November 15, 2018

Posted August 22, 2017 by D. K. Holm




Let’s begin mid-stream.

About three weeks ago I was writing a review, for the Montana paper where I have a column, of two mini-series from Amazon focused on F. Scott Fitzgerald. One was a fantasia about Zelda and her life in his shadow, with a shady portrayal of the writer himself, based on a novel about her. The second was a loose adaptation of The Love of the Last Tycoon – as the book is now supposed to be known officially, but her still called The Last Tycoon. While watching the show (which is pretty good), I remembered that Andrew Sarris published a negative review of the Eliza Kazan movie adaptation back in 1976.

I have extensive file folders of Sarris’s work in the Village Voice (and later from the New York Observer when he moved over there) from roughly 1971 onward, though these “holdings” can be spotty at times for various reasons. [1] So I pulled down the 1976 folder and settled into my window reading-chair, knowing full well that I wouldn’t just stop at the Tycoon review, but browse around for other columns to read and remember. The Tycoon review was published on 15 November, 1976, and can be read here, by typing 26 in the tiny page search box.

I’ve followed Sarris’s work since high school. Originally I subscribed to the Village Voice because I wanted to read John Lahr’s weekly theater reviews. I’d discovered Lahr through his biography of his father, Bert Lahr, and later from his essays in the Evergreen Review, but upon getting the Voice every week (a week late, of course), I discovered numerous other writers to read, study, and follow, from Ron Rosenbaum to Wayne Barrett. Among them was Andrew Sarris. [2]

Just this week, the current owners of the Voice cancelled the print edition and switched exclusively to digital. The result was an on-rush of “obits” for the Voice of old, and this column can be viewed as a member of that chorus.

Today I find it funny to look back on that transitional period from high school to college and reflect that I was “suspicious” of the approach to cinema that Sarris endorsed as the auteur theory (that is, approaching American cinema through its directors, or “authors”), after the “auteur policy” of Cahiers du cinema. I don’t remember my “seeing-the-light” moment, but it must have been after I picked up a copy of The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929 – 1968. Mostly, I liked Sarris’s writing style, and wanted to absorb more of it, but his auteur textbook won me over, and the experience of “seeing” the auteur theory was one of those “scales from eyes” moments of revelation, the Road to Damascus rendered in celluloid and on the pages of film journals. Similar mental revolutions occurred when I first read Frederick Crews on the “unknown” Freud, Chomsky on Cambodia reporting, Richard Grenier on Gandhi, and Christopher Hitchens on Mother Teresa. My studies in Sarris were mutually supported by an old friend named Jeff Godsil, who got there first and cleared the way.

Having become a devout auteur theory Sarrissite, I proceeded to spend the next several decades collecting his columns and extant books, being the completist I started out to be as when a kid collecting Marvel comics (from 1961 until about 1971).

But back to midstream.

Recently, on August 1st, the Village Voice itself [3] ran a page, online anyway, of Sarris’s 1977 “best of” list, originally published on January 2nd, 1978. This was a good idea, and didn’t really cost the VV anything. The list reminded me that Sarris worked extremely hard on his column. As a colleague once said to me, each week Sarris tried to write the definitive review of the movie at hand.

Over the course of the next few weeks, reading the Tycoon review and many of its neighbors, and then seeing the “best of 1977” column again led to the coming together of an idea for a blog project of the kind once popular – shadowing another writer with your own reactions and information, as in for example the woman who made all the dishes in Julia Child’s cookbook (made into the movie Julia and Julia). Similarly, Shadowing Sarris will be a weekly blog entry in which I watch the films Sarris reviewed during the equivalent week 40 years ago, read his review, and then post annotations, remarks, reminiscences, codicils, and speculations (what would Saris think today?). I can probably last a year, before exhaustion sets in. I will be joined in this endeavor by Robert Garrick, another longterm Sarris reader. We will be mixing it up, sometimes doing separate parts of the column, at other times having a transcribed “dialogue,” and other variations.

I am hoping this weekly blogpost will underscore why I liked Sarris in the first place, and why I continue to find solace in his wisdom and wit. With luck these blog posts will contribute in some small way to keeping blue the flame of memory for his great work, which I advocate compiling into a two-volume Library of America edition. He’s not the only film writer I revere – that list is long, including Robin Wood, Raymond Durgnat, Molly Haskell, David Bordwell, Ginette Vincendeau, Hoberman and Rosenbaum, Cynthia A. Freeland, Dave Kehr, Anne Bilson, and so many others to add that there isn’t even enough space on the internet. Reading Sarris seriously is like getting a weekly seminar in how to write a film review, especially if the editors are generous about letting writers have their voice, as the VV editors were. We all want to be better film reviewers, and here is a place to start.

By the way, that review of The Last Tycoon was a detailed critique of the film and listed a lot of things wrong with it (such as not getting the ages of the actors in the film within the film right … Sarris points out that actors in the ’30s were younger but played older, while contemporary actors are older and play younger). But it wasn’t a pan. Sarris ended up recommending the movie if for nothing else because it offered ideas the viewer could work with.

