Saturday, July 28, 2012

Gloriously ‘cheap and tawdry’: Deceased Artiste Susan Tyrrell

Some of the best character performers are folks whose faces you know and whose names you’ve forgotten. Susan Tyrrell was one of the few whose name was easily remembered, because she was not only a character performer but also gave several extremely odd (or should that be “incredibly strange”?) performances in films that became cult favorites. One thing’s for certain: like many character people, Tyrrell was often the best thing in the movies she appeared in.


She died a few weeks back at 67 in her adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, and leaves behind a wealth of unusual, scene-stealing performances. She was the daughter of a William Morris talent agent and a British diplomat — but the most interesting fact that appeared in one of the write-ups was that her diplomat mama had an affair with none other than wrestling sensation Gorgeous George!


“Susu,” as she liked to be called by friends, was born in San Francisco, but her decisive move was the one she made as a young woman to Manhattan, where she appeared in off-Broadway shows (her career had started on the summer stock circuit).  As a mentor she chose Warhol superstar Candy Darling, with whom she was strongly infatuated. After appearing in Broadway shows like Cactus Flower, she established herself on a national level with her amazing supporting performance in John Huston’s Fat City (1972), for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Her early Seventies headshots make her look curiously like a smaller, more street-smart version of another Oscar-nodded actress from that period, Ellen Burstyn.

She is nothing short of incredible in Fat City, given that she was only 27 at the time of filming. She tells a story in the single-best interview with her that you can find on the Net (a compulsively readable profile from The L.A. Weekly, found here) about sleeping with Huston, something she later regretted (she was obviously indebted to him as an actress for her first major role, but described him as “Methuse-fucking-lah”).


In that same L.A. Weekly article she described her acting style as “Buried line readings. Buried over-acting.” She maintained that “character work is soul… [it’s] what I love and what I do best.” And she was fucking incredible in a lot of her film work, delivering two very different kinds of performances: she was either the weepy, forlorn, life-battered woman (as she did so magnificently in Fat City or Andy Warhol's Bad, above) or she was an over-the-top alpha female whose every movement and outburst (usually obscene) was wonderfully overstated (the apogee of this being the live-action cartoon Forbidden Zone).


She received many bad reviews throughout her career — perhaps the nastiest coming in person from Tennessee Williams who commented to her that “My favorite actors are 50 percent male and 50 percent female. You, my dear, are neither.” Pretty much all of her detailed obits included a seminal quote from the same L.A. Weekly story that she maintained was her most essential review, from her mother: “SuSu, your life is a celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry.” Tyrrell’s response? “I’ve always liked that, and I’ve always tried to live up to it.”


Tyrrell’s life took a very odd and tragic turn in 2000, when, due to a rare blood disorder, she had to have both legs amputated below the knee. She bounced back from this crisis, though, by continuing to act (albeit in roles that kept her seated) and by exhibiting her sexually-oriented paintings, which are on display at her website.


There has never been another like her, and there never will be. Tyrrell was an original who can best be appreciated by watching her film work — and seeing the movie recede around her when she’s onscreen.
*****


There’s an excellent hour-long megamix montage of her film work on her website. (One warning: only visit the photo gallery page on her site if you have a super-new, super-powerful computer, as it’s a single-page “tiled” Flash nightmare that has to build over 150 thumbnails before it can be fully viewed.)


The nicest clip I found on YT was a fan’s montage of her many faces, done as a birthday tribute and set to her version of a song called “Tickle His Fancy”:




Two of Tyrrell’s best performances were in films starring Stacy Keach (who spoke very well of Tyrrell in a 2003 Canadian TV interview). My favorite scene in Fat City is a terrific hungover conversation between Keach and Tyrrell in which he swears to her that he will be there for her “right down the line.”

