Andrew Sarris is gone, but film criticism is alive and well

With the news today that Andrew Sarris has passed away, it seems like a fair moment to reflect on the state of film criticism in general.  After all, it was Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael who I would argue made film criticism into a free-standing art form worth practicing with the work they did during the ’60s and ’70s.  I grew up reading both of them, and while I wouldn’t say either of them had a direct influence on my voice, they both taught me that it is important to have a voice and to understand why you react the way you do to a movie.

Here’s the thing… I don’t think real criticism should serve as a consumer reports piece, because I don’t think it can.  I don’t believe I can tell you whether or not a movie is worth your time and money.  Instead, what I can do is try to describe a film, examine how it accomplishes its goals or doesn’t, and set it into a context regarding genre, subject matter, thematic content, or filmmaker’s career.  My job, if I do it properly, is to write a piece that stands as a separate experience from the film itself, something that should read the same a decade from now as it does this week.  Anyone who presumes to be able to tell their entire readership “You will like this” or “You will hate this” does not think very much of their readership.  I know that you guys have a wide range of perspectives, and no two of us have identical taste.  Sarris, like Kael, was one of those critics whose work remains a pleasure to read now because he was willing to dig deep into a piece of material, and his command of language allowed him to craft compelling reads, week after week, piece after piece.

Much has been written today about the way Sarris helped advance the “auteur theory” here in the States, and certainly that is one of the major accomplishments he leaves behind.  Every time you see the credit “A Film By” with a director’s name attached, you’re seeing a direct result of the stranglehold that theory has on the way this industry thinks.  The director has become the primary author of a movie in many people’s minds, and it has shifted the balance of power in this business quite a bit.  Sarris deserves much credit for the way he challenged his readers to think about films and filmmakers, but like Siskel and Ebert, his influence has certainly had its downside as well.  I know many screenwriters and producers who feel like the auteur theory has created an imbalance in the creative process that can be insurmountable, especially when they are working with someone who doesn’t really see the point in collaboration.

Anything that creates smart conversation about film is a good thing, and I spent some time this afternoon going through the various Sarris reviews that I found online.  The vast majority of his work was done in a pre-Internet age, and it’s only been over the last few years that The Village Voice has started adding some of his older work to their digital archives.  For example, I wanted to read his best of list from the year I was born, and sure enough, there it is.  And I also wanted to sample some of the major cultural events that happened during his time as a critic and see how he weighed in on them.  Take “Easy Rider,” for example, a film that marks a seismic shift from one era of filmmaking to another.  Sarris was less than impressed.  On the other hand, he offers more of a defense of Leone’s “Duck You Sucker” than most critics were willing to attempt, and I agree.  Having just revisited “Barbarella” on Blu-ray the other day, I was happy to see that Sarris treated it fairly, as an interesting mess instead of the outright disaster it is often accused of being.

I find it intriguing that he defends “Bonnie and Clyde” against the attacks of Bosley Crowther by pointing out how Crowther seems perfectly fine with the casual comic-book brutality of the James Bond movies.  It’s hard for modern viewers just coming to “Bonnie and Clyde” now to understand what a landmark it must have been at the time, and that’s one of the ways I find Sarris really valuable, as a signpost of changing ideas and artistic movements.  When he wrote about “Deep Throat” and “Last Tango In Paris,” he’s not approaching it as someone who is numbed from decades of pornographic mainstream culture, but as someone standing there on the front lines of a major change in what was acceptable, and his work meant something.  It captured that moment.  And I love his “Godfather” review because at this point, “The Godfather” is one of those films that is so completely trapped in the amber of critical exultation that it’s hard to see it as a film instead of An Institution.

I would never presume to put myself on any sort of even level with a guy like Sarris, but I like to think that the work I do is on the side of the angels, elevating the conversation instead of just reducing it to pithy insults and “please quote me on the poster” turning of a phrase.  I want to leave behind a body of work with some merit, and every year that I do this, I feel like I get a little closer to that ideal, like I hone my craft a little bit more.  There was a time where I had stumbled into this gig, and I treated it like a day gig, something I did instead of my “real” work, but the longer I do it, the more I feel like this is just as much my “real” work as the screenwriting I do.  More than that, though, I feel like there is so much debate about whether there is any point to film criticism that the only way to settle it is by doing the sort of work I feel makes a difference.  If I stop writing about film, I can’t complain about the state of things.

Right now, I’m not part of any critic organizations.  I’m not opposed to them, and I think when Sarris co-founded the National Society Of Film Critics, it was an era where the people who joined that group were all battling to make sense of the changing nature of an art form, and the organization was one of the major battlegrounds where that debate took place.  More than ever, I want people who write about film to understand that their work should matter, and it can matter, but they have to take it seriously, too.  It’s not enough to demand respect.  You have to respect the tradition you’re part of, and you have to read the work of those who came before you so you can see the best examples of what it is we do.  There are more voices than ever in the mix, and I think it’s an age that Sarris predicted, although it doesn’t look the way he expected.  We may not have room at every major newspaper for film critics these days, but that’s fine.  As long as you have Internet access, you have an outlet, and the best writing about film that’s going on is often not by the paid critics who have to see every single new release, but rather by the obsessives and the true believers, the ones who come home from a day job and spend their night reviewing an obscure title from 1973 that they found on VHS.  They write because they have to, because it helps them make sense of things, and because they have to share this passion and capture it somehow.

That’s what Sarris and Kael both did better than almost anyone… they were able to capture their own passion for film in such a clear way that you can still feel the excitement in every word, in every line.  Their snapshots of a changing cinema will never fade, and they established a high watermark that all of us who do this today spend all our time reaching, hoping that one day our own work will affect others to the same degree.

Andrew Sarris, you are missed.