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The Last of Robin Hood

A title as good as "The Last of Robin Hood" deserves a better movie. In fact, it deserves a good movie.

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As Above, So Below

It's that rare found-footage film with a strong premise, a memorably eccentric style, and plenty of energy to burn. It's also poorly conceived, and hard…

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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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* 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.

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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Louis Armstrong: A cinematic symphony in jazz

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The audience in Symphony Hall will get a treat Wednesday night. Performing: Wynton Marsalis, pianist Cecile Licad and a 10-piece jazz ensemble, including Sherman Irby, Victor Goines, Marcus Printup, Ted Nash, Kurt Bacher, Vincent Gardner, Wycliffe Gordon, Dan Nimmer, Carlos Henriquez and Ali Jackson. Conducting: Andy Farber.

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#21 July 28, 2010

Attention Ebert Club Members and fellow would-be chefs....drum roll... Marie writes: At long last, the highly anticipated "The Pot and How to Use it" is set for release! Containing numerous and surprisingly varied recipes for electric rice cookers, it is much more than a cookbook. Originating from Roger's 2008 Nov. blog entry, it includes readers' comments and recipes along side the Grand Poobah's own discerning insights and observations on why and how we cook. 128 pages, paperback format. Sept 21, 2010 release date. Available now for pre-order at Amazon at a discount.

(Click image to enlarge)Chaz visits Roger in the kitchen as he demonstrates the correct way to use the Pot. First, and this is very important; you need to remove the lid... :-)

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Faces in the crowd: Here's looking at you, Nashville

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For some reason I have the notion that the guy with the camera, getting the low-angle shots of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) against that American flag that stretches across the Parthenon from sea to shining sea, is the cinematographer Paul Lohmann. Is that right?

I didn't know it at the time, but 35 years ago the course of my life was set into motion. It began, no doubt, the previous summer with Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," followed the next June by Robert Altman's "Nashville." If those two movies -- seen at the impressionable ages of 16 and 17 -- don't thoroughly transform your world, then I don't know what would. I'd always loved the arts, but from that moment on I knew for certain that movies were the art form of the century -- my century -- because never before could such vibrant, kinetic masterpieces have been born. They made me feel fortunate to have come into the world just at the moment in human history when, at long last, such miracles became possible.

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Blu-ray: Higher fidelity to what?

The announcement of a pristine, digitally enhanced Blu-ray release of Edgar G. Uhlmer's grimy 1945 noir "Detour" got me thinking in granular terms...

The first CD I ever bought was Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America." I had hundreds (thousands?) of LPs by that time, but it was the first thing I got on CD -- because of the dynamic range of the music and the recording, and the really quiet passages that always showed off the flaws in the vinyl pressing (rumble, ticks and pops from imperfections, static, scratches, dirt, etc.), no matter how careful you were with the record. There was a vinyl shortage in the 1970s, and most American records sounded terrible. Vinyl was mixed with cheaper plastics and additives (don't get me started on RCA Dynagroove), LPs got thinner and less uniformly flat, contaminants (like bits of label from recycled records) got pressed right into the grooves... I got used to the idea that I'd have to take back one out of every three or four records I bought for audible -- and often visible -- defects.

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László Kovács: In Memory

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László Kovács (May 14, 1933 – July 22, 2007)

Kovács emigrated to the United States with his lifelong friend Vilmos Zsigmond, who became another great Hungarian-American cinematographer.

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For me, perhaps the most indelible image in Kovács' work is the last shot of "Five Easy Pieces" (Bob Rafelson, 1970), a long stationary take of a gray, rainy stretch of Pacific Northwest highway, stuck in the muddy pavement outside an isolated gas station. The only camera movement is a slight pan. All the loneliness, frustration and alienation of the whole movie culminates (in a diminuendo, if that's possible) in this damp, atmospheric image.

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Other notable Kovács films include:

"Psych-Out" (Richard Rush, 1968) "Targets" (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968) "Easy Rider" (Dennis Hopper, 1969) "That Cold Day in the Park" (Robert Altman, 1969) "Getting Straight" (Rush, 1970) "Alex in Wonderland" (Paul Mazursky, 1970) "The Last Movie" (Hopper, 1971) "What's Up, Doc?" (Bogdanovich, 1972) "The King of Marvin Gardens" (Bob Rafelson, 1972) "Paper Moon" (Bogdanovich, 1973) "Shampoo" (Hal Ashby, 1975) "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (Steven Spielberg, 1977 -- additional photography) "New York, New York" (Martin Scorsese, 1977) "The Last Waltz" (Scorsese, 1978 -- additional photography) "Ghostbusters" (Ivan Reitman, 1984) "Mask" (Bogdanovich, 1985) "Say Anything..." (Cameron Crowe, 1989) "Radio Flyer" (Richard Donner, 1992) "My Best Friend's Wedding" (P.J. Hogan, 1997)

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Brian De Palma and The Pink Dahlia

An attempted "Chinatown" shot from "The Black Dahlia."

