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Stray Dogs

Tsai Ming-Liang's first feature in five years is a mysterious and alienating series of tableaus about the fragility of flesh and the smallness of humanity.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Stray Dogs

Tsai Ming-Liang's first feature in five years is a mysterious and alienating series of tableaus about the fragility of flesh and the smallness of humanity.

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* 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.

Andrew Sarris, auteurism, and his take on his own legacy

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"All of us will always owe him everything." -- Glenn Kenny on Andrew Sarris, quoting Jean-Luc Godard on Orson Welles

Andrew Sarris, "who loved movies" (as Roger Ebert described him), was long considered the "dean of American film critics." Reading the accounts and appreciations of him today, I was surprised to see how many people perpetuated the myth that Sarris and Pauline Kael were like the print era's Siskel & Ebert who, instead of facing off with each other over new movies on TV week after week, carried on a robust public debate about auteurism and film theory for decades. That didn't happen. And that mischaracterization does a disservice to Sarris, to Kael and to Siskel & Ebert, all of whom were taking their own distinctive and original approaches to movie reviewing and criticism. I think what's most important on the occasion of Sarris's passing is to acknowledge that his substantial critical legacy cannot be defined in terms of anything Pauline Kael wrote about him and the politique des auteurs in 1963 -- and certainly not in the way his and the Cahiers du Cinema critics' views were misrepresented in Kael's famous snipe, "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris."

Let's get this straight: Sarris, who had spent some time in France and acquainted himself with the Cahiers du Cinema critics (Andre Bazin, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, et al.), published an essay in Film Culture called "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" (download .pdf here). In it he set out to explain the French notion of what he called "auteurism" for an American audience.*

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#120 June 20, 2012

Marie writes: As some of you may know, it was Roger's 70th birthday on June 18 and while I wasn't able to give the Grand Poobah what I suspect he'd enjoy most...

Siskel & Ebert fight over a toy train (1988)

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Wesley Morris's Pulitzer Prize-winning hits

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(AP photo)

Earlier this week Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe became only the fourth film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize, after Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 1975), Stephen Hunter (Washington Post, 2003) and Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal, 2005).

A few other movie critics have been named as Pulitzer finalists -- Stephen Schiff (Boston Phoenix, 1983), Andrew Sarris (Village Voice, 1987), Matt Zoller Seitz (Dallas Observer, 1994), Stephen Hunter (Baltimore Sun, 1995), Peter Rainer (New Times Los Angeles, 1998), Ann Hornaday (Washington Post, 2008), A.O. Scott (New York Times, 2010) -- and I've read and admired many of them over the years.

I was first impressed by Morris's writing when he was in San Francisco, where he wrote for both the Chronicle and the Examiner, in the late 1990s. With him and Ty Burr on the movie beat, the Boston Globe now has one of the best critical teams around. And that's saying something: The New York Times team of A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis is far and away the finest in that paper's history.

The Pulitzer submissions from Morris (who's only 36) covered films and subjects such as "The Help," "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," "The Tree of Life," "Drive," the "Fast and Furious" series, "Scream 4," "Weekend," "Water for Elephants," Sidney Lumet and Steve Jobs. A few excerpts to give you an idea of what earned him the prize:

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It Ain't the Meat (It's the Motion): Thoughtson movie technique and movie criticism

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"People who are just getting 'seriously interested' in film always ask a critic, 'Why don't you talk about technique and "the visuals" more?' The answer is that American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn't very interesting. [...] The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made - -which is more or less implicit." -- Pauline Kael, "Trash, Art and the Movies" (1969)

"By neglecting to analyze technique, Miss Kael can do no more than assert that a given film is new, or beautiful, hoping that her language will provide the reader with something parallel to the qualities implicit in the work of art." -- Charles T. Samuels, reviewing Kael's 1970 collection Going Steady (which includes "Trash, Art and the Movies") in the New York Times Book Review

"It is this implacable ignorance of the mechanics of filmmaking that prevails in all Kael's books. Yet she is never called on it. The reason, of course, is that her audience knows even less of these mechanics than she does, and professional film people do not wish to incur her displeasure by calling attention to it. She seems to believe that films are made by a consortium of independent contractors -- the writer writes, the cutter cuts, the actor acts, the cameraman photographs. In effect she is always blaming the cellist for the tuba solo." -- John Gregory Dunne, reviewing Kael's Deeper Into Movies (1973) in the Los Angeles Times Book Review

"To me, a good review, good criticism -- whether it's in the Cahiers du Cinema or Film Comment -- would be trying not to say, 'I don't feel,' or 'I don't see it the way you saw it,' but, rather, 'Let's see it. Let's bring in the evidence.'" -- Jean-Luc Godard, debating Kael in 1981 and challenging her approach to criticism

"Listen, you miserable bitch, you've got every right in the world to air your likes and dislikes, but you got no goddam right at all to fake, at my expense, a phony technical knowledge you simply do not have." -- director George Roy Hill in a letter to Kael (quoted in Brian Kellow's biography, "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark")¹

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In her 1969 Harper's essay "Trash, Art and the Movies," Pauline Kael made her case for trash, saying semi-famously: "Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them." But what separates "art" from "trash" (whatever she means by those labels) and is it really an either/or question? What if the differences have something (or everything) to do with "technique" (by which Kael, depending on which sentence you cite, might mean anything from technology to professional craftsmanship to directorial style)? After all, her favorite filmmakers (Altman, Peckinpah, De Palma, Godard, Spielberg) are stylists whose artistic vision (trashy vision?) is inseparable from their distinctive techniques. Even at a glance, you're not likely to mistake these auteurs' films for anyone else's.

