Heaven Is for Real
Faith-based film tries reaching past its audience, but falls back on preaching to its own choir way too much.
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
An exhaustive list of Top 10s by RogerEbert.com contributors.
This excerpt from James Greenberg's "Roman Polanski: A Retrospective" looks at Polanski's breakthrough American film "Rosemary's Baby."
Peter Sobczynski ranks 27 films by Brian De Palma.
The negative influence of "The Godfather"; how "the tease" has developed a central role in pop culture; America's de-newspaperization; things that aren't feminism; siding with the victim in horror films.
Organizing files for the launch of our new website, I came upon this. I grow old...I grow old...I shall wear the bottoms of my ski pants rolled.
January 25th, 1981
The 3rd Annual U.S. Film and Video Festival
Park City, Utah - Up here in the mountains above the Great Salt Lake, everybody seemed to have a definition earlier this month of what an independent filmmaker was. It was just that nobody seemed to agree.
An "independent" was someone who worked outside the Hollywood studio system, obviously - except that such established actors as David Carradine and Ralph Waite thought of themselves as independents. An "independent feature" was one made on a low budget, obviously - but there was a large space between the $70,000 budget of "The Haunting of M" and the $700,000 budget of "Heartland". An independent film had a unique personal vision, surely - except that films such as "Gal Young Un" were visualizations of classic short stories, and films such as "Impostors" looked like no reality anyone had ever seen before.
Maybe... someone suggested late in the afternoon during one of the long, rambling informal seminars around the fireplace... maybe an independent film is one that tells a story that the filmmaker believes has to be told, no matter what. No matter whether it's "commercial," no matter whether Hollywood will finance it, no matter whether anyone will ever want to pay to see it, it has to be told.
That was accepted as a provisional definition, during last week's 3rd Annual U.S. Film and Video Festival, which was born in Salt Lake City and moved this year to the ski resort of Park City, not far from Robert Redford's Sundance complex. This was the first film festival devoted solely to independent American features, and everybody here knew what an independent film was not: It was not a multimillion-dollar production, it probably had no major stars in it, it was not intended to flatter the lowest common denominator in its audiences.
Independent features have been around for a long time, but they probably never have been as numerous, as visible and as good as they are right now. They had their birth between the late 1930s and the early 1960s in the avant-garde films of such pioneers as Maya Daren, Kenneth Anger, Shirley Clark ("The Connection"), Jonas Mekas, and the young John Cassavetes who made "Shadows". They have become more common in the last 5 or 10 years for a couple of reasons: idealistically, because film is the language of the new generation, and realistically, because the country is crawling with would-be filmmakers, the universities are turning them out by the hundreds, and there is little opportunity for them to work in overcrowded Hollywood.
Most of the people who graduate from college with degrees in cinema probably never make an independent film. Many of the people who do direct their own features may never have studied film. You don't get to be a filmmaker by earning a degree. You make it happen for yourself, and in Park City, the countless stories of how independent films were financed and made began to add up into a litany of doing the impossible.
I was on the jury for the festival, which meant that during the week I judged eleven recent American independent features, some of them for the second and a few for the third time. I also saw several independent films that were outside of the competition. What I came away with, after the week, was a genuine sense of challenge and exhilaration. I'd just finished plowing through the commercial Hollywood movies of 1980¬ - the dreariest year in recent history for big movies. I'd survived the routine of the year-end "Best 10" lists, with all of their re¬minders of how few good films there had been all year long.
But now, in the darkness of a cozy little three-screen theater in Park City's only shopping center, I was remembering how much fun the movies could be, and how easily they could open me up to new experiences and insights. There hadn't been a week since the Cannes film Festival of... no, not 1980, but 1979... when I'd seen so many interesting movies. Here are some memories:
The first prize in the festival was shared by two features. Richard Pearce's "Heartland" and Victor Nunez's "Gal Young Un". I'd heard of the Nunez film before; it won an award at the 1979 Chicago International Film Festival, but I'd missed seeing it there, and also at Cannes and Toronto in 1980, I finally caught up with it in Utah, and was enchanted. It's a pointed human lesson based on a short story by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, about a rich spinster in the Florida of the Prohibition era, who is wooed and won by a sharpster who's after her money and her labor. He immediately sets up an illegal still on her property, puts her to work running it, delivers the moonshine in a snappy roadster and brings about his own downfall by mortally offending the woman's pride. The film is told with a droll sense of humor and a real empathy for the feelings of its heroine, who has a grave and sometimes funny dignity.
