In a brief but eloquent obit for the late Andrew Sarris, Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy recalls the long-running battle between Sarris and Pauline Kael, which re-ignited to some extent when McCarthy chaired a New York Film Festival panel discussion about Kael last fall. He explains here why he decided early on to side with Sarris:
“Andrew Sarris was the man who taught me how to do what I do,” McCarthy begins. “Without him, I would never have experienced the cinema in the way that I have or been provided with such an inspiring road map to pursue what, for all of us in the critical and historical film world, is the endless quest for discovery of little-known works and artists.
“Certainly, Pauline could be the more dynamic crusader both for and against a film. Sarris was often dizzyingly eloquent and quite funny, but, especially as he got older, had a tendency to ramble. What it came down to, in the end, was that, with Kael, what you’re left with is all opinion — brilliantly and eloquently expressed opinion, to be sure, but subjective impressions nonetheless. By contrast, Sarris’s initially controversial method of creating a hierarchy of talent [in “The American Cinema“] had the automatic effect of establishing priorities and, in a broader sense, inspiring a deeper plunge into film history.
One of Sarris’s categories in ‘The American Cinema‘ was ‘Subjects for Further Research,’ and that seems to apply to nearly everything I’ve done professionally since that time. Once you’ve gotten a handle on the personalities and artistic tendencies of certain directors, you begin more carefully tracking the careers of writers, cinematographers and other contributors to a film’s accomplishment.
“My first book, ‘Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System,” which I embarked upon directly out of college, was conceived entirely as an extension of ‘The American Cinema’, having been inspired by Sarris’s phrase, ‘Eventually we must speak of everything if there is enough time and space and printer’s ink.’ From my point of view, Sarris’s perspectives opened many windows and doors, while Kael’s work had the feel of a judge’s gavel.