Andrew Sarris was an influential film critic. (File photo )
To paraphrase Jean Cocteau on Picasso, there was American film criticism before Andrew Sarris and there was American film criticism after Andrew Sarris, so it's hard not to view his death Wednesday at age 83 as the end of an era.
It's an era Sarris himself started, not so much with his incisive criticism at New York's Village Voice as with his landmark survey history, "The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968."
Since so much of what Sarris brought to the table is now taken for granted — including his celebrated championing of the "auteur theory" — it's difficult to go back and pinpoint the elements that made his book such a potent experience when first encountered. But several factors stand out.
The first was the nerve of judgmentally dividing up all of American filmmakers into 11 categories, ranging from "Pantheon Directors" and "The Far Side of Paradise" through "Expressive Esoterica," "Lightly Likable" and "Strained Seriousness."
Though I'd quibble with some of his choices today, the subjective notion of accuracy is far from the point. The very act of division encouraged the kind of serious discussion about Hollywood that was ultimately more important than who was placed where. The idea was not to be narrow-minded, to look at as wide a spectrum of film as possible before reaching decisions as to who was important and who was not.
The second is the book's startling comprehensiveness. Sarris not only dealt with some 200 directors but also found specific things of note to say about each of them. Even more impressive was the book's alphabetical list of over 6,000 films with the year of release and director included.
A third factor is the book's acuity of judgment conveyed in an elegant style. One did not so much read "American Cinema" cover to cover as bit by bit, consulting and digesting the sections on particular directors when appropriate. For years afterward, for instance, after making the extended acquaintance of a particular filmmaker's work, I'd reach for "American Cinema" and see how my thoughts about it compared with Sarris'.
Invariably I'd be impressed by how well he'd extracted each filmmaker's essence. I still, for instance, can't see anything by Sam Fuller, a director I'd been fascinated with since childhood, without thinking of Sarris' dictum: "Fuller is an authentic American primitive whose works have to be seen to be understood. Seen, not heard or synopsized."
Clearly Sarris' biggest and most important impact was his championing of the auteur theory. Until I read his book I'd never heard of the politique des auteurs, and I was used to thinking about films one at a time without giving much thought to what if anything anyone except the actors had done previously. The auteur theory's championing of the director as an artist of consistent vision gave me a new way to examine films, to better understand them.
Like many young critics, I had a tendency, especially at first, to overdo things, to over-apply Sarris' thoughtful lessons. Living and working in Los Angeles for many years have made me realize, for instance, that the role of the writer is at times as overlooked now as the director's ever was, if not more so.
I also began to realize that, especially in the American system of filmmaking, any number of individuals, from the cinematographer, editor and producer to the production designer, composer, art director and so on down the line, can all have their own strong influences on the shape of a film. In fact, to accurately assign either praise or blame on any given picture, you have to be on the set yourself or risk being easily misled.
Looking at all this now, I've come to realize that Sarris' influence was somewhat different than I'd initially imagined. It's not so much his passion for the director that has been lasting, but his intelligent passion for film itself. Reading "The American Cinema" convinced me, almost without my knowing it, that the movies were a subject that could handle serious thought, that could be written about lucidly and intelligently. I still think that's true, and whenever I manage a successful stab in that direction, I feel myself in Sarris' debt.