Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays

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….

A man who loves women with Paterian (and Truffautian) passion, Sarris consistently locates that elusive arc where the arts of appearance and apprehension miraculously hot-wire into cinema. Vide Falconetti by Dreyer (flesh luminescing into soul); Gish by Griffith (irradiating implosions of sexuality and spirit); Dietrich–von Sternberg (pure illusion spun out of screen light, shadow, texture); Garbo by anyone (a radiance in which all the world vaporizes); Louise Brooks by Pabst (feral angel sinlessly in heat); along with Barbara Stanwyck by Capra; Ingrid Bergman by Rossellini; Machiko Kyo and Kinuyo Tanaka by Mizoguchi; Liv Ullmann by Bergman; Monica Vitti by Antonioni; Jeanne Moreau by Truffaut; Anna Karina by Godard; Catherine Deneuve by Truffaut, Buñuel, Polanski; Stéphane Audran and Isabelle Huppert by Chabrol; Hanna Schygulla by Fassbinder; Gong Li by Zhang Yimou; et al. By virtue of such Sarrisian hagiography, we’ve been guided by our critical Beatrice into an “illuminated dark” to take heart from morality play—ribbons of lies and truth twenty-four times a second.

When a distaff star in Sarris’ pantheon offers herself up to the martyrdom of many eyes, her exposed flesh and sensibility incandesce with saving significance and grace. In a mass transaction that is also transsubstantiation, auteurist advertisers serve cinematic communicants bread and wine never staled by custom. Consumed, as is Anna Karina in Godard’s My Life to Live (Vivre sa vie), such saints increase; reeling away in the time machine of the cinema, they do not die.

Blessed with the spiritual and intellectual software required to recognize images of “virtual” immortality, a romantic such as Sarris can see through the apparent “physical chastity” of Karina-Belmondo-Godard’s apocalyptic Pierrot le fou: “…time and time again, I felt the chilling sublimation of love into art and then the warming translation of art back into love.” Our silver-tongued movie lover confides that “I have never understood whether the existence of eroticism was established by the evidence of erection or by a logical analysis of visual and verbal oppression,” and demonstrates how a thinking sensualist’s appreciation of celluloid bodies of work can be so spiritually tactile as to touch truth spot-on.

Claiming “there is no greater spectacle in the cinema than a man and a woman talking away their share of eternity together,” Sarris cherishes the kind of passionate ratiocination that drives John Donne’s erotic/religious poems and makes heaven of a couple’s heated discourse during Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s. While Claire’s Knee is skin-deep paradise, its beautiful anatomy fires the “transformation of an image into an idea, sensuality into sensibility, a bit of furtive voyeurism into an obsessive illusion, and, most important of all, a suggestion of fetishism into a surge of feeling.” Out of an “elderly male filmmaker’s fascination—subtle, civilized, moral, aesthetically rigorous—with young women who can talk a blue streak,” Sarris forges a precise definition of cinema’s alchemy.

Sarris’ longtime and long-range interest in movies and blondes, though not always necessarily in that order, has often found enthusiastic expression in his work, sometimes in the endearingly assumed persona of a rather cerebral gentleman, say, later James Mason somewhat flustered to find in himself a sexually charged boy, and vice versa. Consider the following breathless paean: “Miss Christie’s sensual-sentimental assault in Darling has devastated me as nothing has since Harriet Andersson bared a bosom so ample as to contradict her Cocteau face in Naked Night.”

Or the declaration of love that warmed his review of Tootsie:

Let it be recorded for the year 2022 that in the year 1982 a bedazzled reviewer … suddenly decided that Jessica Lange was more a knockout than Frances Farmer ever was, that she was everything Marilyn Monroe was supposed to be in Some Like It Hot, and … that she lit up the screen with so much beauty and intelligence that [the film was transformed] into a thoroughly modernist, thoroughly feminist parable of emotional growth and enlightenment.

But Sarris has always understood that movies—”mortality in motion”—manipulate and use up the “youthful, fantasy-making flesh” of women more ruthlessly than that of men. Thus, he surmises wisely that the witch-burning frenzy that once attended amour for Bergman and Rossellini, Mary Astor and George S. Kaufman, had less to do with sin and more to do with outrage that goddesses of the silver screen could be carnally besotted, and, worse yet, by “ugly” men. Of Astor, Sarris writes with characteristic tenderness: “There was something in the frankness of her screen image that suggested to a vicarious sensualist like me a sexuality so generous and so merciful as to qualify for a sainthood of sublimated flesh.”

