Village Voice sage championed auteur theory of film criticism

Andrew Sarris, the Village Voice reviewer who was one of the most important film critics of the last half century, died Wednesday morning in Manhattan from complications of an infection after a fall. He was 83.

Sarris was a key proponent of the auteur theory in film, which holds that the medium, at its best, is a means of creative expression for the director. He brought Francois Truffaut’s ideas on the subject to the U.S. in his 1962 essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” arguing for the primacy of directors and declaring that the “ultimate glory” of movies is “the tension between a director’s personality and his material.”

Sarris helped inspire debate about countless films and filmmakers during his long run at the Village Voice. Along with such peers as Pauline Kael, who believed auteur theory ignored the inherently collaborative aspect of filmmaking, Sarris’ opinions were especially vital during the 1960s and 1970s, when movies became films, or even cinema, and critics and fans argued about them the way they once might have contended over paintings or novels.

Sarris wrote for the Village Voice from 1960-89 and later for the New York Observer, to which he continued to contribute regularly until 2009.

He championed auteur directors such as Truffaut, Godard, Marcel Ophuls, Antonioni, Bergman and Kurosawa as well as some Hollywood directors, including Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Fuller, whom he believed also deserved the “auteur” label despite working in a commercial arena. He assessed the merits of American directors in his highly influential 1968 book “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.” In later books he continued to assess and reassess film directors, placing Billy Wilder on a higher tier than Sarris had originally accorded him, for example.

Certain younger directors also received qualified approval from Sarris, including Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Sarris was a pioneer of the annual “top 10″ film lists that remain fixtures in the media.

The native New Yorker attended Columbia U. and advanced his ideas through work as a teacher at New York’s School of Visual Arts and later at NYU before returning to his alma mater as a professor in 1969. (He became a full professor in 1980 and retired in 2011.)

Sarris worked as a story consultant for 20th Century Fox from 1955-65 and did uncredited work on the scripts for the films “Justine” and “Promise at Dawn.” He also offered his insights as an interviewee in documentaries including “Godard in America,” “The Metaphysics of Buster Keaton,” “Cinema! Cinema! The French New Wave” and “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.” Most recently he was the subject and star of Casimir Nozkowski’s 2011 documentary short “Andrew Sarris: Critic in Focus.”

Sarris also contributed to Variety, penning an appreciation of director Eric Rohmer that appeared in 2001.

“Citizen Sarris,” a collection of essays about the critic published in 2001, included contributions from critics Roger Ebert and David Thomson and from filmmakers Scorsese, John Sayles and Budd Boetticher.

Sarris was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000, and he was a founding member of the National Society of Film Critics.

He is survived by his wife, fellow film critic Molly Haskell. They were married since 1969.

(Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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