If you’ve ever spoken about the oeuvre of Paul Thomas Anderson, or the cinema of Martin Scorsese, or the works of Alfred Hitchcock, you have Andrew Sarris to thank. If you’ve ever watched one of those YouTube supercuts where someone edits together, say, all of Michael Bay’s slow-motion action shots as a means of demonstrating in great detail why Michael Bay is ridiculous, you have Andrew Sarris to thank. The former film critic for the Village Voice and the New York Observer, Sarris, who died Wednesday morning at the age of 83, took the French auteur theory — the idea that regardless of the hundreds of people who work to make a film, the director is the sole author of the work — and helped spread it to the minds of most American moviegoers.
Along with Pauline Kael, his contemporary and sometimes foe, Sarris was lucky enough to write criticism in the sixties and seventies, precisely the moment when audiences began to regard movies as something approaching art and movie criticism as something approaching respectable. When he published his great The American Cinema in 1968, Sarris essentially started a game — choosing and ranking the greatest directors in American film history — that continues to this day, albeit on various movie sites and podcasts and listicles as opposed to well constructed and argued books. He didn’t invent the auteur theory (for that we have Truffaut and Godard and all those Cahiers du Cinéma guys to thank), but he owned it.