The Age of Counter-Intuition: What Thomas Vinterberg’s THE HUNT Might Tell Us About the George Zimmerman Verdict, Iraq, McCarthyism, and Other American Mistakes

The Age of Counter-Intuition: What Thomas Vinterberg’s THE HUNT Might Tell Us About Ourselves

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NOTE: This piece contains spoilers.

The American imagination thrives on misinformation. Why was
America’s invasion of Iraq sanctioned by so many in 2003?  Because it was proposed that the country
possessed weapons of mass destruction. Were supporters of the invasion sure? Chances
are they weren’t, at bottom. But those in charge had a hunch. And that was, for
some, good enough. Why was George Zimmerman declared innocent in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin? Because his
jurors couldn’t prove he was guilty. Were his jurors sure he was innocent?
Probably not. But in the absence of opposing evidence—or the reluctance to bring intuition to bear—they handed over their verdict. In the 1950s, why did
McCarthyism stick in the public imagination, and not leave? For precisely the
same reason—vast numbers of intellectually incurious Americans just weren’t sure. And the vision
presented, in each case—of a nation of bad guys, of one bad guy who apparently provoked
an officer, of a league of secretive bad guys who were overthrowing the
government—was too delicious to resist. You wouldn’t necessarily think of The Hunt as a film that might speak to American life, whatever that is, but there is quite a bit in it that
might appeal to the growing American longing for justice, denied perpetually
by the seductiveness of counter-intuition, which grows like wildfire if allowed.
This film is almost a fable about that very tendency. The film has an eerie
quietness which, I’d like to think, grows out of the great simplicity of its
story, one of alleged child abuse in a small town—but this silence also might
suggest, to some American viewers, a highly focused portrait of daily life, the
unreality of its struggles and tortures merely suggestive of the daily news,
the silence of, well, truth.

Lucas is an assistant at a small school; though he was meant for a better position, taken from him when his previous school closed, he seems content with his lot. Played with a telling blankness
by Mads Mikkelsen, the kind of blankness you know will develop into rage with
time, Lucas is utterly at ease with children, the only sort of adult male
who would fit comfortably at a school with an all-female staff, bouncing up and
down like a cartoon character in early scenes. When he refuses the affections
of little Klara, beautifully played by Annika Wedderkopp, she tells a naughty tale
about him that, as all such tales do, grows in dimension. Because those in
charge, namely the most repressed-seeming schoolmarm you could possibly
imagine, brought to toe-curling life by Susse Wold, believe the child, because
she is, after all, incredibly cute, and the subject of her stories is, after
all, a man, Lucas is fired. But that’s really the least of it.

Lucas has many friends at the beginning of the film, but as
it continues he finds he has only family on his side. The bluntness and
immediacy with which he is punished is near-comic in its simplicity. The owner
of the local grocery tells Lucas’ son, explicitly, that he isn’t wanted there,
and neither is his father. Lucas is told, when he goes shopping, to leave the
premises in simple, painful terms, and when he doesn’t comply, he’s beaten up
and, quite literally, thrown out of the store. When he seeks refuge with his
trusting and distinctively intelligent brother, all goes well until a huge
stone flies through the kitchen window and his dog is murdered. The moral
certainty of his accusers is timeless: from the crowds in M to the angry mobs in old Westerns to the villagers in Frankenstein, the cliché that strength
in numbers masks a larger weakness receives signboard-sized illustration here.

Lucas becomes a
rather degraded version of himself as his punishment settles in. He begins
drinking far more than he used to. A romance he had started with a co-worker
collapses when he tosses her out of his house (literally) after she expresses
doubts about his innocence. His son comes to stay with him, the one bright spot
in the decline, but then finds himself locked out of his house after Lucas is
arrested. Towards the end of the film, Lucas staggers into a Christmas Mass,
bruised and drunk, the opposite of the bland-seeming fellow he had been. And at
this point, the allegory rises to a crescendo: humanity is capable of limitless
castigation, if its mind sets to it. This sort of castigation knows no borders:
it could be Trayvon Martin, killed under the suspicion of aggression, or it
could be countless innocent Iraqi children, killed by mere association. Or,
reaching back a little bit, American lives might be ruined on the basis of mere
suspicion of “un-American” sentiments.

As the film continues, it calms itself down a bit—and at the
end, Lucas even receives a pardon, of sorts, along with a reunion with Klara’s once-furious father, who was his best friend before the controversy began. The film ends with a poignant
moment, again all-too-relevant to what has become an increasingly American pattern of behavior in recent years. While he is
out on a hunting expedition with the men who had cast him out less than a year
previously, Lucas finds himself first dodging a bullet, and then staring into
the crosshairs of a gun, aimed by an obscured assailant. The film leaves us here, as if to remind us that suspicion, irrationality and, ultimately punishment walk beside us all the time, waiting for the right moment to surface.

Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: Beautiful Nightmares: David Lynch’s Collective Dream

VIDEO ESSAY: Beautiful Nightmares: David Lynch’s Collective Dream

David Lynch could be a wonderful stage director.

Crazy to say, perhaps, but perhaps not. Despite his relentless visual craftsmanship and tests of the limits of that craftsmanship, parading images in front of us that are luscious even when you can barely tell what’s being filmed, there is always an aspect of the staged to every film he makes. Part of it is his privileging of the naked, screaming utterance, from Lula’s “Sailor Ripley, you get me some music on that radio this instant, I mean it!” in Wild at Heart to Frank’s “I’ll fuck anything that MOOOOOOOOOOVES!” in Blue Velvet. These statements always have an ersatz quality to them, as if they were plucked out of another conversation and dropped into the movie at hand. It’s hard to link them, directly, to their contexts—and that incongruity is what makes them memorable. But, ultimately, they come to express truths about the people saying them, as if he, she, or it simply couldn’t wait any longer, just had to burst out with a plume of vulgar, unrestrained self-expression. We laugh, a little, when Sailor Ripley asks, “Did I ever tell ya this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedoms?”—but we also don’t. Though Lynch is, in a sense, a truly joyous filmmaker–in that he’s able to transcend scenes of tremendous violence and energy that would pretty much eat up any other filmmaker’s intentions from the inside out, instead making them part of a grand and coldly perfect scheme–he is also, to state the wholly obvious, someone who thrills in catching us off guard, a crucial trick of theater. Why does Robert Blake’s white-faced, ghoulish menace laugh like that in Lost Highway? What’s he laughing at? What could possibly be that funny? Where’s the laugh coming from? No one knows. What’s important, though, is that he’s laughing. The laugh itself has significance beyond what precedes or follows it, and it doesn’t leave you.

And then there’s the matter of the act of performance in his films. In how many of his movies does someone perform, in some sense, so that we watch them doing something they would not normally do, often in a virtuosic fashion? Well, let’s see. There’s Isabella Rossellini's Dorothy Vallens, singing the title song in Blue Velvet (not to mention Dean Stockwell’s brilliant Roy Orbison lip-synching, by now a milestone in the cinematic education of anyone my age, though the scene itself has no purpose within the film’s storyline), there’s Agent Cooper’s talk-show-esque conference, in a room lined with red curtains, with Laura Palmer and the Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks; there’s Betty Elms' (Naomi Watts) orgasmic and career-making audition in Mulholland Drive, and, later in the same film, Rebekah Del Rio’s performance of “Llorando” in an old theater, to name but a few examples. These scenes occupy an inherently elevated position, as if Lynch were saying: This is what the film can really do for you—all the rest of this stuff is just work. This film will never be any better, or these characters any more exalted, than at this moment. And the scenes always have a hypnotic effect; as we watch, we suspend whatever we might be feeling—horror, revulsion, elbow-deep irony—and simply observe, excited at the thought of what Lynch might be about to offer us. Once the moment has passed, we don’t analyze it or question it. We know the scene is indispensable, but we have no idea why.

And what about Lynch’s characters themselves? There are very few of his major figures that can be said to be simply “getting through the story” in a utilitarian fashion—almost all of them have exaggerated traits that make the arcs they move through larger than life. Think of Willem Dafoe’s hit man Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, whose rotting, dilapidated teeth alone describe an entire life story; or Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont, his untouched face ravaged by the end of Blue Velvet. Nicolas Cage’s Sailor Ripley is, himself, a walking metaphor for the redeeming power of performance. On the point of being beaten up by a group of thugs at the end of Wild at Heart, Sailor’s last recourse is, like a good performer, to put a good face on things, maintain his Elvis-esque persona, and take his beating. And the moment when Jeffrey Beaumont does the duck walk while courting Sandy Williams in Blue Velvet has the vaguely rhapsodic, pastoral quality of a scene from Eugene O’Neill, something from Ah, Wilderness, say. It’s not a real moment, since the gesture is neither a declaration of love or a shoving away of reality—and yet we have the sense it’s as real as these characters ever get.

