Sad news. One of my favorite professors from my undergraduate days, Andrew Sarris, has died.
I think Pauline Kael has ended up much more widely known, but Sarris’s reviews from back in the day were as influential as hers, and remain well worth a look. Frankly, I prefer them to Kael’s. He is steadier than Kael, and more cerebral. These are attributes that I think she would happily disown, but that I think are valuable. Her writing is more gut-level and attention-grabbing. Arguably her reviews are ultimately more worth reading for learning about the art of writing reviews (and perhaps learning about the mind of Pauline Kael) than for learning about the art of film. His writing was, by contrast, focused; his words well-chosen and often pointed. He gave much thought to applying his evaluative criteria consistently, and so continually revised his evaluations of movies as well as the criteria themselves.
Sarris unapologetically loved American movies as well as European, and argued for a critical seriousness to be applied to them. He helped make the names of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock (no, he was not a critical darling until Sarris championed him!) and so many, many others. He imported and elaborated on auteur theory, that is, the idea that a director should be considered the author of a film. I don’t agree with auteur theory in principle or in practice. Art doesn’t need to be the product of a single person’s vision to be great art, and directors are given too much credit for films. When Sarris looked at film through that lens, though, he helped people see the artistry in films that had previously been dismissed has mass market hackery. A legitimacy was bestowed on genre films, and I will forever love him for that.
He was wonderful as a professor. It was in a way that you don’t want all, or even most of your professors to be, but it’s so important to the undergraduate experience to have at least one like him. I took three classes with him. I don’t think he ever even knew my name, although he was kind enough to pretend otherwise and write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school.
Other professors would introduce a movie, duck out while the movie was showing, and come back with a prepared lecture. He always watched the movie with us. Then he would just sit and talk. And talk and talk and talk. As if he were not fully aware there was a class in front of him. Not entirely coherent, but always incredibly entertaining. The other students and I used to joke about what our notes looked like after a lecture from him. There were a total mess, and included anecdotes from his childhood in Queens, squabbles with Pauline Kael, musings on Janet Leigh’s breast size and shape (“like missiles!”), and serious insight into movies.
This was in an academic era when film professors were too buried in theory to talk about what made movies lovable. Or worse, assumed that aesthetic appeal was solely a form of political indoctrination by the upkeepers of the dominant ideology, and thus should not be trusted. He unapologetically adored movies. He wasn’t even protesting the rest of then-current film scholarship, which included post-modernism and cultural studies as well as the last gasps of Marxism and psychoanalysis. He just didn’t engage with it, and readily pontificated about what made this movie more likable or well-done than that one.
His most memorable course was a semester-long apology to Billy Wilder. He had been dismissive of Wilder in the past, and decided to rethink him. Sarris was a genuinely humble man, always worried that he had been wrong either in his film theory or about a director. And when he worried about a director, he never worried that he had overestimated one, only that he had underestimated one. So we watched 13 of Wilder’s movies, and after each one he simply mused aloud about he felt about the film seeing it this time, and whether he had sold Wilder short. He decided, in the end, that he had.
Much of what he said still comes back to me at random times. That comedy ages faster than any other genre. That you should never tell people what your favorite movie is, because when they see it, they always think, “What’s the big deal?” (He proceeded to tell us that his favorite movie was Earrings of Madame de…, and showed it to us. And of course, I wondered what was the big deal.) He showed us Wilder’s wit, Renoir’s kindness and wisdom, Hitchcock’s unflinchingness and sexism. Although he never ever pulled rank or dismissed his students’ evaluations, by example he showed those of us who thought we loved movies what it really was to love movies.
Here‘s a nice remembrance from Roger Ebert. It seems worth saying, as well, that he was always, absolutely and unfailingly, kind and sympathetic. An absolutely lovely person.