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Critic Andrew Sarris, Still a Champion of Directors

Movies * In a rare L.A. appearance, the influential New Yorker will discuss two of his favorite filmmakers.

November 29, 2000|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The last time Andrew Sarris came to town to present a favorite film was back in 1979 during the heyday of Filmex. The film was the original "Heaven Can Wait," Ernst Lubitsch's melancholy 1943 masterpiece about matrimony, mortality and memory. The event turned out to be an unexpected epiphany for those lucky enough to attend, since the sublime Lubitsch was followed by the engaging Sarris.

It was the perfect instance of auteurism in action, with Sarris elucidating the "sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch"--the camera's serene staircase descent at the end, coupled with "The Merry Widow" waltz, summed up the man as well as the movie, he noted. As the famed New York film critic suggested, what Lubitsch said wasn't nearly as important as how he said it.

Perhaps the same could be said of Sarris, the father of American auteurism. It was Sarris, after all, who changed the way we think about film with his passionate and polemical prose, reminding us that film is a visual medium and that the director--for better or worse--is the ultimate creative force, the auteur.

This weekend, in honor of a forthcoming tribute book, "Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic," Sarris returns to town to present and discuss two of his favorite films at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: "The Shop Around the Corner" (screening Friday, another Lubitsch gem about two antagonistic salesclerks and unwitting pen pals, and Francois Truffaut's underrated "Shoot the Piano Player," a tragicomedy about tickling the ivories of love and life (screening Saturday night).

Only this time, the 72-year-old critic and professor, who bridges the gap between journalism and academia (he still teaches full time at Columbia University), will have his wife and protege, Molly Haskell, by his side. She is an erudite critic in her own right and author of the groundbreaking study of women in film, "From Reverence to Rape."

"We don't get to L.A. too often," Sarris said recently by phone from New York. "We don't have anything against L.A.; we stay in New York out of laziness. But most of our friends have either died or moved to L.A., which amounts to the same thing."

"Dialogue on Film: A Weekend with Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell," presented in association with the Directors Guild of America, concludes Saturday with a conversation between husband and wife, the Nick and Nora Charles of film critics.

"For more than 40 years, he has had the greatest impact on film criticism, scholarship and directing," asserts Emanuel Levy, editor of "Citizen Sarris" (to be published in January by Scarecrow Press) and a film critic for Variety. "This has been a labor of love for seven years and reflects Andrew's tremendous influence. It's also about a bygone era in film criticism."

Contributors to the book include such directors as Curtis Hanson (who moderates on Saturday), Robert Benton and Peter Bogdanovich, and such critics as Richard Schickel, Roger Ebert and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. If only Pauline Kael, Sarris' erstwhile archrival, went along for the ride.

For his two film selections, Sarris says, he took the path of least resistance. "I have a feeling for Lubitsch because the world he described, the feelings he expressed, were going out in 1940 [when 'Shop Around the Corner' was made]. He represents values completely lost. He once said it was a time working-class people dressed up to go on a date. And there was a lot of repression. I grew up in that repressed, nervous world. I liked to dress up to go on a date."

As Sarris writes: "Lubitsch was the last of the genuine continentals let loose on the American continent, and we shall never see his like again because the world he celebrated had died--even before he did--everywhere except in his own memory."

Sarris recounts over the phone one particular moment in the film: "One scene I love is where [Jimmy] Stewart--our greatest movie actor--watches [Margaret] Sullavan read the letter. He feels more deeply watching her feel. Like he's been taken into a personal world. It's romance. I'm unabashedly romantic." Likewise, with "Shoot the Piano Player," Sarris champions a haunting film that flopped when it was originally released. "It's my favorite Truffaut," he adds. "Most great love stories have to end tragically. [Charles] Aznavour makes a wonderful alter ego as the doomed pianist. The movie had a doomed quality, commercially. I lean toward those movies."

Sarris admits that this was one of the motivating factors behind his championing the auteur theory. "The movies we loved were footnotes of histories being written. Auteurism was about subtext. The way we looked at subtext changed movie criticism."

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