Sarris was the original cine-hipster. Treating Hollywood directors with the respect and reverence once reserved for art house and avant-garde filmmakers is now common practice among cinephiles (esp. of the Fincher/Verhoeven variety), but in 1960, when he called Hitchcock “the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today,” it was revolutionary. All right, so the French beat him to it, but his Americanness, rigor, and complexity of thought made him a bona fide original.
I met him soon after turning thirteen, at a small Columbia College alumni dinner to which my dad was invited. Being the only person under fifty-five, I couldn’t have felt more out of place…until my dad had it made known that I was a huge film buff, at which point Sarris told me to pull up a chair next to him and then proceeded to talk about movies with me for the duration of the meal. I might have seen Breathless by then, but my knowledge of the New Wave(s) was limited. We mostly talked Tarantino and recent releases. Already so generous with his time (conversing exclusively with the kid at the table as a dozen pedigreed bankers and lawyers looked on!), he then welcomed me to sit in on his lectures at Columbia. That would be the next place I saw him—though years later, when I took his French New Wave course in my first and his last semester at Columbia—save a brief encounter in the summer after the dinner, when we crossed paths at the Orpheum cineplex on Third Avenue. He had just seen Linklater’s Bad News Bears, which he said he enjoyed; I was going to see Michael Bay’s The Island.
The years passed. I continue to gobble movies down, increasingly seriously and adventurously, but regrettably much of the film writing I read was limited to the critics that followed the original wave of auteurists in America and abroad. When I found out I’d be able to take a class with Sarris, I rushed to Book Culture and finally bought a copy of The American Cinema: Directors and Directions. Perhaps cinephiles in the 1960s took auteurism too dogmatically, but the reality is that it still shapes our cinephilia, most of all because it was so brilliantly articulated and brandished in Sarris’ The American Cinema. It never ceases to inspire, whether consulted as a guide to the filmography of a given director or for its reasoned yet radical stances on specific films. It’s ever so intimidating to the aspiring film critic. “How did he see all these movies?” one wonders. “And think them through so deeply, and write so eloquently and concisely about them too?”
This great tome alone would be enough to secure Sarris’ place in the pantheon. We are lucky enough to have, in addition to several other books, years of his reviews in the Village Voice and New York Observer too. This body of criticism boasts certain admirable constants: erudition and eloquence, of course, but also thematic obsessions, particularly with the ironic and the erotic.
Writing aside, he led a pretty great life. After graduating from Columbia College, he served in the Army for several years, hobnobbed with the Cahiers gang in Paris, and, at a 1966 screening of Scorpio Rising, met Molly Haskell, to whom he was happily married for the last forty-three years. Although he taught at various schools for many years, he didn’t earn a master’s degree until decades after graduating from college, perhaps because as an undergrad his grades dropped as his cinephilia skyrocketed. If this isn’t an assurance that making it to that Leo McCarey screening at Anthology is more important than working on a Lit Hum paper, nothing could be. Here’s to New York film culture, and the patron saint of it all.