Eminently sensible and perennially graceful in the articulation of his views, Andrew Sarris has been one of the most important of American film critics. His influence upon the shaping of the late-twentieth-century critical landscape is inestimable—both for his hand in developing an intellectually rigorous academic film culture and for bringing the proselytizing auteur theory to popular attention. The acumen and resolve of his writing set a benchmark for the scrupulous and cogent close analysis of cinematic style.
Among the pioneering voices of a new generation of self-proclaimed cinephiles—or "cultists," in his own terms—Sarris began his professional career in 1955, reviewing for Jonas Mekas's seminal journal, Film Culture, where he helped develop one of the first American serial publications dedicated to the serious critical investigation of film. After a brief sojourn in Paris in 1960, he began writing reviews for the fledgling alternative newspaper, the Village Voice, in New York City. His polemical reviews generated considerable debate and helped secure Sarris a position as senior critic for the Voice from 1962 to 1989.
As an intellectual American film culture exploded during the 1960s, Sarris was able to provide a newly professionalized critical establishment with two enormously influential (and controversial) concepts imported from the Cahiers critics in France: the auteur theory and mise-en-scene. His development of a director-centered critical framework grew out of a dissatisfaction with the "sociological critic''—leftist-oriented writers seemingly more interested in politics than film—whose reviews tended simplistically to synchronize film history and social history. While his attempt to establish auteurism as a theory may not have been entirely persuasive, it generated considerable debate regarding the creative and interpretive relationships between a director, her collaborators, and the audience itself. Further, in his own critical analyses, Sarris was one of the first critics to focus on style rather than content. This reversal was not an apolitical embracing of empty formalism, but rather a unified consideration of a film's stylistic and mimetic elements in the interests of discerning an artist's personal worldview. For him, a film's success does not hinge on individual contributions by various creative personnel, but on the coherence of the auteur s "distinguishable personality,'' made manifest in the subtext—or "interior meanings''—of the work.
Along with his sometime rivals, Pauline Kael at The New Yorker and Stanley Kauffmann at The New Republic, Sarris was among the first of a new generation of critics dedicated to elevating the cultural status of film, particularly American cinema. In his efforts to promote film as an expressive art rather than a mere commercial product, he co-founded the prestigious National Society of Film Critics in 1966 and offered a new auteur-driven history of Hollywood in the canonical American Cinema (1968), in which he mapped and ranked the work of all the important directors ever to work in Hollywood.
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