In Memory: Sid Caesar and YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS

In Memory: Sid Caesar and YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS


“Your Show of Shows” was a 90-minute, comedy/variety program
that ran on NBC from 1950 to 1954 and featured Isaac Sidney Caesar—Sid, to
you and me—as its star. Caesar was an intimidating, strong-shouldered force
who could also be a face-contorting wiseass. He often barreled through sketches
with a bull-in-a-china-shop ferociousness. Working with invaluable co-stars and
comic supporting actors Imogene Coca and Howard Morris as well as an alpha team of
writers including future comedy legends Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and fellow
sketch player Carl Reiner (Larry Gelbart and a young, nebbishy fellow named
Woody Allen would later write for Caesar on the truncated “Caesar’s Hour”),
Caesar was the aggressively clownish captain of a usually madcap operation.

One of
my favorite sketches from “Shows” was a sketch I actually discovered when I was
nine. It was a parody of that old docu-series “This Is Your Life” called “This
Is Your Story.” Reiner played a host who approaches Caesar, sitting in the
audience as a man named Al, and tells him that’s it’s his life that the show
will be chronicling on this evening. At first, he passes out from shock. Then,
he tries to escape from Reiner’s grip when he attempts to get him onstage. Once
he escapes, he tries to make a run for the exit, only to be chased and tackled
by ushers and ultimately carried onto the stage.
It gets
only more hysterical from there. Morris shows up as his “Uncle Goopy,”
blubbering into Caesar’s arms as they both wail and refuse to let each other go
for several minutes. More family members appear and follow suit, all falling
over each other. Then, a beautiful blonde shows up. Who is she? Caesar doesn’t
know, but he’s gonna smother her with kisses anyway. (She’s supposed to do the
show next week.) Finally, Caesar’s old bandmates the New Jersey Drum and Bugle
Call start marching and blaring all around the stage, as an emotionally wrecked
Caesar is in the middle of it all. It’s still eleven minutes of the most
chaotic sketch comedy I’ve ever witnessed.

I’m too young to have seen Caesar in his “Shows” prime, watching old Kinescope clips of “Shows” and other programs of its ilk throughout the years reminds
me how television back then was, at times, entertainingly anarchic. It’s not
anarchic in the sense that these shows came up with their
material on the spot. (“Shows” producer Max Liebman was notorious for
reprimanding those who dared stray from the script and ad-libbed—“you would
have been drummed out of the corps,” Coca once said.) But there was this
feeling of unbridled unpredictability, as these shows constantly threw stuff
out there to see what stuck.

did that with aggression, mostly because the writers were all backstage stampeding
over each other in order to get their jokes and skits on the air. In his 1975
Playboy interview, Mel Brooks compared the writers’ room to “rats in a cage,”
filled with desperate, competitive jesters who lived only to appease the king.
“Everybody hated everybody,” Brooks said. “The pitch sessions were lethal. In
that room, you had to fight to stay alive.”
desperation also seeped its way on-screen, mostly through Caesar. In the same
Playboy interview, Brooks noted that his boss “had this terrific anger in him;
he was angry at the world.” Audiences at home could sense it too. Even when he
was being his most lovable and/or ridiculous, the fear that he might just blow
a gasket and go off always lingered. In the book of essays “Prime Times:
Writers on Their Favorite TV Shows,” the late novelist Barry Hannah recalled
his younger years watching “Shows” and seeing Caesar—“the clown so hard-put
in a gray flannel suit,” Hannah called him – put in serious work just to get a
recall Caesar sweating, cross-eyed, sputtering. He was a damned fool over and
over again, in any role—a pirate, a businessman, an emperor in the East with
a way big-assed sword. He was just not getting the hang of it.”
Hannah took a shine to Caesar, as he and Coca (whom Hannah praises for being
“perfect, drab and scrawny and simply overcome”) mugged and contorted for our
viewing pleasure. “The black and white of that show seemed so grainy and raw,”
Hannah wrote, “Caesar and Coca appeared to be wrestling with the medium
later, that insanity would be the inspiration behind the movie “My Favorite
Year,” where Peter O’Toole played a swashbuckling, alcoholic movie star who
inflicts madness on an already disorganized variety show (Joseph Bologna played
the Caesar stand-in as a blustery softie) and the play “Laughter on the 23rd
Floor” (written by former caged rat Neil Simon), whose original Broadway run
had Nathan Lane as a pill-popping TV star often going for the throats,
literally, of his neurotic writing staff.
recent passing at the age of 91 only reminds us he’s the last of the damned
fools—Allen, Berle, Gleason, Kovacs—who became TV’s earliest innovators. These
go-for-broke funnymen made figuring out what would entertain TV audiences for
generations to come a weekly chore—televised trial by fire. “Shows,” a weekly
revue that was as manic and uproarious as it was smart and clever, quietly
invented the sketch-comedy show, leading the way for “Saturday Night Live” and
all its offspring.
even after all these years, “Shows” and those variety shows of yesteryear still
exhibit a loose energy that “SNL” (and even most of television today) is often
too stiff and rigid to indulge in. Everything seems too prepared these days.
But as prepared as those shows might have been back in the day, there was still a
feeling of anything-goes anticipation. As these programs were broadcast live
from coast-to-coast, everybody involved, from the people watching the show to
the people putting on the show, were going on a ride. And there was Sid,
insuring us that the ride would be fun—and a little bit dangerous.