So, I'd like to look into how the term(s) "technical" and "technique" are used by Kael (mostly in "Trash, Art and the Movies") and in those cherce quotations above. Way back when, Sidney Lumet said he considered Kael one of the most "perceptive and articulate" reviewers to come along in years, but that, like most critics, she lacked "any technical knowledge of how a movie is made." That mattered to him -- maybe especially after she said in his presence (after many spirited libations) that her job was "to tell him which way to go."²

Dunne, the occasional screenwriter, observed: "Few critics understand the roles of chance, compromise, accident and contingency in the day-by-day of a picture."³ I'd add that a failure to recognize the collaborative back-and-forth of the creative process -- and the industrial process -- of making movies (including contractual measures and union guidelines) also contributes to embarrassing critical misunderstandings that regularly find their way into print.

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#64 May 25, 2011

Marie writes: There's a glorified duck pond at the center of the complex where I live. And since moving in, my apartment has been an object of enduring fascination for Canadian geese - who arrive each Spring like a squadron of jet fighters returning from a mission in France, to run a sweeping aerial recon my little garden aka: playhouse for birds... (click to enlarge)

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The China / Fukushima Syndrome

May Contain Spoilers

While I heard the alarming reports coming from the Fukushima I nuclear power plant, an unforgettably intense sequence from "The China Syndrome" (1979) immediately came to my mind. An earthquake occurs without warning. The power plant is automatically shut down. They get a problem with the level of the coolant. The plant is on the verge of nuclear meltdown. The catastrophe of epic proportions may happen as a consequence.

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Serpico, the cop who wouldn't take money

May Contain Spoilers

In contemporary Hollywood, when a young actor becomes successful, he immediately tries to convert fame into power and money, investing his time in formulaic projects that guarantee great results at the box office and, thus, his ascension in the industry. It was not always like this - and we just need to observe Al Pacino's career to confirm that: after he became a hit with The Godfather, dozens of screenplays fell onto his lap, but he still focused on challenging and complex works in which he struggled against Hollywood's attempts to turn him into a heartthrob - projects such as A Dog Day Afternoon (in which he robbed a bank to pay for the sex reassignment surgery of his boyfriend, played by Chris Sarandon) and, of course, Serpico.

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Sidney Lumet: In Memory

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Sidney Lumet was one of the finest craftsmen and warmest humanitarians among all film directors. He was not only a great artist but a much-loved man. When the news of his death at 86 arrived on Saturday, it came as a shock, because he had continued so long to be so productive.

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#58 April 13, 2011

Marie writes: Yarn Bombing. Yarn Storming. Guerilla Knitting. It has many names and all describe a type of graffiti or street art that employs colorful displays of knitted or crocheted cloth rather than paint or chalk. And while yarn installations may last for years, they are considered non-permanent, and unlike graffiti, can be easily removed if necessary. Yarn storming began in the U.S., but it has since spread worldwide. Note: special thanks go to Siri Arnet for telling me about this cool urban movement.

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"The Messenger" discussed by Omar Moore of London and San Francisco

May Contain Spoilers

Hello, I'm Omar Moore. I was born and raised in London, where I grew up before moving to New York City with my parents. After branching out in the Big Apple on my own for a number of years, I moved west to San Francisco. I love America and its promise. We all need to do our small part to make this great country even better for all. Where a film is concerned, it is never "only a movie." Images mean something. They have unyielding power and influence, whether in "Birth of A Nation", "Un Chien Andalou", "Night Of The Hunter", "Killer Of Sheep", "Persona", "Psycho", "A Clockwork Orange", "Blazing Saddles", "Straw Dogs", "Soul Man", "Chameleon Street", "Do The Right Thing", "Bamboozled" or "Irreversible". A filmmaker generally doesn't put images in a film if they are meaningless.

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Paul Newman: In memory

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Paul Newman, a sublime actor and a good man, is dead at 83. The movie legend died Friday at his home in Connecticut, a family spokeswoman said. The cause of death was lung cancer. Newman reportedly told his family he chose to die at home.

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The slithery villains of 'Indy'

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Q. I know it's ridiculous to think of an "Indiana Jones" movie without snakes, but can you tell me if there are a lot of snakes in the movie? My wife has a really extreme phobia of snakes, but we would like to see it. Is it loaded with snakes or is there just one part with the extremely large snake? Is there a cue I could give my wife to tell her it is time for a restroom break or should I simply sneak out and see this one on my own? Any insight you could give me would be much appreciated.

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How Studs helps me lead my life

I got caught in the Indiana Jones whirlwind and allowed an important anniversary to pass unremarked: On May 16, Studs Terkel celebrated his 96th birthday. One of the great American lives continues to unfold. If I know Studs, the great day passed with calls and visits from friends, and the ceremonious imbibing of one (1) gin martini, very dry. I hope he has eliminated the daily cigar, but I'm not taking odds. If you don't know Studs, there are few people you can meet more easily in print. He is the greatest conversationalist I've met, the author of a shelf-full of books in which he engages people from all walks of life in thoughtful conversations about their own lives.

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Paradise regained? New evidence from Robin Hood Hills

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Q. I have enjoyed reading your views on the digital vs. film issue and was wondering if you had any update on how Dean Goodhill's "Maxivision 48" system has been coming along. Do you know of any directors who are actually considering using it for a feature production? I was sad to read in one of your articles that Eastman House is going digital as well, and lately director Sidney Lumet has mentioned that film is going to be gone within 50 years. I would love to hear if you have any updates about Maxivision 48.

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