Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
Our film critic, Roger Ebert, steps out into the light, blinks his eyes and shares some of the good memories.
Time passes in the wink of an eye. Ten years ago (on April Fools' Day, curiously enough), I became a movie critic. That would be 3,000 movies ago, give or take a few, which I am in a mood to do, feeling magnanimous today. I hadn't set out to become a movie critic, although I'd always wanted to write for newspapers. I was perfectly happy as a staff writer in the features department, and then suddenly there I was going to six movies a week and learning how to pronounce Satyajit Ray.
I had it in mind to write a long and serious essay on the occasion of this 10th anniversary in one of the world's strangest professions (“You mean you actually get paid for going to the movies?”). I would discuss new trends and devel¬opments, the decline and fall of Hollywood, the Dilemma of Bergman's Death of God Trilogy, and whatever happened to the Western. But no. Trend articles are getting to be too much of a trend.
So, instead, I thought I'd just list some of the high and low points during 10 years spent in the dark:
Best American Film, 1967-77: Arthur Penn's “Bonnie and Clyde”. The passage of time is already proving it an authentic American master¬piece, achieving in one film so many of the things we go to so many different films for. It's serious and funny, violent and against violence, elegiac, perfectly in control of its tone and timing.
Best Foreign Film, 1967-77: Ingmar Bergman's “Cries and Whispers”, one of the most unrelentingly painful films ever made, but also one of the most courageous excursions into the interior of the soul. Few films in all of film history have been so harrowing or unforgettable.
Runner-up: Bernardo Bertolucci's “Last Tango in Paris”. Not a perfect film (the subplot involv¬ing the girl's lover was a mistake), but a bravura achievement, especially in Marlon Brando's per¬formance (his monolog over the body of his dead wife may be his greatest scene).
Best Actor 1967-77: Jack Nicholson, and what a decade it was for him. He'd been in a lot of dollar ninety-eight grade Z exploitation films, but he first came to wider attention in “Easy Rider” (1967), playing an alcoholic lawyer on intimate terms with flying saucers. Since then, he's been inspired in film after film (even bringing life to his few flops, like “The Fortune”). His best roles: “Five Easy Pieces”, “Chinatown”, and “The Last Detail”.
Runner-up: Robert Mitchum, and don't ask why because I wouldn't know how to answer you. Maybe I'd just say he's the most underrated actor of his generation and will be the Bogart of 20 years from now and leave it at that.
Best Actress, 1967-77: Liv Ullmann, in part because her frequent director has been Ingmar Bergman, but in larger part because she's had the courage and the artistry to reveal herself in a larger range of emotional situations than any other actress of her time. Her best roles: “Persona”, “The Passion of Anna”, “The Emigrants”, “The New Land”, and “Cries and Whispers”.
Best Director, 1967-77: Ingmar Bergman. In 1967 he already stood within the circle of the best half-dozen filmmakers of all time. But with “Persona”, he began an extraordinary decade of films transcending his previous achievements. His masterpieces of earlier years (“Wild Strawberrries”, “The Seventh Seal”, “Through a Glass Darkly” and all the others) were told in a cinematic language largely shared by all good directors. With “Persona”, he began to speak in a language mysteriously personal and moving.
Runner-up: Robert Altman, who with “M*A*S*H” in 1970 invited us into an offhand and inspired universe of characters who each seemed commonplace in his own bizarre way.
Most Entertaining Movie, 1967-77 (the “Singin' in the Rain” award): “Rocky”. It was glorious escapism, a classic rags-to-riches tale with heart. The love affair between Rocky and the shy girl down the street was corny and impossible and perfect. I walked into the film with misgivings, but I knew things were going to work out OK when Rocky, speaking to Cuff and Link, his pet turtles, said: “If you guys could sing and dance, I wouldn't have to put up with this crap.”
Runner-up: Francois Truffaut's “Small Change”, another movie with heart, and with a special understanding of kids. My favorite scene was the one where the little girl complained loudly over her father's bullhorn that her parents had gone off to a restaurant and left her to starve.
