Thursday 21 June 2012

Andrew Sarris

The library in Farsta, the suburb of Stockholm where I grow up, did not have many film books. A dodgy one in Swedish and Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock was all there was. So I had to educate myself, as a (very young) cineaste. One day in a second hand book store in downtown Stockholm I found a well-read copy of Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, heavily annotated by an unknown former owner. I bought it on the spot, and I have yet to put it down.

When I found it I had already developed my own tastes in cinema, and I noticed that several of my favourite filmmakers were in his categories "Less Than Meets the Eye" and "Strained Seriousness". I was particularly confused as to why David Lean and Billy Wilder were less than met the eye. He did not like Fred Zinnemann either. But it did not matter, the point is that I did not use Sarris to tell me what was good and what was not, I already knew that. I used him as a way to sharpen my own views, to engage with his thoughts and to agree or disagree, whatever the case might be. I also read him for the luxury of being in the present of somebody who took film seriously, passionately and intelligently, and who also knew how to write seriously, passionately and intelligently. So even if he did not influence my opinions, he helped me become the historian and scholar that I am today. The first dissertation I wrote as a film student was a study of the films of David Lean (an awful piece, even though it has some good ideas). My Master dissertation was a study of the films of Howard Hawks (a piece that I actually can read without much embarrassment). My thesis, which I just sent of to be printed and bound, is a study of the films of Hasse Ekman. I did not quote Sarris in the first, but he does figure in the other two. Of course.

He is frequently misunderstood by his critics, not least by Pauline Kael. He did not disregard other contributors such as screen writers, neither did he disregard the context. His views on cinema were suitably complex and evolving (he later changed his mind about Wilder for example, and moved him up to the top of the pedestal), and about "auteur theory" he said that it was "not so much a theory as an attitude". I never really understood why it was even called a theory, unless for polemical reasons. And polemical he was.

When I heard the news I tweeted one of my favourite quotes from him:

"In cinema, as in all art, only those who risks the ridiculous have a real shot at the sublime."

Another favourite is:

"Anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr Jekyll, a film with a scenario so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr Jekyll."

He once said "People think I'm dead, but I've only moved to Los Angeles, which pretty much amounts to the same thing." Alas, now he really is dead, and the world of film criticism is the poorer for it. We all are poorer for it.