Craig D. Lindsey used to be somebody. Now, he’s a freelancer. You can read all his latest articles over at his blog. He also does a podcast called Muhf***as I Know.

By the way, if Helen Mirren or Christina Hendricks is reading this, get at me, ladies!

Craig D. Lindsey Recalls His Correspondence with James Wolcott

Craig D. Lindsey Recalls His Correspondence with James Wolcott


I think it’s about time I told you about my association with
James Wolcott.

started in early 1997. I was going to college back in Houston, and I was a
major Wolcott-head. Throughout high school and college, I’d venture to the
various libraries around town to read and/or photocopy articles he did for the
Village Voice, New York, Harper’s, Esquire, Vogue, etc. The previous Christmas,
I asked my mother for a year-long subscription to The New Yorker, where he was
doing duty as a TV/media critic at the time. I started getting the magazine at
my place of residence, but I started to sense something was amiss. I wasn’t
seeing his byline much.

wasn’t until I was in line at a Blockbuster Video (R.I.P., by the way) and saw
his name on the cover of Vanity Fair that I realized that he had gone back to the
magazine, where he did the “Mixed Media” column all through the ‘80s and early
‘90s —that is, until the magazine’s famed editor Tina Brown announced in 1992 that
she would be presiding over The New Yorker, taking several VF writers with her,
including Wolcott.
I was
incensed that Wolcott moved his byline back to Vanity Fair. Now, what the hell was I gonna do with this damn New Yorker? The only reason I read the magazine
was to see his latest pop-cultural dispatches. I was so livid, I actually wrote
to Wolcott, via the VF offices, where I said how disappointed I was that he
left The New Yorker. I also requested a free subscription to Vanity Fair for my
troubles. (Man, I was ballsy—or nuts—back then.)
stated the case that I was a major fan of the work and was studying to be a
journalist and critic much like himself. Considering that he once famously
wrote to the late Norman Mailer, informing the author of how much he inspired
him (which resulted in Mailer sending him a letter of recommendation that
Wolcott used to get into the door at the Voice), I figured he’d see my
intentions were positive. I also enclosed some articles I wrote for some free
publications to show him that I wasn’t a nutjob pissed off that he changed jobs
without my knowledge.
I sent
the letter, virtually oblivious to the fact that I sent what could be seen as
deranged hate mail to one of my heroes. Not too long after that, one Saturday
morning, I got a letter in the mail from the one and only Wolcott. It started
off as so:
“Dear Craig D. Lindsey,
I was reluctant to open your envelope because the big
writing on it made me nervous; as an amateur handwriting expert, I pride myself
on my ability to spot what is known in the trade as a ‘crank,’ ‘nutcase,’ or
even ‘a troubled loner.’ My suspicion turned out to be well-founded.”
He then
went on to say I couldn’t get a free subscription to Vanity Fair and I should
give The New Yorker another chance. (I believe he was being sarcastic about
that since he gave a few writers less-than-flattering nicknames and referred to
the magazine as “quality infotainment.”) He also said he liked the clips I sent
him, and I should send him some more. Hell, you don’t have to tell me twice.
I sent
him another letter filled with clips, and he responded with a letter that
included his New York address. (Guess he didn’t think I was as nutcasey as he
initially assumed.) I could send my correspondence directly to him now. For the
following five years—we slowed down on the letter-writing after 9/11—Wolcott and I would send missives back and forth, each filled with various
musings on pop culture and the world around us. Sure, we could’ve emailed each
other (he did hip me to his email address at one point), but for me—and I
don’t know how he felt about it—receiving letters from him felt like I was
getting exclusive, privileged content. While the rest of the world was reading
Wolcott on a monthly basis over at Vanity Fair, I was getting these personal
pearls straight from the man himself. I even got to meet Wolcott during this
time when I flew to New York for a movie press junket. We ventured to a diner
and shared a gargantuan slice of some dessert as he delighted me with stories
of his journalistic travels.
what prompted this trip down memory lane? Well, Wolcott’s latest book, Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays,
Reviews, Hand Grenades and Hurrahs
(Doubleday) has just been released,
filled with many of the pieces that made me want to get in this damn business
in the first place. What I love most about the collection (which has been a
long time coming; when his debut novel, The
, came out in 2001, there was talk he’d follow it up with a
collection of pieces called Personal
) is that it shows how, when it comes to the various aspects of
popular culture, Wolcott is well-versed in practically everything.
may have been branded as a snob once or twice during his 40 years or so
of writing, as he racked up various enemies thanks to the printed
pimp-slappings he often gave his subjects, but the man’s pop-cultural tastes
are fascinatingly versatile. Anyone who read his 2011 memoir Lucking Out knows that dude can enjoy
both a lovely evening at the ballet and a skanky night out at CBGB with the
same wide-eyed enthusiasm. Wolcott can write about books, TV, movies, punk rock
and stand-up comedians, all with the same sharp, savvy, florid analysis, for
they are all connected. For him, a well-done episode of SCTV merits the exact kind of sophisticated kudos as a Brian De
Palma movie or a Kingsley Amis novel.
his travels, writing for various publications, Wolcott subconsciously preached a
sense of open-mindedness. It’s OK if you love or hate something, but goddammit,
give it a chance first, especially if it’s not in your comfort zone, and it just
might be something that surprisingly suits your tastes. His writings certainly
taught me not to be instantly dismissive as a writer and a critic. You can find
critical analysis in anything, and make it quite entertaining for the reader as
well. I once remember giggling my head off while reading a piece he
wrote on Baywatch and a Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue TV
special – IN THE NEW YORKER!
It amused me to see the articles he
compiled for the book, especially since I have photocopies of many of them in a
box in my bedroom closet. (Technically, I’ve been reading this book for years before
it came out.) It’s interesting to see what he chose
for each of the book’s five sections. For example, in the “Movies” section, he includes several
reviews he did back when he was the film critic for Texas Monthly in the ‘80s,
which became a fertile ground for him to strip down the blockbusters of that
era. As a critic, he was able to recognize the rampant homoeroticism in Top Gun, the sadistic violence in the second Indiana Jones movie
and the pitiful display of merchandise that was Return of the Jedi. It wasn’t a completely bad time—he caught
flashes of Bill Murray’s comic genius when he saw Ghostbusters.
he didn’t include any of those reviews. He also didn’t include the assessments
of Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Janet Jackson for Vanity Fair in the 80s in
the “Pop, Punk, Rock” section, which includes many essays on the myriad punk/underground
rockers he saw and admired in his younger days. A lot of his TV pieces I adored
– he did a 1993 New Yorker review of Def
Comedy Jam
that reminded me how coonish that show could be – aren’t around.
Also missing is that 1983 New York review of Late Night with David Letterman that Letterman himself publicly
said felt like endless blows to the body. (“Dead Letter” was the headline.)
In the intro to the book, Wolcott wrote
that he omitted including pieces for various reasons: too dated, too arcane,
too mean. (He purposefully left out his notorious 1997 Vanity Fair takedown of mentor
Pauline Kael and the critics she’s influenced—the “Paulettes,” he dubbed them—since it caused a regrettable rift between Kael and him that continued right up
to her 2001 death.) But that’s the funny thing about Critical Mass: even though it clocks in at 512 pages, it only scratches
the surface. Wolcott has written so much throughout the years, enough to merit
another collection. And if the day ever comes for Wolcott to compile another
tome, perhaps his old penpal could be of some archival service.

