Andrew Sarris, the influential film critic and champion of the director's voice in filmmaking, died on June 20 at age 83. In this essay from our June 2010 issue, Harold Meyerson explains the critic's role in teaching him to love movies.
I grew up in Movieland—Los Angeles' Westside in the 1950s and 1960s. I went to school with the kids of people in the industry, which was so hopelessly uncool, we didn't even talk about it. (The guy with whom I co-edited my high school literary magazine never mentioned that his father had created a well-known sitcom—I Love Lucy. I found out when he wrote about it 30 years later.) A sclerotic studio system was churning out The Sound of Music while we were deciphering Dylan and watching Vietnam burn every night on the tube. When I showed up in New York to go to college, the last thing I expected to study, or love, was the movies.
But New York, circa 1968, had other ideas. There was, of course, no shortage of politics to entice me, but by the late '60s, New York also offered the closest thing to an overview of film history that anyone had yet assembled. There were a dozen or so theaters scattered across Manhattan where the Marx Brothers or Bogart or Jean Renoir were in seemingly constant rotation. In 1969, the Elgin Theater down in Chelsea presented the first retrospective of Buster Keaton's silent comedies, most of which hadn't been screened since they'd been dumped in assorted attics 40 years earlier.
I hadn't grown up with these films—the Keatons, the Renoirs, the Jimmy Cagneys. Pictures like these (the ones that could be found, anyway) were shown at occasional museum screenings, but that wasn't really enough to put them on the larger cultural landscape. By the mid-1960s, however, a couple of film critics—Pauline Kael at The New Yorker and Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice—had helped create a new appreciation for old movies: not the Oscar-winning dinosaurs like Ben-Hur but any number of then-obscure noirs, comedies, musicals, and westerns, singled out because they were sharp and hip (Kael) or actual works of art (Sarris). Within a few short years, movies became the stuff of college curricula and film programs, of elite attention and intellectual argument, of America's flickering historical consciousness.
I had already begun touring the rep house circuit (the Thalia, the Symphony, the Elgin, Theater St. Marks), but the moment of my irreversible conversion to whatever it is I subsequently became—pop-culture critical historian, cineaste, Turner Classic Movies addict—took place not in a theater but in some Upper West Side bookstore as I thumbed through a new book by Sarris: The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968. What stopped me dead in my tracks was its presumption. Sarris ranked the directors of American movies (and directors, or more properly, good directors, were the auteurs of movies, he argued in the argot of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd). He then ranked the movies, year by year. My immediate reaction was disbelief. Anyone's immediate reaction had to be disbelief. Sarris could distinguish between the 33rd and 34th best films of 1952? Really?
This was disbelief, however, that inspired not dismissal but further investigation. These lists, these chutzpah-dikah lists, may have affronted common sense, but they also sorted wheat from chaff, called attention to obscure delights, and constituted a plausible history of American movies at a time when no other such history really existed. Sarris' mini essays on individual directors were hit-and-miss, but some were stunning. Their brevity accentuated his talent for critical concision: John Ford's style, he wrote, "has evolved almost miraculously into a double vision of an event in all its vital immediacy yet also in its memory image on the horizon of history." That's a pretty damn good description of Ford.
Sarris' certitudes invited quarrel, and Kael was happy to oblige. Only directors could be auteurs? What about screenwriters? Studios? Fred Astaire? Greta Garbo? This discussion, taken up by thousands over the subsequent 40 years, never really settled the question, but it decidedly enriched our knowledge of films. As for Sarris and Kael, these two prickly opponents, with radically different sensibilities and aesthetics, managed to rescue many of the same neglected gems—a number of Hawks and Hitchcock pictures, for instance—from decades of critical neglect. Even more fundamentally, by stringing his certitudes together in crazy lists, Sarris ex-panded not only the world of critics but also that of cultural historians, including such budding semi-cultural historians like myself.
In hindsight, I took The American Cinema as a challenge. You think I'm overrating von Sternberg? Sarris was asking me. You think I don't quite get W.C. Fields? You think I'm right about the greatness of Ford's Will Rogers films? Go see them. Prove me right. Prove me wrong.
And since that day in the Upper West Side bookstore, I've been doing just that.