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Andrew Sarris dies at 83; longtime film critic

A critic for the Village Voice and the New York Observer, he was a leading proponent of the auteur theory — that directors' work reflects their distinctive styles.

June 22, 2012|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Andrew Sarris was "the most influential American film critic of his time, and one of the jolliest,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert.
Andrew Sarris was "the most influential American film critic of his…

Film critic Andrew Sarris began his rise to prominence in the early 1960s when, fresh off an extended visit to Paris, he became a primary spokesman for a theory that would reverberate throughout the cinema world.

Screenwriters and producers may have thought they wielded the most influence. But Sarris, inspired by what Francois Truffaut had called the "politique des auteurs," introduced to America the controversial notion that, despite the collaborative nature of filmmaking, some directors are the "authors" of their movies and that the best directors, by imbuing a movie with their personal vision, make the best films.

He called it the auteur theory.

"The art of the cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much what as how," Sarris later wrote in his landmark 1968 book "The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968," which has been called the bible of the auteur theory.

Sarris, who elevated the status of film directors and molded a generation of movie makers and reviewers as the leading American proponent of the auteur theory, died Wednesday at a hospital in New York City. He was 83.

The cause was complications of a stomach virus, said his wife, film critic Molly Haskell.

Sarris was the longtime critic for the Village Voice and later the New York Observer. He also taught film for many years at Columbia University.

"He was the most influential American film critic of his time, and one of the jolliest," Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote Wednesday. "More than anyone else, he was responsible for introducing Americans to … the belief that the true author of a film is its director. Largely because of him, many moviegoers today think of films in terms of their directors."

Sarris first set out his ideas in "Notes on the Auteur Theory," a 1962 article in Film Culture magazine. It created a stir in film circles, most famously spurring a barbed attack in Film Quarterly by critic Pauline Kael, whom Sarris later referred to as his "arch-antagonist."

In the 1968 book, Sarris evaluated scores of directors and ranked them in importance, a method that led Kael to deride him as a "list queen."

Included in "The Pantheon" — "directors who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world" — were filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.

Among those Sarris included in "The Far Side of Paradise" — those who fell short of The Pantheon — were Frank Capra, George Cukor and Samuel Fuller.

Other categories included "Expressive Esoterica," "Lightly Likable," "Strained Seriousness" and, perhaps most controversially, "Less Than Meets the Eye." The latter category was for directors whom Sarris deemed to have "reputations in excess of inspirations," such as John Huston, David Lean, William Wyler and Billy Wilder. (Sarris later revised his opinion of Wilder and apologized to him.)

The auteur theory, said Jeanine Basinger, head of the film studies program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., "made everybody reevaluate [American cinema] as an art form and take it seriously for the first time. The idea was that masterpieces could actually be made in Hollywood commercial cinema."

Basinger was one of the nearly 40 film scholars, critics and filmmakers — including Ebert, David Thomson, Leonard Maltin, Richard Schickel, Budd Boetticher and Peter Bogdanovich — who contributed essays to "Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic," a 2001 tribute book edited by critic Emanuel Levy.

"I consider Andrew Sarris to be one of the most fundamental and valued teachers," director Martin Scorsese wrote in the book's foreword. "His writings led me to see the genius in American movies at a time when the cinema was considered a mindless form of entertainment, worthy of serious attention only if it came from Europe or Asia."

A self-described cinema "cultist" with a deep passion for — and an encyclopedic knowledge of — the movies, Sarris had, as Schickel wrote in his essay, "a gift for contextualizing movies, placing them accurately in the long run of a director's or actor's career or a genre's development."

"I have nearly always learned something I needed to know — indeed, should have known — from Andy's reviews."

The son of Greek immigrants, Sarris was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 31, 1928.

He received a bachelor's degree from Columbia College in 1951 and served two years in the Army Signal Corps, during which he wrote seven movie columns for the Fort Devens Dispatch.

In early 1955, Sarris later wrote, he was taking a night class in film appreciation at Columbia, "between meandering through graduate English and malingering in Teachers College," when the film teacher sent him to meet with Jonas and Adolfas Mekas.

The Mekas brothers, who had just launched a new magazine called Film Culture, took on the 26-year-old Sarris as an unpaid associate editor and reviewer.

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