By Glenn Lovell
Andrew Sarris, who died Wednesday at age 83, wrote about movies his entire life but most notably during the 1960s-1970s. It was a heady time, a time of spirited debate over the merits of Bergman, Antonioni and Kubrick. And the scrappy Sarris was at the center of it all, driving and informing the dialogue with his long, rambling, impassioned columns for the Village Voice. The following is an interview I did with Sarris in 1994.
FOR THOSE OF US who began thinking seriously about film in the ’60s, he was the guru, the man who somehow made it all make sense. For his opposite numbers across the Atlantic ‒ Cahiers du Cinéma critics Francois Truffaut and Jean- Luc Godard ‒ he was the chief American proponent of the “auteur theory,” which downgraded Hollywood’s more self-conscious “artists” and made heroes of Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger and especially Alfred Hitchcock.
At “65 going on 66,” Andrew Sarris is still hard at it, writing a weekly column for the New York Observer, teaching at Columbia University and putting the finishing touches on his 11th book, “The American Sound Film.”
Sarris, who will be speaking tonight on “The Iridescence of Irene Dunne” (Stanford Theatre, 7:30 p.m.), refers to his latest tome as “my magnum opus.” It was supposed to be out last year, but Sarris being one of the great dreamers and procrastinators pushed the deadline to this summer. “I haven’t done as much as I should have,” he says of his career in general, “but I’m a very late starter.”
Initially, he saw himself as a novelist. But the “real writing” didn’t come. At 27, after a stint in the Army Signal Corps, he submitted a review of “The Country Girl” to Film Culture (“I really panned it”). Remuneration: zilch. But that was OK; he was living with his mother in Brooklyn and working as a script reader for 20th Century Fox.
Four years later, he walked into the editorial offices of the Village Voice, then all of eight pages. Under his arm was a review of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Not only was it a rave, it argued that the “master of suspense” should be placed on a pedestal with the likes of Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman.
“It caused a great storm,” he recalls from his East Side apartment, which he shares with wife and fellow critic Molly Haskell (also a guest speaker for Stanford’s on-going screwball-comedy series). “I was treating Hitchcock as a major artist. Their idea of an art film was something by Bergman or Fellini. The idea of Hitchcock as a great artist was anathema.”
Those early reviews ‒ now described as “very crude, clumsy” ‒ caused quite a commotion among New York film buffs and left their author with a feeling of euphoria, power. A year later, Sarris began his reign as the Voice’s regular film critic. From 1961 to 1989, he wrote the “Films in Focus” column, which became required reading for fledgling critics and sparked very public feuds with anti-auteurists Pauline Kael and John Simon.
In 1968, Sarris loosed a salvo that reverberated throughout the critical community: “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions.” Beginning with the line, “The need for an updated film history is self-evident,” Sarris juggled the standings of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors. The darlings of the critics ‒ John Huston and Elia Kazan, among them ‒ were lumped under the heading “Less Than Meets the Eye.” Studio workhorses, such as Michael Curtiz and Henry Hathaway, were downgraded to “Lightly Likable.” Cerebral mavericks ‒ Richard Brooks, John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick ‒ were consigned to “Strained Seriousness.”
And the new residents of Sarris’ Pantheon? Such previously underrated entertainers as Chaplin, Keaton, Hawks, Fritz Lang and, of course, Hitchcock. Their personal vision of “a self-contained world” earned them a place beside Orson Welles, F.W. Murnau, D.W. Griffith. Reissued in 1985 with a new afterword by the author, “American Cinema” is required reading in most film aesthetics classes and, along with “What is Cinema?” by André Bazin and the collected reviews of James Agee, a seminal work in film scholarship.
Sarris himself believes the “cult of the auteur” has gone too far. All directors, even the hacks, are revered over screenwriters now. “It was never meant to be the last word, and I was never meant to be a prophet.”
Pressed for changes he would make in his rankings, Sarris says he’d leave the Pantheon category alone, but would be kinder to Wilder, Wellman, Frankenheimer, Leo McCarey, William Wyler.
“I’m always changing. Times change. Movies change. I think differently today than I did when I started out.”
As for the widely hailed Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey”), he’s still an overrated “superego.” Ditto David Lean, whose “Lawrence of Arabia” was panned by Sarris when it opened in 1962. He considered the epic gaseous and pretentious then, and still does.
Sarris’ recent favorites: Stephen Frears’ “The Snapper,” Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day” and (as he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Francophile) anything by Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. Critics who measure up by combining “intelligence and intelligibility”: Kael, Vincent Canby, Richard Corliss, Manny Farber, David Kehr and Haskell (who chronicled her husband’s prolonged hospitalization in ’85 with a mystery virus in the unique memoir “Love and Other Infectious Diseases”).
At a time when many are decrying the state of film criticism ‒ where gossip and the direction of one’s thumb have replaced learned discourse ‒ Sarris is surprisingly upbeat. “I think film criticism has improved enormously,” he says. Sarris’ assessment of his own writing: idiosyncratic, a weakness for alliteration. “I’m lazy ‒ I don’t work hard enough on my writing.” He believes such traits kept him from breaking into mainstream publications. He would have joined The New Yorker or The New York Times (like buddy Canby) “in a second.” He left the Voice, he says, because he was “tired of that atmosphere. It was too political, too radical, for my taste. I’ve always been sort of a centrist, an anomaly.”
The key to his longevity, he believes, is that, for him, film was always a means to an end: self-awareness. “Film enabled me to find myself. Through film, I’ve been telling the story of my life, like an ongoing memoir.”