Andrew Sarris R.I.P.

“I must say I enjoyed even the music enormously, possibly because I have not yet been traumatized by transistors into open rebellion against the ‘top 40′ and such. (I just heard ‘Hello, Dolly’ for the first time the other day, and the lyrics had been changed to ‘Hello, Lyndon.’) Nevertheless I think there is a tendency to underrate rock ‘n’ roll because the lyrics look so silly in cold print… I like the songs the Beatles sing despite the banality of the lyrics, but the words in R&R only mask the poundingly ritualistic meaning of the beat. It is in the beat that the passion and togetherness is most movingly expressed.”

Andrew Sarris, from his review of A Hard Day’s Night, Village Voice, Aug ’64. I love Sarris’s review of this, and it puts him in an exclusive club of pre-war critics who got — or anyway, who at least attempted to get — rock and roll. (We’re talking about an extremely exclusive club here: McLuhan’s in it, for sure, Kael… and who else?). Not suggesting that Sarris became any kind of major fan of rock and roll — I strongly doubt it, in fact — but that’s beside the point, what matters is that, before such a thing as rock criticism even existed, he evaluated the music on its own terms, heard something special in the beat, took for granted its “importance” from the get-go (well, from the second get-go — not sure he has any words on Elvis, Chuck Berry, et al.).

Of course Sarris will be recalled by many for a hell of a lot more than that, and rightly so, but it’s a small moment in a giant career which, to me, seems at least worth a mention. More about Sarris here.

11 thoughts on “Andrew Sarris R.I.P.

  1. Sarris was a very nice guy as well a terrific film essayist — met him a couple of times when I was working at Video Review in the late 80s.

  2. As far as 60s film critics who “got” rock n roll, I don’t recall specifically but I suspect that Vincent Canby at the Times did. Certainly, he was a huge Roger Corman fan, which was pretty unusual for a critic at a stodgy establishment paper back then….

  3. Not familiar with Canby’s work but you might be right. It’s remarkable how small such a list would be — i.e., a list of critics/intellectuals from earlier eras who didn’t ignore or dismiss rock. Which, by the way, is not a litmus test or anything, just a point of interest to me (Manny Farber is still Manny Farber, regardless of whether or not he listened to the Ronettes) .

  4. I think Kauffmann expressed some puzzlement over rock and roll in general, but he got the Beatles. I can’t find reviews of the first two films, but he loved Yellow Submarine: “This film, like so much that the Beatles do, is both unexpected in their careers and delightful.”

    Simon, not so much.

  5. Hey guys, pardon me for going slightly off-topic here (and on Canada Day, no less!), but as you often discuss populist-oriented movie critics, the sainted Pauline Kael of course, and now Andrew Sarris, I thought this posting might be a good forum to hijack for my question of the day.

    Last night, 30 June 2012, I FINALLY watched “Sullivan’s Travels” all the way through. As my rock-critic tenure has gradually faded away, I’ve become increasingly interested in film, mainly by watching Turner Classic Movies religiously, and I’m trying to catch up on all the stuff I missed during my ear-to-the-turntable millennium.

    I kept hearing and reading everywhere what a classic “Sullivan’s Travels” is, but each time I’d try to watch it, I’d get alienated first by the opening scene of all the film execs shouting over each other at top speed, like a dozen Jackie Gleasons in an insane asylum, and then by that awful sequence of the studio-provided motorhome careening down the road as it chases Sullivan’s ride in the preteen’s hot rod, with the passengers getting thrown all over the interior of the bus. It’s not a particularly funny shtick to start with, but then director Preston Sturges drags it out for about two minutes, as though if just enough people get hit with flying pots and pans, it’ll finally be funny! But it never is for me, especially when the Negro cook gets his head rammed through the roof of the bus, and then falls down into cakebattered whiteface. I’ve turned “Sullivan’s Travels” off in disgust at least a couple of times after that awful wayward-bus disaster.

    Last night, after a big build-up of “Sullivan’s Travels” by Robert Osborne (who I generally like a lot) and Drew Barrymore on TCM’s “Essentials” intro, I gritted my teeth and got through the careening-bus idiocy this time, and liked the movie a bit better after Veronica Lake came aboard — I could have watched even more of her riding the roads with Joel McCrea in his Packard Darrin roadster.

    But then, after a lot of contorted and irrational plot twists, we got to that late scene of all these chaingang convicts (including Sullivan, of course) laughing their heads off at a Pluto cartoon even less funny to me than the careening bus. The premise that these railroaded, abused prisoners could be miraculously redeemed by a dull, typically Disney-bourgeois cartoon, ran the movie off the road (so to speak) for me once again, as I began to get a whiff of the deadly Capracorn schmaltz. If I’d been directing, I would have run a cartoon instead from my favorite studio, Warner Bros., with say Bugs Bunny (when his head was still wedge-shaped like a real rabbit’s) tweaking Elmer Fudd’s nose. That’s the kind of sarcastic, existential humor I’d have preferred.

    In any case, I hung on right to the end last night, long enough to hear Osborne and Ms. Barrymore celebrate the wonderfulness of our shared cinematic experience once again. Well, at least I’ve seen the entire “Sullivan’s Travels” now, but I’m still not a fan. Can you experienced film buffs tell me what I’m missing? Or even better, has any critic (maybe the essential Pauline Kael) ever dissed this movie? That’s what I’d like to read, as somebody should.

    In the meantime, I’ve gone over Preston Sturges’s wikipedia entry with a fine-toothed comb, and I can’t find *any* reference to him having suffered from ADHD, though his movies certainly suggest that. And don’t ask me (yet) to watch his “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” as I’ve tried that a couple of times, and switched away from TCM even faster then. That one’s like “Petticoat Junction” on amphetamines, a concept even more barfbaggable in my book. What’s WRONG with me?!?