I've been holding back my thoughts about Brian De Palma's "The Black Dahlia" since I saw it at the end of July, and now (especially after ten days at the Toronto Film Festival) those thoughts are more distant and disorganized than ever. I had intended to review the movie for RogerEbert.com, but that proved to be nigh impossible -- I've just been too busy with Toronto and other stuff, and I found the movie rather flat and ininspiring, so I didn't feel passionately motivated to write about it. (I'm still in Toronto as I write this.)

So, I'm going to offer just a few general comments (including some mild spoilers about particular shots and sequences), and then I'd very much like to hear your comments about the movie.

As I think back on the film, I'm surprised to find that the predominant color I associate with it is a rosy pink. Not black. Not blood red. But a mild color that Vilmos Zsigmond has used in his peculiar pastel palette for the film. That's not what I expected of a De Palma film of James Ellroy's "The Black Dahlia," but there it is. And somehow that characterizes what I think is wrong with the movie: After the first hour or so, which seems like a good set-up for a De Palma extravaganza, it grows pale and indistinct. From the start it's too controlled, rarely risky or dangerous. By the end, lots of people are getting shot (in pretty unimaginative ways for De Palma), just so it seems the filmmaker can hurry up and get the movie over with. Things fall apart. I didn't feel like De Palma cared about the picture anymore at this point, and so neither did I. You can feel the filmmaker losing interest in his own movie.

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Kubrick and the cosmic zoom

A mighty zoom. It begins here...

... and ends here.

It's been said that what "The Shining" is to the dolly/Steadicam shot, "Barry Lyndon" is to the zoom. Jeffrey Bernstein offers an in-depth exploration of all those slow, still-life zooms in "Barry Lyndon" -- 36 of them by his count, and I believe him! (Here's the .pdf file.) I have so much reading to do.

The zoom, because it is purely optical and does not involve actually moving the camera, has unique visual properties. It tends to flatten the image as it enlarges it (I was going to say "gets closer," but of course that's the point -- it doesn't). Kubrick uses it so that his characters appear to be locked within the frame, and shots are presented like paintings -- portraits or landscapes. It's part of the canvas of the film, as it were. (BTW, my revised 1981 appreciation of "Barry Lyndon," one of my favorite films, can be found here: "Barry Lyndon and the Cosmic Wager.")

Bernstein writes: In "Barry Lyndon" Kubrick elevates a ‘poor cousin’ as it were of film technique—the zoom in progress—to a central position. In the first twenty-one minutes of the film there are six zooms and one zoom-like track-out. The majority of these zooms are elaborate; the shortest in duration lasts no less than ten seconds, while the fifth (the Nora-Captain Quin love scene) lasts a remarkable thirty-four seconds, and the sixth (the opening of the Barry-Captain Quin duel) lasts thirty seconds. Six of the first eleven scenes in the film, including three scenes in a row, begin with elaborate zoom-outs. The audience can’t help but notice the zooms. Perhaps never before in the history of commercial cinema have zooms been employed to be noticed by the audience. And not only to be noticed, but to be thought about as well. It seems to me that Kubrick’s use of the zoom movement in "Barry Lyndon" is the most elaborate and sustained use of zoom movement ever seen in a film.You'll get no argument from me! Though Robert Altman and Vilmos Zsigmond do deserve special mention for their work in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Images" and "The Long Goodbye." In the latter the camera never stops zooming and moving, as if it were bobbing on the waves at Malibu...

(Yes, those last four words are a Joni Mitchell reference.)

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The horror and the terror

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Neil Marshall's acclaimed British horror-thriller "The Descent" draws on plenty of other genre classics for visual inspiration, from otherworldly mysteries ("Picnic at Hanging Rock") to oudoor adventure ("Deliverance," "Jaws") to science-fiction ("Alien") and straight-out horror ("The Blair Witch Project"). All these movies are essential to any horror fan's movie education. Here's a sample of Roger Ebert's appraisals of these originals, from 1972 to 1999:

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Opening Shots: 'Scarecrow'

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From Leonard Maltin:

The one that first comes to mind is from a film I fell in love with thirty-some years ago, "Scarecrow," directed by Jerry Schatzberg and shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. I revisited it when it finally came to DVD last year and felt exactly the same way. It opens on a static shot of a wood and wire fence alongside a two-lane highway, as a figure makes his way down a hill toward the fence (and us)...the sky is gray behind him. We're riveted to this image, eager to find out who this is, where he's coming from, and where he's headed. I haven't timed it to see how long the shot actually runs, but it's long, and absolutely mesmerizing: an opening shot that draws you in and makes you want to watch the movie.

JE: Thanks, Leonard -- it's a beauty! The dark gray clouds contrasting with the pale tan of the dry, grassy slope; the light playing across the hillside that makes the clouds shift even darker; the sound of thunder echoing in the distance -- it's the kind of shot where, seconds into the movie, you can almost smell the setting: The ionic scent of the approaching rain, the dusty pollenated aroma of the baked grass. And it's also funny, as Gene Hackman attempts to extricate himself from the fence. Anyone who's attempted to climb over, under or through barbed wire knows the pain and frustration of this moment all too well! It looks like the shot was originally even longer, and is interrupted by a few cutaways to Al Pacino watching from behind a tree -- perhaps to substitute different takes. And you're right: Now I'm going to watch the whole movie. (Love Pacino's introduction: "Hi. I'm Francis.")

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