Craig D. Lindsey used to be somebody. Now, he’s a freelancer. You can read all his latest articles over at his blog. He also does a podcast called Muhf***as I Know.

By the way, if Helen Mirren or Christina Hendricks is reading this, get at me, ladies!



Aaron Aradillas

There is no single review or article by Andrew Sarris that I can turn to at this moment to illustrate his impact in shaping my critical mind. For me, Mr. Sarris was part of a wave of movie critics who came before me—before all of us—who forced me, through his writing and constantly evolving thinking, to challenge myself as to why I responded to movies the way I do. Pauline Kael’s specialty was conveying her immediate, heightened response to a movie. Mr. Sarris would also do that, but then would investigate how exactly a director or an actor went about in provoking a response, good or bad, from the viewer.

Of course, Mr. Sarris’ The American Cinema is one of the cornerstones of any self-respecting critic’s approach to writing and criticism. It doesn’t even matter if you agree with the auteur theory as put forth by Mr. Sarris. What matters is the way it provides an organizing theory that attempts to put certain filmmakers’ bodies of work in a larger context. Mr. Sarris dared to offer the kind of serious consideration of movies that had been afforded to musicians, painters, playwrights, and poets. Even those who rejected the auteur theory as silly or dry or too academic (most famously Ms. Kael) would go on to practice their own form of it. (See Ms. Kael’s writing on DePalma.)

It is impossible to write about Mr. Sarris without mentioning his partner Molly Haskell, a powerful critical voice in her own right. Ms. Haskell, with soothing Southern voice and disarming yet firm demeanor, was a perfect counterpoint to Mr. Sarris’ veteran college prof easiness. Her From Reverence to Rape remains a provocative and essential examination of the portrayals of women in the movies, while Love and Other Infectious Diseases is both a harrowing and moving chronicle of Mr. Sarris’ extended stay in the hospital in 1984.