"Heartland" is one of the most ambitious independent features ever made. Produced by a group named Wilderness Women Productions in Missoula, Montana, it's the story of a widow and her daughter who leave Kansas City and take the long rail journey West to where the woman will sign on as the cook and housekeeper for a widowed rancher. This sounds like it's a setup for a romantic melodrama, but it's not: "Heartland" is uncompromising in its portrait of frontier life. It is brutally realistic, and when the man and woman finally do get married and form a partnership, it is not a happy ending as much as a pact against nature. And yet the film is filled with a wonderful life, mostly because of the performance of Conchata Ferrell as the woman. (Rip Torn plays the rancher, a man of great silences.)
There were two documentaries among the eleven entries, and they were both given Special Jury Prizes. One was familiar to me: "The War at Home", the documentary about the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in Madison, Wisconsin, which was compiled from the news film archives of Madison TV stations. It has played here commercially at the Sandburg, and I've written about it before.
The other was new: Jon Else's remarkable "The Day Before Trinity", which tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer's project to develop an atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. One of the reasons this movie was so powerful was that I thought knew the story already. I'd read about it, seen newsreels... It was part of history.
But Else located new footage taken at Los Alamos, and he also located a dozen or so veterans of the bomb project and lis¬tened to their memories. The resulting film is overwhelming, and saddening. We realize that the Bomb, that awful engine of destruction, was created by scientists in a wonderful intellectual summer camp, where all the research was subsidized and there was a heady wartime sense of adventure. Some of the memories are chilling: As scientists bet on how big the first explosion will be, Enrico Fermi takes side bets that Arizona will be vaporized. Through it all comes the story of Oppenheimer, a genius doomed by McCarthyism but also by his own curious loss of mission after Los Alamos.
The festival's second prize went to a film that already is something of a commercial hit in Los Angeles and New York: John Sayles' "The Return of the Secaucus Seven", a funny melodrama about a group of friends who were young political activists in the late 1960s and hold a reunion 10 years after the end of that idealistic decade. The movie's structure is predict¬able, and it's a little confused in the opening scenes, but it does open out into a remarkable story of how we are changed by our times, how we are imprisoned by our memories, and how our destinies are sometimes almost visible in our beginnings.
Those were the prizewinners. There were other films that I also admired, among them Anna Thomas' "The Haunting of M", a superbly atmo¬spheric Scottish ghost story; Ralph Waite's 'On the Nickel", starring Waite (the father on TV's "The Waltons") as a skid row alcoholic and drifter; Mark Rappoport's "Imposters", another witty and mannered exercise in style and social observation by the director of "Scenic Route"; Fred Keller's "Tuck Everlasting", a charming whimsy based on Natalie Babbit's novel about a girl who meets a family that can live forever; Andrew Davis' "Stoney Island", which was shot here in Chicago and tells the story of a white kid who gets involved in a black blues band, and Rick King's "Off the Wall", the most old-fashioned of the films in that it sets itself in the countercul¬ture of six or seven years ago and shows the sometimes comic, sometimes satirical American odyssey of a dropout and outlaw.
There were many other films at Park City shown out of the official competition but reflecting the spirit of independent filmmaking. David Carradine's "Americana" was about a Vietnam vet who tries to repair a merry-go-round on the outskirts of a Kansas town. Diane Orr's "The Plan" was a fascinating documentary about a Mormon mother of five children under the age of 6 and how she tries to cope. Connie Field's "The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter", was a sparkling documentary about women forced into the job market by World War II.
And the list continued with larger-budget Hollywood studio pictures that also qualified, in one way or another, as independent in spirit. My favorite was Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard", which begins with the story of how a gas-station owner named Melvin Dummar allegedly was named in a Howard Hughes will and continues with Dummar's own astonishing private search for the American dream. "Melvin and Howard" is scheduled for a Feb. 13 Chicago opening.
All of these films descended in a cascade at Park City. It was possible to see four good and challenging films in a day, after a year in which many months did not contain that many. It also was possible to reflect that many of these films may never find large audiences, because they exist outside the traditional distribution system, that cozy arrangement between the studios and the big exhibition chains. I imagine that a few of the Park City favorites will play commercially in Chicago: "Secaucus Seven" is a hit in L.A. and probably will surface here in an art house, and "Heartland", correctly handled and promoted, could develop large and ferociously loyal audiences - it's that kind of movie.
