How Movies Became Cinema: Andrew Sarris in Seattle Part II
The following is a record of Andrew Sarris’s responses to questions from the audience following his lecture at the University of Washington in March 1987. We thank Robert Horton, who recorded the event, transcribed it, and offered it to filmcomment.com. (Read the first part here.)
I’m intrigued by the fact that you’re comparing Welles and Hitchcock. Would you comment on the way in which those two influenced each other?
Yeah, well, you know, it’s a very tantalizing question, because there was almost no communication between the two of them, no social thing. I think they influenced each other much more than either wanted to admit. You might say that Journey Into Fear influenced North by Northwest, perhaps, although North by Northwest was largely a remake of The 39 Steps: Hitchcock had been working in that picaresque form long before Welles got into movies. However, Welles was aware of many of the same literary influences and many of the same cinematic influences. I mean, they both knew the work of Murnau. Welles went deeper into German Expressionism.
Mark Shivas of Movie once said that Welles shows extraordinary people in ordinary situations, and Hitchcock shows ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I think Welles is the great exhibitionist of the cinema and that Hitchcock is the great voyeur. I think Welles is the romantic adventurer, Hitchcock is the armchair adventurer. Welles is much more directly sexual and he is very knowingly misogynistic. Hitchcock is very asexual but quite exotically misogynistic. I think they’re a tremendous study in contrasts, but they both deal with the darker side of life.
Welles tells a story—I think he told it on a talk show one time—about when he was a child in Chicago. He was a very unruly child-prodigy type, he didn’t want to eat his spinach and so forth, and he had either a piano teacher or a tutor or someone in his room, and his mother was in the other room. And so to show his displeasure, little Orson went out the window, and grasped the ledge with his hand. It was in such a way that he could actually clamber up, but he seemed to be in danger of falling and it was eight or ten stories up, so that would have been it. And of course the tutor or teacher or whatever was terrified and ran into the other room and said. “Your son is hanging by his hand from the ledge.” And Welles said he could remember—and whether this story is true or not, either way it doesn’t matter because the stories you make up are just as significant as the ones that are real—Welles could remember his mother’s voice saying very calmly, “If Orson wants to come up, he’ll come up. If he wants to stay there, he’ll stay there.” She made no move. So Orson clambered up, and he said that he never knew whether she had instant sangfroid because she realized that if she got too hysterical it might make him nervous and cause him to fall; or whether really deep down she didn’t give a damn if he fell or not.
That sense of doubt… I think that kind of doubt would lead you, throughout your life, to be a little emotionally evasive. Whereas I think Hitchcock confronted his demons rather directly. And I think that’s where I give him the edge. Also I think Hitchcock worked better within the system, and accepted the limitations of the system. He was often confronted with miscast people, with projects that didn’t go the way he wanted and he just went ahead and did them. And everything evened out after a while. Whereas with Welles, when he ran into obstacles, the whole thing collapsed, everything ended. I think they both influenced each other, but I don’t think Hitchcock had anything to learn from Welles about technique, and Welles didn’t have anything to learn from Hitchcock about the darker side of life. I think the problem with Welles was that he didn’t play any games with the audience. Citizen Kane and Ambersons are two of the most despairing films ever made in America. And he was really running against the grain of the time: it was not a time for that kind of pessimism. You know, today he’d be hailed, he’d be making horror movies in his brilliant way and everybody’d say, “Ah, that’s what life is like.” But people were much more optimistic in those days. Those were the heady days of the war, people getting out of the Depression, America being very proud of itself and that kind of thing. Today, you know, there’s no such thing as being too pessimistic.
I think what Welles discovered, and always understood, was that it was possible to be too clever for movies. That he was perhaps too knowledgeable. And that people much less knowledgeable could make great movies. And this paradox, I think, tantalized him and baffled him. Because he applied too much cerebral energy toward it. I don’t know. I know he made two great films, and I think Ambersons is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, and nothing is quite like it. Because for once he probes very deep into his own feelings, whereas I think that for most of his life he was evasive.
If you were on a desert island and you had to pick out 10 films from any country, and you had all the equipment that you needed to show them, what 10 films would you take?
Well, the way I always answer that question is, I’d never go to a desert island. And if I did go to a desert island, the last thing I’d think about would be picking 10 films, and if I did pick 10 films and looked at those 10 films over and over again for 50-60 years, I think I would get to hate them. So I don’t like to answer those questions, because they enforce the view that there are some things that tower far above everything else.