I met them once at the Museum of the Moving Image’s workshop for film critics. They were like the John & Yoko of movie critics, rarely separated and in perfect harmony. (If you want to see just how good they were together, then check out their back-and-forth discussion on the Criterion DVD of Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait.) They were generous with their time and genuinely curious about online criticism, as most of us there wrote mostly for online outlets. When it was decided that the conversation would continue over dinner, Mr. Sarris chose to be driven to the restaurant while Mrs. Haskell opted to walk. Being visually impaired, I asked if I could walk with her. She said yes and adapted to guiding me without a problem. I would speak to both of them separately on later occasions by phone. I remember one conversation with Mr. Sarris where we got into a discussion about the movies of Steven Soderbergh. He was mixed on his most recent work. After I finished a five minute dissertation on his body of work, Mr. Sarris said something to the effect of, “You seem to have thought about this. Maybe I’ll think about it.” And that’s what I take away from Mr. Sarris: the desire, the need to constantly think about why I love the things I love.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

Miriam Bale
The first thing I remember about meeting Andrew Sarris is the twinkle in his eye when he discussed cinematic crushes, ever-evolving ones like Jennifer Jones, and the old standbys like Margaret Sullavan, for whom he reserved not just a twinkle but a beatific, reverent grin. It was then that I realized that, as much as we are taught to think of Kael and Sarris in separate camps, both critics introduced the most definable aspect of American criticism, a criticism based on personal, unreasonable love. The next time I saw that twinkle and grin, Andrew was talking about Jennifer Jones at a Film Society Screening, but he was looking at his wife Molly, the woman who both embodied and shared his love of the great sirens of cinema. It was a playful spirit of flirtation and passion that kept his love for cinema always fresh; he was constantly watching new things, constantly revising old opinions. And it was this same  flirtation and passion that fueled one of the greatest collaborations in cinema, that between he and his wife and co-presenter Molly Haskell. Andrew had enough a deep enough lust for cinema to spark all the work-based-on-love that we critics are continuing now.

Miriam Bale is a film programmer and critic based in New York.

Steven Boone

Andrew Sarris made a name for himself as a film critic. That's an amazing feat in a world where critics are rated somewhere between accident lawyers and executioners in popular appeal. To do that, you must either hold a set of opinions so bold, idiosyncratic and gorgeously worded that they stand out like an outlandish hat in rush hour (like his rival Pauline Kael) or introduce an original concept that was actually always there, waiting to be named. Mr. Sarris did the latter. Importing from the French, he named the film director as the true author of a film, at a time in America when they were thought of as Hollywood's assembly line foremen. Would an entire generation of maverick American directors have stepped out so boldly in the 1970's if they were still regarded as anonymous, interchangeable employees of moguls?

Another great thing he did was fearlessly brush against the grain when the grain simply chafed. He is famous for his stirring, spiritually astute readings of masterpieces like Au Hasard Balthazar and Lola Montes, but my favorite review of his is a cranky pan of the beloved Southern Gothic classic To Kill A Mockingbird. Practically anticipating Phil Ochs' bitterly ironic song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" and James Baldwin's Hollywood essays in The Devil Finds Work, he described the film's happy ending thusly: "This is a heartwarming resolution of the novel and the film. Yet somehow the moral arithmetic fails to come out even. One innocent Negro and one murderous red-neck hardly cancel each other out. How neat and painless it is for the good people of Maycomb to find a bothersome victim in one grave and a convenient scapegoat in the other. When all is said and done, Southerners are People Like Us, some good and some bad. So what? No one who has read the last letters of the German troops trapped in Stalingrad can easily believe in a nation of monsters, but the millions of corpses are an objective fact. At some point, a social system is too evil and too unjust for personal ethics to carry any weight. It is too early to tell, but it is too late for the Negro to act as moral litmus paper for the white conscience. The Negro is not a mockingbird."

Sarris wrote with the understanding that movies are not mockingbirds, giving us song to help pass the time and feel a little better about things. By most reliable accounts, he laughed easily and often but never forgot that movies are a matter of life and death.

Steven Boone is a critic and filmmaker, the publisher of Big Media Vandalism, and a regular contributor to Capital New York.

Godfrey Cheshire

In 1968, as a 17-year-old high school senior, I published my first film reviews in the school paper. As I recall, the first hailed Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler while the second registered my fervent but not terribly articulate enthusiasm for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The same year, I discovered Andrew Sarris’ reviews in the Village Voice, and Sarris published his magnum opus, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Looking back, I can’t say which came first: my reading of Sarris or the commencement of my own film reviewing. What I can say is that no film critic meant more to me, then or later, and that no other writer’s example was a greater influence on my eventual decision to try writing film criticism professionally.