Funniest Comedy, 1967-77: Mel Brooks' “The Producers” (1968) which gave to the language “If you got it, flaunt it,” and provided one of the most inexplicably funny moments of all times in the scene where Zero Mostel fell heavily to the floor next to a safe stuffed with money, patted the bills, and said: “Hello, boys!”
Runner-up: “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”.
Most Spectacular Technical Achievement, 1967¬-77: Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which revised forever our expectations of what special effects could, and should, do. The movie was a triumph in purely visual terms, supplying us with a narrative that worked in emotional, not logical, terms. “2001” also contained the longest flash-¬forward in the history of cinema: As the bone was flung into the air and became a space station, we moved forward 2 million years in time.
Runner-up: The craftsmanship involved in the manufacture and use of the shark in “Jaws”.
Best Musical, 1967-77: “Woodstock”, which was also the decade's best documentary, and fixed forever those moments in the 1960s when we wore beads and made peace signs and in general behaved like citizens of the distant past.
Runner-up: “Cabaret”, which I had reserva¬tions about when I saw it first, but which has stood up well with the passage of time and contains those brilliant performances by Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. An intelligent, adult musical.
Best Single Moments in Movies, 1967-77: A tie, between: (a) the man saying “Plastics, Benjamin...plastics!” in “The Graduate”, (b) the young boy running to greet his father in “Sounder”, (c) Barbra Streisand catching sight of herself in a mirror at the beginning of “Funny Girl” and saying, in her first words for the screen, “Hello, gorgeous!”, (d) the moment the head turned entirely around in “The Exorcist”, (e) the first sight of Jack Nicholson on a motorcycle and wearing his football helmet in “Easy Rider”, (f) Julie Christie trying to crawl under the table for unconventional purposes in “Shampoo”, (g) the moment in “Faces” when the husband came home unexpectedly and Seymour Cassel, in a single shot, bounded out of bed, jumped out the window, raced along the top of the garage, jumped off and ran down the hill, (h) Michael J. Pollard parking the getaway car in “Bonnie and Clyde”, (i) the first kiss between Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in “Rocky”, (j) the shot in “Persona” in which the faces of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson were mysteriously merged, (k) the smile exchanged between Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger at the end of “In the Heat of the Night”, (l) the chase scene at the end of “The French Connection”, (m) Marlon Brando playing with his grandchild in the garden in “The Godfather”, (n) the peacock in the snow in Fellini's “Amarcord”, (o) Max von Sydow marking a tree in the clearing where he would build his home in “The Emigrants”, (p) the trout emerging from Erica Gavin's bodice in “Vixen”, (q) the chase in “Bullitt”, (r) John Wayne taking the reins into his teeth, and charging across the clearing in “True Grit”, (s) Robert Mitchum, a cigarette in his mouth and a drink in his hand, discovered looking down out of the window of a seedy hotel in the first shot of “Farewell, My Lovely” while his voice on the sound track said, “That was the summer I first realized I was growing old.”, (t) Paul Newman riding the bicycle during “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, (u) the moment the water fountain in Lincoln Center jetted up behind Gene Wilder in “The Producers”, (v) Sean Connery, with stiff upper lip, singing “Rule Britannia” as the bridge collapses beneath him in “The Man Who Would Be King”, (w) Woody Allen confusing the Binaca and the Right Guard in “Play It Again, Sam”, (x) the little boy solemnly watching his miniature village in “The Green Wall”, (y) the scene in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kamt” in which the dress designer's assistant disappears from the frame and reappears having crawled under the bed, (z) the veteran director in Dusan Makavejev's “Innocence Unprotected” saying: “I have made certain enquiries, gentle¬men, and am in a position to state that the entire Serbian cinema came out of my navel.”, (aa) the cat that would not drink the milk in “Day for Night”, and (bb) The sudden series of indictments breaking open the conspiracy in “Z.”
Do I have any regrets after 10 years in the dark? Only one, which is that the preceding paragraph represents an unsuccessful attempt to surpass Clarence Petersen's Guinness world re¬cord for the longest sentence (1,046 words in the Chicago Tribune) ever published in a daily news¬paper. I would like to point out, however, that using the same method, I could easily have written a sentence of any length whatsoever, had not my editor stepped in.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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