I feel the world of film is a contextual world where everything gains—the greatness of it lies with how everything connects with everything else, not with how everything is separate. I wanted to get away from the isolated great work—“Oh, this is the classic work and everything else is awful.” Some things are better than others, but to understand, for instance, what’s good about Citizen Kane, you have to understand a lot of things. You have to understand Van Nest Polglase’s polished, lacquered sets for the Astaire-Rogers movies. You have to understand Gregg Toland’s tendencies as a cinematographer, you have to understand . You have to understand a great many things. Xanadu is really the castle, it’s a dream, an RKO dream. Not a Metro dream or a Fox dream. You have to understand these things, they’re all connected. And therefore the desert island sort of defeats the purpose. In fact, I don’t think I could—well, nowadays with cassettes and so forth—if somebody could fly a plane and get me a fresh supply of things, then maybe . . .
But, to answer your question in a less exclusive sense—at one time, in my pre-Cahiers period, my pre-auteurist period, I used to say that the three greatest films of all time were Odd Man Out, Citizen Kane, and Sullivan’s Travels. And none of them make my 10 best list today. Nowadays, I would say, the greatest films I know are Max Ophüls’ Madame de…, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, and Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game. If I were to be pressed. Followed very closely by Vertigo, The Searchers, and The Magnificent Ambersons. Those would be my six. And then, I guess I’d have to put Chaplin and Keaton—I don’t know what I’d pick, maybe Steamboat Bill, Jr. or Seven Chances, and for Chaplin either The Great Dictator or Modern Times. And then, I don’t know, maybe something by Sternberg—Morocco—and maybe something by Lubitsch—The Shop Around the Corner—who knows? And then we could just go on and on. I could make another 10. The top three are pretty solid right now. In a few years, ask me again. But don’t ever put me on a desert island. I want to stay where I can see a lot of movies, new and old, and think about them.
Can you preview for us what you’re going to write about Max Ophüls?
What I’m going to write is how his was the art of the exile, the art of the person who fled Germany, went to France, fled France, came to America, went back, was always on the move, and always developing this unique cinematic form, and yet projecting some of the most profound evocations of a dying romanticism—the most beautiful expressions of it—in his last eight films, I think.
Marcel Ophüls, his son, with whom I’m currently feuding a little bit, told me a fascinating and very unflattering story about his father. When Max Ophüls fled France—he was really on the Gestapo’s list because he’d done radio broadcasts back to Germany attacking Hitler—he fled to Switzerland first, and there he was befriended by Louis Jouvet. I don’t know how many of you know that name, he’s one of the greatest of all French actors, a sort of deadpan actor—somebody once called him a serious Buster Keaton. Tremendous authority, and a massive figure in French theater. And he befriended Ophüls and they were working together on a film. Ophüls was directing him in a film of one of the Molière plays, I can’t remember which one [Ed. note: The School for Wives]. It was supposed to be done onstage as a spectacle and then from backstage—kind of a Pirandellian thing, a sort of experimental film. And in the course of their association—and Ophüls owed everything to Jouvet—Ophüls fell in love, or had an affair, with the great love of Jouvet’s life. And Jouvet never got over it. And when the affair with Ophüls ended, the woman went off to Argentina with someone else, and Jouvet never saw her again and he never recovered, his heart was broken. And when Ophüls returned to France from Hollywood after the war, there was a tremendous hostility to him. But the point that Marcel Ophüls was making—and this, I think, is applied with great rigor in Ophüls’s films—was that with everything Ophüls owed to Jouvet, he could not resist his erotic emotion. It was a kind of Stendhalian situation, it was all or nothing.
You know, people talk about Platoon being a great war film. A great war film is Madame de…. The battle of love, the Stendhalian battle of love. That is the ultimate kind of battle, and that’s where you stake your life on the outcome, and that’s the feeling I get from Ophüls. That’s what I’m going to try to convey, express, and demonstrate, in the films, in the life, and in the art. I suppose, finally, at a certain level, all criticism becomes a form of autobiography, and the directors I love are people who somehow express something or shape something that I felt, I suppose, stirring within me. And that’s all any of us can do. That’s why it’s so difficult, that’s why it’s so silly to try and argue about the individual films, or what gets you and what doesn’t. We all feel something. Renoir said: “People are not moved by logic but by magic.”
I was wondering—I had heard that you were going to update The American Cinema.
