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"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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Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Richard Lester's "The Bed-Sitting Room"

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View "The Bed-Sitting Room," complete and legally.

Watch The Bed Sitting Room (1969, Richard Lester) in Comedy  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

"The Bed-Sitting Room" A film written and directed by Richard Lester. Featuring Rita Tushingham, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Spike Mulligan, Arthur Lowe, Marty Feldman, Ralph Richardson and Harry Secombe. Classified PG.

By Roger Ebert / December 10, 1976

If "Monty Python's Flying Circus" had never existed, Richard Lester would still have invented it. In 1970 he directed "The Bed-Sitting Room," a film which so uncannily predicts the style and manner of Python that we think for a moment we're watching television. The movie's dotty and savage; acerbic and slapstick and quintessentially British.

It was also a total disaster at the box office. So great was its failure, indeed, that Lester didn't get another directing assignment until 1974 and "The Three Musketeers." He'd been one of the most popular filmmakers of the 1960s ("A Hard Day's Night," "How I Won the War,") but "The Bed-Sitting Room" hardly opened.

It's an after-the-Bomb movie, but like no other. It takes place at some time in the fairly immediate future, after England and (we gather) the rest of the world have been almost wiped out by a nuclear war. A few people still survive. Some of them ride on an endlessly circling underground train (powered by an earnest young man peddling a bicycle). Others roam through the debris above. They try to appear as proper as possible by wearing the right clothes. From his midriff up, for example, the BBC announcer wears a tuxedo. Everything below is rags, but you can't see that when he's broadcasting (which he does by holding a TV set in front of his face and talking.)

People seem to be genial enough. There's a pregnant young girl (Rita Tushingham) who lives with Mum and Dad on the underground train. There's a genial gentleman (Ralph Richardson) who goes about looking into other people's business. There are two policemen (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) who operate out of a wrecked Volkswagen suspended from a hot-air balloon. And there's poor Arthur Lowe, who's obsessed by the fear that he'll turn into a bed-sitting room. Well, we all are. All of the characters are mad, of course, but that's not the point; this isn't a heavy-handed anti-war parable, but a series of sketches that gradually grow more and more grim.

Things start out fairly cheerfully, actually. At one point a messenger arrives with a pie, asks if he has the correct person, and when he finds he does, throws the pie into the man's face. So now we know where that fad came from. Later, though, the smiles grow more forced. The characters try to maintain an adequate British reserve, but it's a little hard when you find you are likely to turn into a bed-sitting room. Escalators from the underground are likely to dump you in mid-air, a square meal is hard to come by, Rita Tushingham's baby dies and so on. Since the movie accompanies all of this material with mindlessly mechanical music hall tunes, the effect is macabre.

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Starting with one cell, we arrive at Prof. Hawking

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Readable if you click to expand.

Errol Morris's "A Brief History of Tme," complete: This Tree of Life, a larger version and an explanation of how to use it -- all here at Evolutionary genealogy. var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_config.linkname = "Roger Ebert's Journal"; a2a_config.linkurl = "http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/"; a2a_config.num_services = 8;

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The evolution of the Batmobile

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The source of this extraordinary graphic can be found at the bottom.

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Robert Duvall: "Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that"

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• Roger Ebert / August 25, 1983

They honored Robert Duvall the other night at the Festival of Festivals in Toronto, dedicating their annual Tribute to an actor's actor who is only now entering into stardom after two decades of great character performances.

Duvall was accompanied onstage by Gene Siskel and me, on a guided tour of clips from a lot of his best movies, and when we got to one of his key scenes in "The Godfather" (1971), you could have heard a pin drop.

The scene was the famous one where Duvall, as Tom Hagen, Don Corleone's trusted family lawyer, goes to Hollywood to persuade a studio boss to give Johnny Fontane, the mob-connected singer, a starring role in a movie. "Godfather" fans will recall that the sequence ends with the boss refusing Hagen's request, and waking up the next morning in the same bed with the severed head of his beloved racehorse.

Anyway, when the scene was over, Duvall got to talking about the film's director, Francis Coppola.

"It's not widely known that when Coppola made 'The Godfather,' the studio had a substitute director standing by at all times," Duvall said. "One false move and Francis would have been replaced. That was incredible pressure for him to work under. It's a great picture, but under the circumstances it's a miracle he even finished it. As for Francis himself, he's like a kid with an all-day sucker. He wants his Hollywood studio, and a vineyard in Northern California, and an apartment in Paris. He's a great director, but he loves all his toys."

All this could be checked out, at first hand, because Coppola himself was a surprise guest, lurking in the back of the theater. Wearing a Panama hat, he marched down the aisle, took a seat on the stage and shared his notions of acting, directing, Duvall and "The Godfather."

"That was a strange scene to show," Coppola said, "because in the long shot it isn't even Bobby. We shot Bobby's scenes on the East Coast, and for the West Coast exteriors we used a double."

"You can tell," Duvall said, "because he doesn't have my bow-legs."

Coppola and Duvall began remembering moments from "The Godfather," especially an early rehearsal dinner.

