If you are a film buff of a certain age, you almost certainly have somewhere on your bookshelf a battered, well-thumbed paperback copy of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, one of the handful of truly indispensable books about movies ever published. I’m the proud owner of a first-edition copy, purchased back in the day for the princely sum of $2.95, and I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have stolen from… er, referenced it, and been inspired by it, during the past several decades.
It’s the book that more or less established the ground rules for judging the works of key American film directors (and foreign filmmakers who dabbled in English-language cinema) according to the standards of the auteur theory, a still-controversial concept -- despite the contributions of myriad collaborators, every significant film ultimately reflects the vision of one individual, its director, who is that film’s sole “author” – that originated with French critics (and future filmmakers) such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, but was popularized on these shores by the esteemed Andrew Sarris himself. Like millions of other academics, film critics and plain ol' movie buffs, I devoured the volume at an impressionable age, and took Sarris' judgments (even those I disagreed with) to heart.
I was honored to meet Sarris on just a few occasions, most memorably during a panel discussion at the 1989 Sarasota French Film Festival, when I found myself on stage next to him and Molly Haskell, his lovely wife and fellow cineaste, and silently thanked God that the festival organizers inexplicably considered me worthy to be seated up there alongside them (and a few other august folks). The effortlessly ingratiating couple actually made me feel, fleetingly, like an equal – but, of course, I knew, and know, better.
At the time, I asked Sarris, politely but eagerly, when he might be writing a sequel to his masterwork. Sarris smiled warmly – as I’m sure he smiled the zillion or so other times some acolyte posed the same question – and offered a vague promise of “considering” the idea. Truth to tell, though, I always suspected that, like most film critics, he had a natural-born aversion to sequels.
Andrew Sarris died Wednesday at the age of 83 – decades after solidifying his position among the pantheon of influential and essential American film critics, and after more than six decades of offering erudite, perceptive, and just plain fun to read essays and reviews for The Village Voice, New York Observer and other outlets. To give you some idea of his range: He was one of the first U.S. critics to recognize the greatness of Psycho – his annual Ten Best lists routinely embraced a stunning diversity of films and filmmakers – and nearly 50 years later, he chose, with an almost gleefully defiant fervor, Juno as the best American movie of 2007.
My deepest sympathies and best wishes go out to Molly Haskell, and to those friends and colleagues who knew Sarris intimately. As for myself, I feel disconsolately melancholy right now, as I consider that halcyon era – roughly speaking, the early 1960s to the late ‘70s – when film critics like Sarris, Haskell, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Judith Crist and a young whippersnapper named Roger Ebert wrote passionately and provocatively about cinema as art and entertainment. At the risk of sounding like someone besotted with nostalgia: It was a time when films and the people who wrote about them seemed a great deal more substantial, and were taken much more seriously, than they are in our present time.
At the same time, though, I think of Sarris maintaining his enthusiasm and optimism for cinema as long as he did. And I think of my friend Roger Ebert turning 70 a couple days ago, still going strong and writing brilliantly. With those two inspiring examples to guide me, how can I let a little thing like my upcoming 60th birthday slow me down? Besides, I should remind myself, as I often remind my students, that great movies still are being made. And today, arguably now more than ever, those great movies – and the auteurs who make them – still need dedicated champions to keep spreading the good word.