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Andrew Sarris

Andrew Sarris in Seattle

Andrew Sarris came to Seattle for a talk on the night of March 12, 1987. My friend Tom Keogh and I had recently founded a non-profit organization dedicated to showing movie repertory, the Seattle Filmhouse, at just exactly the wrong moment to found such a thing. But before that enterprise fell apart, we managed to get Sarris out to talk about what a film critic was, and what film criticism was for, and—oh, whatever he wanted to talk about.

Andrew Sarris

His arrival at the airport, and his presence over the next couple of days, somehow embodied every idea I had about a vintage New Yorker. The rumpled trenchcoat, the garrulous manner, the roving intellect, the way food would not stay in his mouth as he talked over some urgent subject at dinner—all these things seemed exactly from that classic world of the East Coast, so juiced-up in comparison to our laid-back Northwest ways. (In leaving a restaurant, he grabbed someone else’s raincoat, which we had to return the next day—a mix-up discovered when Andrew found parole papers in the guy’s pocket.)

The day of his lecture, Tom and I schlepped him around to radio stations for publicity interviews, and I got worried. He looked pretty exhausted, though gracious in beating the drum on our behalf. Then came the talk in Kane Hall at the University of Washington, and Sarris was on, gliding from autobiographical anecdote to concise recaps of the Kael rivalry to piercing quick takes on movies in release at that moment (the Oscars were imminent—Platoon was the odds-on favorite, but he said his favorite of the year was Eric Rohmer’s Summer). He could ramble, yes, but then yank back the train of thought with some arresting observation.

Continue  reading at Film Comment here. The transcript of Andrew Sarris’s appearance at the Seattle Filmhouse in 1987 is also at film comment in two parts, here and here.

Andrew Sarris: The Man Who Loved Women

Humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still.
—C.S. Lewis, The Allegories of Love

Back in the politically incorrect eleventh century a lyrical, highly sophisticated style of erotic poetry sprang up in France’s Languedoc province. This aristocratic art and the lives that imitated it made a religion of love, drawing sensual metaphor from the language and rites of the church. A woman’s beauty was epiphany, striking the soul directly through the eye, and that epiphany became a lifelong profession for her articulate acolyte. Fleshly consummation was permitted only in simile, creating fertile ground for the exquisite forms that flowered in verses by troubadours of courtly love.

In just such a civilized order belongs Andrew Sarris, latterday cultist, critic, and Francophile, who once confessed—with a puckish wink to the groundlings—that his conception of the cinema could be summed up in three words: “Girls! Girls! Girls!” Behind the occasional mask of the endlessly turned-on adolescent in the dark is the character of a devout cineaste for whom the screen has always been “a window into the soul of others.” Contemplating Lola Montès’ public parts in Max Ophuls’ sublime strip show, Sarris lovingly traces the transfiguration of mannequin into aesthetic Mariolatry. Writing of a work he once considered “the single most important experience of my critical life, the one film that has shaped my aesthetic,” this philosopher/critic scans Ophuls’ cinematic poetry according to the language and bent of the old courtly love tradition:

The emphasis of the film shifts from the object of love to the cultural mechanism of love [suggesting] that the banality of a life, any life, hers, his ours, Lola’s, could be given meaning and majesty by the beauty of art selling for one dollar her presence to the multitudes, [Lola redeems] all men both as a woman and as an artistic reflection of their sensibilities…. I suppose I love Lola Montès because it transforms cinematic expression into a religious experience for this age of increasing faithlessness and fragmentation. (The Primal Screen)

As a faithful practitioner of unfashionable Frauendienst, Sarris sea-changes even a lesser divinity such as Martine Carol into Fassbinder’s holy whore of cinema, as surely as those long-gone Languedoc ladies were dissolved into redemptive high art. Stubbornly wearing honorable critical cloth into “proudly brainless” days, he attends movies as though any one of them might be a vehicle of sanctifying light—the screened equivalent of Danielle Darrieux’s diamond earrings in Ophuls’ Madame de….

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