As they say in quantum mechanics, an observer affects the observed reality, so it’s no overstatement to say that Andrew Sarris changed the course of American cinema. By applying auterism to Hollywood, he revolutionized our self-image and, thereby, the films we see.
Writing was Sarris’s mainstay. He expressed himself in countless articles for the Village Voice and the New York Observer, as well as in his groundbreaking works The American Cinema – Directors and Directions 1929-1968 and “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” He wasn’t known as a teacher—except to the people he taught. I had the extraordinary good fortune to study the films of Max Ophuls with Professor Sarris, and I say without hesitation that those hours spent in his classroom at Columbia were the happiest of my academic life. Though he thought theory, he talked ideas. When I left his class, I no longer felt I was shirking my responsibilities by spending hours in a darkened theater; I felt I was addressing them.
I certainly wasn’t alone. In tribute to the impact Andy had on his students and colleagues, Director Talk has collected a number of anecdotes and memories from people who knew him at Columbia University. These stories might matter to no one but us, but oh, how they mattered to us.
Thank you, Andrew Sarris. Earrings of Madame de has long been supplanted by Jacques Demy’s Lola as my favorite film, but I know that you would approve of my path for getting there, if not the choice.
Judy Gelman Myers, Editor, Director Talk
John Belton, professor of English and film at Rutgers University, author of Widescreen Cinema:
I started reading his column in high school (class of ’63). In college I sent him a fan letter (no reply). In grad school, I got him to contribute to a course packet on Hitchcock (not a bad group; other contributors were Bill Paul, Tim Hunter, Fred Camper, myself, and others). Then I got to write for him at The Village Voice (early ’70s). Finally, I got to share an office with him for eight years at Columbia. To paraphrase a line from Howard Hawks’ Man’s Favorite Sport?, for me it was like playing on the same team with Mickey Mantle. I last saw him two years ago at an NYFF screening of the restored Lola Montes. So he certainly was there–shaping for me–the trajectory of my involvement in film.
None of the obits spend more than a sentence on his time at Columbia (which is volumes for me). I suppose that was appropriate. It was something of an afterthought for Andy (but even his afterthoughts were often brilliant). His legacy is his work as a journalist, and the obit writers seem to share a recognition of him as one of their own.
Lift up your vermouth cassis and give him a toast, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Ajit Duara, film critic, OPEN magazine and visiting professor, Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication:
Though translated into English later, Andre Bazin’s collection of writings Qu’est-ce que le cinema (What is Cinema) was published from 1958 to 1962. Beautifully written, the impact of the essays on the art and craft of film writing was huge. For any cineaste, reading Bazin on film is an epiphany. He proves that you can be a film theorist without being a pedant, you can deconstruct film without taking anything away from its essential magic, you can be personal, even moral, without being judgmental.
Andrew Sarris published his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” and it is not difficult to imagine that he saw how Bazin had positioned himself as an interpreter of cinema to French society, how he had woven an abstraction like “auteurism” into French culture; and then, perhaps, he thought of how he could do the same with a completely different system of cinema, and with a very skeptical, perhaps “anti-intellectual” reading public in America.
The vastness and the complexity of the studio system in America cinema would make identifying auteurist characteristics in a director’s work, even over a period of years and films, almost impossible. Sarris knew this, but he watched movies obsessively (in three Sarris courses I attended at Columbia in the early 1980s he would mention watching certain films fifty times each, and this was before VHS or DVD). He had the memory of an elephant, and he used forensics to piece together details in mise-en-scene, for example, that might be apparent in several films of a director, and that could indicate the director’s particular style of self-expression.
His monumental work, The American cinema – Directors and Directions 1929-1968, is a magnifying glass, a telescope, and a zoom lens. What he set himself out to do was to demonstrate that American cinema was the most important cultural documentation of US history in the period that the directors were working. This book takes individual styles and puts them into contexts that are historical, sociological, literary, and, of course, aesthetic.
Bazin had positioned himself very similarly in France with all the arguments that he used to bring “high seriousness” to film writing and by emphasizing how the essential dialogue between director and audience—the auteur theory—makes for good cinema and, by extension, good film criticism.
