Part of a continuous series of classic film reviews from some of the most eloquent, hilarious film critics from yesterday and today.
I am jealous of Andrew Sarris, the dean of American film criticism. Some of you may have read his stuff over the last few decades in The Village Voice and most recently in The New York Observer (until the Observer decided it didn’t have enough money to pay him). But the man has got a pretty insane advantage of every critic out there.
He was born in 1928. It was a pretty fantastic year to be born if you were destined to be a critic. Not that year specifically, but anywhere in that neighborhood was pretty clutch. Because the ’20s were really the start of serious, American filmmaking, and by 1933, Sarris was probably right there in the thick of it. (Yeah, Chaplin and D.W. Griffith were both killing it around 1915 or so, but the Hollywood beast didn’t arrive until the ’20s.)
I’ve probably seen, like, two movies from the ’20s. Since 2000, I’ve probably seen at least 30 to 40 new movies in theaters each year. Maybe more. Many of them are mediocre to bad, and if you really want to understand how films work and how they don’t, it’s important to see bad stuff as much as the good. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad movie from the ’20s. Or the ’30s. Or the ’40s. Because you probably can’t get many of them on DVD, and if you can, I wouldn’t watch them, because, practically speaking, why would anyone want to watch a 90-year-old piece of cinematic garbage if there isn’t a compelling reason to do so?
Well, Sarris did. He’s seen everything. He’s seen “Nanook of the North” and “10 Things I Hate About You” (and actually has some interesting things to say about Julia Stiles). Getting to the point though, Sarris can watch a movie today, and place it in the context of the entire HISTORY OF AMERICAN CINEMA. … He’s probably one of the few people actually qualified to create Top 10 lists.
This makes me even more jealous: He got to see Stanley Kubrick’s movies on the big screen.
And he thought they sucked kinda.
I’m a massive Kubrick fan. In fact, I don’t think there was ever a more talented or intelligent man who made a movie before or since Kubrick churned them out at a rate of about… one each decade or so. But, unfortunately, I view them all in retrospect. I’m very familiar with everything that’s come since, and it colors my understanding of the movies, and I’ve always wished I could see them when they first came out… just to see how I’d react. Because Kubrick was brilliant, but a lot of people thought he was out of his mind.
As it turns out, Sarris was also one of those people.
In his most important book of criticism, “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968,” published in 1968, Sarris examined the entire history of that period by choosing the most important directors, splitting them into groups based on their significance and summarizing and analyzing their work. His top guys were considered “Pantheon Directors,” a list that included Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton and so on. Then he created so-called less significant groups. It’s pretty brutal. Sarris didn’t give an eff. He placed now-classic filmmakers such as David Lean, Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder in a group called “Less Than Meets the Eye.”
Dick move, right?
Kubrick got it even worse. His group? “Strained Seriousness.” Sarris’ description of that group: “These are talented but uneven directors with the mortal sin of pretentiousness. Their ambitious projects tend to inflate rather than expand.”
Therefore, I find his review of Kubrick’s work hilarious and classic. For each director, Sarris listed all of their movies and italicized those he found significant. You’ll also notice, for some reason, Sarris included “Napoleon,” a movie Kubrick researched for many years but never shot. I don’t know why it’s in this book. Perhaps the movie was under development then.
I wonder if he still thinks this stuff about Kubrick. He couldn’t possibly.
STANLEY KUBRICK (1928– )
FILMS: 1953–Fear and Desire. 1955–Killer’s Kiss. 1956–The Killing. 1957–Paths of Glory. 1960–Spartacus. 1962–Lolita. 1964–Dr. Strangelove. 1968–2001: A Space Odyssey. 1971–Napoleon.
Back in 1963, I wrote off Kubrick thus: “His metier is projects rather than films, publicitie rather than cinema. He may wind up as the director of the best coming attractions in the industry, but time is running out on his projected evolution into a major artist. His unfortunate tendency to misapply Ophulsian camera movements to trivial diversions, and his increasing reluctance to express an apparently perverse personality, suggest that his career is at a standstill of his own devising. Lolita is his most irritating failure to date. With such splendid material, he emphasized the problem without the passion, the badness without the beauty, the agony without the ecstasy. What doth it avail a director if a project be presold to the whole world and he loseth his soul?”
In the five years since 1963, Kubrick has made two films — Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey. All in all, he has directed six films in a dozen years. (Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss can be written off as strained experiments.) The very fact that he makes few films seems to confirm his stature among his champions. There is supposedly too much care and integrity in Kubrick to make him work more often. Dr. Strangelove clicked with most sophisticates largely because its irreverence seemed modish at the time and also because some of Terry Southern’s lines punctuated the proceedings with the kind of belly laughs Vladimir Nabokov’s lines lacked in Lolita. Still, the failure of Lolita seems more interesting and more personal in retrospect than the success of Dr. Strangelove. After the satiric alienation of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick spent five years and ten million dollars on a science fiction project so devoid of life and feeling as to render a computer called Hal the most sympathetic character in a jumbled scenario. 2001: A Space Odyssey also confirms Kubrick’s inability to tell a story on the screen with coherence and a consistent point of view. Kubrick’s tragedy may have been that he was hailed as a great artist before he had become a competent craftsman. However, it is more likely that he has chosen to exploit the giddiness of middle-brow audiences on the satiric level of Mad magazine. Ultimately, Stanley Kubrick shares with Claude Lelouch a naive faith in the power of images to transcend fuzzy feelings and vague ideas. The ending of 2001 qualifies in its oblique obscurity as Instant Ingmar.
ADDENDUM: I’m also compelled to include a nice feature on Sarris in a 2005 issue of Film Comment. It includes Sarris’ admission that Kubrick was a great artist and even a hilarious note about his infamous second viewing of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
As it turned out, all he really needed was to get high.