During college, attending the campus film societies’ screenings and debating Sarris’ and other critics’ reviews were intertwined obsessions that, though extra-curricular, actually seemed to add up to the foundations of a real education in cinema for myself and a small corps of cinephile friends. When asked later what made Sarris so crucial to this era, I usually point to two things. First, while he was known for importing the auteur theory from France (and “theory” was always a misnomer; the French were right to call it a “policy”), the key idea that undergirded it was that film was an art, one uniquely capable of reaching from the grossest of lowbrow slapstick to the chilly peaks of high modernism. It’s hard to believe now perhaps, but until the auteurist floodgates opened in the ‘60s, most reviewers (people rarely spoke of “film critics”) regarded movies, good or bad, as entertainment ground out by big studios for an unsophisticated mass audience. In introducing the director as artist-auteur, Sarris helped us see the work of studio hands like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford as beacons of personal vision no less than the more determinedly individualistic and idiosyncratic work of new directors like Bergman, Antonioni, Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, and Truffaut. And his eloquent, probing reviews elucidated the films of both sets of artists in terms not just of cinema history but of other trends in art, politics and society.

The second reason for Sarris’ importance was simple: he gave us a map. In ranking directors in a hierarchy from “The Pantheon” (Chaplin, Welles, Ford, Hawks, Renoir, et al.) down to the lowliest of genre hacks, The American Cinema provided an evaluative overview of the whole history of Hollywood cinema that had no parallel in film criticism. For a college-age film nut in the early ‘70s, it was at once wildly entertaining, wittily challenging and endlessly instructive. Of course one could (and did) disagree with some of Sarris’ predilections and aversions: that was part of the fun. But on the whole, he was a remarkably generous and authoritative guide; there was simply no better way to get a sense of the whole amazing expanse of American cinema, to begin making one’s own evaluations, and to learn which classic films needed to be seen for an assiduous cinephile’s education to be considered adequate if not complete.

To flash forward a couple of decades, I ended up in New York in the early ‘90s and had the great pleasure of getting to know Andrew and his wife Molly Haskell, a Southerner like myself. Encountering the man, happily, involved very little in the way of surprises. He was in person just as he was on the page: charming, engaged, funny, warm, curious, articulate, gracious, sharp-witted and kind. If cinephile means “lover of film,” Sarris will always represent to me the consummate cinephile, because his love of cinema was so passionate, prescient and precise that it kindled and shaped that same love in myself and many others. I feel a tremendous gratitude for all he taught me. Thank you, Andrew.

Formerly the film critic of New York Press, Godfrey Cheshire is a New York-based filmmaker who directed the documentary Moving Midway

James Grissom
Andrew Sarris and I shared a birthday—Halloween—and a deep admiration for Molly Haskell, his wife and one of my first Southern-born friends when I moved to Manhattan. My parents did not feel I would be safe and well in New York City until I was surrounded by people with Southern sensibilities, and  Virginia-born Molly met their qualifications. I introduced myself to Molly in Grace’s Marketplace—over chocolate, as I remember—and my memories of her and Andrew are always around food and talk and laughter.
Andrew was proud to defend the films and the actors he loved, and his passion was infectious: Very few people cared about, studied, and shared as fulsomely as he did. As much as he loved films, he loved words, and he could toss them about with great alacrity until they fell into perfect placement. Andrew was happy to do this with another writer’s words as well, and they always came into sharper focus, grew leaner and tighter and stronger. I think Andrew thought it a particularly severe sin to not clearly convey what a film or a book or a person or a sensation had meant to you: He was very much aware of being a witness to things, and he felt an obligation to share whatever he had learned or felt.
I took for granted the idea that I would always have a dinner with Andrew and Molly; that they would listen to my ideas and share their own with me; that we would sit in their apartment, watching the sun set or the moon rise over the Guggenheim, and sort things out. As painful as it is for me to consider that Andrew is gone, it is far worse for me to realize that I did not appreciate, until now, how lucky I have been to have known him, to learn from him, and to be able to love—with his approval—Molly Haskell.
James Grissom is the author of Follies of God, a book about his five-day visit with Tennessee Williams, which is scheduled to be published in 2013 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Margaret Hames

An A+ Gent

It was my privilege to be Andrew Sarris’ teaching assistant at Columbia University’s film school in 1998. Sarris taught a large, very popular World Cinema class that admitted both undergrads and grad students. His class was a bit on the loosey-goosey side, as Andrew would sit at the front of the class and talk about his favorite films of that particular week, discussing up-and-coming directors he admired, and young actors he thought showed promise. I remember he had very high hopes for “Rennie” Zellweger, and once when an undergrad asked a particularly pretentious “look how smart I am” question, Sarris answered, “I’d rather talk about Rennie Zellweger.”

I was also Sarris’ student in a combined undergrad/grad class on writing film criticism, hands-down one of the best, most inspiring classes I took at Columbia. Once, Sarris called me out for being a bit dismissive in that “smart-ass critic” way regarding John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. Sarris reminded me that John Frankenheimer had certainly more than earned a wee bit of respect in this world. And that goes a long way to understanding Sarris. He had the long view. He had seen so much—good and bad—you’d think he’d have seen enough; but “enough” never came. He was quick to call out the over-praised empty suits, but just as quick to stand up for those directors who had earned their stripes, whose work deserved careful consideration and respect because they were (among other things) auteurs. Oh yes—that word that Sarris introduced into the English language is pretty much taken for granted now. Would anyone question whether a director was (or should be) the true author of a film? He knew it was his greatest legacy and told me so.

