Lights, Camera, Conversation: The demise of Andrew Sarris, like that of Pauline Kael, is really the demise of a certain kind of cultural climate where films mattered. Really mattered
“Andrew Sarris, one of the nation’s most influential film critics and a champion of auteur theory, which holds that a director’s voice is central to great filmmaking, died on Wednesday at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan.” This is how the New York Times opened its obituary, and it’s interesting to contrast it with another obituary in the paper, published a day later. That headline went “Susan Tyrrell, Oscar Nominee, Dies at 67”, and it ran about 500 words (which may be about the length Popular Mechanics might devote to a write-up about a cog in the wheel, which is what many supporting actors, frankly, are).
The remembrance of Sarris, on the other hand, ran three times that length. In other words, someone who plied his trade outside the film industry, as an observer and commentator, was deemed to have contributed more than someone who was nominated for an Academy Award (for the 1972 John Huston film Fat City). For a film critic to be remembered so, he must not only have really counted (and Sarris did) but he must have also belonged to an era where his craft counted. And the 1950s through the 1970s in America were when criticism counted the most.
Why were the critics of Sarris’ generation so important, so famous, so widely read, discussed, debated? Because, for the first time, critics were inundated with films worth “analysing”, and many of these films came from overseas. In 1950 alone, Max Ophüls made La Ronde, Jean-Pierre Melville made Les Enfants Terribles, Luis Buñuel made Los Olvidados, Jean Cocteau made Orphée, and Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon.
As these films began to appear in the U.S. — most likely a few years later — they invited critical analysis simply because if you didn’t analyse them, put them on the couch and parse through their hidden secrets, there was nothing you could write about. These were just not films that invited you to be entertained, however loosely that term applies to different sets of people. They demanded to be studied like textbooks, and the leading critics of the period were those who pored over (and poured themselves into) them with passion.
But it’s not as if films worth analysing hadn’t been released in earlier decades or in the English language. To take just two examples from a random year, 1941, there was The Lady Eve (at the light end of the spectrum) and CitizenKane (at the heavier end). Why didn’t the critics of the time write “analytical” pieces about these films that are worth remembering? (And who, frankly, even remembers the critics of this period?)
That development owed no small debt to the kind of criticism that was being practised in France, by the likes of André Bazin, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Here, for instance, is the kind of “deep analysis” we find in the review of Hitchcock’s The Birds by the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. “Whether Mr. Hitchcock intended this picture of how a plague of birds almost ruins a peaceful community to be symbolic of how the world might be destroyed (or perilously menaced) by a sudden disorder of nature’s machinery is not apparent in the picture.”
Contrast the feebly speculative nature of this analysis with the rock-solid observations in Truffaut’s review, written when the film was released in France. “No film of Hitchcock’s has shown a more deliberate progression: as the action unfolds, the birds become blacker and blacker, more and more numerous, increasingly evil.” And this passion, this respect for cinema, drifted back to American critics writing for magazines such as The Village Voice and The New Yorker.
The most well-known critics of these two publications were Sarris and Pauline Kael, and of their rivalry, the New York Times writes “Andrew Sarris gained renown as an intellectual duelist, battling most spectacularly with Ms. Kael... She delighted in lancing the auteurists as a wolf pack of nerdy and too-pale young men. Mr. Sarris returned the favor, slashing at her as an undisciplined hedonist. Devotees of the two critics, in Sharks-vs.-Jets fashion, divided themselves into feuding camps called the Sarristes and the Paulettes.” Can you imagine critics having devotees today?