That particular line is missing in the only version of the clip that is in plain sight. I urge you to see that film whenever you can, and in the meantime watch this sexy and psychotic segment from the 1976 film version of the Jim Thompson classic The Killer Inside Me, which found Keach reunited with Susan:




Tyrrell excelled in small roles in films that exuded sleaziness. She seduces Ben Gazzarra in Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), the extremely odd yet stylish adaptation of Bukowski by Marco Ferrreri. Her scene can be watched here (but dubbed in Italian). She is one of many odd women in the dark comedy Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977):











I first saw “Susu” on the totally forgotten 1981 sitcom Open All Night about a couple who run a convenience store. She was in “crying” mode on that show, which starred her and the great George Dzundza. I was very happy to see the show crop up on YouTube:



Tyrrell was in some jaw-droppers, some amazing cult movies. One such rediscovered joy is the very sleazy, and heavily, bizarrely homophobic, Jimmy McNichol thriller (yeah, you read that right) Night Warning (1982). The whole film can be found here, but this scene conveys quite well what the movie is like:




One of the finest (read: sleaziest) Eighties exploitation movies was Angel (1984), which, of course was promoted with the tagline “High school honor student by day, Hollywood hooker by night!” Susan played “Solly,” our heroine’s foul-mouthed lesbian landlady with hastily drawn-on eyebrows.


The whole film is, again, available on YouTube, but I draw your attention to the scene at 12:37, where she plays cards with Dick Shawn as a transvestite hooker, the guardian for our high school honor-roll hooker. Dick was not a man to underplay any role, but he actually gives a somewhat understated performance (for him, at least) in Angel:




Susan reappeared as Solly in the sequel to the above, Avenging Angel (1985), which had the equally stirring tagline “When you get to hell, tell ‘em an Angel sent ya!” The trailer is here. Jumping ahead a bit, let’s see Tyrrell in the Nineties, in another ZONE of acting, in the utterly forgettable Digital Man, in a scene with (among others) seasoned character man Phil Bruns:



In more recent years, being interviewed about her art in Austin:




I was never able to see her one-woman show “My Rotten Life… a Bitter Operetta,” since she never brought it here to NYC. But thankfully a fan has let us see two of her musical numbers, both of which have gotten less than fifty views on YT (which is depessing). First, a nice torchy valedictory, “Here’s to Life”:



And what looks to have been the show’s final number,“Oh Burnin' Star”:



Perhaps her most extreme (and thus best beloved, by me and many others) cult feature was Richard Elfman’s live-action cartoon Forbidden Zone (1982). Susan plays the Queen of the film’s imaginary kingdom. As for her king, well — the most welcome piece of information I encountered while writing this was the fact that she counted among her fondest memories her relationship with Herve Villechaize, with whom she lived in a Laurel Canyon house for two years. Now that, my friends, was a pairing, forged in Cult Movie Heaven!













Saturday, July 21, 2012

Lightning Flew From the Pages: Deceased Artiste Ray Bradbury







Beloved celebs have been dropping like flies, and I simply haven’t had time until now to pay tribute to them. I always note on the Funhouse TV show that we’ll be loving the work done by these folks for many years to come, so I’m not as time-bound in my salutes to them. Thus I begin a series of DA entries with a tribute to the fantasy writer par excellence (he disliked his work being called “science fiction”), Ray Bradbury.


Bradbury was an essential building block in the formation of great 20th century genre fiction. One of the best things about his writing, though, was its unrepentantly poetic quality. Whether it was beautifully poetic, as in his best novels and short stories, or slightly purple around the edges, as in some of his later creations, it was always evident that Bradbury had not just steeped himself in fantasy fiction — he often boasted that he “was graduated from libraries,” which he loved to haunt (bookstores too). Thus, his influences ranged from the obvious (Verne, Wells, E.R. Burroughs) to the elegant and the wordsmiths (Shakespeare, Huxley, Katharine Anne Porter, Steinbeck).



The impact that Bradbury’s work has on a young reader is hard to measure — it becomes harder as the years go by and different (diluted and derivative) forms of fantasy literature become teen favorites. I will readily admit that I have only read a handful of Bradbury’s books cover to cover, but they made a profound impression on me, mostly because I could see traces of his influence everywhere in the best sci-fi and horror writing done in the Fifties, Sixties, and onward for radio, TV, and film.



There were countless adaptations of Bradbury’s stories (including the Eighties TV series The Ray Bradbury Theater, which he hosted for its six-season run from 1985 to ’92). My favorites were the ones by the short-form masters at EC Comics, since they directly quoted his narration in the panels and were masters at conveying surprise conclusions. They also adapted several of his horror stories, which aren’t as well known as his fantasy tales.



