Andrew Sarris’ ‘Expressive Esoterica’ at Anthology Film Archives

Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as marrieds in Stanley Donen's "Two for the Road," screening at Anthology Film Archives
Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as marrieds in Stanley Donen’s “Two for the Road,” screening at Anthology Film Archives

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.

Andrew Sarris, the film critic who died last summer at the age of 83
Film critic Andrew Sarris, who died last summer at the age of 83

“’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


Brooklyn man charged in roommate's stabbing death

A Brooklyn man accused of violently stabbing his roommate to death on Monday is in police custody and faces murder charges.


Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…


OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…


MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.


Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."


'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.


'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."


TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.


Angelo Cataldi: Ryan Howard deserves better from Phillies

Just last week, Ryan Howard endured the embarrassment of a benching that was inevitable, and yet still shocking.


Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.


Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”


Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.


Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.


Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…


NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.


The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.