"I assembled the whole cast for a dinner at Pearl's restaurant in New York," Coppola said. "There they all were -- Brando eating everything in sight, and Pacino looking tragic, and Duvall doing his Brando imitations every time Marlon turned his back. It was like the Corleone family having dinner. It was that night I knew the picture would work."

After two more clips from "Godfather, Part Two," we viewed perhaps the most famous single scene Coppola or Duvall has ever been involved with: The beach landing in "Apocalypse Now" that begins with a flight of helicopters playing Richard Wagner over loudspeakers, and ends with Duvall's famous line: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It seems like . . . victory!"

"One take," Coppola said. "We did that scene in one take, the first take."

That made it all the more extraordinary, because the scene is not only an exercise in logistics, but a demonstration of physical courage. While jets thunder overhead, helicopters make close passes and shells go off within yards of Duvall, he remains totally unaffected. He doesn't even twitch an eyelash at the special effects explosions, and marches around on the sand talking obsessively about the great surfing beach he has just occupied.

"There wasn't any time to think," Duvall said. "I heard over the intercom that we only had the use of the jets for 20 minutes. One fly-by and that was it. I just got completely into the character, and if he wouldn't flinch, I wouldn't flinch."

As Duvall reviewed his career from "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1963) to "Tender Mercies" (1983), his acting approach was clearly revealed: He believes in giving himself over to the character. He talked about spending time with homicide cops before making "The Detective" (1968), and hanging out with good ol' boys from Texas to find his character, a country singer, for "Tender Mercies."

"Not to brag, but I got calls from Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson telling me I had the character just right," he said.

Robert Duvall has long been known as an accomplished actor, but the range of his acting career was dramatized by the three-hour program. The scenes ranged from "True Grit" (he faced John Wayne in that great shoot-out in the mountain meadow) to "The Chase" (Duvall and Brando) to George Lucas' "THX 1138" (Duvall as a puzzled automaton) to Robert Altman's "MASH" (Duvall's love scene with Hot Lips) to "True Confessions" (Duvall as a cop, Robert DeNiro as his brother, a priest) and "The Great Santini" (Duvall as a military pilot who demands perfection from his family).

Two things stood out as the scenes marched past; Duvall never plays the same character twice, and he makes other actors look good. He brings a quality to his listening, his reactions, that charges a scene even when he's not talking.

One of the movies shown at Toronto was unfamiliar. It was "Tomorrow," a 1972 adaptation of a William Faulkner short story. The movie was never widely released, but Duvall says his performance in it, as a poor dirt farmer that loves and loses a woman and her child, is the one he likes best. "It's got the most of me in it," he said.

And what, at mid-career, what has he learned about acting? "Give yourself completely to the moment."

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Jeff Bridges: The Starman within

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• Roger Ebert / December 16th, 1984

When director John Carpenter saw the script of "Starman" for the first time, it looked to him like a special-effects movie, and he thought that was the wrong idea. He was more interested in remaking "It Happened One Night," with an extraterrestrial man in the Claudette Colbert role.

"The screenplay described the special effects in minute detail, but they seemed to be afraid of the story," Carpenter said. "I saw it as the story of two people on the road, learning to deal with each other. They had Starman flying around like Superman. And they were utterly obsessed with how he looked. There was all this emphasis on the big transformation scene, where he turns from an alien into the clone of a human being. But how he looks while he transforms is just hardware; it has nothing to do with the story."

By the time Carpenter came aboard about a year ago, "Starman" had been in various stages of production for four years. According to Hollywood folklore, this was the movie Columbia decided to make instead of "E. T.," which went to Universal instead: Some hapless executive had decided "E. T." was only a children's picture, while "Starman," which opened here Friday, was sort of the same story for adults.

The executive might have been right about the second part of that theory. "Starman" is one of those rare science-fiction movies with genuine emotional content. By the end of the film, when a woman from Earth and a creature from space look into each other's eyes and smile, there is something of the same warmth and heart that "E. T." projected.

There is, however, one very basic difference between the two movies. The challenge in "E. T." was to make an alien seem human. The challenge in "Starman" is to make a human seem alien. When we first see the alien, it is a glowing ball of pure energy, floating out of a wrecked spacecraft somewhere in Wisconsin, and drifting into the living room of a young widow's home. The creature sees a photograph of the widow's late husband, does a quick three-dimensional scan, analyzes a lock of hair for genetic information, and generates itself into a human clone - a dead-ringer for the dead man.

In this form, which it will retain for the rest of the movie, the starman reminds the woman so sharply of her husband that she is at first terrified, then hostile, and only gradually accepting. That process of emotional accommodation could easily have seemed ridiculous, but not in "Starman," where Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges manage to create one of the year's warmest love stories in the unlikely setting of an s-f movie. (That's especially ironic for Allen, whose previous movie, the dreary "Until September," was supposed to be a genuine human romance, and failed abysmally despite Paris as a backdrop.)