Keith Gardner, sound engineer, NBC:
More impressive than teaching/speaking with a mouthful of…was it… egg salad was the fact that whenever we (mostly Armond White) abducted the class (Columbia’s MFA program in film in the early 80’s, where I went to study with Sarris) and showed whatever film we wanted to see despite the class syllabus, Professor Sarris would rush in after the film had been shown and start lecturing (he never watched the films with us), to be inevitably stopped and told that we hadn’t seen the film that he was talking about. He would then ask what we had seen…and, ON A DIME, start lecturing on whatever we HAD seen. No Preparation. No Nothing. Pure Sarris.
He blew our minds with his favorite films (The Golden Coach, Ugetsu, Madame de) and his favorite directors (John Ford, Max Ophuls, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock). His passion was contagious. His knowledge was/is legendary. I have finally come around to (or is it grown old into) some of his opinions and am thankful that I did have a chance to tell him, in later years, that I had reached his appreciation level on John Ford. I am equally thankful that I didn’t tell him which of his opinions I still disagreed with. But, didn’t he instill that in us as well?
Robert Lang, professor of cinema at University of Hartford:
I have happy memories of Andrew Sarris—he was funny, good natured, and endearingly honest about his methods as a writer about film; and I’ve known for a long time that, although it may not look like it to others, he was, and remains, a profoundly important influence on my own formation as a film person. First I was his student; then I became his T.A.; later, during my two years as a young assistant professor at Columbia, I briefly shared an office with him in the surprisingly dingy Dodge Hall. We also lived on the same street in Manhattan for the thirty years that I was in New York—and so during my Columbia years we’d sometimes find ourselves on the same bus (the M4, I think). In the mornings, he would usually be reading the newspaper —Page Six of the New York Post. Once in a while, he’d call me on the phone at home: “Bob [nobody ever called me Bob], what movie are we seeing in class today?” I’d tell him. And he would say: “Uh, why don’t you go ahead and start the movie without me—I’m going to be a little late today.” (It must be said, though: he was never actually late for his lecture.) I always marveled at his apparent ability to talk about absolutely any film: he could keep up a continuous patter of penetrating insights and entertaining digressions (that only seemed to be digressions, but were not) and biographical information and historical context: in this mode, at this game, he was unbeatable. It took me a while to realize that there was much I could learn from him as a performer. The depth and breadth of his learning, and his sense of historical context, seemed effortless. He seemed to be a kind of Scheherazade, a raconteur, or teller of fascinating tales, but he was a critic and historian. He made it look easy; but now that I’m a teacher myself, I know it’s not. In personal conversation, he tended to look somewhere above your head, and speak in the same style he wrote in —because, as he was not ashamed to admit, he was hard of hearing, and was on surer ground when talking, rather then when listening. I liked his sense of humor, and his helpless, whinnying laugh. He was freely autobiographical, in a public-figure sort of way. His columns in The Village Voice—which for years were the best thing in the paper—and in The New York Observer, were like conversations, too. I’m glad I’ve got my copies of The American Cinema and You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: The American Talking Film–History and Memory, 1927-1949. I’ll be dipping into them and rereading them to the end of my days.
Jennine Lanouette, story consultant and screenwriting instructor:
My recollected impressions of Andrew Sarris range from the avuncular professor with stains on his jacket and billowing shirttails to the captivating storyteller who seemed to have a personal anecdote for every film he lectured on. I remember him as a treasured asset in the Columbia Film Division (“There goes Andrew Sarris!”), like a roving statue of himself. Yet, despite such a lion-sized reputation, he was always amiable and approachable, like some kind of high-brow Teddy Bear.
It was in his American Film History class that I first saw I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, an eye-opening lesson for me in what film can do. I was so struck that I chose it as the subject for my term paper. Then a strange thing happened. Something about the influence of his class enabled years of fear and dread of term paper writing to fall away, leaving me with a previously unknown ease and assurance as I articulated my thoughts. But, for some stressed-out-student reason, I was late with it, nonetheless.
