Monday, July 9, 2012

A brief (belated) reflection on Andrew Sarris

Film has lost too many legends of late. In the last several weeks, we have seen the deaths of Nora Ephron, Andy Griffith, and Ernest Borgnine, all of whose work had a lasting effect on the Movies (or TV, in Griffith's case). But for film writers and critics, a more personal loss was felt with the death of Andrew Sarris, champion of auteur theory and all-around titan of American film criticism for the last 50 years. At the time the news broke, I was so moved by the bevy of remembrances and beautifully-written tributes that I could hardly find the words myself. Having digested it all, I still feel at a loss for words, suffice to say that although he will best be remembered for his involvement in Cahiers du Cinema and his brief riff with Pauline Kael (which was barely that, as Jim Emerson documents), Sarris's work will remain important to me for a very different reason.
Sarris eschewed the journalistic/academic binary that began to emerge in the 1960's and 1970's, when film studies became more accepted at colleges and universities and journalistic criticism more resembled a buyer's guide. Overly simplistic, perhaps, but this schism was and continues to affect how criticism is approached and practiced. Sarris, though, was never quite comfortable in either mold. That is to say, he was very comfortable in both venues but rejected the ideological simplicity of their respective purposes. This was a staple of his compact writing about films and directors. He recognized the different ways to see movies—as art, as commercial property, etc.—and came at them with insights that blended various sensibilities. Many writers have also noted that Sarris also famously changed his mind about movies and was willing to re-evaluate them. That he fluidly and cogently addressed this in his writing gave it an evenly personal and knowledgeable aura. He made me want to know about movies, but he also made me want to experience them and feel them.
No matter the circuit, the best criticism should be penetrating, informed, and personal. To engage in a bit of playful wordplay, criticism should rest somewhere be analysis and poetry. It's not an easy balance to strike, but Sarris straddled this line so convincingly and, consequently, inspired so much great criticism. His death is a matter of great sadness for those who love and practice criticism. And it is a reminder that in an age of ubiquitous digital exchange—in which opinion seems to trump knowledge, and in which serious media reporters interrogate film critics as if the occupation is without meaning or merit—perceptive criticism is needed now more than ever. And all those who (thankfully) practice it have Sarris to thank.

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