Yeah, I’m doing a book now called The American Sound Film, which is a massive, two-volume work. I’m trying to finish the first volume, which is from 1929 to 1949, and then 1950 to the present will be the second volume. But that will be a different kind of film history, it will be organized very differently. And then, with Tom Allen, I’m going to combine The American Cinema with “Revivals in Focus,” with new categories, new considerations, new alignments, and bring all the new people into the picture. That’ll be the next project after The American Sound Film, so that’s still a couple of years off. The people I’m admitting to the pantheon now, the new people, are Leo McCarey, Billy Wilder, and Preston Sturges, those are the three. But not Raoul Walsh. I saw Sadie Thompson for the first time, and it’s convinced me that he’s a little too broad for my taste.
Could you comment on Woody Allen?
I’ve blown hot and cold over the years on Woody Allen, in and out. Sometimes I like things that other people don’t like. I liked Zelig more than most people did, I didn’t like Broadway Danny Rose, I like Radio Days. I love Manhattan and Annie Hall. I don’t miss the old Woody Allen of Bananas and Take the Money and Run that everybody else says they miss. I had very mixed feelings about him at one time: I thought that he was too self-involved, too self-absorbed, there was something too constricted about his vision, his humor. I think he has been broadening, he has been reaching out. I also think he’s achieved a minor miracle in retaining his complete independence in today’s market, and keeping at his own pace, his own speed. I think he’s perhaps the most talented filmmaker we have right now, the most dependable, the most eagerly awaited.
I think Scorsese has great talent, he’s sort of a Jackson Pollock of dramatic explosions. I know Marty very well, I’m very fond of him and I admire him greatly, I think he has enormous talent and an interesting career, and I think he may yet do things. But I’ve never felt that even with his best films—like Raging Bull, which I underrated somewhat at the time—he’s never put a whole film together. The individual parts, though, are fantastic, he’s great with performers, and so on. I think Coppola has a lot of talent. But I think Allen is the only comic talent we have who’s really dependable in the old Keaton-Chaplin tradition. I think he’s up there now, in that category.
I once thought that Mel Brooks would go further and his career took a strange turn. I always thought Brooks was warmer, that he had more of a sense of conviviality and congeniality. I like Brooks’s things with Anne Bancroft. I recommend 84 Charing Cross Road, which I think people have underrated. My wife, Molly Haskell, was doing a lecture upstate and she said she couldn’t imagine a Hollywood studio accepting this project: imagine passion based on bibliophilia, you know? And the audience didn’t respond to that—love of books, who ever heard of anything so strange? But I’ve reached the age where I find that much more passionate than these recent movies I’ve seen about prostitution, like Working Girls. I find them kind of dull and anti-sexual, while I find 84 Charing Cross Road full of passion. It has passion for two things that are very important: one is books, the second is food. And I think those are worthy passions.
If you were to make a film, what would you choose, or what subject would you like to see?
Well, every so often I see a particular kind of bad movie, and I say, “Yeah, that’s the kind of movie I would make.” Something grandiose. I don’t think I have any gift for so-called creative writing or for fiction in that sense; that’s why I’m a critic. I can put things together but I can’t create things. I don’t think the world needs… You know, it’s like the old cartoon where somebody is sitting on a couch, a person of a certain age, and the psychiatrist is telling him, “Mr. Jones, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’ll never be an angry young man, just a slightly disgruntled middle-aged one.” My nouvelle vague period is over, I’m too old to do anything [else] . . .
People frequently ask me if I ever wanted to make a movie, and there are two parts to that question: one, if somebody gave me three million or 10 million or 20 million to make a movie, well, I’d make a movie, somehow I’d do it. Give me the money, I’ll do it. I think I could make at least as good a movie as Michael Cimino did. And I wouldn’t be as temperamental. But would I give everything up, gamble everything on making a movie? No, I wouldn’t want to. I saw too many of my friends wind up virtually dead trying to do that. Also, I’ve known people like Peter Bogdanovich, and I’ve watched his topsy-turvy career and life. I knew him very well, I knew him when he was a punk kid. And now he’s a punk adult. But with talent, with intelligence.
No, I don’t envy making movies. I basically have always considered myself a writer. That’s what I do, I write. But one day you wake up and you’ve been writing about film for 25 years, so I guess I’m a film critic. That’s what I am. But I’ve always felt I was a Writer with a capital W, and I feel that film criticism is part of belles lettres, that’s my rationale.
One filmmaker you haven’t mentioned tonight is Frank Capra.
