At the time I began to read Sarris’ column in the Voice on a regular basis he was at war with those who enjoyed the work of Brian De Palma (this was around the time of Dressed to Kill and Blow-Out). His writings on Hitchcock were always inspired, but his take on De Palma was that the latter’s films were just such blatant ripoffs of Hitch that you *couldn’t* like them if you were a Hitchcock fan (he actually that in one column — you could NOT like those films if you liked Hitch’s original thrillers). In this regard, Sarris sounded like the teenage guardian of a fan club — “you can’t love the Stones if you’re a Beatlemaniac!!!”
When I was in high school, I was a “junior intern” for the Voice critic Tom Allen. Tom was an odd gentleman, a Catholic Brother who lived in a rectory but also worked for one of the most liberated alternative newspapers in NYC (at that time) as he adhered to extremely conservative politics (I remember being told once by Tom that Al Haig was the only thing standing between us and a Soviet invasion).
Tom's moods were ever-changing — he could be an exceptionally nice gent one minute, and then verbally cut you to the quick for no apparent reason the next. Tom’s major bailwick at the Voice was to keep a very “deep” collection of Sarris’ reviews, which he was editing down for a potential book of capsule reviews, which was never published. The densely worded capsules appeared in a column called “Revivals in Focus.”
While juggling his two "lives," Tom also wrote for the newspaper you see to your right, The Long Island Catholic (I utilize that image since apparently not a single picture of him appears on the Net). His other central project in the Voice office was to keep a file cabinet’s-worth of folders containing info on American filmmakers — the ones that had sprung up after The American Cinema and the ones that had been left out (mostly B-level directors, but some who had made very notable films; Lloyd Bacon springs to mind). The reason for this file cabinet was the very necessary and work-intensive “update” of the book that Tom assured me was imminent.
I assume that the debilitating illness that Sarris suffered in the early Eighties distracted him from the long-discussed (by Tom, at least) second volume of The American Cinema. His wife, the critic Molly Haskell, wrote a book about Sarris’ illness (Love and Other Infectious Diseases: a Memoir); she also suffered health problems that consumed him at one point.
As the years went by, I would check in bookstores to see if he had done any appreciable update to the book, and — nothing. The only addition to the later paperback version was an article Sarris wrote for the July-August 1977 issue of American Film magazine called “The Auteur Theory Revisited.” It was written to respond to an anti-auteurist article by Gore Vidal that had appeared in the April issue of that magazine, which had touted the contribution of the scripter (an obvious belief for a writer who worked as a screenwriter at various times in his career).
In the ’77 article Sarris maintains that he wishes he could “reformulate the auteur theory with a greater emphasis on the tantalizing mystery of style than on the romantic agony of the artists.” He maintains that he believes a filmmaker’s statements about his/her film made in interviews should be ignored, and only the work should be considered.
I remain fascinated by the fact that Sarris never chose to return to The American Cinema in the 44 years since its publication. If a volume two wasn’t in the cards, at least a cleaned-up, amplified, and revised version of the initial book could’ve been delivered. Since the book has remained in print, and pages from it are in fact available on Google books, it will be odd to see Sarris’ misguided slam of Billy Wilder go down in perpetuity, when all he had to do was write a handful of new entries, augment some of the older ones, and let Allen clean up the rest.
The only information I could find on the Internet that offered any insight as to why Sarris was content to let his best-known book sit forever as it was is, self-confessed errors intact, appears in the heartfelt and extremely touching obituary written by his friend and colleague Richard Corliss (whose work in print is wonderful, but his pieces written exclusively for the time.com website are truly sublime).
I waited to read Corliss’ take on Sarris until I had this piece completed, and then was interested to learn that Corliss surmises that Sarris eventually looked on the book as “a creature of its time” that was corrected and overwritten by his later articles.
To put it in the purest metaphorical light, Sarris remains a sort of a father figure for American film reviewers of a certain age. Like Hitchcock, you have to study his work, acknowledge his presence, and then decide if you’re going to use his approach, or fashion a new one of your own. I don’t know if he was ever asked about his criticism being art of a kind, but when he was at his best he wove words in a wondrous way (oh no, I’m surrendering to Sarrisian alliteration!).
Interestingly, one of the nicer tributes to Sarris, on the TCM Movie Morlocks blog cemented the notion that his most influential writing occurred solely in the Sixties — although I *really* love his statement about Aldrich’s women’s wrestling picture All the Marbles (the National Theater wasn’t that bad — but maybe I just like gutter trash). Like many artists, Sarris did his seminal work early on — he remained a brilliant writer, but how many worlds can you change in one career? (One would be sufficient for most of us.)
As noted above, I disagree with a number of Sarris’ stances, but he was the guy who wrote one of the “guidebooks” for writing American film criticism, and, as much as they are/were entertaining, Sarris was always leagues smarter than TV-friendly movie experts like Siskel and Ebert, and that man on the couch, Robert Osborne.