A writing teacher, a poet and sometime playwright, once told me and the other students in his poetry class, after he’d asked us to write plays and we responded that we signed up to write poems: Close your eyes, imagine an empty stage, and then think of something you’d like to happen there. That’s your play. Oversimple as this advice might have been, as Lynch’s career has progressed, one might easily imagine he’s making a similar leap into creative desire to fashion films, as his seemingly random, aggressively disorienting and confusing work increasingly resembles the happenings staged by Allan Kaprow or the Fluxus artists who followed him, more than the more traditional "art films" his earlier works resembled. Even in his life outside his work, Lynch has a flair for the theatrical, as when, prior to the release of Inland Empire, he sat with a billboard at the corner of Hollywood and LaBrea Boulevards, his only companion at the time a large cow. Whether this was a publicity stunt, a satire of Hollywood film marketing, or both, its performative aspect was practically its entire content. The events that take place in Inland Empire, Mulholland Drive, or Lost Highway are not necessarily parse-able—who could explain the figures with rabbits’ heads wandering through Inland Empire? Who would want to try? You could, though, depending on your degree of sympathy with Lynch, say they made visual sense within the director’s larger body of work. And they are, beyond that, figures that hold your attention on screen while also encouraging a prilferation of interpretations. Can we say that of a majority of big-budget films? When was the last time you felt mystified at a multiplex?

It is, as suggested earlier, silly to say, of a filmmaker or an artist in another medium, He could have been X, as if X were the ultimate destination, the artist’s current accomplishment only a way station. However, in Lynch’s case, what I want to suggest is that the source of his power is less the ability to shock than the ability to shout. It is through this ability that Lynch’s characters gain their great gravitas, his movies their substance. It seems entirely conceivable that, thousands of years ago, when actors were screaming into the depths of Greek amphitheaters, their statements, far from being the golden-tongued outcries of rage we’ve come to expect, might have been, in the context of their time, closer to this:

“Heineken? Fuck that shit! Paaaaaabst Bluuuuuuue Riiiiiiibbon!”

–Max Winter

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."
You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

Max Winter is the Managing Editor of Press Play.

REMEMBERING ANDREW SARRIS, 1928-2012

REMEMBERING ANDREW SARRIS, 1928-2012

 
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

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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.


 

Sure, You Can Film a Poem: Charles Bukowski’s “The Man with the Beautiful Eyes”

Sure, You Can Film a Poem: Charles Bukowski’s “The Man with the Beautiful Eyes”

If you're reading this, chances are you don't read poetry too regularly (just a guess). You may even feel slight revulsion towards it, that mysterious, elusive presence in the literary spectrum, that stuff that sometimes rhymes, but most of the time just makes you scratch your head. That's okay! Be revulsed! Be confused! Any reaction is a good reaction.

If someone, like, say, me, or rather I, told you a poem could be filmed, you'd say, "No way!" And in part you might be right. The idea of a filmed poem conjures up a host of images, none of them pleasant: ever seen those placemats with scripture printed on them? Pastoral scenes? Clouds? Windswept plains? Pairs of footprints in the sand? Picture that as a film, with a voice-over by some out-of-work baritone. You get the idea. The concept of filming something without structure or narrative is a quicksand, just waiting for someone to step into it.

But fear not: various filmmakers, animators, and other pasty-faced, tired-looking souls have been hard at work for years, disproving this hypothesis, and the results of their experiments have been fine, indeed.

One of the first products I'll show you is a fairly safe bet: it's an animation of a poem by Charles Bukowski, and a much-beloved animation, at that.

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Many people go through a Charles Bukowski phase: usually it's in your college years, when all you see is the openness, the directness, the humanity, and the humor of his poems; because his chronic alcoholism and self-destructive isolationism, along with his rampant misogyny and sexual degradation, seem romantic to you, you're not really able to analyze the quality of the work. He could say anything, literally anything, and you might think it was wonderful.

So you buy all of his books, and you drink a lot, because he did, and you keep reading him, and you keep talking about him, and you keep swapping favorite poem/favorite line stories with your friends, and then, eventually, you read something else. And then? In a year's time, maybe two, if you read enough, Bukowski becomes an "oh, yeah, him, whatever" author. The problem here is not his work, really, which was wildly inconsistent. It's also not the fact that you can cast him aside so easily. It's that the drunken bravado of a lot of his poems ultimately outshadowed what he was really good at, which was telling stories. That, and the fact that he was imprisoned by his style–but that's another blog post altogether. His numerous fictional works (Ham on Rye and Notes of a Dirty Old Man being notable examples) attest to the fact that his narrative impulse always competed with his poetic impulse; when the storyteller took the mike from the poet in his poems, the positive result was always noticeable.

"The Man with the Beautiful Eyes," cast remarkably here in bold, confidently drawn blacks and blues and reds and whites and grays by artist Jonny Hannah and animator Jonathan Hodgson, is a testament to Bukowski's elegant, perfect, utterly personal narrative ability. It's a gorgeous little movie, full of the fear and the wildness and the pure silliness and awfulness of reality that comprise childhood, presented in a rough-cut, aggressive, startling manner that suits Bukowski's work, and all in just over five minutes. It's not exactly new, having been first released in 2000, but if you haven't seen it, it will be a real discovery… Watch it, and see.

–Max Winter