    Oh brother! . . . period. Give me the Marx Brothers any day.

  6. Hey Richard, I’ve actually not seen *Sullivan’s Travels* myself (or anyway, the entire thing, I think I’ve seen parts of it on TCM). Watched *The Miracle of Morgan Creek* once and thought it okay, though its reputation eluded me a little as well. So I’m clearly the wrong guy to speak to/of/for it. I do know that Kael loved Sturges (I think she mentioned somewhere that he was the only director continuing to make enjoyable screwball comedies into the ’40s?), and Sarris, if I recall (my movie books are inaccessible at the moment), ranked him pretty high in his canon also, not “pantheon”-level high — don’t remember what category he fell under — but I’m pretty sure his writeup in *The American Cinema* is full of praise. I get the feeling Sturges was liked by some of these critics not just for carrying on the screwball tradition, but for doing so and not being terribly polite or tasteful about it… maybe?

  7. Yeah—my sense is that Sullivan was viewed by some as an antidote to Capra (which would help explain Kael’s love, though not Sarris’s). I’ve seen four or five Sturges films, including Sullivan’s Travels. It’s been a while…I liked it at the time, and still remember the shot of one of the hobos getting killed on the railroad tracks. I don’t recall that I found it uproariously funny, more that it was an interesting blueprint for films like Hannah and Her Sisters and Comfort and Joy, where somebody comes to the great realization that he has to lighten up some. That, and I like looking at Veronica Lake.

  8. Worth noting, I think, that Kael preferred the Ritz Brothers to the Marx Brothers, and would go so far as to avoid folks who preferred the Marxes? Anyone watched the Ritz Brothers? Anyone want to tell me what I’m missing?

  9. Thanks for all the comments — that’s the sort of discussion I hoped to get started. When I was trying to figure out “Sullivan’s Travels” earlier, much of what I found (online, anyway) seemed to take an Emperor’s New Clothes approach: It’s a Classic because . . . well, a lot of people have *said* it’s a Classic. Specifics were lacking in those references, but I plan to follow up your leads in the writings of Kael,, to get what I’m missing spelled out.

    I like Hunsecker’s comment that Sturges was seen by some critics as “an antidote to Capra”; since Capra’s ancestry was Sicilian/Italian, does that make Sturges cinematic antipasto, in effect? An irreverent image, but one maybe helpful to my visualization of these questions. Hunsecker’s insight that “Sullivan’s Travels” may have been a “blueprint” for later lighten-up movies like “Hannah and Her Sisters” also intrigues me; I like the latter movie a lot, have seen it many times, but am always conscious that all the characters benefitting from the discovery of lightening-up are wealthy, privileged people already.

    Which I think may in turn be the ultimate message of “Sullivan’s Travels”: Sullivan needn’t worry about making a socially-conscious movie, as long as he secures his own escape from the chain gang and returns to his life of movie-star privilege. As for those unfortunates stuck in the swamp, they can always be redeemed with hearty laughter at a wholesome Disney cartoon. That final moral (or whatever it is) sounds to me just like some whitebread platitude Mitt Romney might be peddling out on the campaign trail this week, which is why I remain dubious about Sturges’s signature film.

    As luck would have it, in “Hannah and Her Sisters”, Woody Allen’s character finds his own lighten-up redemption through catching a Marx Brothers movie, of course, and I’m obviously on board with that. What I like so much about the Marxes is their continual (albeit non-violent) insolence toward the powers-the-be, the way Groucho makes all these outrageous insults toward the Margaret Dumonts of the world, with his delivery so dry they can’t tell how “serious” he is, so they just stand there and take it. Groucho and his sibs tickle my inner Marxist Brother. But now I want to check out the Ritz Bros. too.

    For anyone interested in further savoring (or deconstructing, as the case may be) “Sullivan’s Travels”, I see that it will run again on TCM at 6:00 am EDT next Wednesday, July 11. Those flying pots and pans should be unbearably droll at that hour!

  10. I’ve screened “Sullivan’s Travels” a few times. It isn’t my favorite Sturges film, but it is an example of the Hollywood-angst movie that I think holds up all right today. The postmodern remake is “The End of Violence,” with Bill Pullman and Andie McDowell–he’s a movie director who gets kidnapped and thus reconnects with the people, with a subplot about surveillance in L.A. and so forth. I did recently watch “Christmas in July,” a Sturges film with Dick Powell, and it’s classic. And I do quite like “The Lady Eve,” a great Stanwyck vehicle. I’m not a big Capra fan, altho Stanwyck in the early Capra film “The Miracle Worker” is pretty fine, and it’s an example of Capra’s populism with some added bite to it. Not sure if I think Sturges is anything like Capra–Capra’s politics are of the pseudo-populist variety and pretty fake, in my opinion, whereas Sturges was more of a detached observer of American mores and foibles, with a feel for the sucker in all of us. In that respect, perhaps an early and less jaundiced David Mamet (“Lady Eve” is a con-job film). I’m not totally sure it’s fair to expect Sturges to be as astringent a modernist as we might like, since he was working within the Hollywood system in the ’40s, and I also am not sure he’s really a “screwball” director. Screwball comedies are usually about marriage, whereas Sturges seemed more interested in the ways money can screw up your head. Sturges had only a brief vogue, basically World War II, and then it was over, altho he wrote some films before that– he wrote the script for the ’30s film “The Power and the Glory,” an early example of the flashback narrative that is supposedly an inspiration for Welles’ “Citizen Kane.”

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