"Jeff Bridges and I did a lot of talking about how the starman should look and move and behave," Carpenter said. "He looks like a human but, intelligent as he is, he's had no experience in living inside this human life form. He walks and talks strangely. His head movements are birdlike. We never wanted him to become completely human - and even at the end of the film, after he's had some practice at being a human, there's still something a little strange about him. Jeff took some real chances in playing the role. There was always the question of whether he was going too far or not far enough. A lot of actors would have been afraid of looking ridiculous, but sometimes, after we'd shot a scene, Jeff would offer to do it again, just a little more strangely."

After the starman lands in Wisconsin (his craft was shot down by the Air Force), he enlists the widow to drive him to Arizona, where he has a rendezvous with his mother ship at the Great Meteor Crater. It's at this point that movie buffs will begin to recognize aspects not only of "It Happened One Night," but also of "They Live by Night," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Badlands" and the whole genre of road movies.

The formula remains pretty constant: Man and woman hit the road, pursued by authorities of an uncomprehending, hostile society. At first, they are suspicious of each other, but trust gradually builds into love. The moment of truth arrives in a final confrontation between the refugees and society. There are even some more-or-less obligatory scenes, including the stop at a roadside diner. (Bridges, ordering alien food in a strange land, turns this scene into a quiet extraterrestrial homage to Jack Nicholson's classic chicken-salad scene in "Five Easy Pieces.")

"The story here is a whole lot more important than the science fiction," Carpenter said. "We reduced the s-f down to almost a magical fairy tale." That would continue a tendency in his work that you could see last Christmas in "Christine," the whimsical, terrifying movie about a used car with a mind of its own.

Carpenter has worked within the thriller and supernatural genres for most of his career, but he often seems to be testing their boundaries. After his early "Assault on Precinct 13," a superior police movie shot on a midget budget, his first big hit was the classic thriller "Halloween" (1978), in which an escaped killer turned into an indestructible engine of violence. Then he made such slick thrillers as "The Fog," "Escape from New York," "The Thing" and "Christine." In all of those films, special effects had at least equal importance with character; "Starman" clearly contains Carpenter's most three-dimensional people, even if one of them is from another world. Although there's a tendency to think of the movie as a fairly small one by Carpenter's standards - after all, it's basically about two people in a car, and this is the man who used special effects to make Manhattan into a prison city of the future - Carpenter told me it was a giant logistical job.

"We had 150 people moving across the country in trucks and vans," he said. "The low point was shooting only at night for six weeks. We used 16 helicopters for the scene at the Great Meteor Crater. We used nine simultaneous camera setups for some of the explosions. We had 70 or 80 extras in some of the scenes. This picture probably could have been done on a low budget, shooting around L.A., but the story is about how Starman falls in love as much with Earth as he does with her. We wanted to show the whole sweep of the countryside. Towns, fields, rain, sunrises - a planet seen by eyes that have never seen it before."

If that was the case, then the character played by Karen Allen is a woman seen by eyes that had never seen one before. Carpenter said he saw Allen through fresh eyes himself: "From 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' I got a very definite impression that she was strong, self-willed, with a sort of cute sexuality, I was unprepared for the effect she had when I saw her in person. She is beautiful. I softened her hair from the way she looked in 'Raiders.' I gave her a curl, a permanent, to frame those beautiful eyes, and she's gorgeous in this movie."

That left the tricky problem of casting the starman. "If you used a Hollywood star, a Stallone or a Richard Gere, the audience would have hooted," Carpenter said. "Jeff Bridges is able to disappear into his roles. He's elusive. He looks like he could be a house painter from Wisconsin. And he's not afraid to make a complete fool of himself, which is a special kind of courage for an actor."

Carpenter himself, for that matter, looks like he could be a house painter from Wisconsin. He was wearing a VistaVision sweatshirt, slacks and a pair of sneakers, and he looked more like a scruffy film student than a Hollywood director. He recently became a father for the first time; he and his wife, actress Adrienne Barbeau, have a 7-month-old son named John Cody, who was born in the middle of a tornado in Tennessee during the filming of "Starman."

"When I was going to film school," he said, "what I wanted to be was a commercial filmmaker in Hollywood - that's where I feel I can tell stories. I knew in my heart I could do anything. Musicals, gangster movies, Westerns, love stories. Having grown up on the movies, the only question was: Would they offer me those kinds of projects?"

"Starman" is Carpenter's first love story, of sorts, unless you include the rosy early days of the love affair with Christine the car. Now he's working on a project named "Chickenhawk," about helicopter pilots in Vietnam, drawing from his own experience as a licensed helicopter pilot.

That led inevitably to my next question, about the charges facing director John Landis in connection with the helicopter crash that killed three people during the shooting of "Twilight Zone." Carpenter said he didn't want to comment, apart from observing that a pilot is the unquestioned captain of his ship, with the absolute right to refuse orders he believes are unsafe. "A lot of laymen think it's safe for a helicopter to hover at low altitudes," he said. "It isn't."

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So anyway, Charles Bukowski, Errol Morris and Roger Ebert walk into this bar...

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Click to enlarge this comic strip by Nathan Gelgud. Here is a link to Roger Ebert visits the set of "Barfly." A photo of us that day in the bar at Remembering Bukowski. Thanks to Wael Khairy, my Far-Flung Correspondent in Egypt, for forwarding this.

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