When Andrew Sarris died last month, his legacy was self-evident: as the godfather of auteurism in America, he inspired a way of thinking with lasting historical significance. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, with its comprehensive grasp of US film history to date, marked him early as something like a grand old man, a role his thoughtful, gentlemanly (for the most part), marvelously literate prose filled naturally. The auteur theory introduced the focus and scope of literary criticism to the world of film; Sarris’s reviews, though peppered with citations of technique, mostly place style at the service of tone and theme, which he expanded outward into the real world of politics and ideas. (Too frequently minus the last, most interesting part, this is still the dominant work done by serious print criticism, though Manny Farber’s esoteric vocabulary and charged readings of the visual seem to be gaining in influence as film culture moves online.) Films came to him to be clarified, classified, and placed in a context which expanded even as his shadow lengthened; Sarris’s great gift was to say not the most original or provocative thing but to say the most essential thing, and say it best.
But what the ordered categories of The American Cinema, and its fully formed philosophical scaffolding, have perhaps overshadowed is the specifics of Sarris’s inevitably personal, passionate pantheon—let alone the insights and sentences themselves, so often delightful for their own sake. (On the “psychic ills” of Nick Ray’s characters: “Jealousy of Joan Crawford is the murderous motivation of Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar.”) In his reviews for the Village Voice, especially the ones collected in Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955-1969, Sarris was funny, and at times scabrously political—funny in the way of a brilliant, impatient thinker who’s gotten out ahead of the culture with energy to spare and maybe a few hip readers to keep up with his tossed-off riffs. He was, after all, the first real film critic at the first real alt-weekly.
He was lapped, inevitably: In the 70s and 80s reviews collected in the Voice Film Guide, you see a then more conspicuously joke-y, agit-whatever J. Hoberman box Sarris out of the bohemian beat; Sarris bristles, at times, when feminists and other recent arrivals from academia seemed to implicitly challenge his postwar-humanist outlook. (Never moreso than during the great Jeanne Dielman contretemps of ’83, which, like so many of Sarris’s pieces, triggers nostalgia for a paper where writers dispensed with plot summaries and release cycles to have it out over the course of multiple issues for a readership eager to follow along and take sides.) So yes, the relevance of the name above the title to the average American moviegoer, and its accompanying cultural legitimacy, makes for Sarris’s most permanent achievement. But even the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, attends to the day-to-day business of living. In applying his monumental idea and agile mind to whatever the culture served up every week for the five decades he worked as a reviewer, Sarris was as lively, pointed and inspiring as anyone you could ever hope to read on the subway.