combative, if only with himself, as he found his own magnificent vocabulary evading him (“That sounded like a bunch of gobbledygook…”).
Reflecting the almost universal esteem in which Mr. Sarris was rightly held, even the Times obituary was rather graceful, ending on a meditative note: “Asked a few years ago if he had soured on any of the directors he once championed, Mr. Sarris smiled and shook his head. ‘I prefer to think of people I missed the boat on,’ he said.”
I interviewed one such figure once—in my opinion, if not Sarris’s—a director whose name I am withholding. In all respects he was a genial and seemingly happy man of sixtysomething, but during the course of our lunch together it came out in no uncertain terms that he harbored the lasting impression that Andrew Sarris had done irreparable damage to his career some forty years prior by giving his brave, painful film a negative write-up in The Village Voice. He went on to point out Sarris’ about-face on Billy Wilder as an example of the mutability of the tastemaker’s taste.
Forty years hence, will someone in a café somewhere be nursing a still-rankling hurt from something that I once wrote in a fit of pique under the influence of low blood-sugar or Irish flu or, rarest of all, actual sound critical judgment? It is not an overestimation of my own influence or cutting wit or, God forbid, an absurd desire to compare myself to Mr. Sarris which causes me to think thusly—although I am confident that most every woman who has ever professed to love me will, with time, forget the color of my eyes; hell hath no fury like an artiste scorned.
Where does this sense of entitlement to good notices come from? In the case of filmmakers, I’d imagine it has something to do with the fact that 95% of them come from the sort of enabling upper-middle class background that allows them to freely pursue their muse despite its possible nonexistence. (Due to the ceaselessly affirmative nature of most higher arts educations, many aspirant artists can make it into their middle-30s without once having to seriously question if they have talent, or even basic fluency, in the medium of choice.)
Whatever the case, critical myopia is real, and rancor is understandable, for even in these allegedly critic-proof times a bad notice, at certain levels, can have career-altering adverse effects. Almost every other day I find myself thinking of Douglas Hickox’s 1973 film Theatre of Blood, starring Vincent Price as a ham Shakespearean actor who, after being apparently hounded to suicide by poor reviews, returns to hunt down the critics who drove him into despair, systematically slaying them in sadistic set-pieces cadged from the inventively-macabre Bard. My favorite involves Robert Morley’s Meredith Merridew being tricked into eating his pampered pet dogs, in homage to Titus Andronicus. The movie, incidentally, must certainly have received mostly awful reviews.
Which brings us back to the subject of Mr. Sarris, and his conscience. Whatever mistakes were made, much more often than not Mr. Sarris was on the side of the angels, arguing against Strained Seriousness while proselyting for the serious consideration of work that was generally regarded as piffle at best. Kent Jones’s old appreciation of Sarris, now reappearing at the Film Comment website, puts the point concisely:
“To embrace American movies and moviemakers in Paris was one thing. To embrace those same movies and moviemakers in the country that had made and marginalized them in the first place was a far riskier proposition.”
To convincingly elevate disdained “product” to the level of art, in the face of ridicule that had the strength of received wisdom behind it, required a degree of rigorous spectatorship to ballast and back up one’s arguments that anyone working in these less-contentious times should still demand of themselves. Pick up your Sarris, and see how it’s done.