Bradbury’s concentration on characters and emotion, as well as his penchant for creating speculative allegories for social situations, also makes him the forefather of the Twilight Zone style of storytelling, in which characters often get what I like to call the “cosmic screw” for no clear reason other than the fact that they exist and fate is unpredictable. Bradbury wrote one episode of the series, “I Sing the Body Electric,” which predated Blade Runner in exploring how a synthetic creature can be just as human (or be perceived as such) as us humans.

I used the word “allegory” above, but that is not a phrase that Bradbury was fond of. He referred to his stories, as you’ll see in the interviews embedded below, as “myths” or “fairy tales.” One of the most succinct quotes I found was his statement that “If you write in metaphors, people can remember them.... I think that's why I'm [taught] in the schools." This very same idea was posited by Rod Serling when he lamented in the paperback version of the Patterns script (yeah, I’ve got it somewhere) that to get an important political point across on television he realized he would have to conceal it in the guise of fantasy.

My other favorite quote by Ray was “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.” The emotions in his work, especially the personal tales of youth like Something Wicked This Way Comes, will hopefully be a part of readers’ lives forever, but one of his best “legacy” novels, Fahrenheit 451, is one of those novels that will always have something to say to the public.

Before I send you flying into the best interview and profile videos available in plain sight on the Net, I should mention obvious biographical details (born in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1920; first story published in Super Science Stories in 1941). But what I’d really like to spotlight is his very first writing gig that paid: as a teen, Ray submitted jokes to George Burns and Gracie Allen's radio show and was paid a few bucks in return.

The period in which his writing was “white hot,” so to speak, was the mid-Forties through the early Sixties, but the era I’m most interested in is the late 1930s when he met the friends he would keep for the rest of his life, his sci-fi fanboy buddies. Bradbury joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society in 1936 and attended the first World Science Fiction Convention shortly thereafter.

“Uncle Forry” (aka “Dr. Acula,” aka “4E,” aka Forrest J. Ackerman) and Ray Harryhausen formed a sort of “Three Musketeers” of fandom with Bradbury, the gentlemen remaining friends through the rest of their lives (RH is the only one still with us). Other people who became Ray’s LASFS buddies included future DC editor emeritus (and early sci-fi author agent) Julius Schwartz and the incredibly talented authors Frederick Brown and Leigh Brackett.

Here is Uncle Forry talking with me about the World Science Fiction con:


The best way to encounter Bradbury will always be sampling some of his 600 or so short stories or one of his 27 novels, but in the meantime I want to link to some of the best interviews with the gent I could find, plus one or two great tributes.

The first good shorter items I’d point you to are this live appearance by Bradbury and Hugh Hefner. Ray is in bad shape but still very vibrant mentally. He and Hef talk about the origins of Fahrenheit 451 as well as the twin topics of literacy and censorship. Also discussed is the very underrated Charles Beaumont, a protégé of Bradbury who wrote haunting short stories but is best known for his Twilight Zone and Corman/Poe scripts.

Bradbury frequently spoke about his early years, his inspirations, his love of reading, and (most importantly) his deep devotion to writing. The 1963 TV documentary “Story of a Writer” is a gorgeous tribute to him. You get the chance to see his pack rat side in his office — you can also hear the word “hell” get bleeped, see an adaptation of one of his creepier thriller stories (“Dial Double Zero”), and watch him lecture aspring writers on how writing should be everything for them. Stirring thoughts from a deeply passionate guy:


There are several great clips in which Bradbury speaks about writing. A good 1968 interview clip from the CBC is here, and here is a segment from a documentary narrated by the one and only Illustrated Man himself, Rod Steiger:


In 1974 Bradbury appeared on the PBS interview show Day at Night. The topics include his preference for the term “fantasy” for his writing, his feeling that science and religion are compatible, as well as his belief that you need both the “high” and the “low” (praise be) in your literary diet: “you can’t appreciate Shakespeare until you’ve read Edgar Rice Burroughs… you need both of them in your life. There’s room in your head for all of this.”


As the years went by Bradbury’s publicly stated opinions became more and more conservative (in this clip from the San Diego Comic Con he states with certainty that “we freed Russia”). He was always open-minded, though, about religion’s place in the cosmos.

That didn’t stop a massive asshole on YouTube, a self-proclaimed “street preacher,” from condemning Ray to Hell. The video is here. This gentleman “James” makes a habit of harassing Mormons, Catholics, and gays (the last-mentioned obviously being a major problem for him). He also despises most women, because they can’t park their cars well (it would be hard to even make this stuff up).