Many of the other independent features at Park City and wherever else they're found, will find their audiences not in commercial theaters but in film festivals, on campuses, in revival theaters, in new repertory at places such as the Film Center and Facets, and, eventually, on public television or on cable networks (Home Box Office and CBS Cable were both represented at the festival).
It's too bad that many of them seem closed out of the ordinary patterns of movie distribution, especially when so much genuine garbage is in the theaters. But audiences who seek them out will be rewarded. And maybe moviegoers who don't care about independent films and their makers are like music lovers who don't understand jazz. Remember what Louis Armstrong said about them? "There are somf indee folks that... if they don't know, you can't tell 'em."
There were two film festivals there in 1981. The 3rd Park City Film and Video Festival was held in January. Redford admired the first three, however nascent, took over sponsorship, and renamed it after his ski resort. "I am an independent," he said in his openin speech. At the time he was a superstar, and people scoffed. As events proved, Sundance reinvented the world of indie film, and Redford became the single most influential person in the independant world. If the First Generation was symbolized by Cassavetes, Redford was the poster oboy for the secong.
Marie writes: Remember Brian Dettmer and his amazing book sculptures? Behold a similar approach courtesy of my pal Siri who told me about Alexander Korzer-Robinson and his sculptural collages made from Antiquarian Books. Artist's statement:"By using pre-existing media as a starting point, certain boundaries are set by the material, which I aim to transform through my process. Thus, an encyclopedia can become a window into an alternate world, much like lived reality becomes its alternate in remembered experience. These books, having been stripped of their utilitarian value by the passage of time, regain new purpose. They are no longer tools to learn about the world, but rather a means to gain insight about oneself."
You may find it disturbing to see audiences laughing while watching "The Exorcist"(1973), but you will probably not see any problem in having some laugh with "Rosemary’s Baby" (1968). It goes without saying that they are two of the most chilling modern horror films, but, while the former unsettles us with its utmost solemnness parodied many times since it came out, the latter has a spooky sense of humor immune to parodies. How can you make an effective parody to undermine a horror film if it already has a devilish tongue slyly placed on its dark cheek?
Marie writes: Next door, across a long narrow drive and beyond the row of cedar hedges which run parallel to it, there resides an elementary school dating back to 1965, along with an assortment of newer playground equipment rendered in bright, solid primary colors...I'm sure you know the sort I mean...
SANTA MONICA, Ca. -- "The Artist," a nearly silent film, made most of the noise here Saturday at the Independent Sprit Awards, wining for best picture, best actor, best director and its cinematography. It was the latest in a series of good omens for the surprise hit, which seems headed for victory at the Academy Awards on Sunday night.
"Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you are and everything you know." -- Pauline Kael, "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris" (1963)
"She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment. And I don't mean that facetiously. She has great passion, terrific wit, wonderful writing style, huge knowledge of film history, but too often what she chooses to extol or fails to see is very surprising." -- Woody Allen, to Peter Bogdanovich, quoted in the introduction to the book This is Orson Welles (1998)
The imminent publication of two books devoted to Pauline Kael -- "A Life in the Dark," a biography by Brian Kellow, and a collection of reviews and essays called "The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael," both due Oct. 27 -- has provided an excuse to recycle all the old arguments about her. And that's not something I can imagine being said for many of her American contemporaries, mostly because nobody argues about them. Is there another American film critic who has inspired such a biography, published 20 years after her retirement? Does anyone still read, say, Vincent Canby, the powerful, impressively independent but rather lackluster successor to Kael's much-ridiculed Bosley Crowther at the New York Times? (Canby covered the film beat at the Times during the height of that institution's "make-or-break" authority from 1969 to 1993, when he switched to theater, succeeding Frank Rich.)
Some have pointed out that Kael was often wrong. Well, I should bloody well hope so. What critic isn't? By "wrong" these critics evidently mean that she did not agree with them about which movies were good and which weren't, or that her verdicts did not align themselves with the Judgments of History, lo these many years later. Were "Bonnie and Clyde," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Last Tango in Paris," "Shampoo," "Nashville" and "Casualties of War" really as great as she claimed? How could she be so dismissive -- even contemptuous -- of "La Dolce Vita," "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," "Shoah," "L'Eclisse" (and all Antonioni after "L'Avventura"), "2001: A Space Odyssey" (and all Kubrick thereafter) and Cassavetes pretty much across the board? (If you don't find at least a couple things in those lists that raise your hackles, you should be worried about the integrity and independence of your own critical values.)