You know, I used to say that Capra and McCarey were like ham and eggs, they went together. But I now think that McCarey is a little superior to Capra. I think there’s something about Capra, that barefoot anti-intellectualism of his, that corniness, I don’t know… something that finally went very bad. I think he’s a very great talent, but I also think he belongs to a certain period and I don’t find him as timeless as other people who I do respond to. And I always think he goes too far. I particularly hold against him You Can’t Take It With You and State of the Union. In both instances, he took rather modest things and blew them out of proportion. I think he’s much too much into the Christian humiliation. I think he reached sort of the outer limit of it in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which is pure crucifixion. But then he went beyond that in Meet John Doe, almost to the point of suicide. And I thought that was sort of the end: from that point on something snapped and he couldn’t get back.
Don’t you think there’s a family tree from Psycho to Halloween to the slasher films?
Psycho obviously started it. My first review for The Village Voice in 1960 was Psycho. I walked in off the streets, I reviewed Psycho, and I gave it a Cahiers du cinéma review. And I got tons of poison pen mail from people who hated it for various reasons. Psycho really opened the floodgates, but it was meant to illuminate something else, to get deeper into something. These [new] things use that as a pretext. There is no attempt at character analysis, there’s no attempt at trying to explain the evil, for example. I mean, not that in Hitchcock it’s explained exactly, the explanation is very facile, but there is feeling there. There is not feeling in these things, they’re all mechanical.
But suddenly, after Psycho, almost anything was possible. When Janet Leigh is killed, the point-of-view character is killed, and then the second point-of-view character is killed—that shock, I think, may have completely disoriented the whole moral structure of the cinema. Some people say the movies, in a sense, lost their moral bearings with Bonnie and Clyde. Some people think that’s the movie where, suddenly, you were on the wrong side. The evildoers were suddenly not only romanticized, but in a sense the people who opposed their lifestyle were vilified. That was a very determinedly immoral film, in that way.
John Carpenter made what I think—
Yeah, I think there was less than meets the eye to Carpenter. I mean, the original Halloween did have a kind of Minnellian fluidity, a lot of very elaborate—it was sort of Meet Me in St. Louis turned upside down. It was the dark side of Meet Me in St. Louis. And it was a really interesting commentary on the anomie and isolation of suburban life, on that space between houses, kind of the American Dream become the American Nightmare: you were suddenly horribly vulnerable in your isolation. The privacy we all want suddenly becomes your tomb. Each of these houses becomes a tomb. It was a sort of interesting statement. But since then, it’s just become slash slash cut cut and special effects and so on.
You predict that Platoon will win the Oscar. What film would you give the Oscar to?
Yeah, I predict that Platoon will win. What film would I have given it to? Eric Rohmer’s Summer, but I don’t think it would get many votes. Of the films that were nominated, I don’t know, I’d vote for Hannah and Her Sisters over Room With a View. Room With a View would be second, Platoon would be third. I don’t think Platoon is that good, frankly. I think it’s very effective, but—I never liked Oliver Stone. I hated Scarface, I hated 8 Million Ways to Die, I hated Midnight Express, I thought all of them were excessively violent, self-indulgent. But in Vietnam and El Salvador he found arenas where he could function, where the violence didn’t seem excessive. And it’s a limited point of view, it’s not very political. Salvador is more political than Platoon, actually. Platoon is, I think, de-Ramboizing the war, treating the enemy with a little respect, and sort of honoring the Vietnam veterans, the fact that they were up against a tough, wily opponent, not really stabbed in the back but caught in a hopeless situation that made no sense and wasn’t their fault. In that sense I think it has a kind of therapeutic effect. He tried to get it off the ground for 10 years and nobody wanted it. They were putting out things like Top Gun and Rambo.
Have you maintained your initial enthusiasm for The Fly, and did it make your 10 best list?
Yes, it made my 10 best list. I think The Fly is great, and I think Jeff Goldblum should have been nominated for an Oscar: it’s a great performance. Incidentally, the subtext there—there are a lot of subtexts—is the whole AIDS thing. AIDS and somebody changing in the relationship in a monstrous way, and how you adjust to the change.
Do you have any thoughts or comments on Rear Window?
Oh, I think Rear Window is great. I could talk for hours about Rear Window and all the analyses that have been made of it. It’s a pure statement. I think it exposes a lot of what Hitchcock feels about women, that ambivalence, that hopeless desire that he has: that feeling of watching her being strangled and wanting her to be strangled—both in that and in Dial ‘M’ for Murder—and yet never loving her, never desiring her as much as when she’s about to be strangled. That’s very morbid, very twisted, very touching. And I think Stewart is our great American actor, in the rage he has and how he represents this kind of American madness. He’s quite wonderful. I mean that sense of compulsive voyeurism with that implication of impotence. Also, in the foreground you have the talking cinema, and in the background you have the silent cinema.