Professor Sarris, as we respectfully addressed him, took a no-big-deal attitude towards my lateness and instructed me to bring it to his house instead. Ringing the doorbell, I expected to be simply handing it to him. But, when he opened the door, I was invited in and offered a seat in the living room. He took the paper from its manila envelope and proceeded to read it in front of me, perched on the edge of the couch, hunched over the coffee table, slowly turning the pages. I sat stiffly, looking around thinking, This is the living room of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell. Then, having nothing to read myself, I just watched him . . . reading my paper.
Finally, he turned over the last page, looked up at me with a bemused smile, and made some rather affirming comments. I gathered that he liked it. He even mumbled a couple of things that seemed to indicate he’d learned something. My focus was on the film’s screenplay, not an area he generally prioritized. Although he only gave me a B+ (I had neglected to discuss camera angles and mise en scene), I left his apartment with a very satisfied feeling of having finally figured out how to do this paper-writing thing on my own terms, while also having caught and held the interest of Andrew Sarris.
I trace the roots of my current writings in screenplay analysis back to that day in Professor Sarris’s living room. There was something about his openness and acceptance that allowed me to find my voice. My sense is he was open to any voice that was intelligently conceived. That’s the kind of information sponge he was.
Sadly, I have lost that paper. But a few years ago, I was asked to write an article for Release Print magazine about a film that illuminated a social justice issue. I drew upon my recollections of the I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang analysis I did for Professor Sarris. That article is now reposted on my blog: http://www.jenninelanouette.com/blog/?p=377.
Dennis Myers, novelist and screenwriter, Coyote:
Andy occasionally roamed the dingy spaces of Dodge Hall, his shirt struggling free from the waist, his gaze fixed to some invisible distant horizon. He never quite knew where he was headed or why he had to be there. He never appeared completely comfortable in the light. And so, if you’d mistake him for some crazed Greek cook who had been ripped away from the Cosmos Diner kitchen and deposited without explanation in Columbia’s ivy tower…well, you’d be justified but mistaken.
So follow Andy into Room 511, the main screening room, where he would sit uncomfortably on a desktop and ask what film we had just seen. Without seconds’ hesitation, he would launch into a passionate account of this film, that film, any film, citing its importance to the director, to the cinema, to Andy’s own life…and to your own life. To see that Sarris was to glimpse the workings of man whose love of movies transformed America’s understanding of film into an appreciation of cinema. To see this was to see how the seeds of his thought and writings would help provide the perspective and confidence for one of America’s greatest decades of filmmaking, the 70s.
Candida Paltiel, producer, Mining Stories Productions. She studied with Andrew Sarris from 1981 to 1983 and received her MFA in film in 1984.
He was one of the central reasons why I chose to study film at Columbia University. Once I was introduced to the cinema of Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Max Ophuls, Francois Truffaut after a dry spell as an undergraduate in the social sciences, I wanted to study with their champion. I didn’t know what to expect in Dodge Hall in the fall off 1981, but what I encountered was a somewhat tall man, invariably in an old black suit, white shirt and tie, gray thinning hair a little slicked back, who spoke with a wry grin, in a somewhat high-pitched voice and a New York twang—if there is such a thing. He stood out in a department where the uniform of choice amongst the American male professors was chinos or jeans and open-collared plaid or Oxford shirts, who lectured or taught their courses with a mixture of earnestness and self-importance. You could call them by their first name, but you wouldn’t dare with Andrew Sarris.
Professor Sarris didn’t lecture. He talked…and talked. The courses might have been History of American Cinema, Auteur Theory, a seminar in film criticism. It was puzzling at first. One had to discern what he was focusing on. Eventually it all began to make sense. From other professors one had a cut-and-dried analysis: a lecture with a beginning, middle, and end. If you studied semiology, the films were dissected to a vanishing point, so that one no longer observed or experienced a work of art but an assemblage of parts in light and shadow, their meaning hollowed out. With Professor Sarris pleasure in the darkened theater was legitimized again. It wasn’t guilty pleasure— one could fall in love with the idols on the screen, experience joy, horror, heartache, and revel in the artistry of the cinematic form. I was permitted to lose myself in the artist’s work, and that is all he talked and talked about—Danielle Darrieux in the Earrings of Madame de, Le Ronde, Rear Window…and that is why I studied and love cinema.