The gentleman puts up videos on YT with admittedly great crazy-ass titles. The ones that I keep coming across in my searches are the ones in which he condemns certain celebs to hell (so far, a LOT of people in show biz and the arts are going there — party!).


In the one I link to above, he condemns Bradbury to hell for having written horror stories and not having publicly proclaimed Christ as his personal savior. Other, more lenient, Xtians have written in the comments field that James is taking on the role of God, which is equally blasphemous, but this guy’s a fundamentalist, whaddya want, a brain or something?

HERE, for the record is what Bradbury thought of god. On the night of the moonlanding, Mike Wallace (yes, the moral arbiter I wrote about at length here), asked Ray his impression of the event, and he stated that he was thoroughly inspired by it, that it proves that “we are god himself coming awake at the universe.” What a nicer view of the Infinite than the street preacher has….


Now, in the area of sentiment, here’s a very touching tribute by Bradbury when he spoke at an L.A. bookstore, talking about his friend Forry and fellow fanaddicts Schwartz and Harryhausen:


Still in a sentimental mode, I switch to a fan tribute. Now of course there is the wonderful “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” video (hey, any overwrought tribute to an author of adult fiction rather than “teen paranormal romance,” as they call it now at B&N, is welcome!). But I turn to Neil Gaiman for a truly beautiful tribute to Bradbury. He wrote it for Ray’s 90th and performs it here in Nov of 2011. It is terrific that some crafty cam-wielding soul captured it:


And because I couldn’t possibly leave these out, I spotlight Ray in the company of two great comic minds. First, Groucho, when he guested on You Bet Your Life (watch him slam those movie-trivia questions down):


And later on, a commercial for prunes starring Ray, conceived by Stan Freberg:


In interviews Bradbury often talked about his childhood encounter with a magician who came to his town who called himself Mr. Electrico (you can see him discussing it in the Day at Night interview above). He said that Mr. Electrico “pointed at me, touched me with his electric sword — my hair stood on end — and said, 'Live forever!' ”

Done.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Comedy icons in conversation: Bob Claster’s “Funny Stuff”