He had these smiling eyes. And a self-deprecating manner which seemed to belie his very good looks ("He's so cute," my 19-year-old assistant exclaimed), about which he was fairly oblivious. Most of all, he was simply a very good guy.
Gary Winick, a many-hats-wearing filmmaker and digital pioneer, died of complications following a 2 year battle with brain cancer on February 27th, the day of the Academy Awards --- an especially sad irony for a vital man, weeks shy of 50, whose passion for film and storytelling had filled the decades of his adult life.
The private memorial service was held at the Time-Warner Center in Winick's beloved New York. Overlooking Central Park as the sun set, an invited group of 400 (some going back to childhood, some famous, many with whom he'd worked, even some he'd made sure got a decent meal when they were struggling) assembled to watch film clips, to hear and tell stories - to cry, yes, but also to laugh at so many experiences they certainly cherish now.
This is the last of my lists of the best films of 2010, and the hardest to name. Call it the Best Art Films. I can't precisely define an Art Film, but I knew I was seeing one when I saw these. I could also call them Adult Films, if that term hadn't been devalued by the porn industry. These are films based on the close observation of behavior. They are not mechanical constructions of infinitesimal thrills. They depend on intelligence and empathy to be appreciated.
They also require acting of a precision not necessary in many mass entertainments. They require directors with a clear idea of complex purposes. They require subtleties of lighting and sound that create a self-contained world. Most of all, they require sympathy. The directors care for their characters, and ask us to see them as individuals, not genre emblems. That requires us to see ourselves as individual viewers, not "audience members." That can be an intimate experience. I found it in these titles, which for one reason or another weren't on my earlier lists. Maybe next year I'll just come up with one alphabetical list of all the year's best films, and call it "The Best Films of 2011, A to Z."
Ever since David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" was published in 1975, browsers have said that they love to hate Thomson's contrarian arguments -- against John Ford or Frank Capra, Coppola or Kubrick, for example.¹ Fans and critics can cite favorite passages of resonant beauty, mystifyingly vague and dismissive summary judgements, and entire entries in which the man appears to have gone off his rocker. And that's the fun of it.
To be fair, Thomson broke faith with (or has been suffering a crisis of faith in) American movies at least far back as "Overexposures: The Crisis in American Filmmaking" (1981), and he's been writing about his crisis ever since. To put it in a sentence that could serve as the ending of one of his entries: I am willing to believe that he loves (or once loved) movies even if he doesn't like them very much. (Wait -- how does he conclude the Katharine Hepburn piece? "She loved movies, while disapproving of them.")
When I encountered the first edition of this book, the year I entered college, I immediately fell in love with it because it was not a standard reference. It was personal, cranky, eloquent, pretentious, pithy, petty, ambitious... It was, as I think Thomson himself suggested in the foreword to the first or second edition (this is the fifth), more accurately titled "An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film." Many times over the years I have implored my employers or partners to license digital rights to Thomson's book so that it could augment and be integrated with other movie databases and references (at Cinemania, FilmPix, Reel.com, RogerEbert.com)... but we've never done it. What, they would ask, is the "value-add"? (Really. Some people used to talk that way.) As a reference, its coverage is too spotty (Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia is much more comprehensive but also has loads of incomplete filmographies), as criticism it's wildly idiosyncratic (nothing wrong with that) and as biography it's whimsically selective and uneven, leaving as many holes as it fills.
This entry is safe for work.
I hesitated just a moment before including Miss June 1975 in my piece about Hugh Hefner. I wondered if some readers would find the nude photograph objectionable. Then I smiled at myself. Here I was, writing an article in praise of Hefner's healthy influence on American society, and I didn't know if I should show a Playmate of the Month. Wasn't I being a hypocrite? I waited to see what the reaction would be.
The Sun-Times doesn't publish nudes on its site, but my page occupies a sort of netherland: I own it in cooperation with the newspaper, but control its contents. If anyone complains, I thought, it will be the paper, and if they do I'll take it down.
From the Grand Poobah: The name of this video is "Tarantino vs. the Coen Brothers." It is a rather brilliant editing accomplishment. The better you know the Tarantino and Coen films, the more you may like it. I predict it will go viral.
"Calcuttan Cats," a short story by club member H. W. Cimmerian, is newly online at "O'Rourke's magazine," the online lit mag that Ebert publishes from time to time.
