Andrew Sarris, the erudite and influential film critic and teacher who brought the “auteur” theory to America, died today in Manhattan at the age of 83. Courtly and modest in personal manner, Sarris spoke — and wrote — softly. Not for him the stylistic literary fireworks and from-the-gut pronouncements of his great critical adversary Pauline Kael. But the clarity of Sarris’ identification of a distinctive directorial “voice” as the key artistic element in any film, stands the test of time as a profound organizing principle in the understanding, analysis, and criticism of the movie medium.
Sarris, who held a berth at the Village Voice for decades and later wrote for The New York Observer, was at the peak of his critical firepower in the 1960s and ‘70s, a unique time of great excitement for filmmakers and moviegoers: Intellectual debate about movies was fierce, and the philosophical division between those who embraced Sarris’ auteur theory and those who preferred Kael’s more sensory response to movies was a vital part of the fun of arguing passionately about the medium in the first place. Imported from France, where Francis Truffaut and fellow New Wave critics first developed the philosophy at the influential journal Cahiers du cinema, the auteur theory helped Sarris introduce a crop of stunning new European filmmakers to American audiences. Among them Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, and Akira Kurosawa; Sarris also championed homegrown auteurs who passed under the Hollywood radar as laborers working in the studio system — company men now recognized as giants, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock.
Sarris’ indispensible book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 is as vital to anyone wishing to understand and “read” movies today as it was when it was published in 1968. Indeed, as the content and language of movies morphs into a welter of sensations, and thumb-based (or even EW-style letter-grade based) assessment has become commonplace, the measured, observant, compassionate close study Andrew Sarris brought to the medium he loved so much is all the more valuable. It’s no secret that in a Kael-vs-Sarris world, my head is with the Sarrisites. But as someone who used to enjoy his gentlemanly greetings at the screenings he would attend with his wife, the equally influential critic Molly Haskell, my heart is with “Andy,” too.