I have stated it before on this blog and on the Funhouse TV show, but the Internet is the perfect digital equivalent to that dark wood where trees are falling everywhere, and no one can hear the sound. Thus I like spotlighting websites that offer troves of rare interviews, as noted here and here. Like, in this instance, Bob Clasters’s archive of interviews from his 1980s KCRW show “Funny Stuff.”
Claster scored interviews with a number of comedy icons, a few of who have left this mortal coil. His interview style was mellow and informal as he moved through his subject’s career chronology. The interviews can be downloaded as MP3s for FREE (that does seem to make all the difference on the Net). A few of his longer chats are among the best interviews I’ve heard with those subjects.
In some cases it is obvious that the subject was there to flog their latest product and was thoroughly willing to review their past if the plug was delivered. Claster used his time with the subjects wisely, and in some cases he aired the interviews as a series of episodes, playing the subject’s “greatest hits” in between the interview segments.
As is the case with possibly the best of his interviews, an in-depth five-episode (!) talk with Stan Freberg. Freberg tends to lead his interviewers where he wants them to go, but Claster gets him to review most of his radio/single/LP work. Stan’s tale of how he was literally discovered by a Hollywood agent fresh off the bus from Pasadena is one of the neatest entry-into-show-biz tales you’re likely to hear, and Claster’s subsequent review of his musical spoofs, from the famous (“John and Mary,” “Day-O”) to the entirely obscure (“Bob Snake for President”), is impressive.
The series of episodes ends up being the single best “101” in Freberg’s work that you’re likely to encounter. As a bonus, Claster has posted a very wonderful bit of Freberg-iana, the August 31, 1956 episode of the CBS Radio Workshop that finds Freberg reflecting on what satire means by spotlighting some of his best bits and offering a stirring tribute to his fellow satirists at the end.
Equally impressive to me is Claster’s 1988 interview with one of the funniest gents that ever lived, Peter Cook. The talk starts with Cook speaking to Bob as his character Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling. Given that improvisation by Cook always yielded gold amidst the dross, and Chris Morris worked wonders with the aged Cook, I did wish Claster had kept speaking to “Sir Arthur,” but I can also relate to his wanting to ask Cook questions about his own accomplishments — although I’m glad Cook slipped into his “E.L. Wisty” character at one point and later turned back into Sir Arthur as he said goodbye.
Claster makes the three-episode Cook talk into a career retro that is almost as comprehensive as the Freberg series. Although Cook would clearly rather speak as his blustering alter-ego and seems dismissive of his unnatural talent (“I’m about the laziest person I know in the world”), he was always in rare form when set in front of a microphone.
Thus, you’ll hear him talking about things that were left out of most interviews: a segment on Not Only… But Also called “Poet’s Corner” that found celebrity guests competing with Cook and Moore to keep up a rhyming game, with the loser being (in modern parlance) “slimed.” None of these segments have been preserved, and I’ve never read about them in Cook biographies, but you can find mention of them in online discussions of “gunge” in British culture (supposedly two guests who may have been involved in these segments were John Lennon and Spike Milligan — and these tapes were “wiped”?).
Cook also discusses the very odd Paul Morrissey-directed Cook and Moore version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and his TV sitcom flop The Two of Us. Much more to the point is his discussion of the Derek and Clive sessions, with Cook summing it up as “we ad-libbed this filth…”
One of the biggest “scores” Claster got as an interviewer was the ever-elusive Tom Lehrer — in fact he got two interviews with one of the best humorous songwriters ever. The first talk from 1983 is a lengthy one, punctuated by some of Lehrer’s greatest songs. Claster does revert to fanboy mode (not that I blame him) when he repeatedly asks if Lehrer would ever consider coming back to songwriting and performance.
The rest of the chat is taken up with Lehrer offering opinions about his work and discussing the different versions of the material. I hadn’t realized until listening to Claster’s interview that Lehrer’s last record (minus the stray song or two on a CD collection or radio show) was released in 1965, thus making him, as Bob puts it, “the Salinger of comedy” (Salinger’s last story was published in ’65). Lehrer has continued to teach all these years, but he has steadfastly avoided returning to performance of any kind.
The second interview from 1989 is even more interesting because it occurred in conjunction with two new songs by Lehrer appearing on The Prairie Home Companion. Again, Lehrer shoots down any hopes that he will return to entertaining, and also firmly states his belief that satire can’t alter society: “Satire doesn’t have much effect, except on the already converted… I’ve always really felt that this kind of stuff is not even preaching to the converted, it’s titillating the converted. It makes them feel good, but I don’t think it changes any minds. But I may be wrong — I hope so, it would be nice to be wrong.”
One of Claster’s cheeriest interviews, and the one he recommends on his site as a starting point for newcomers, is his talk with John Cleese and Michael Palin. Recorded in 1988 in conjunction with the opening of A Fish Called Wanda, the pair do provide a number of Python-related anecdotes, some of which I’ve heard in other interviews, but a bunch of which were new to me.
The thing that makes the interview so special is that Cleese and Palin seem genuinely happy to be rehashing the Python era. I attended the 40th anniversary Python gathering in NYC and have seen nearly all the latterday interviews, and in most cases the Pythons seem pleasant but somewhat tired to be telling their tales of the group’s adventures. Claster got Big John and his friend “Mickey” (as he repeatedly calls him) when they were still happy to recount their tales of the (then-recent) past.