[mostly unintelligible question about life at The Village Voice)
There was a period when I ran the whole department at the Voice. I even took people in off the streets and had them do columns. Now, I’m not in that position, I don’t edit. I’ve sort of withdrawn a little bit from the department and I’m doing other things, about ten other things. And I prefer the overview, I’m sort of tired of… well, of course, I’m about 200 years old. Shaw said you shouldn’t practice journalism past 40, and I’m well past 40. About 18 years past it. So I’d rather do survey pieces, I’d rather examine things and have time to think about them.
In the old days, the golden age when I first started at the Voice, things were very anarchic and chaotic—before the Clay Felker and Milton Glaser revolution, and then Rupert Murdoch, and before everything got professional and became like a regular publication—I used to wait sometimes weeks and weeks and read all the other reviews and think about them before I’d review something myself. That’s the way I prefer to do it, but it’s not feasible. People want snap judgments, and I’m tired of doing snap judgments. I want to see patterns emerging. There are a lot of new things, a lot of old things, and a lot of other things that I want to put together to make new connections, and I want to refine my prose style. So in a sense I operate that way now, but whenever something comes along that really excites me, I just pour everything I have into it. I’d rather do that at this point. I’m tired of writing about why so many things fail. Or why people are not as good as people used to be. I think after a while you get bored doing that. I don’t want to yell at the present, I’d rather let it settle a bit, and deal with it as the past. It’s like the man says in La Ronde, “J’adore le passé.” I think if you understand the past you have a better sense of what the future will be.
[A question about cult films leads to a reverie about Paris.]
In Paris, they really appreciate you if you’ve done something. In New York, you come back from Stockholm, you’ve won the Nobel Prize for literature, and you go to a cocktail party and somebody says, “What are you doing?” “Well, I just came back from Stockholm, I was given the Nobel Prize for literature.” They say, “Oh, that’s fine—what are you doing next?” And if you’re not doing something, they walk away to find somebody more interesting. Whereas in Paris, if you’ve ever done anything great, you’re great forever.
One of the most moving things I’ve ever heard is the story of when Buster Keaton—who was completely ignored, neglected, ridiculed, despised, a hopeless has-been, one of the waxworks in Sunset Boulevard—went to the Cinémathèque, and it was jammed to see one of his films. And suddenly everybody yelled “Buster!” and they rose up as one and they just cheered. And tears began rolling down his cheeks. Here was the great Buster Keaton.
It was the French who discovered him. You know, people ask me, “Who was the greatest director you discovered in the Sixties?” and I say “Buster Keaton.” Suddenly all of his films were available. I did a thing for Camera 2 called “The Metaphysics of Buster Keaton”—how pretentious can you get? But he’s great . . . You know, people thought that all of silent comedy was people throwing custard pies at each other, and then they saw this marvelously adventurous, fantastic artist. One of the great masters of the cinema. One of the great naturals.
There were two naturals, I think—Keaton and Hitchcock. I think a lot of other people, like Ford, Ophüls, Renoir, so on, would have been great at other things. I think Keaton and Hitchcock were made purely for the cinema. When I was in Paris, I used to have arguments about the Kafka-esque qualities of Hitchcock in, say, The Wrong Man, and I meant the dark humor as well as the sinister qualities, the paranoid qualities, the cockroach qualities. And people said, “Oh, how can you compare Hitchcock with Kafka or Dostoevsky?” And I said, “No, I’m not saying that Hitchcock by himself is as great an artist as Kafka and Dostoevsky. But Hitchcock plus cinema equals Kafka and Dostoevsky. Keaton plus cinema equals Samuel Beckett.” I mean, the medium itself enhances these two people. I think Keaton would have been a knockabout vaudevillian of some distinction, because he had a fantastic physical coordination and instinct. And Hitchcock I think would have been a graphic artist or designer of some kind. They both probably would have been very good. But with the cinema… The effect that I get from their great films is the effect I get from great dramatic literature, great narrative literature.
You know, I could stay here for hours. I don’t know if I’ve given you any idea of it, but you’ve been a wonderful audience, and I hope—I know you people will go out and proselytize among your neighbors, your Philistinish friends, and get them to support good films, both domestic and foreign, and preach the religion of cinema onward and upward. If that, I will feel less guilty about dragging you out on this night. Thank you very much.