Today I am not sure why I was so resistant, but I remember back in the fall of 1972 feeling suspicious, dismissive, and at times even afraid of the so-called auteur theory. I would debate with its local acolyte, Jeff Godsill, endlessly. I am not sure now what changed my mind or won me over, but it may have been the fact that the first book I bought as a kid was Hitchcock-Truffaut, and that implied in that purchase was the belief that the director was the author of the works. Thus, as Stuart Byron describes it in Favorite Movies, the acceptance of auteurism came as a religious revelation and the god was Andrew Sarris.
Being a comic book obsessive as a tyke I turned that collecting mania to my favorite reviewers and writers, and began amassing collections of Sarris, Robin Wood, Durgnat, and numerous others. The first copy of the Village Voice I bought contained Sarris's two-part consideration of four films exemplifying violence in the cinema.1 I subscribed, with the indulgence of my mom, and dutifully tore out Sarris's reviews and filed them in folders by year.2
Still have them. Yesterday upon learning of Sarris's death at the age of 83 I pulled out his review of Bang the Drum Slowly from 6 September, 1973, a review that seems representative of Sarris's breadth of reference. In the course of the review he mentions Fat City, Paper Lion, Maurie, Brian's Song, the taboo on sports films v. war films, Darwin, sports on TV, Catch-22, sentimentality v. pathos, Cocteau, the Keystone Cops, The Best Years of Our Lives, Odd Man Out, Lou Gehrig, Melville, Hamlet, and the Kennedys. All to focus on a baseball movie adapted from the Mark Harris novel by John Hancock. As my colleague Shawn Levy once said, Sarris wrote every review as if he were making the definitive statement on the film at hand.
Just as Freud was not as Freudian as his followers, Sarris was a flexible auteurist. He was sensitive to acting, scripting, photography, and the other facets of filmmaking and their contributors, as well as the political and sociological realms from which movies emerged. The director may not always be the best candidate for a film's authorship, but he or she is often the most interesting to follow. Later I developed an interest in screenwriters but for all the words on the page a movie is rarely written in the sense that a Joe Mankiewicz film or screwball comedy or a Robert Towne script is written where often the ideas are embedded in lively dialogue. Still, I enjoy reading screenplays as much as seeing the movies made from them.
And he was also able to change his mind, a characteristic that was often oddly held against him. From 2001 to Billy Wilder and John Huston, Sarris was inclined to revise first impressions, from the foundational believe that cinema is a vast ocean into which one must dip continuously.
Though opponents such as Dwight Macdonald mocked Sarris's prose style, without every explaining why, I loved the way he wrote, as much as I did the styles of Wood and Durgnant. It was a distinctive style, with its alliteration and its stately demeanor that could just as well descend to anger as identifiable as the images of a Ford or a Hitchcock, and able to allow numerous tangents while always keeping an eye on the main subject. Most important, the style was less wearing than that of, say, Pauline Kael, who was tolerable only in small, bi-weekly doses.3
In February of 1976, I wrote Sarris an illiterate fan letter which he was nice enough to answer anyway. Of all the fan letters I've written, only Sarris and Gore Vidal answered, at least back in the snail mail days. I mention this only as a means to underscore Sarris's much-commented-upon courtliness and and generosity and evenness of temper. More evidence of that mood can be found in the documentary For the Love of Movies, which should be required viewing for all cinema goers.
There was a somewhat premature festschift dedicated to Sarris which was published in 2001 (or maybe it came out just in time), and Molly Haskell published a memoir of being with Sarris through a rare illness, called Love and Other Infectious Diseases, which is also interesting for its descriptions of film culture at the time, and for Ms. Haskells always soothing prose style. But what one now hopes is that the Library of America, having already cannonized Farber and Kael, will now take on Sarris with a one-to-two volume collection.
1 Acquired at the Fourth Avenue News in downtown Portland, situated in a hole-in-the-wall between the Blue Mouse theater, which showed vaguely erotic adult fare such as The Happy Hooker and House of Whipcord, and the Round-Up, open 24-hours and showing four films cycled in one at a time so that every four days the bill was all new, a late night refuge for the then-homeless or indigent, and hosting a bathroom of lethal mien.
2 The two part violence article isn't (yet) in Google Books's Voice archive, but one hopes it will be there soon.
3 To paraphrase Evelyn Waugh on Tom Dreiberg, Pauline Kael was not as nice as she looked, as we learn from the lady's recent biography.