Thus they jog each other’s memories and supply stories of the best and worst moments of the Python years, while taking good-natured potshots at each other. A Fish Called Wanda gets its rightful due, as it does stand as one of the final blasts of great Python humor (although only one-third of the ensemble was present).
The two interviews that Claster did in NYC in 1989 are a study in contrasts. One is leisurely, in-depth, and very funny, whereas the other is informative and entertaining, but seems too short. The latter, his interview with Brother Theodore, finds Theodore discussing his monologues — which were humorous, but of a grim, morbid, intellectual, and maniacal kind.
Theodore’s background was indeed singular: he was the only comedian to appear here in the U.S. who had been an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp. I have read some print interviews where Theodore spoke of this and have seen the one documentary about him (thus far unreleased on DVD), but had never heard him speak at length about his experiences in Dachau (his family was wiped out).
Bob’s interview with him is thus not just an interesting talk with a comedy legend, it’s bona fide world history, as Theodore briefly sketches how he went from being the scion of a wealthy family to working as a janitor in America, before moving into show business. Unfortunately, Bob veers away from this part of the discussion and “jumps” the chronology to move him into show business.
This is the one Claster interview that I wished was a lot longer. Perhaps there was an external factor, some time constraint, limiting his discussion with Theodore. It’s still a fascinating chat, but it could easily have been twice as long — as it stands, it seems that the real-life darkness that Theodore matter-of-factly speaks about brings the conversation to a hastier end.
There are no problems with Claster’s interview of another “spoken word” legend who came from elsewhere to live with us here in Manhattan, Quentin Crisp. There are some pauses and lulls in the discussion, but they only serve to underscore the conversational quality of the interview and they also make Crisp’s deadpan punchlines a lot funnier.
The Quentin Crisp episode episode may not be filled with comedy history in the manner of the Cleese, Cook, or Freberg chats, but it turned out to be one of the most revelatory for me, as I’ve always respected Crisp but hadn’t bothered to check out his material.  He had a dark outlook on life and death that was similar to Brother Theodore's (who famously said “As long as there is death, there is hope”).
Crisp remarks to Claster, “I hope to die fairly soon. Because I’ve got to die before my clothes wear out or else I would have to buy some more, which would be worrying.” Responding to one of Bob’s chipper queries (what’s the best thing that could happen to him tomorrow), Crisp responds, “I suppose death would be the answer.”
The talk is also oddly “ambient,” since it was conducted in Crisp’s un-air-conditioned tenement apartment on a hot NYC night — the sound of an electric fan and the stickiness in the air seem to give the interview even more “atmosphere.”
*****
It’s hard to improve on the interviews already mentioned, but several of the other Claster “Funny Stuff” chats are worth your time:
—the solo John Cleese interview finds Cleese discussing why the American adaptations of Fawlty Towers didn’t work (he and Bob discuss the one with Harvey Korman, but I believe there were at least two more, including one with Bea Arthur as a female Fawlty).
—as with the Cleese/Palin talk, Bob’s interview with Terry Jones finds the Welsh Python in a good mood and ready to discuss the history of the Flying Circus.
Billy Connolly, back when he was almost entirely unknown in the U.S.
— the delightful absurdist Douglas Adams, who runs through the whole history of Hitchhiker’s Guide with Bob and his cohost, but also reveals where he’d like to be sent in a time machine (who knew he was such a music freak?) and his stated desire “to be a better writer” (it’s hard to remember sometimes that the HGTTG books were the second version of the tale),
— a very good non-comedy-related interview is Claster’s talk with celebrated musician-producer-arranger-friend of everyone, Van Dyke Parks. The most interesting portion of the interview comes when “VDP” (as he calls himself) brings up a period of depression he suffered after his initial albums had floundered (they were critically acclaimed and are still fan favorites, but died upon arrival).
The single most interesting thing Parks brings up is his tenure as the “director of the audio/visual department” for Warner Bros. Records, making “publicity films” for the artists they had under contract at the time. I don’t know if these films have surfaced on bootlegs of the individual artists’ material, or if they are floating around YouTube, but the list he supplies of artists who were filmed — including Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman — makes the films sound fascinating.
Also noteworthy are Claster’s interviews with Mort Sahl, Barney Miller creator (and Martin and Lewis scripter) Danny Arnold , Emo Philips, Jo Stafford and Paul Weston as their comic alter-egos Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, and June Foray and Bill Scott, the voices of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Where else can you heard reminiscences of Edward Everett Horton and the inevitable Hans Conreid?
******
Thanks to comedy maven, expert, and all-around good guy Jim G. for introducing me to the Claster stash.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

L’auteurist americain: Deceased Artiste Andrew Sarris (part two)

The American Cinema remains Sarris’ most important statement as a critic, but he did continue to make some very interesting arguments in the Seventies. Of course, he seemed to remain in conflict with the radical brand of modernism that ran through the best work of that decade. I remember that his review of Godard’s Ici et Ailleurs (1976) read as an apology, since Sarris was throwing up his hands and admitting that he found the movie unpleasant because he had too much liberal guilt to ever praise a movie about the Palestinians, no matter how masterfully it had been constructed.


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.
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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.)
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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:
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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.”