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Lucy in the Sky

There’s a point at which this joke stops being funny and turns sad, and it’s very early in its over two hours runtime.

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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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Richard Harris: Don't let it be forgot

By Roger Ebert / June 26, 1974

Richard Harris, dressed from head to toe in black, sprawled on the couch in his hotel suite and sang, not at all badly, a few warmup lines of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." It was afternoon, although apparently not for him, and he was in Chicago with Ann Turkel, his bride of 13 days, to promote a new movie they costar in.

The name of the movie is "99 44/100% Dead," and that is what most of its villains are, after they encounter Harris. Unlike the soap, however, they do not float, and the movie opens and closes with scenes of a macabre fraternity of the deceased: gangland victims encased in concrete and sent to wait at the bottom of the East River.

"The only way to view this movie," Harris explained, "is to see it as sort of a comic strip, to be enjoyed and laughed at on a strictly one-dimensional level. Once you ask yourself the first question about it, you're lost."

Harris plays the world's greatest hit man, who is imported to New York as a big gun in a war between Little Eddie and Fast Joey, or Little Joey and Fast Eddie ("We never quite explain who either one of them is"), and Ann Turkel plays his girl friend. She is a schoolteacher, who drives the getaway school bus.

"I was petrified," she said, looking, however, definitively the opposite on the couch next to Harris. "I had never driven a stick shift in my life before, and they gave me about two hours' lessons and set me loose in Los Angeles traffic."

"You almost killed the camera crew, luv," said Harris.

"I almost turned us over," she said. "They had a stunt man in the back, but I can't figure out how he was going to help me."

"He was scared shitless," Harris observed.

Their movie, which has been directed as sort of a cross between Steve Canyon and Fearless Fosdick, is a very flatsurfaced, exaggerated, popart fantasy by John Frankenheimer, whose other credits include "The Manchurian Candidate."

"When he sent me the script," Harris recalled, "I got to the line that said, 'This town isn't big enough for both of us,' and I threw it aside. What the hell kind of line is that? It went out with the 1930s. But then I thought if the script's so bad, what's a class director like Frankenheimer doing sending it to me? So I picked it up again, and got the joke. It's a comic strip put-on, done perfectly seriously."

It is the latest of a great many movies, most of them ("This Sporting Life," "Man in the Wilderness," "Camelot") successful for Harris, but it's Ann Turkel's first role. She's a Westchester County girl, daughter of a clothing manufacturer, who did a lot of modeling and television commercials before Frankenheimer saw her screen test, liked it and put her opposite Harris. Casting about for the most original question I could imagine, I asked if it had been love at first sight.

"Not exactly," said Ann, a tall and slender brunet with wide eyes and, sigh, lots of other qualities. "Actually, first sight was five years ago. We met then, but Richard doesn't even remember."

"I had my head up my . . . in the clouds," Harris explained.

"When he found out that I'd been cast for the movie, he wanted me fired," she said.

"There are too bloody many good actresses unemployed already, so why give this unknown a job, was my line," Harris said.

"There was an item in one of the London papers, all about Ann Turkel vs. the Ogre," Ann said.

"I looked up ogre in the dictionary and I didn't like it one bit," Harris said.

"We were both in London at the time and scheduled to fly to Los Angeles on the same flight," she said. "I was so frightened of Richard I changed my ticket to tourist class to escape him."

"That was unnecessary," Harris said, because I bloody well didn't fly back at all. Then Frankenheimer called me up and told me to stop being a bloody fool and trust his judgment, because he'd seen the screen test.

"By the time I finally walked on the set, I was feeling rather guilty, and so I sort of helped her, you know, and we became friends. But she still had her boy friend back in London. One day, after about six months, we were sitting by the pool, and I said, 'Ann, dearest, do you think there's something going on between us and we don't know about it?'"

"Maybe it's a case of opposites attracting," Ann said.

"That's it," said Harris. "She used to go out with tall, sleek, wellgroomed men, and I went out with buxom blonds. There are thousands of girls on the streets like the ones in Hollywood today, but not many girls of the more elegant type, refined . . . I think Annie has a real gift."

Their next movie together might be a sequel to his very successful "Man in the Wilderness," he said. That one grossed around $15 million and was about a civilized English man surviving in the wild.