LOS ANGELES -- I wonder what this might mean. "Precious" did about as well as it possibly could have Friday might at the Independent Spirit Awards. It won for best picture, best actress (Gabourey Sidibe), best supporting actress (Mo'Nique), best director (Lee Daniels) and best first screenplay (Geoffrey Fletcher). Supporting actor Lenny Kravitz was in the house, but couldn't win because he wasn't nominated.
Richard Schickel wrote a book review of Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff. Except that, rather than review the book, he chose to review Robert Altman's capacity for drinking and dope-smoking:
It appears that from the beginning of his career until almost its end (when illness slowed him), Robert Altman never passed an entirely sober day in his life. When he was not drinking heavily, he was smoking dope -- often doing both simultaneously. When he screened dailies on location, he insisted the cast and crew gather to view them in a party atmosphere, with the merriment rolling on into the night.
Shocking, isn't it?
By James Toback
Based on his show-stopping speech at Saturday night's Independent Spirit Awards, if Mickey Rourke wins an Oscar on Sunday night the Oscarcast is going to be a lollapalooza. As his comeback film "The Wrestler" won for best film, male actor and cinematography, Rourke brought the show to a halt and the audience to its feet with an acceptance speech that was classic Mickey. The Indie Spirits are telecast live and unbleeped, which added considerably to the speech's charm.
TORONTO -- How did the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival stack up against previous years? I've been to 31 of them, and as usual I had a great time. I saw about 30 movies, interviewed some fascinating people, met a lot of friends, and saw movies with audiences who know and love them.
Q. There are several reports about extreme reactions of early cinema audiences that I find hard to believe. It is said that viewers of the first movies were frightened by what they saw, such as moving images of an incoming train.
Q. In the Answer Man for Aug. 17, Phil Giordano asks about a Sixth Man in “The Godfather” who is never identified when the Corleones plan the execution of a police captain. The person he is wondering about is Rocco Lampone, played by Tom Rosqui, who is uncredited in the film, according to the IMDB. Mr. Giordano will remember the earlier scene in the film where Rocco executes Paulie in the car as Clemenza urinates outside (the “leave the gun, take the cannoli” scene).
"A spectre is haunting contemporary cinema: the shaky shot."
Waldo Lydecker: "I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.... Hand me my towel, would you?"
First, let me again express my gratitude to all those who got into the spirit of the Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon (see new category at right) -- with submissions, comments, and other observations on their own sites. My hope was that this would spin off conversations on other blogs as well, and I've participated in some of them myself (and in e-mail, too). I was especially pleased that some of the contributions were from people with new blogs, or who hadn't participated in blog-a-thons before. This was the first time I've hosted one, and I was thrilled and relieved that I hadn't thrown a party to which no one came.
It was just a little over a year ago, in January of 2006, that some movie bloggers over at girish's were discussing the whole idea of writing about film when the subject of Paul Verhoeven's eminently disreputable "Showgirls" came up and this idea evolved: What if they chose a date and everybody who wanted to participate would post something about "Showgirls" on that date and link to the other postings? (You can witness the idea taking shape here.)That, as legend has it, is how the "blog-a-thon" was born. (Andy Horbal at No More Marriages! has been keeping track of recent ones, and offers an overview with his reservations about them, here.)
The Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon grew spontaneously out of a couple posts I did in January (Do the Contrarian (Part I) and (Part II), which I impulsively turned into what I called "Contrarian Week." None of this was planned when I wrote the first post -- not even Part II. (I went back and added [Part I] to the original title after I'd thought of the second part.) And the whole effort was an attempt to distinguish between genuine contrarian arguments, and what I considered to be the equivalent of "shock jock" statements by some mainstream/print critics, just striking a pose to call attention to themselves without anything of substance to say. You used to actually have to subscribe to their publications in order to read what critics were writing; now you access so many print critics online, and with a blog you can link to them and respond immediately to what they've written.
Anyway, with so much contrarian joy and ambivalence still fresh in my mind, and at the risk of gazing so intently into my own navel (and/or the collective belly button of the blogosphere) that I fall in and am sucked through a black hole from which only lint has been previously known to emerge, I'd like to share with you some of my feelings about the experience....
SANTA MONICA, Ca. - On the eve of the Academy Awards, the Independent Spirits Awards sometimes provide advance clues to Oscar winners. But Saturday's indiefest under the big tent on the beach at Santa Monica spread the awards so evenly that omens were hard to spot. "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crash," thought to be the Oscar front-runners, both won -- "Brokeback" for best picture, "Crash" for best first film by a director.