Frequently in his essays (with nothing like the cruel prurience of a John Simon), Sarris calculates an actress’ age, its bearing on her role and her star status, its significance vis-à-vis her male co-star. Thus we learn that the sexiest movie scene of 1943 (necking on a brownstone stoop in The More the Merrier) was achieved by “crack-voiced comedienne” Jean Arthur, reportedly thirty-seven, with lanky, thirty-seven-year-old Joel McCrea. ForHollywood and fans, indiscreet celluloid sexiness in a lady verging on forty was bad enough, but Sarris reveals that Arthur was really forty-two at the time, a wholly inappropriate age for virtually “inducing a collective orgasm in the audience.”

Similarly, he pays pointed tribute to Jamie Lee Curtis in 1994’s True Lies: “When she describes the plight of a 35-year-old housewife and mother aimlessly watching her life pass by, the poignancy of her predicament is enriched by the Bazinian reality of a 35-year-old sexpot actress trying to get a big score before the male-dominated industry tells her that ninth inning has come and gone.” Particularly, one might add, when Curtis’ interrogator audience—behind a one-way mirror—is “husband” Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose exaggerated physicality kept him bankable even as be was well on his way to fifty.

In an apologia for his “anachronistic” view of relations between the sexes, Sarris once braved the tide of “relentless ideology” in a mannerless era:

The ancient codes to which I cling govern the gallantry of romantic love, the rites and rituals of which are justifiable not so much in terms of “nature” and “normality” as of culture and history. The clinical or scientific temperament may argue that the myths and legends of romantic love are beautiful lies which conceal certain ugly truth … but I believe in gallantry and civility in the relationship between a man and a woman [with] an implied duality of the mind and the body and implied conflict between love and lust, an implied subordination of consummation to sublimation.

Typically, if one racks focus on Sarris’ medieval philosophy of relations between the sexes, his critical aesthetic comes to the fore, an aesthetic that embraces the relations between women and movies, movies and reviewers, reviewers and readers, readers and civilization—everything that (to paraphrase Sarris) Delphine Seyrig conveys in her gaze when she looks out of Resnais’s Muriel past her visible companion to some ideal replica.” But such relations and transformations—in art or in the flesh—require courageous souls in the stalls, and “most moviegoers would prefer to linger on the surfaces of the screen and not burst through beyond it.

“For beyond the screen lurks the very perplexing otherness from which the moviegoer is in full flight.” Sarris penned that insight more than two decades ago in his foreword to The Primal Screen. Since then, our culture’s seductive surfaces have coarsened and hardened and moviegoers’ retreat from otherness has been rendered largely irrelevant by the leveling of authentic dialectic and working metaphor on the parts of literalist filmmakers and critics alike to a wasteland of transient, repetitive, unresonant gestures, bereft of ceremony or grace.

We’ve come to live in fundamentalist times, when illiteracy and revisionism breed arrogant amnesiacs who don’t have time for suspect aesthetic pleasures of the past. Trapped in the tyranny of Now, film reviewers spew out sophomoric puns and connect-the-dots pop-cult allusions, dish gossip or publicist piffle, all in the kind of snake-oil rant that instantly self-destructs yesterday’s news. Film scholars scuttling to hammer disreputable art into upscale sociopolitical and scientific forms are as vigilant as any Inquisition against the heresies of personality and pleasure in critical writing.

The thought police have banned the stylized dance of sublimated sex, and for many right-thinking feminists, the contemplation of women onscreen and offscreen is automatic anathema dong with aesthetic that would morph them into the very stuff of dreams and human aspiration. Critical discourse has degenerated into immature vulgarity, so hiply jaded by humanity’s fallen state that any informed, compassionate celebration of our attempts to touch angels ranks as “corny.”

In such a season, sample Andrew Sarris’ review of a 1968 movie that falls short of masterpiece: Michel Deville’s Benjamin concerns a young male virgin’s “initiation into the rites of love by a society (18th century France) that lives for little else…. The sentimental and sensual education of a young man prepares him for a life through which he will pursue women till he finds the dark at the end of the tunnel.” Benjamin’s eventual epiphany must be quoted at length:

Benjamin’s and the film’s finest moment comes at a rendezvous less with beauty than with truth in front of a mirror at which Michele Morgan’s jilted countess surveys her own faded charms (Miss Morgan’s beautifully stark cheekbones in Symphonie Pastorale have finally dissolved into mushy makeup; her eyes have lost their austere luster to make the Pirandellian pathos of her performance complete). Benjamin looks into that same mirror and tells the countess that she is the most beautiful woman of the region, and at that moment he finds his soul by perceiving the pain and vulnerability of another human being. (Confessions of a Cultist)

This is sweet chivalry in the service of actress, cinema, memory, salvation. Covenant, too, that Andrew Sarris’ critical language, only momentarily under siege by barbarians, endures as haven, a clean well-lighted place where cherished cinematic illuminations shine, not only as this week’s entertainment but for the renaissance that must always follow our dark ages.

Copyright © 2001 by Kathleen Murphy