Plenty of better, smarter writers than I will have enough to say about the legacy of the now-late Andrew Sarris. (Here are Andrew O’Hehir at Salon and David Edelstein at Vulture, and David Poland at Movie City News. And Peter Labuza over at his blog, with a lovely anecdote. Oh, and the Times obit is pretty good, too.) For my part, I can note that, for all the times I’ve (literally) thrown The American Cinema across the room in frustration, I‘ve always picked it back up to check and see what Sarris had to say about the next filmmaker. (“John Sturges as ‘Strained Seriousness’? Screw this guy! Okay, what does he have to say about Robert Mulligan?”) Others have noted his erudition and generosity as a writer, as well as his willingness to change his mind. O’Hehir’s piece mentions Sarris’s famous change of heart on 2001: A Space Odyssey.*
I admired Sarris not just for his many brilliant perceptions into directorial (and performative) style, but also for his economy. For another project I recently had to revisit his entry on Fritz Lang in The American Cinema, and was stunned by how much insight he packed into such a brief essay; I got more out of those two pages than out of the acres of biographies and monographs and critical navelgazers I’d read on Lang previously. Sarris could put the most complex and grand thoughts into the briefest sentences, while also essentially forcing you to think beyond the page. Here’s how he ends the Lang entry: “Lang might argue that in a century that has spawned Hitler and Hiroshima, no artist can be called paranoiac; he is being prosecuted.” Go out into the night with that thought in your head, why don’t you.
Maybe that's why my favorite Sarris book is still the first one I ever read, The John Ford Movie Mystery, the briefest book about the most important of directors. It certainly contains my favorite paragraph in Sarris's writing, a perfect example of the kind of tossed-of yet profound insight on which much of his reputation as a writer justly rests. It concerns My Darling Clementine, from which he draws a broader observation about Ford’s cinema -- one that subtly becomes a virtual artistic manifesto by the time you get to the end of this beautifully spiraling passage:
What are most memorable, however, are not the confrontations and the gunfights. In fact, Ford virtually throws away a showdown between [Wyatt] Earp and [Doc] Holliday by shooting it (literally and figuratively) in long shot. Ford’s Westerns never depended excessively on the machismo match-ups of quick draws, but rather on the normally neglected intervals between the gun-shots when men received haircuts, courted their sweethearts, and even partook of fragments of frontier culture. Alan Mowbray’s Granville Thorndyke, a soused Shakespearean actor, pops up so prominently in Clementine that we are reminded once more of a certain degree of self-consciousness in Ford’s depiction of his action characters. Ford’s people very often seem aware that they are striking a pose for posterity, or having their existence on earth preserved for all time on a daguerreotype. But even as they preen themselves in all their pompous pastness, they scratch around for the nagging necessities of survival. Their clothes itch and their stomachs growl, and time hangs heavy on their hands. Hence, Ford’s penchant for directing away from the obligatory action climaxes toward the optional Waiting-for-God-knows-what interludes.
* As might be expected, Sarris’s (to my mind utterly wrong-headed) take on Kubrick was always a bit of a stumbling block for me. The director was kind of a bête noire for Sarris in the ‘60s (his entry in The American Cinema positively drips with rare contempt). But Sarris actually seemed to change his mind a bit on Kubrick in general in the 70s: He thought Barry Lyndon was one of the best films of the decade, and he was also a champion of Full Metal Jacket. He went back to hating Kubrick in his review of Eyes Wide Shut, however, calling his work “cold, sour and cheaply derisive.” That said, the review itself is not without is interesting points, chief among them when Sarris notes that this is the first film where the height difference between Cruise and Kidman seems accentuated. That Sarris doesn't draw from that any further ideas about Kubrick's ideas or intentions other than noting that it's somehow "almost sadistic" speaks to an inability to truly understand the director's work. But we all have our own mental blocks. And, I digress.