Farewell, Andrew Sarris

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I was deeply saddened yesterday to hear of the death of Andrew Sarris, a passionate critic and elegant writer who didn’t just change the landscape of criticism; he changed the way many of us think about movies, challenging, with gentle humor and lots of grace, everything we thought we knew.

Sarris was at the vanguard of film criticism in the ’60s and ’70s, along with Pauline Kael and Manny Farber. Over the years, there’s been plenty of fuss made over the Sarris/Kael feud, and movie lovers have often felt pressured to choose one camp or the other. But why? As I’ve said elsewhere, criticism isn’t about consensus – what’s most valuable is a critic’s ability to open your eyes, to make you see things that wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise.

The challenge isn’t just part of the bargain – it’s the whole bargain. And especially as we move further into an era of critic-proof big-budget movies – abetted by newspapers and other publications that happily repackage studio hype even as they've decided that professional critics are relics – Sarris’ contributions to the tradition and craft of film criticism have come to seem even more precious. In fact, they’re immeasurable.

I knew Andrew only a little, but he and his wife, the extraordinary film critic Molly Haskell, have shown great kindness and generosity toward me. It would have been enough for Andrew Sarris to have been a fine critic. But in the end, it’s how you treat people that matters, and Sarris, who was a teacher as well – he was beloved by his students, and I can only imagine he was wonderful – led by example. Those of us who care about film – who continue to care about its guts and innards as an art form, and about the way it opens us to the wider world – owe a great deal to Andrew Sarris. We won’t see his like again.

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