Andrew Sarris, 1928–2012; or, Notes on the Theory of "Whadya Think?"
Andrew Sarris died on Wednesday at 83, and while I didn’t know him well or for as many years as some of my fellow reviewers, I did have the privilege of learning from him between 2001 and 2006, when I’d encountered him first as his student at Columbia University (where he taught for decades), then as I began work as a fledgling freelance journalist. I’d arrived at college starstruck to meet anyone whose work I’d read in print, let alone the only American critic with the foresight to nail Psycho—widely dismissed on initial release—as “the work of the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today.”
The class I took was International Film History, 1930–1960, but Sarris, in a sly inconsistency with the categorization in his magnum opus The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968, had included three weeks of British Hitchcock. He’d seen The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young and Innocent countless times, but before giving us his spin, his first impulse was always to find out what we’d thought. “Whadya think?” he’d growl to the class—it was a friendly growl—as soon as we reconvened from our post-film break. It’s a phrase I’d hear again, both as I audited subsequent courses and on the few occasions when I was fortunate enough to sit with him at screening rooms. The credits would barely have started before he’d lean over and utter those words.
Obituaries have called Sarris the “cerebral” counterpart to Pauline Kael’s great democratizer, but I’ve met few critics so eager simply to listen to what others had to say. His class would inevitably segue into current releases, at a time when he was eager to show us he was hip enough to like Mulholland Drive. He’d stay after hours and grab any review you wanted him to look at; it would inevitably be returned with encouragement like, “You don’t need me, you need an agent.” As much as his career was defined by establishing canons—the greatest filmmakers belonged in the “pantheon,” while others fell to the “far side of paradise” or were capable mainly of “expressive esoterica”—he remained open to disagreement. In his later years at The New York Observer, he’d taken to supplementing his annual best lists with a roundup of “films other people liked but I didn’t.”
That first course began in September 2001, and I’ll never forget Sarris’s response to 9/11 and the then-common assertion that the footage of the burning Twin Towers looked somehow “surreal” or “unreal.” He suggested that was only because movies had conditioned us to see “real” as something different. If the attacks were in a film, we’d have had crosscutting as preparation: a shot of an approaching plane, a shot of people in the World Trade Center, a shot of the plane’s distance from the towers and so on. What we were witnessing was something outside the grammar of conventional cinema—a horror that transcended movies.
It’s unlikely that any critic will ever champion a rubric as influential as the auteur theory, which Sarris imported to America and which holds that the director is the ultimate artist of a film. This was, in part, a polemical stance—at the time, conservative cultural critics thought movies couldn’t be art because it was impossible to detect the presence of a single artist within them.
Does the theory hold true? As far as I’m concerned, no sentence has ended the matter more succinctly than the last line of Sarris’s 1971 rebuttal to Kael’s famous “Raising Kane” essay. She’d argued that coscreenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles, was the true auteur of Citizen Kane, amassing evidence suggesting Mankiewicz had written most of the dual-bylined script. Sarris, looking to film form, pointed out that the authorship of the screenplay was irrelevant. “Orson Welles is not significantly diminished as the auteur of Citizen Kane by Miss Kael’s breathless revelations about Herman J. Mankiewicz any more than he is diminished as the auteur of The Magnificent Ambersons by the fact that all the best lines and scenes were written by Booth Tarkington,” he wrote.
I’m taking that last quote from The Village Voice Film Guide, a compilation that amasses some of the best work from Sarris’s nearly 30-year stint as chief Voice critic, including his influential praise of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“a man for both the coterie and the crowd”), his spat with protégé J. Hoberman over Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and his famous revised take on 2001: A Space Odyssey (which he’d rewatched “under the influence of a smoked substance that I was assured by my contact was somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano on a King Sano base”). I hadn’t seen him since 2006; our last significant run-in was when I was working as a proofreader on that book and bumped into him on the subway. “Take good care of our writing!” his wife, critic and former Voice journalist Molly Haskell, called after me as I exited at 66th Street. There’s no question that history will.
In the past day and a half, I’ve read comments to the effect that movies have gotten so much worse since Sarris’s heyday, or that Sarris must have been disappointed with the current state of film criticism. Not true; he didn’t wallow in notions of a halcyon age of film or of film writing. “We tend to forget all the bad movies of the past as the years go by, with the result that we tend to remember the past as a continuous golden age, unlike the dispiriting present,” he wrote in 2001. “Instead of generating a theory of progress for the medium, the movie scene substitutes a theory of regress. My own theory is that the past was not all that good, and the present is not all that bad.”
Or to put it another way, don’t let your fondness for British Hitchcock blind you to the next Psycho. As important as the auteur theory is, I’ll always associate Sarris with the most important movie critics’ dictum of them all: “Whadya think?”