Sarris was never dismissive. Visiting over the years, I saw him take up a cane to help him walk, then two canes. The last time I saw him, Columbia was awarding the first annual Andrew Sarris Prize. He kissed my hand, which he often did to female students, one of the only people in the world who could get away with such a gesture. Columbia grades their film students on a pass/fail model. But since I took Sarris in a seminar that included undergrads, he was forced to give me a letter grade. He gave me an A+. So on my Columbia transcript, there’s a whole bunch of passes and one gleaming A+, which is precisely the grade I give to him.

Margaret Hames is the publisher of Media Darlings

Kevin B. Lee

To my knowledge, the above video essay, produced last month for Press Play and Sight & Sound features the last recording of Andrew Sarris' voice. We recorded it one afternoon in Sarris and Molly Haskell's chic apartment filled with books, paintings and grand windows overlooking the Upper East Side; walking into it was like walking into a film critic's loftiest lifestyle aspirations. "We bought it 30 years ago, otherwise we could never afford it," Molly shrugged.

With Andrew's potential for participation limited by poor health, he occupied himself in the dining room with a sandwich while we recorded Molly in the living room. Nonetheless, Molly procured Andrew's original Village Voice review of the film and read from it. She really wanted his voice to be included, and the video is all the better for it. The selected passage, with its discussion of cinema as the beguiling dynamic between surfaces and essences, also gets at something about the relationship between film criticism and its subject, the mad pursuit of conveying the essence of one medium through another. The video is as much a tribute to the essence of Sarris' approach to cinema as it is to Rohmer's. And for all the talk of Sarris being the anti-Kael, there's something about his articulation of ideas that's every bit as sensual and sexy in its own way as what Kael was famous for.

In the midst of the recording, Andrew walked in and eased into a sofa, quietly listening to the conversation. But at one moment, in response to the discussion of scenes involving the touching of Claire's knee, he interjects with a hearty, satisfied chuckle and a soft mumble. I've gotten emails asking what he says, and all I can do is wonder what thoughts went through his mind as the image of that knee flashed across the screen of his memory. But as far as conveying an essence of a lifelong love of the movies, this final sound of his laughter may suffice.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play.

Craig D. Lindsey

I never paid much attention to the whole Kael vs. Sarris debate. I always thought it was two writers engaging in a good ol’ pissing contest. They were two film writers with two wholly unique perspectives on film criticism—end of goddamn story.

I say that to say this: What I enjoyed about Andrew Sarris was how, in his later years, he served as the sensible, introspective yin to Rex Reed’s catty, oversensitive yang in the pages of the New York Observer. Both writers had their own separate columns in the salmon-covered weekly. Since Reed’s column (titled “On the Town with Rex Reed”) dealt with movies, theater, cabaret shows, etc., it wasn’t as intense a film column as Sarris’s. However, on many an occasion, you’d see both men review the same movie in the same issue—and this is where things got fun.

Here’s a sample of what Sarris wrote about The Dark Knight:

“What is most unprecedented about the narrative, however, is its largely unsympathetic treatment of the yapping and yowling citizens of Gotham City, a gloomy echo of ourselves, at the gas pumps and grocery stores, still looking for easy answers from the highest bidders for our votes. In this respect, Ledger’s Joker brilliantly incarnates the devil in all our miserable souls as we contemplate a world seemingly without hope.”

Now, here’s Reed’s take:

The Dark Knight is preposterous, unnecessary and a far, far cry from the old DC Comics of my youth created by Bob Kane. But before the hate mail pours in, let me confess I’m a fool for this stuff, and if “logic” is a word you cannot apply to this movie, neither is “boring.” Compared with the summer’s other action potboilers, it’s a Coney Island roller coaster ride with some of the rails missing.”

This isn’t to say one style of criticism is better or worse than the other. However, you did get an immediate sense of how both men looked at movies. Sarris = well-mannered, pragmatic, detailed, looking at something from all angles before coming to a conclusion. Reed = ornery, hyperbolic, contrarian, getting an idea of what he saw and running with it. If they were a comedy team, Sarris would be the dry-witted straight man, while Reed would be the low-brow clown.

Unfortunately, Sarris was laid off from the Observer in 2009, making Reed the last critic standing there. It’s sad now that not only Sarris has passed, but that fascinating balance will never be replicated again at that paper.

In my opinion, Andrew Sarris will always be seen as a great critic and writer because, quite simply, he knew what he was doing. And whenever you read him, you knew it too.

