The legacy of Andrew Sarris, the film critic and theorist who died last summer at 83, is perhaps overly dominated by a feud. In the early ‘60s, Sarris, then a contributor to Film Culture and the Village Voice, helped bring to America the “auteur theory,” an idea originated by the critics at France’s Cahiers du Cinéma that argued that if a movie had an author, it was the director. It was, to Sarris’ admission, an imperfect, sometimes clumsy, notion. (Although it was sometimes spot-on.) And it had a loud and relentless opponent in Pauline Kael, then a freelance critic from San Francisco, who was happy to throw down with her East Coast rival.
But Sarris won: where the American directors he championed struggled to slip their voice in to conveyor belt product, more and more of today's filmmakers act like authors. It's so accepted an attitude that one can even trace a voice, if you will, in the cinema of Brian Robbins (“Varsity Blues,” “Norbit”).
But Sarris was and is about more than the theory he successfully imported.
“We owe everything to Sarris,” says C. Mason Wells, who helped curate Anthology Film Archive’s new series, “Andrew Sarris: Expressive Esoterica.” “With his erudition, his discernment, his wit, he helped show us how to take movies seriously – but not that seriously.”
Anthology’s series takes its name from one of the sections in “The American Cinema,” Sarris’ seminal 1968 book, which offered critical, subjective readings of the careers of dozens of directors, classifying them under categories: “Pantheon Directors,” “Fringe Benefits,” “Less Than Meets the Eye,” etc. (Frequently prescient – although predicting what’s fashionable in the distant future, or even in the present, is not the job of a critic – he was nevertheless not keen on many of today’s unimpeachable classics. In “Strained Seriousness” one finds Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer, even Richard Lester.)
In the book – the most easily found of his published works – Sarris describes “Expressive Esoterica” as fitting “the unsung directors with difficult styles or unfashionable genres or both.” In his eyes, these include the likes of Frank Tashlin, Stanley Donen, Arthur Penn, Don Siegel and Allan Dwan. Some of these (Budd Boetticher, especially) have been rediscovered over the years, while others – namely Seth Holt, Gerd Oswald and Roland West – still languish in obscurity.
“’Expressive Esoterica’ is maybe my favorite section in ‘The American Cinema,’” says Wells. “Sarris wrote beautifully on the greats, like John Ford and Howard Hawks. But I think he was at his best when wrestling with himself. He’s conflicted about the films and filmmakers in [‘Expressive Esoterica’], but that internal struggle produced some of his most provocative and lasting insights.”
The series steers away from the obvious classics, even when the filmmaker is still underknown. André de Toth, best known for “House of Wax” and “Day of the Outlaw,” gets 1944’s “Dark Waters,” an atmospheric Southern Gothic with Merle Oberon. Joseph H. Lewis (“Gun Crazy”) is represented by his forgotten 1945 sleeper hit “My Name is Julia Ross”; Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People,” “Out of the Past”) by the 1955 cinemascope western “Wichita.” The most famous director, Stanley Donen, gets one from his experimental 1960s period: the time-jumping, brutally honest marital saga “Two for the Road,” starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. (Among the missing in the 13-film series are Edgar G. Ulmer, who recently had his own Anthology retro to himself, and Seth Holt, who may simply be too hard to find.)
As a critic, Sarris knew the drag of reviewing everything, week in and week out - which means even in death he has plenty of arcane recommendations, awaiting discovery, which this series serves to partly rectify. Sarris' musings in “The American Cinema,” Wells argues, “show off his democratic, stubbornly hopeful spirit: always looking for his greatness through normal disqualifiers like genre or budget. We wanted to honor that adventurousness with this series. It’s a tribute to Sarris’ singular way of looking.”
Full schedule here.
If You Go:
Feb. 22 through Feb. 24, starting up again March 22 through March 31
Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Ave., Manhattan