THE aging duelist sits in his Upper East Side apartment and contemplates all that is past, the polemics and late-night arguments and denunciations in one magazine or another.
His life in the 1960s was a blur of darkened screening rooms, celluloid epiphanies and running back to his desk to type with an eye on his competitors. What will Pauline Kael say? Or that snapping crab of a stylist, John Simon?
And always there were the films and directors that stir his passions to this day. Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Avventura” is a “modern ‘Odyssey’ for an alert audience.” Stanley Kubrick? “His faults have been rationalized as virtues.”
“We were so gloriously contentious, everyone bitching at everyone,” said Andrew Sarris, 81, nattily attired in gray slacks and a blue sport jacket, his hair slicked back. “We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much.”
He peered up through his owlish eyes. “Urgency seemed unavoidable,” he said.
Mr. Sarris, who in June experienced a sort of slow-motion layoff at The New York Observer for which he had written reviews since 1989, is one of the last refugees of the heroic age of film criticism. From the 1950s to the early 1970s the movies of François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Jean-Luc Godard broke like ocean swells upon the United States, followed in time by no less astonishing American films. A handful of critics — Mr. Sarris, Ms. Kael, Mr. Simon, Stanley Kauffmann and Manny Farber — argued that this was art worthy of sustained thought and argument.
They defined a cultural moment. (“Don’t Go to the Movies to Escape: The Movies Are Now High Art,” The New York Times proclaimed in a headline in 1969.) As moviegoers lined up at art houses like the New Yorker and the Thalia in Manhattan, arguments turned on the merits of the films — “Shoot the Piano Player,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Psycho,” “Bonnie and Clyde” — and of the critics.
“This was a period when film truly spoke to the modern experience, and this wonderful handful of critics transmitted that to the broader culture,” said Morris Dickstein, who teaches English at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Mr. Sarris contributed to this ferment twice over. He introduced to Americans and argued for the French auteur theory, which holds that a great director speaks through his films no less than a novelist speaks through his books. A brilliant actor might transcend a mediocre film, but only a director can offer the sustained coherence and sensibility that yields great art.
Mr. Sarris once shared a tiny office with Martin Scorsese on 42nd Street; the critic typed while the director cast films for which he had not yet raised money.
“What Andrew did, especially for young people, was to make you aware that the American cinema, which you had been told was just a movie factory, had real artistic merit,” Mr. Scorsese said. “He led us on a treasure hunt.”
The quarrelsome critics mostly lived in genteel poverty, but their dialectical rumbles were delicious and widely advertised. One Sunday in 1971 The New York Times devoted acreage in the Arts & Leisure section to a mano-a-mano between Mr. Simon and Mr. Sarris. Mr. Simon’s pen came acid dipped, and his disdain for auteurism, which he believed devalued narrative, was fairly overwhelming. “Perversity is certainly the most saving grace of Sarris’s criticism,” he wrote, “the humor being mostly unintentional.”
To which Mr. Sarris later rejoined, “Simon is the greatest film critic of the 19th century.”
Mr. Sarris and Ms. Kael, who died in 2001, defined a more primal rivalry, to the extent that their followers came to be known as the Sarristes and the Paulettes, the Sharks and Jets of the sun-starved cinephile crowd.
Mr. Sarris, who is also a film professor at Columbia University and author of “The American Cinema,” was steeped in film culture, and his reviews read as if he had turned a movie over in his hands. He was fascinated by integrity of vision and mise-en-scène, the gap between what the screen shows and the audience feels. (He hosted a radio show on film for WBAI-FM, and could talk unscripted for an hour with nary a semicolon misplaced.) Ms. Kael was scarcely less learned, but being a film intellectual struck her as a drag. Writing in The New Yorker she sought a visceral engagement with film. Her book titles summed up her view: “I Lost It at the Movies” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”
She wielded style like a stiletto. “The auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence, that period when masculinity looked so great and important,” she wrote of Mr. Sarris.
Ms. Kael’s devotees note that she seldom attacked him after that, even as he fumed. But that is like knocking a fellow flat then puzzling at his foul mood.
When Mr. Sarris married Molly Haskell, a fellow critic, in 1969, they invited Ms. Kael, Mr. Sarris said. “That’s O.K.,” she replied. “I’ll go to Molly’s next wedding.”
But these gunslingers had one another’s backs when shooting at establishment critics. And they often championed the same directors. “Pauline turned out to be a most dedicated auteurist,” noted J. Hoberman, now the senior film critic for The Village Voice. “She loved everything by De Palma and Scorsese.”
Mr. Sarris cut a curious figure at the congenitally contentious Village Voice of the early 1960s. He had passed a year in Paris, he said, drinking coffee with New Wave directors and later would edit an English-language edition of Cahiers du Cinéma. But back in New York he lived with his Greek monarchist mother in Queens and went to “Gone With the Wind” four dozen times, as besotted with Vivien Leigh on the 48th viewing as the first.
In his first review for The Voice in 1960, of “Psycho,” he threw down the gauntlet in service of a commercial director, Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. Sarris was characteristically assertive. “Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today,” he wrote. “Besides making previous horror films look like variations of ‘Pollyanna,’ ‘Psycho’ is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain.”
The Voice was an inverted universe, in which the mainstream was regarded with deep suspicion. Angry mail piled up: Who was this philistine? But Voice editors embraced Mr. Sarris as another controversialist.
Mr. Sarris guarded his reviewing territory with the glower of a medieval duke guarding his fief. When The Voice put Mr. Hoberman’s essay about the director Chantal Akerman on its cover, Mr. Sarris facetiously grumbled in print that he had taken “mainstream, white-bread assignments” while “Hoberman was freaking out on art-house acid.”
“He was pretty full of himself, although I’m not clear to what extent that was a real reflection of his character or just his manner,” said Robert Christgau, the longtime rock critic for The Voice, who left the paper in 2006.
Still, Mr. Sarris was more enthusiast than ideologue. He had no love of rock ’n’ roll but described “A Hard Day’s Night” as “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of jukebox musicals.” His willingness to revisit old judgments on “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kent Jones wrote in Film Comment in 2005, resulted in a “one of the most charming passages” in film criticism:
“I must report that I recently paid another visit to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’ while under the influence of a smoked substance that I was assured by my contact was somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano. (For myself, I must confess that I soar infinitely higher on vermouth cassis, but enough of this generation gap.) Anyway, I prepared to watch ‘2001’ under what I have always been assured were optimum conditions, and surprisingly (for me) I find myself reversing my original opinion. ‘2001’ is indeed a major work by a major artist.”
In 1989 Mr. Sarris left The Voice for The Observer, where he wrote reviews until June. The critical wars are long past but he is not in mourning.
“I was a solipsist and a narcissist and much too arrogant,” he said. “I have a lot more compassion now, but it took a long time.”
Are there favorites he thinks less of now? “I prefer to think of people I missed the boat on,” he said. “Truffaut talked me into rethinking Billy Wilder, and I finally apologized to Billy.”
When The Observer pleaded financial difficulties and took Mr. Sarris off staff last month, editors suggested he write periodic reviews. But, Mr. Sarris said, that relationship has now ended. For now he will write essays for Film Comment, although he noted he’s not as fluid as in the past.
He peered up, his brown eyes intent.
“There’s a part of me that looks beyond everything now,” he said. “I don’t approve of Woody Allen’s view of death. I acknowledge it, but I hope there’s more time, as there’s a lot of movies I’d like to see and think about.”