Although I confess that I didn’t keep up at all with what Sarris was writing for The New York Observer in recent years, he has remained a touchstone on the Funhouse TV show and in this blog. I find that I use various expressions of his in my writing and on the show, including “a subject for further research,” the “Mount Everest of modern cinema” comment he made about Berlin Alexanderplatz, and the gangly but incisive “comedy/ha-ha vs. comedy/not tragedy.”
In researching this tribute, I rediscovered that one of the phrases I have always thought was Sarris’ (because I first read it in The American Cinema) is a terrifically pithy analysis he attributes in the book to British film critic Mark Shivas (who edited the magazine Movie and later became a producer of great telefilms for BBC): “Welles is concerned with the ordinary feelings of extraordinary people and Hitchcock with the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people.” (A remarkable insight that makes you start thinking about which category your own favorite artists fall into.)
Since I like to close my DA tributes with clips of the person profiled, I turn once again to the hub of all Net activity, YouTube. The representation of Sarris on that site is sparse but fascinating. First, there are pieces of computer animation like this one that seem to want to make his feud with Kael more exciting (and make him a sexist villain) for a younger generation that probably has no idea who either of them are. (And does anyone have any idea what this piece of stupidity is about, besides inebriation?)
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I only know of one gentleman who ever “played” Sarris: John Candy, in a sketch on one of the earlier seasons of the sublime SCTV. Candy isn’t doing much of an impression here (and they’ve got Sarris hating Gone With the Wind, which was one of his all-time faves), but I guess since Candy was the burliest guy in the cast, and so he got to portray Sarris.
As always with SCTV, the fact that they were even doing a sketch where each member of the ensemble played a noted film critic makes the sketch fascinating as a one-off. (This was the first of two swipes they took at Kael; the second one is even more mind-boggling — her evaluation “Midnight Cowboy, Part 2” on “Monster Chiller Horror Theater.”)
Here is footage of Sarris talking with J. Hoberman and Dennis Lim after a screening of Bresson’s perfect Au Hasard Balthazar. (Again, Bresson was pretty modernist and minimalist, so Sarris was not a massive fan of his work.) By this point in late 2006, Sarris had decided that his three favorite films were Rules of the Games, Ugetsu, and The Earrings of Madame de…. For his part Hoberman mentions being inspired by listening to Sarris’ radio show on WBAI:
There is one very good one-on-one video interview with Sarris. Shot recently, with Sarris seeming to be in somewhat shaky condition (but still brilliant), he states outright that he had abandoned the notion of a pantheon and that his taste had opened up.
When asked to cite a newer filmmaker, he spotlights Funhouse favorite Wong Kar-Wai, which proves he had come very far, since WKW’s heroes are the very filmmakers Sarris had so much trouble processing in the Sixties. Also interesting: his account of writing a screenplay for the film Justine that was never used.
Like all reviewers, Sarris was always at his best when being brutal or writing a reverie. One of the subjects he returned to time and again was Vivien Leigh. She isn’t one of my obsessions, but I thought it would be nice to include one of the many fan-generated video montages to her to close out this piece.
The only one of the literally hundreds of wildly dense capsules that appeared in the Sarris/Allen “Revivals in Focus” column that I can remember found Sarris noting that he’d seen That Hamilton Woman over and over again as a young man, smitten as he was with Ms. Leigh. (I didn’t get it then, I still don’t, but I respected the fixation.)
Oddly, there are tributes to Leigh that are scored to Nat King Cole, Allison Crowse, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Sarah MacLachlan doing the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” the wonderful Belle and Sebastian, and even Eighties fave “Take on Me” (!). I decided to go with this demure and quite nice item scored to classical music:
Sarris’ passing brings on a major bout of nostalgia for the days when trend-setting movie critics wrote about films that were destined to be around for a long time to come. These days, with the exception of some wonderful paeans delivered by the likes of Scorsese and Wenders, younger film fans are swayed mostly by the recommendations of filmmakers like Tarantino, who tout genre films that are often superb, but are more often flashy and memorable but devoid of brains or heart.
In The American Cinema Sarris remarked that the auteur critic “risks the resentment of the reader by constantly judging the present in terms of the past. The auteur critic must overcome this resentment by relating the past to the present in the most meaningful way possible.”
His next sentence noted that “fortunately, readers are becoming more… knowledgeable about the past with each passing year.” That is certainly not the case these days, when b&w films are considered a niche affair available on only one cable channel and, though many amazing films are available on DVD, most folks are checking out whatever’s most easily available on Netflix or iTunes or Hulu or…
I’ll close with one last statement of Sarris’ that ranks among the many single-sentence declarations of his that will ring true forever. Trashing Fred Zinnemann, he said, “In cinema, as in all art, only those who risk the ridiculous have a real shot at the sublime.”