Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Movie Fan at 80

When Andrew Sarris got offed at The Village Voice about 20 years ago, I'm chagrined to admit that the main thing that upset me about it was the precedent. We were both institutions at the paper by then, but he was certainly the bigger one, and if he could go, so could I. Never a big gossiper, I don't know whether management in general (as opposed to then film editor Karen Durbin) had it in for Sarris--probably there was a new blood thing in there somewhere, but I doubt that was enough of a reason. The guy was a legend. Of course, he was also and quite possibly still is an annoying person--imperious, thin-skinned, highly territorial. He harrumphed a lot, and had taken to quoting himself in his reviews. ("Never do that," I warned myself, and I've been pretty good about it.) I remember once he'd just learned of the existence of disco and couldn't resist gloating to me in a putatively jocular way about how rock and roll was dying--when I told him I thought disco was rock and roll he didn't know what to say. Also, I was a Kaelist back when that was a hot topic--disapproved of the genius theory buried not too far from the surface of auteurism.

When I had to prepare a syllabus for the course in cultural journalism I taught at Princeton in 2007, however, I needed to revisit the Sarris-Kael debate because I was teaching it. And re-rereading some of Sarris's reviews--not an easy thing to do, as I'll explain--I found that I liked them much more than I remembered. Not that I'd ever stopped using The American Cinema--still haven't. But the individual reviews were often more insightful (and funny) than I would have imagined. Born in 1929, Sarris never understood hippies, but he knew he didn't understand them, and rather than being all sour grapes about it, he found a tone that self-mocked as it carped. Also, his stubborn insistence on taking popular movies every bit as seriously as (probably more than) Kael has worn well--often he gets at essential virtues in flicks others simply don't think through if they think about them at all.

Thing was, finding his reviews wasn't so easy. Unlike Kael, every increasingly captious and willful word of whom has been recycled and oft rerecycled, he's basically unanthologized--the last collection ends in 1969. I bring this up now because the New York Observer just destaffed Sarris in a June 5 massacre whose details remain remarkably murky for the Nothing Is Sacred but the Salmon-Colored Truth contingent. (For the record, books editor Adam Begley, whose enjoyable Begley the Bookie column I had been missing, emails me that he resigned in March to write his John Updike bio. He adds, however, that if he hadn't he would have been fired June 5.) Even before I did my Princeton research I'd noticed that I was enjoying Sarris's NYO reviews far more than I'd anticipated. Especially cheek by jowl with Rex Reed (and that's a whole lot of jowls), he was remarkably lively and down-to-earth, still forming crushes on ingenues and tracking the track records of directors four decades his junior. He turned 80 last September, and I actually think he wrote better in his seventies than in his fifties.

So some university press should do a big book. Maybe his firing--like Reed, he will now "contribute," we are told, but we'll see how often--will get people's attention. I mean, he's a legend, and his Wikipedia entry is a damn stub. Even his wife Molly Haskell gets a real article (albeit a comically ill-written one, should anyone have the stomach to check). Wonder if some online site will take him on. Won't pay, but for sure it will open up career opportunities.


By Matt on June 25, 2009 12:12 PM

I'm curious as to how much input Robert Christgau has on his own wikipedia entry. Not that I'm accusing you of anything, but I sometimes wonder how tempted I'd be to "edit" my own wiki page, if I had one.

By Robert Christgau on June 28, 2009 9:14 AM

Maybe four years ago I was sufficiently annoyed by my Wikipedia page, which had some stuff about my sexual-racial ideas that I thought ill-informed or more likely agenda-driven, that I casually asked a webwise friend to clean it up. But he never did, and I stopped worrying about it. Then maybe two years ago somebody amended my Wiki page to report my death. In that case another webwise friend was on the case inside of an hour, and the prank was expunged. Apparently this incident kicked off an internal debate at Wikipedia, with some Brits and metal fans (I think it was) claiming I didn't even deserve an article, much less the citations that are apparently sprinkled across the site. This faction lost, but there was enough controversy that somebody went in and rewrote my entry, which is better though hardly, in my strictly objective opinion, brilliant. But would I ever think of changing it myself? Maybe if somebody said I was dead again and I couldn't find anyone to help. But short of that, nah--way too tacky.

By Dan Aloi on June 30, 2009 1:14 PM

Gotta watch out for those Brits and metal fans? What--you're no Nick Kent or CSM? Or you just weren't in the right German magazines praising the Gasoline Godz or whoever as 'most talented band on the planet' . . . the self-importance of metalheads always slays me.

Articles, June 24, 2009

Beautiful It Don't Stop, and Then It Do