A gentle man and a gentleman, he at times displayed his fighting spirit by flaring up and stabbing the air with his pen, “I kill. I kill with my pen!” A line that serves me well. Yet once, before we departed his classes, he admonished us with a paternal and professorial tone, the rare time he showed a personal interest in our future: “You will need to learn to stroke those who can help you move ahead.” I don’t remember the context, but it could have been said with a twinkle in his eye just after showing us All About Eve.
He could not be replaced or usurped. It was a privilege to have been his student.
Phil Rosen, professor of modern culture and media, Brown University:
In 1981-82, I was a fresh-faced assistant professor teaching graduate courses in the Film Division at Columbia. As I quickly discovered, the program leadership was heavily invested in a screenwriting-oriented MFA, and the scholarly side was not as well supported. (My salary was on soft money, and I moved to a more secure position the following year.) I guess poverty occasionally makes for luck. I shared an office with the rest of the scholarly faculty, which meant the young John Belton, whose work I already admired, and Andrew Sarris.
I had been reading Andrew for well over a decade, which made me no different than all the other aspiring film scholars and cinéphiles of my generation. And as with so many others, a well-thumbed paperback of The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 was my handbook and viewing guide to Hollywood cinema, even or especially when I disagreed with it. This landmark text has often and correctly been glossed as a development of the French politique des auteurs, and, of course, it was replete with the Sarris signature aesthetic judgments and verbal style, interlarded with wonderful insights about particular scenes and specific films, along with provocative, thought-provoking (if often unsupported) generalizations. Subsequently, much ink was spilled over the metaphysics of authorship, not to mention the assessments associated with the subjective tone of this canon-defining book. But for me there was something more. I considered myself aligned with the new film theory that had emerged in the 1970s as well as a new film historiography which was just beginning to make itself felt; and these new approaches often began by attacking impressionistic, subjective film criticism in the name of a rigorous search for system and structure. Despite the fact that he was sometimes a target, it seemed to me that there were kindred impulses implied in Andy’s work.
First, there was the breadth and depth of his knowledge of Hollywood cinema throughout its history. This knowledge was on the order of the encyclopedic. And second, there was something not always evident to all readers. He actually understood the utility and even unavoidability of the systematic overview. Of course, his gestures towards systematicity were quite different than those of, say, structuralist semiotics or Marxist dialectics. To begin with, they were openly associated with levels of aesthetic worth. Indeed, Andy flagged this with entertaining self-parody in the labels of his value categories (e.g., “Expressive Esoterica”). Yet even these categories constituted a classification table that cut across all of film history, as surely as any structuralist analysis of narrative. As idiosyncratic as it might superficially seem, The American Cinema signaled an attitude in favor of a comprehensive scholarly framework which would investigate cinema in depth, and at the moment it appeared, it was a strangely productive gesture indeed.
This suggests one of the important differences between Sarris and his mythical sparring partner, Pauline Kael. Kael gloried in a flamboyant anti-intellectualism. Despite all the whimsicality of his classificatory labels and his seemingly instant value judgments, Andy was never anti-intellectual. He always believed film worthy of the most intensive kind of study and scholarship. It is no accident that he became a professor of cinema at a major university, and Kael never did. Thus, as film studies was beginning its explosive spread through the university, Andy treated with respect even comparatively cold-blooded or ideological approaches for dissecting films—approaches he himself doubted and would never have undertaken. It is easy enough to identify him as a cinéphile, a lover of cinema, but this led him to an underlying and deep seriousness about it. I think he therefore respected the emerging new university-based scholarship on cinema as another kind of serious engagement with cinema, even when its practitioners came to conclusions quite different than his own.