August 22, 1977

The project begins inauspiciously, however.  Or maybe it simply seemed “with a whimper.” March or Die and The Last Remake of Beau Geste were the subjects of his late August musings. As I soon discovered, though, you couldn’t have found a better starting off point. It highlights Sarris’s virtues in compact form.

The column can be found at the Google Newspapers site, by typing the page 21 into the tiny page search box.


For the record, March of Die is Dick Richards’s Foreign Legion tale, with Gene Hackman, Terence Hill, and Catherine Deneuve. The Last Remake of Beau Geste (the title is very nearly true, 40 years on) is a Marty Feldman comedy from the Mel Brooks school by way of Monty Python. As is typical of the times, the comedy has a big cast, including Ann-Margret, Michael York, Peter Ustinov, James Earl Jones, Trevor Howard, Henry Gibson, Terry-Thomas, Roy Kinnear, Spike Milligan, Avery Schreiber, Hugh Griffith, Sinéad Cusack, Ted Cassidy, and in a precursor to Steve Martin in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Gary Cooper from the original Beau Geste blended into scenes with Feldman.

Several times during his 1976 columns, Sarris complained that modern movies were choppy, and cited Scorsese and Schrader as two examples, and March or Die is another example. It’s as if then-contemporary filmmakers had forgotten how to make movies. Scenes are too short, and this terribly edited film [4] is filled with abrupt cuts, and scenes that end awkwardly (such as a moment when a drunk Hill is dragged to the corner of a ship’s deck). There are reaction shots, especially of Deneuve in which she is reacting to nothing, and disrupts the rhythm of the film – they probably told the editor that there need to be more “beauty” shots of the actress. The film is miscast, and Sarris points this out, Hackman somnambulistically pacing through the movie as if he hated it and the notoriously difficult actor and ex-roommate of the equally difficult Dustin Hoffman was determined not to “give” anything to the production.


Deneuve "reacting" in March or Die

Deneuve “reacting” in March or Die

Sarris begins by noting the coincidence of two (unwanted) Foreign Legion films in release at the same time, but though he is often caricatured as a writer dwelling in the past, in lists of old movies, he immediately questions contemporary corporate decision making and the stated ambitions of the filmmakers. He notes that March or Die is more like von Sternberg’s Morocco than other Foreign Legion epics. Dick Richards and the screenwriter David Zelag Goodman previously collaborated on Farewell, My Lovely, and Sarris notes that that “strange reincarnation” was “redeemed nonetheless by the mythic resonance of Robert Mitchum.” Next Sarris assesses the March or Die acting contributions. Hackman walks through the role as if it is a “closely guarded secret.” Max von Sydow as “an imperialistic archeologist seems completely stymied by the one-sided arguments against his profession as a form of grave-robbing.” (After playing both Jesus and the Exorcist, von Sydow seems lost in the desert.) This is an example of Sarris continually questioning what a film is saying to the viewer. Ian Holm plays the leader of the uniting Arab nations, and today the film is curious for supporting his cause (à la Lawrence of Arabia). Sarris notes that Holm is “compelled to hail the unity he has achieved among the tribes after he has led most of Allah’s followers to slaughter against badly outnumbered French legionaries.” Finally, in the acting section of the review, he gives an evocative summary of Deneuve’s screen image.

Then he gets to the director. The film’s “biggest problem” is Richards’s “overly decorative direction … staged to provide prodigious images of genre clichés.” He makes the funny but true point that “Richards is what people incorrectly accused Sternberg of being: all surface effect with no emotional depth.” [Sarris’s first book was a career monograph on Sternberg.]

As a transition, he concedes that at least Richards has a “discernible style … and more than a modicum of discipline,” in contrast to Feldman, who as a director functions as a clearing house for writers’ room ideas. He notes that Last Remake is surprisingly close to the original story, unlike March or Die, a collection of obvious narrative and visual tropes. As a confessional columnist, Sarris notes that as a kid he read and weeped at the end of Wren’s source novel, and even read the sequel, Beau Sabreur. Last Remake is a “spoof of a genre that hasn’t been taken seriously for decades.” He notes a “coarseness and heartlessness” in the humor and mentions “one of the dirtiest shower-room jokes I have ever seen in a non-X-rated film.” I just watched the film for the first time and already I don’t remember that moment. As a parting gift, Sarris notes that Feldman’s comedy does not equal Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert.

Next Week: Sarris on Fassbinder and Jodie Foster

[1] The early years at the Voice are hard to come by outside a library, and his later transition from the Voice to the Observer came as a surprise and I missed a lot of issues.

[2] The same thing happened later when Sarris switched to the Observer, and I followed there, too, only to discover that the then, way pre-Kushner Observer was another necessary cover-to-cover read, with Michael M. Thomas, Philip Weiss, and, yes, again, Rosenbaum, and others who left the Voice.

[3] I didn’t know until, basically just yesterday, that the Voice was dropping its print edition and going wholly digital.

[4] The climactic war sequence is a boring, repetitious back and forth of gun shots and targets clutching breasts and theatrically falling. Zulu, which may have inspired the film in part, is both accomplished and realistic.

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