Wednesday, June 20, 2012

ANDREW SARRIS, 1928-2012. Back in my youth I was a film nerd. My high school buddy Jim and I would call each other up when the TV Guide came out on Wednesday and gleefully inform each other that Hatari! was on Channel 11 on Monday. I went to the opening runs of major directors' movies; when I got to New York, I went to the opening nights. I haunted the Thalia and the Carnegie Hall and the Bleecker Street Cinema and Theatre 80 St. Marks, looking for promising curios and oddities. If I went with someone, afterwards we'd get coffee and we (or at least I) would talk feverishly about the movie, whether it was good or bad; if alone, and I frequently was, I would call someone up and bend their ear about it.

Over time I acquired a lot of other things to pay attention to and drifted out of that particular nerddom. But I carried a few valuables away from that experience. First, I was able to feel unashamed love for something most people just think of as time-filling junk, but which I knew was valuable. In a world like the one we live in, this is good training.

Second, it gave me something to be interested in and find out about from writers who were experiencing it and talking about it at the same time I was. The theater was a sometime thing, and literature happened a long time ago, but the movies were always running, in museums and in grindhouses, and some smart people were writing about them.

There were several critics I followed, but Andrew Sarris was my favorite. It had less to do with his style -- there were plenty more stylish, or in any case flashier, film writers -- than with his seriousness -- not sententiousness or solemnity, but the sense you got right from jump that Sarris was seriously interested in the problem of a film, and in the problem of film history which that film, like all of them, had something to do with.

No, it wasn't about solemnity, though I can't think of a joke he ever made that I laughed at. Sometimes he'd drag his own life, or at least his obsessions, into the discussion, and though it was sometimes embarrassing (my friend Bob and I still keep up a running joke about his creepy appreciation of Jodie Foster: "My enchantment has turned to enchainment"), I knew he wasn't bullshitting me, that he wasn't bringing himself into the discussion because he wanted attention, but because he thought it would help explain why the movie in question interested him. He was trying to be clear about his feelings, so that they could be more than feelings and fit the purposes of criticism.

It was Sarris who made me an auteurist, and I still am. It isn't because it explains everything; it only takes a few Stephen Frears movies to convince you that some directors are just talented stage managers and that's all there is to it. And some of Sarris' auteurist conventions were comical ("Less Than Meets the Eye"), as he came to admit. But Sarris was getting at something with his auteurist criticism that, over years of looking at art of all kinds and sometimes making it, I have come to believe in even more strongly than when I was a semiotic-struck kid: That artists in their work express something more vivid and (sometimes) lasting and important than the obvious themes and sensations and craft; that they also express something like personality, which may have very little to do with the personalities they carry around in public, but which is likewise rich and multivaried and mysterious; that this personality is telling its own story, along with whatever plots and concepts the artist might be using; and that to really know an artist's work requires, more than clinical attention to details (though you better cultivate that too), openness not only to what the artist is telling you, but also to who they are.

This is the thing people are talking about when they say, if they mean it, that they love Mozart or Shakespeare or, for that matter, Alfred Hitchcock. And it's the real thing. Sarris did no little to show me that, and for that I loved him.

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