We’re very saddened to hear about the death of film critic Andrew Sarris at the age of 83. He spent some of his best years tilting with Pauline Kael here at the Voice, and while we’re putting together an actual obit, we wanted to highlight some of the best things he did at this newspaper.
A few years ago, we had a project we called “Clip Job” whose aim was to get onto the web some of the Voice‘s best material from its pre-Internet archives.
Naturally, Sarris’s column was often one we chose to republish. Please look them over now, and remember (or discover for the first time) what an important influence he was on American cinema, and what a great read, as well.
March 23, 1961: “L’Avventura…is an intellectual adventure or it is nothing.”
The plot, such as it is, will infuriate audiences who still demand plotted cinema and potted climaxes. A group of bored Italian socialites disembark from their yacht on a deserted island. After wandering about a while, they discover that one of their number, a perverse girl named Anna, is missing. Up to that time, Anna (Lea Massari) had been the protagonist. Not only does she never reappear; the mystery of her disappearance is never solved.
August 5, 1965: Sarris defends What’s New Pussycat?
I have now seen “Pussycat” four times, and each time I find new nuances in the direction, the writing, the playing, and, above all, the music. This is one movie that is not what it seems at first glance. It has been attacked for tastelessness, and yet I have never seen a more tasteful sex comedy. For one thing, Allen has written a whole script about sex without once baiting a homosexual, and this is quite a feat these days when homosexuals are considered more hilarious than ever.
December 9, 1965: Sarris considers Andy Warhol
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.
July 28, 1966: Sarris takes apart Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Nichols has actually committed all the classic errors of the sophisticated stage director let loose on the unsophisticated movies. For starters, he has underestimated the power of the spoken word in his search for visual pyrotechnics. Albee’s script is pretty strong stuff. There is no need to jump up and down with the camera every time a character suggests humping the hostess or getting the guests or humiliating the host. Nor is there any need to take the action outside where the hypnotic spell of an alcoholic mood can be dispelled by the fakey-emptiness of exteriors.
June 15, 1967: Sarris assassinates Casino Royale
“Casino Royale” tries to capitalize both on the James Bond name and the “What’s New, Pussycat?” art nouveau nuttiness. I liked “Pussycat,” but I don’t like “Casino Royale,” particularly when John Huston is flaunting the hardened arteries of David Niven and Deborah Kerr in a Scottish castle. Things pick up a little bit when Orson Welles, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen stumble into the scene, but the total experience remains boringly incoherent.
July 25, 1968: Sarris on why Rosemary Baby is so damned scary
What is frightening about Rosemary’s condition is her suspicion that she is being used by other people for ulterior purposes. She has no family of her own to turn to, but must rely on a husband who seems insensitive to her pain, neighbors who seem suspiciously solicitous, a doctor whose manner seems more reassuring than his medicine, and a world that seems curiously indifferent to her plight. When she tells her story to a disinterested doctor, he dismisses it as pure paranoia as most doctors would if a pregnant woman walked into their office and told them the plot of “Rosemary’s Baby.” The disinterested doctor calls the witch doctor and Rosemary is delivered to her satanic destiny. After spitting in her husband’s face, Rosemary approaches the rocker where her yellow-eyed baby is crying and by slowly rocking the infant to sleep acknowledges her maternal responsibility toward a being that is after all a baby and ultimately HER baby.
Thus two universal fears run through “Rosemary’s Baby,” the fear of pregnancy, particularly as it consumes personality, and the fear of a deformed offspring with all the attendant moral and emotional complications.
January 15, 1970: Sarris picks the best films of 1969
There were close to 300 regular releases in 1969, and I would estimate about as many more hard-core sexploitation attractions although the latter figure might be even higher. Actually, the bottom is creeping up to the top these days insofar as production values are concerned. Hollywood has all but ceased to exist as a production center, and the old days of studio trademarks are gone forever. Still, the movie beat remains busy enough to endure that in any given year there will be critical slippage.
February 4, 1971: Sarris: Heteros Have Problems Too
I am 42, going on 43, and I have never had a homosexual experience. Thus, if only by the process of elimination (and an ecstatically happy marriage), I must qualify as a male heterosexual. I am not bragging, mind you, or complaining either, but merely stating a banal fact. I am not suggesting that I have resisted the blandishments of hordes of homosexuals over the years. Nor am I suggesting that there is anything heroic about being heterosexual. Or even anything special. But I do feel the time has come in my intellectual life to draw the line against any additional accretions of guilt.
April 15, 1971: Sarris vs. Kael on Citizen Kane
Pauline Kael’s two-part article on “Citizen Kane” (“Raising Kane” — the New Yorker, February 20 and 27, 197) reportedly began as a brief introduction to the published screenplay, but, like Topsy, it just growed and grower into a 50,000-word digression from “Kane” itself into the life and times and loves and hates and love-hates of Pauline Kael.
My disagreement with her position begins with her very first sentence:
“‘Citizen Kane’ is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened.” I can think of hundreds of “American talking pictures” that seem as fresh now as the day they opened. Even fresher.