Way back in the Pliocene — or was it the Holocene? — when I rode my faithful mammoth Woolly to the news stand every Friday morning for the latest edition of the Village Voice, I skipped past the Andrew Sarris film column as diligently as Beatles fans cued their needles after George Harrison’s track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and for pretty much the same reasons. Droning performance, slumber-inducing voice, off-putting religious veneration — I dig Hitchcock and Sturges, but critic puh-lease! — made for some tedious column inches. Not that J. Hoberman was much better, stylistically speaking, but his prospecting through the swampier recesses of art-house cinema yielded the occasional nugget of interest.
Along with Sarris’ clunky style there was always that odd defensiveness, the sense that Sarris saw himself as Thomas More resisting “the fashionable backlash” against some movie or other. Maybe he was afraid Pauline Kael would sneak into the office and yank away his chair while he sat musing on the glories of Marnie or Hail the Conquering Hero. Whatever the reason, there’s no disputing the fact that until David Edelstein wandered through the Voice door in the early Eighties, the magazine’s film section was nothing much. One immediately turned to the music and concert reviews, or to James Wolcott, and after him, Stanley Crouch (fleetingly) and Adolph Reed (even more fleetingly) for something sparky to read. If things were really slow, one might visit the resident coelecanth, Nat Hentoff, for those fleeting moments when he could still write something interesting.
Back then, true-blue film buffs tended to group themselves around Sarris the arch-auterist and Pauline Kael the gut-reactionist. Kael was suspicious of schools and systems of analysis; Sarris hardly ventured beyond them. Both critics were formidably knowledgeable and aggressively opinionated, but Kael’s responses could be unpredictable and exciting, whereas Sarris seemed to evaluate movies by running down his auteur theory checklist and announcing “genius” when the right number of boxes had been ticked off. When his tastes coincided with mine, his observations never deepened my appreciation of the film; when his tastes clashed with mine, his arguments never prompted a reconsideration. Oddly enough, though I’m not much of a sports follower, I always found him most engaging when he wrote about sports.
Though he was a seminal figure in the development of American film criticism, Sarris faded more quickly than his colleagues. When he lost his perch at the Village Voice, he had to settle for playing second banana to Rex Reed at The New York Observer, a fate no self-respecting critic should have had to endure. (When career hack Jeff Lyons ended up as Michael Medved’s butt-boy, it seemed only fitting.) But his passing (like the news that Hentoff is now ranting for the neocons and Obama-haters at WingNutDaily) mainly stirs rueful thoughts about the decline of the Voice and the kind of magazine market that once supported eccentrics and cultists like Sarris. Where movie criticism is concerned, the fizz has moved to the Internet, and I would guess the spirit is closer to Kael’s than the man who, in his flightier moments, imagined himself her nemesis.