This is my sense of him, partly because when I showed up at Columbia as a bright young new-theory whippersnapper, Andy treated me in the most friendly manner, with complete courtesy and also genuine intellectual curiosity and engagement. This is so even though, at that time, many associated with the new theory were attacking the very concept of the auteur. (It is true that I was not one of them. There always seemed to me to be some contradictoriness and, occasionally, bad faith in this, because of the embarrassing fact that many writers mounting these important critiques still identified films with directors’ names.) I never saw the slightest indication of defensiveness, resentment or hostility on Andy’s part. On the contrary, he sometimes engaged me in discussion of the new debates and cinema theory. At least once he invited me to his apartment for lunch, where we discussed both these and personal matters. I don’t think he was just being a nice guy to a young colleague with whom he was sharing an office (although he was nice). I think all he needed to see was my full-blooded engagement with cinema and with ideas about cinema, and as far as he was concerned, I was worth supporting. For corroboration, I turn to a leader in the new theory, Peter Wollen. Just a few years ago, I heard him pay public tribute to the importance of Andy in his own development, reminiscing about how Sarris had guided the youthful Wollen through the cinematic-journalistic world of Paris at some point in the 1960s.
When I met Andy, he was at the apex of his powers and influence, and the most precious venue for him was his Village Voice column. The Village Voice was the megaphone by which his own voice reached out to the world. We all read the essays he published there, which engaged with current cinema week after week. I was astonished at the seamless unity of his speaking and writing. I remember telling friends, “Have a conversation about a film with Andy, and you get a column.” It wasn’t just the passion for cinema and its importance, but the style. All the characteristics of his column were there when he spoke to you—the same sentence forms, the vocabulary, the mode of argument, the encyclopedic cross-references to both film history and current cinema, and even the alliterations. As soon as the discussion turned to a film, or an auteur, or cinema as such, it all came at you instantly and spontaneously. He was a completely consistent auteurist. There was no gap between his expressive style and his personality.
Rosanne Daryl Thomas, author, The Angel Carver; Awaiting Grace or Beeing: Life, Motherhood and 180,000 Honeybees:
One of my most abiding memories, other than his rambling erudition and my enduring gratitude to him for introducing me to the Auteur theory and French film in general, is a rather peculiar one: He was perennially identifying “the homosexual subtext” in what seemed to be every film I watched in his class. It seemed to me at the time that he would have found a “homosexual subtext” in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Hmmm….upon reflection, maybe he was right more often than I thought. Even now, it makes me smile to think of how I waited to hear him come up with his reliable and often puzzling diagnosis.
Peter Wentworth, president, Allagash Films:
In his film history class he once spoke of the origins for his love of movies and he told the following anecdotes. This is memory, not a direct quote, and I’m sure others have cited it.
He said, “During the depression I remember my father returning from a day where he was out looking for work. During dinner he began talking about the plot to __________ Movie, and as he kept talking, he became more and more animated and excited. But when he finished—and it was an outburst of some sort that he seemingly couldn’t control—it became evident that he hadn’t spent the day looking for a job; rather he had gone to the movies.”
John Wohlbruck, screenwriter, End of the Line (and projectionist in Andrew Sarris’s world cinema class):
I recall being two hundred feet away from Andy as I listened to his voice over a tinny speaker, trying to discern when to begin the film; Ihor and I were the projectionist for his world cinema class for one semester…perhaps it was the entire year. While I enjoyed, at a distance, his lectures, nothing filmic is percolating to the surface.
The only thing that I can recall with any detail is an aside he made about fashion. He said something like, “People always talk about how, if you wait long enough, clothes that you had twenty years ago would come back in style. Well, I’ve got news for you: they don’t. I’ve got a closet full of suits and ties that are twenty and thirty years old, and if I would try to get away with wearing them today, I’d be spotted by some sharp-eyed assessor who’d see that my lapels were just a smidge too wide for today’s fashion, or the ties, while narrow, weren’t quite narrow enough. So basically I’m holding on to a closet full of clothes that are trapped in time…which must make the fashion industry very pleased with itself.”
Or that’s how I recall it.
For one of the lions of cinema, I’ve got a memory of his closet.
Wish it could be more.
For more tributes from students or colleagues who knew Andrew Sarris at Columbia, check out
Armond White, http://nypress.com/armond-whites-mid-year-awards/
Ira Deutchman, chair of the Columbia University film program, as well as Professors Annette Insdorf and James Schamus, and Adcjunt Professor Henry Bean, http://arts.columbia.edu/memoriam-film-critic-and-professor-emeritus-andrew-sarris
For other tributes, check out
Film Comment, http://www.filmcomment.com/entry/andrew-sarris-eulogy