Craig D. Lindsey is one of the earliest contributors to Press Play.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Andrew Sarris put a frame around cinema itself. He turned the appreciation of movies into an art, but with elements of science. The American Cinema is a taxonomy of directors, arranging them from most to least evolved, most to least artful, most to least memorable. His way of thinking about movies influenced not just film criticism, but pop music and TV criticism and comics criticism, too. Critics of any art form that was previously too young, awkward and humble to dare to define a pantheon were emboldened to try it thanks to Sarris, who insisted that movies could be art as well as entertainment and found the words to explain exactly how that could be so.

I was in the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics for a number of years with him and always looked forward to seeing him at screenings and voting meetings. He was an affable man who seemed to always be taking notes, and he'd been around so long by the time that I got into those groups that he didn't seem to be flustered by anything that happened in the room—though of course by that point, the 1990s, the arguments were pretty mild compared to what I'd heard went on the 60s and 70s. Even when critics were sparring with each other over whether this film or that actress deserved an award, he just grinned, glancing back and forth between the antagonists as if he were sitting courtside at Wimbledon and chuckling a bit.  I went up to his house one time to take his picture for the then-new New York Film Critics Circle Web site, which my brother and I built. I felt as if I were making a pilgrimage. He was charming. While I was taking his picture, his wife Molly Haskell—a giant in her own right—came into the room, introduced herself, then told her husband that he should sit in front of a different window because the light was better there.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

Oliver Stone

Mr. Sarris was quite generous to me. I was a young screenwriter in New York City.  I remember writing a critical appreciation of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in the early 70s and sending it off. Surprisingly, Mr. Sarris published it in the Village Voice. Meeting him years later, he struck me as a gentle soul, and although over the years his reviews could be tough, I never felt a bone of meanness.

Oliver Stone is the director of Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers and the upcoming Savages.

Max Winter

Sarris silenced them. By them, I mean the group of people I met and befriended when I started at Columbia University, fresh from Dallas, Texas, in fall 1988. Silenced in what way? Every way. These people didn’t talk like the people I grew up with. They were affectionate at their core, and you could tell that when you talked to them about things they loved, from the Velvet Underground to William Carlos Williams to Bob Dylan to Lorca, but it was buried under several very thick layers of toughness and aggression. It took a while for me to get used to it, but I learned; I remember ending one conversation by overturning a glass of soda on someone’s plate, for no reason I can recall. It seemed to make sense at the time. But Sarris.

Sarris shut them up. We brought the Village Voice to lunch in high-ceilinged John Jay Dining Hall in those days, and every week, the same ritual lionizing of certain names would occur: J. Hoberman. Greil Marcus. Andrew Sarris. When Sarris’s name was mentioned, though, only he got the kind of hands-in-the-air, I-won’t-even-humor-any-other-name response awarded to people deserving of great reverence. He wasn’t a “tough guy,” but his mind was tough, and that brought all the aggression to a halt. There was no question: when one of his pieces appeared in the Voice, that was a treat. The dense, surprising, literary prose seemed to me far more stimulating than anything I was reading in class, in an academic structure seemingly designed to encourage distraction. And it silenced students in a generation which viewed everything from classroom lectures to poetry readings to the level of service at a diner as an opportunity for review, of some kind.

Sarris’s death feels symbolic, a sign of the erosion of a tendency. Towards what? Towards more courage in criticism, towards engagement, towards saying something that might seriously dismantle a reader if there was a thought it might change their thinking. Think Lester Bangs! When Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung came in for review at the Columbia Spectator, everyone was on it. Who would attract that kind of interest now? Our premier critics are plenty sassy these days; they know what they like, and they know what they can’t tolerate, but they don’t necessarily have the erudition necessary to put weight behind their punches. Sarris taught at Columbia when I was a student there, as did Martin Scorsese, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Milos Forman, and as with many people I admired, I stayed away. I wanted to preserve my reverence. I did hear one lecture, though, almost by accident—and he said something during that lecture which has stuck with me, for years. He told a student, “As a critic, you understand, I can’t make the sun rise. However, I can tell you it has risen.” Who knows if that was original with him, or if he said it once a year and I was the last to know, I still feel sorry I didn’t see more of those lectures; that kind of sunrise I could have seen over and over.

Max Winter is the Managing Editor of Press Play.


Reeling and Spinning: Lindsay Lohan is taking her clothes off. . . .again

Reeling and Spinning: Lindsay Lohan is taking her clothes off. . . .again


So, Lindsay Lohan is butt-bald-nekkid in next month’s issue of Playboy. Well, whoopty fuckin’ shit!

Is there anyone shocked by this news? After years of the once-promising, red-headed starlet fucking up her life and her career in every way possible, she is now in the pages of the magazine everyone figured she would end up in eventually. To me, the most shocking thing is that this it might actually persuade men to jack off to an issue of Playboy for the first time since the mid-’90s. (That is, if they haven’t already seen the leaked pics on the Web.) 

