Andrew Sarris Considers Andy Warhol
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
December 9, 1965, Vol. XI, No. 8
By Andrew Sarris
I have been intrigued in recent months by the sheer number of Voice columnists who have decided to define the proper role of the critic. In each instance, the traditional father figure hurling magisterial thunderbolts from on high is denounced in the name of a soothing psychoanalysis of the artist and his intentions. I sympathize with these pronouncements, but I do not entirely agree with them. I admire Michael Smith's drama reviews because he can stand apart from theatrical spectacles, even his own, and tell me what they are like, and this is more than Edward Albee can do. Yet who among us, Smith included, wouldn't rather be in Albee's shoes professionally than Smith's? The Artist is everything in American Culture, and the Critic is less than nothing. I was struck by the response of a Lincoln Center audience to the spectacle of Jean-Luc Godard being baited by a group of us nasty critics. The audience sympathy was all with Godard and he is not the most loveable of men. I am told that a girl was overheard after the session to the effect that the critics had probably been nice people before they became critics. The sincerest compliment I get at lectures is that I don't come over as monstrously in person as I do in print and I appreciate the distinction because I don't want to have my personal life become as contentiously cranky as my professional life.
There is another point to be made, however, and that is that most of the columnists at The Voice cast themselves as the good guys, full of real, real feelings and cigar-chomping insights. So virtually by default, I have become one of the bad guys, and I accept the role gladly. In future, I will be more magisterial not less, and the fact that the good guys wind up being hated more than the bad guys has nothing to do with my decision.
The irony in my case is that I have been accused in the past of being too much of an enthusiast and not enough of a critic. The so-called auteur theory has become a dubious testament to my enthusiasm for certain directors over others. At a recent lecture at the Film-Makers Cinematheque, Lenny Green asked me if elucidation implied evaluation; that is, did my explaining what something meant automatically imply that something was good. I didn't answer the question properly at that time, and I would like to do so at this time through a comparison of two movies about as far apart in intention as can be imagined. The two movies in question are Howard Hawks' "RED LINE 7000" and Andy Warhol's "THE LIFE STORY OF JUANITA CASTRO," and it would be hard to find two directors more diametrically opposed than Howard Hawks and Andy Warhol. Hawks is the Hollywood director par excellence, a man of all genres for all seasons. A director of parts, he has stamped life on adventure, gangster, and private-eye melodramas, westerns, musicals, and screwball comedies, the sort of things Americans do best and appreciate least.
About five or six years ago, I wrote an esoteric magazine article entitled "The World of Howard Hawks," and so I have a proprietary interest in Hawks' reputation. But I'm afraid I've had it with "Red Line 7000." It's as personal and as meaningful as anything Hawks has ever done. He even takes a script credit, something he has disdained doing in the past even when some of his pet dialogue kept following him from picture to picture, but it just doesn't come off. I simply cannot transmute the dross of "Red Line 7000" into the gold of "Only Angels Have Wings" and "Rio Bravo."
For all its no-nonsense masculinity, Hawksian cinema has always been very stylized. His array of adventures make their stoical gestures in an enclosed world where such gestures are sufficient unto themselves. Unfortunately, about half of "Red Line 7000" consists of real footage of apparently suicidal stock-car racing in America, and it is harder to believe in the validity of stylized stoicism as a direct statement on the modern world. Hawks, unlike Preminger, has taken his studio-conditioned out-look out into the real world and there is consequently a fatal disharmony between the old movie myths he seeks to perpetuate and the insistent iconography of the modern world he is unable to ignore. Unlike Antonioni, Hawks believes that the sentiments of 1935 are appropriate to the cybernetic '60s, but "Red Line 7000" fails to establish his thesis.
If Hawks has represented much of what I like in the cinema, Warhol represents much of what I resist. We live in an era when many people are as pathologically frightened of being put on as of being put down. Magazine articles are written to warn us of the perils of alleged artists who do not take their audience seriously, and Warhol is usually cited as the worst offender. I have found in the past that with me a little Warholian cinema goes a long way, but it suddenly strikes me that I have never seen anything by Warhol entirely lacking in interest. I happened to stumble into the Cinametheque one night in search of his Fire Island opus which is reportedly too salacious even for the American Civil Liberties Union. As a last minute replacement for the mysteriously unavailable Fire Island film, the management reprised "The Life Story of Juanita Castro," which I had never seen, and it shook me up considerably simply by making me laugh for long stretches of time, not so much at it as with it. If it ever plays around, I recommend it.
The creative force behind "Juanita Castro" is not so much Warhol, actually, as Ronnie Tavel, who wrote the script, and acted the key role of the stage manager, and very good he is in both capacities. What is curious is that Warhol has assumed the role of mere metteur-en-scene while Hawks has assumed the role of the auteur, and on this occasion, the metteur-en-scene is more successful. The fact that a Hollywood director should be relatively personal, and a New American film-maker relatively impersonal, is paradoxical enough, but that Warhol should be more satisfying even to a moviemane like me is downright incredible. Warhol's ideas on direction are simple to the point of idiocy -- or genius. He puts the camera on a tripod, and it starts turning, sucking in reality like a vacuum cleaner. Warhol doesn't even stand behind it all the time since he is not particularly interested in framing the action, or more precisely, the inaction.
"Juanita Castro" is completely static. A dozen or so figures look away from the real camera at roughly half-profile toward an imaginary camera off in the distance. Tavel reads off lines to be repeated, in turn, by Fidel Castro, Raoul Castro, Juanita Castro, and Che Guevara. Fidel, Raoul, and Che are played by relatively pretty, Latin-looking girls, Jaunita Castro by Marie Menken, an independent film-maker who in this context, comes over like a lady longshoreman. Tavel reads lines like: "Juanita, say to Fidel, you don't care anything about the peasants." And Jaunita does say in her inept way, "You don't care anything about the peasants." Then Tavel instructs the group, his Greek chorus, to begin crying about the plight of the poor peasants in Cuba. From time to time, the various members of the Castro family kiss each other decorously upon Tavel's instructions. The girl who plays Fidel makes a long speech in Spanish, and everyone begins snoring sonorously. When Juanita is ordered to stand up to take her close-up (from the imaginary camera) she naturally steps out of the frame of the real camera. The whole thing is outrageous, but it never falters in its inept insistence on making a comment on a revolution that has long since been consigned to camp. The whole show was given away when word got out that Fidel Castro wanted to be played on screen by Marlon Brando and Raoul by Frank Sinatra. From that point on, Cuba became the property of Andy Warhol and Ronnie Tavel, and they have made the only valid statement I have seen on the subject in the past several years.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.