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Andrew Sarris, the New York-based film critic most responsible for promoting the auteur theory that movies are shaped by the director’s point of view, died Wednesday at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan. He was 83.
The cause of death was complications of an infection he developed after a fall, his wife, film critic Molly Haskell, told The New York Times.
In his seminal book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Sarris, building on the ideas of French critics like Andre Bazin and critic-turned-filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, made the case that Hollywood filmmakers, even though most worked within the studio system, should be taken seriously as artists. He assessed and ranked the work of more than 200 directors, giving his highest praise to those he considered in the “pantheon,” among them Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.
In a 1962 article, Sarris acknowledged his debt to the writers in Cahiers du Cinema and laid out his own version of the auteur theory, explaining, “The first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.” Then, he argued, “over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature.” Finally, he summed up, “meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.”
In the great critical battles that raged around the films of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Sarris and his allies, occupying one pole, often were at odds with Pauline Kael and her acolytes. Kael approached movies as an emotional, subjective experience, writing in a jazzy, slangy style. Sarris, in contrast, took a more analytic, intellectual approach from his perch at The Village Voice, where he wrote for 29 years beginning in 1960, before moving to The New York Observer, to which he contributed criticism until 2009. Of his feuds with Kael, he said: “We made each other. We established a dialectic.”
Sarris was born Oct. 31, 1928, in Brooklyn, the son of Greek immigrant parents. After graduating from Columbia College in 1951, he served three years in the Army Signal Corps. He went on to spend a year in Paris, where he first met up with New Wave directors including Godard and Truffaut, whose work he would later champion.
Sarris’ first published piece in The Village Voice was an enthusiastic review of Hitchcock’s Psycho, which he described as “a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain.” Although a lot of readers — convinced that Hitchcock was nothing more than a popular entertainer — objected, The Voice enlisted Sarris as a regular critic.
In addition to writing about films, Sarris served as a film professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and also taught at Yale University, Juilliard and New York University. He also was co-founder of the National Society of Film Critics.
Sarris is survived by Haskell, whom he married in 1969.
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