And really, who hasn’t seen Lohan naked by now? Those who saw Robert Rodriguez’s latest enchilada western Machete were greeted to several Lohan topless scenes. And while the Playboy spread makes her resemble Marilyn Monroe's “Sweetheart of the Month” appearance in the first Playboy issue, Lohan already did a Marilyn-influenced spread in 2008 when she and famed Monroe photographer Bert Stern recreated one of Monroe’s final shoots for New York Magazine. (She really needs to quit with the Marilyn-emulating. We all know how that shit turned out and if you don’t know, My Week with Marilyn is out now. Hell, even Megan Fox is getting rid of her Marilyn tattoo.) And those who saw Robert Rodriguez’s latest enchilada western Machete were greeted to several scenes where Lohan was topless and perky.

nullI actually think posing nude for Playboy is the most respectable, professional thing Lohan has done in years. It’s been so long since I’ve seen her in anything good — whether it’s a movie, a guest-hosting stint on SNL or even a cameo in a music video —that I’ve lost my frame of reference for measuring the relative quality of her acting. I mean, how long has it been since Mean Girls? Seven years? I haven’t seen anything lately that has given me the slightest inkling that this gal has been working on her craft and I’ve seen her in many-a-shitty film. Remember when she was horribly miscast as a twentysomething career gal whose streak of good luck disappears after swapping spit with a pre-Star Trek Chris Pine in the not-even-remotely-funny vehicle Just My Luck? Of course not, because you have respect for yourself. I, on the other hand, am a film critic, therefore, I don’t, so I did. Or how about Lohan's turn as a trauma-stricken college student who may or may not moonlight as a slutty stripper in the just-plain-crazy I Know Who Killed Me? There is only one thing I can say about that movie: SHE HAS A ROBOT ARM!!!!??!!

In all fairness, she did give a couple of performances that weren’t god-awful. She kept a low-key, angsty steelo when she played Meryl Streep’s poetry-writing daughter in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion. (I guess when your mom is being played by MERYL FUCKIN’ STREEP, the only thing you can do is shut up and watch how a pro does it.) And, as much as it pains me to bring up Emilio Estevez’s embarrassing, ensemble period piece Bobby, her performance as an optimistic bride-to-be getting married to Elijah Wood’s Vietnam-bound groom is noteworthy simply because I actually see her trying.

But that was back in the good ol’ days when she gave a shit. Apparently, all those years hanging with Paris Hilton depleted Lohan of the brain cells needed to be a productive member of society. In the span of seven years, she has lived the sort of fast-paced, fodder-for-tabloids celebrity experience that would even make Frances Farmer say, “What the fuck is wrong with this chick?”

nullLet’s review: Drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, rehab, arrests, jail time, straight relationships, gay relationships, back to straight relationships. She’s like a walking season of Weeds. But, then again, I would go on a tear like that if I had the sort of parents she has. Her mother, Dina, is a bigger publicity hoe than her daughter, while her father, Michael, is such a model definition of a deadbeat dad that he makes my father (whoever he is) look like Fred MacMurray.

The funny thing is that, while she has been pissing her time away, other formerly underaged It Girls have been working their asses off making careers for themselves as working adult actresses. Some have reached A-list status (hey, Natalie and ScarJo). Some get sporadic but still-steady work (like former Aerosmith video co-stars Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler). Some have careers in television (Claire Danes in Homeland, Christina Ricci in Pan Am). And some dropped out for mental health reasons, only to bounce back and get the best acclaim of their career after hooking up with Lars von Trier (great to see you back, Kirsten).

If I appear to be a bit too harsh on Ms. Lohan, it’s because I expected so much more from her. When she appeared on the scene, she was like a curvy, grounded breath of fresh air, a girl who looked and acted like, well, a girl. Maybe, that’s what we all wanted her to be: a child actress who would grow up to be another Liz Taylor or Jodie Foster. Sadly, that has not turned out to be the case. She has become everyone’s wayward sister – you know, the one who shows up on your doorstep out of nowhere, mooches off you and fucks up your life. She is Martha Marcy May Marlene – for reals!

Unfortunately, showing her ass all airbrushed and freckle-free in a stroke-book doesn’t indicate that a Robert Downey, Jr.-style career resurrection will be happening for her anytime soon. Some of you may (especially dudes) may be more forgiving of Lohan after seeing her warts-and-all pictorial, but I don’t feel like being an enabler. Quite frankly, I gave up on ol’ girl a long time ago. You can only take a woman breaking your heart so many times before you get fed up and wash your hands of her.

If she wants to be the Lindsay Lohan she’s been, then good riddance. If she wants to be the Lindsay Lohan she could be, then good luck.

Craig D. Lindsey used to have a job, as the film critic and pop-culture columnist for The Raleigh News & Observer. Now, he's back out there hustling, writing about whatever for Nashville Scene, the Greensboro News & Record, Philadelphia Weekly, The Independent Weekly and other publications. He has a Tumblr blog. You can also hit him up on Twitter.