Andrew Sarris, auteur theory proponent in the U.S., died earlier today at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, apparently of complications caused by a stomach virus. Sarris, who was 83, was married to fellow film critic Molly Haskell.
The Brooklyn-born (Oct. 31, 1928) Andrew Sarris didn’t “invent” the auteur theory, which basically proposes that films are (or should be) the product – or at least bear the indelible imprint – of one person: the director. This sort of reductionist approach to film criticism was made quite popular in the ’50s and ’60s thanks to various Cahiers du Cinéma contributors, some of whom – e.g., François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer – later became filmmakers themselves.
While working at The Village Voice, Andrew Sarris was the American representative of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics.
Andrew Sarris’ “ultimate premise of the auteur theory”
In 1962, Sarris wrote the essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” remarking that the “ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material. This conception of interior meaning comes close to what [film critic and director Alexandre] Astruc defines as mise en scène, but not quite. It is not quite the vision of the world a director projects nor quite his attitude toward life. It is ambiguous, in any literary sense, because part of it is imbedded in the stuff of the cinema and cannot be rendered in noncinematic terms.”
According to Andrew Sarris’ essay, cinema’s true auteurs were the following: Max Ophüls, Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Chaplin, John Ford, Orson Welles, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Roberto Rossellini, F.W. Murnau, D.W. Griffith, Josef von Sternberg, Sergei Eisenstein, Erich von Stroheim, Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Robert Flaherty, and Jean Vigo (who directed a total of two features).
Andrew Sarris: Down with Lean, Wilder, Mankiewicz
On the other hand, Sarris put down the likes of John Huston, David Lean, Elia Kazan, Lewis Milestone, Rouben Mamoulian, Carol Reed, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, William A. Wellman, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, and, surprisingly, Ingmar Bergman (“his technique never equaled his sensibility”). Sarris also dismissed Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when it came out in 1968. Two years later, after having watched 2001 while high on weed, he retracted his earlier review.
Ironically, Andrew Sarris himself was put down by fellow influential critic Pauline Kael, who began writing for The New Yorker in the late ’60s. Kael, known for her abrasive writing style, used sexist terminology to dismiss the auteur theory, labeling it “an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence.”
Unlike the Cahiers du Cinéma critics, Sarris never became a filmmaker. However, he reportedly made uncredited contributions to the screenplays of a couple of films: George Cukor’s box office and critical flop Justine (1969), starring Anouk Aimée in the title role, and Jules Dassin’s little-seen Promise at Dawn (1970), with Melina Mercouri.
When Pauline Kael died in 2001, Andrew Sarris stated that they had “never much liked each other.” Sarris added that he had felt more upset days earlier, following the death of film noir siren Jane Greer.