"I almost got killed on that one," he recalled. "I was suspended from the top of the tepee for the manhood ceremony, and the rope broke and I fell. I could have landed in the fire or impaled myself on a buffalo horn, but I missed and landed between them. Remembering my early training in tavern brawls, I sprung quickly to my feet, because when you're on the floor, they kick you. Only THEN did I pass out."

Harris, it's been noted, is very likely the only living actor who has starred not only in a Doris Day picture ("Caprice") but also in a Michelangelo Antonioni picture ("Red Desert"). I asked if he brings the same acting techniques to both kinds of movies.

"The only advice I ever got on acting that did me any good," he said, "was a long time ago when I was just starting out and I made a picture in Ireland with James Cagney. It was called 'Shake Hands with the Devil.' I'll never forget, one day, Cagney summoned me to his suite at the Shelbourne Hotel for a couple of drinks.

"And then be said, 'Kid, you'll do OK. You'll make it.' Harris was doing his Cagney imitation. 'But remember this: When you're in a movie and they want you to go from one place to another, walk in a straight line. A straight line. That's how they'll know you're the star. Too many of these goddamned English actors are walking in curves all the time!"

Richard Harris at the Toronto Film Festival, 2001. (Photo by Ebert. Mentioned in obituary below.)

In Memory: Richard Harris.

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A conversation with Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan must be a wonderful teacher. (Photo by Roger Ebert) Egoyan on inspiration

Egoyan on erotic scenes

&nbsp Egoyan on Amanda Seyfried

Egoyan on Liam Neeson

Egoyan on Ingmar Bergman and the essence of cinema

Egoyan on preconceptions about actors

Egoyan on film versus video as a medium

Egoyan on the "tipping point"

Egoyan on why we're uneasy seeing famous stars in sex scenes.

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John Prine: American Legend

Through no wisdom of my own but out of sheer blind luck, I walked into the Fifth Peg, a folk club on West Armitage, one night in 1970 and heard a mailman from Westchester singing. This was John Prine.

He sang his own songs. That night I heard "Sam Stone," one of the great songs of the century. And "Angel from Montgomery." And others. I wasn't the music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, but I went to the office and wrote an article. [ below ] And that, as fate decreed, was the first review Prine ever received.

From the Chicago Sun-Times, Friday, Oct. 9, 1970:

SINGING MAILMAN WHO DELIVERS A POWERFUL MESSAGE IN A FEW WORDS

By Roger Ebert

While "digesting Reader's Digest" in a dirty book store, John Prine tells us in one of his songs, a patriotic citizen came across one of those little American flag decals.

He stuck it on his windshield and liked it so much he added flags from the gas station, the bank and the supermarket, until one day he blindly drove off the road and killed himself. St. Peter broke the news:

"Your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore; It's already overcrowded from your dirty little war."

Lyrics like this are earning John Prine one of the hottest underground reputations in Chicago these days. He's only been performing professionally since July, he sings at the out-of-the-way Fifth Peg, 858 W. Armitage, and country-folk singers aren't exactly putting rock out of business. But Prine is good.

He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn't show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.

He does a song called "The Great Society Conflict Veteran's Blues," for example, that says more about the last 20 years in America than any dozen adolescent acid-rock peace dirges. It's about a guy named Sam Stone who fought in Korea and got some shrapnel in his knee.

But the morphine eased the pain, and Sam Stone came home "with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back." That's Sam Stone's story, but the tragedy doesn't end there. In the chorus, Prine reverses the point of view with an image of stunning power:

"There's a hole in Daddy's arm Where all the money goes..."

You hear lyrics like these, perfectly fitted to Priine's quietly confident style and his ghost of a Kentucky accent, and you wonder how anyone could have so much empathy and still be looking forward to his 24th birthday on Saturday.

So you talk to him, and you find out that Prine has been carryng mail in Westchester since he got out of the Army three years ago. That he was born in Maywood, and that his parents come from Paradise, Ky. That his grandfather was a miner, a part-time preacher, and used to play guitar with Merle Travis and Ike Everly (the Everly brothers' father). And that his brother Dave plays banjo, guitar and fiddle, and got John started on the guitar about 10 years. ago.

Prine has been writing songs just as long, and these days he works on new ones while delivering mail. His wife, Ann Carole, says she finds scraps of paper around the house with maybe a word or a sentence on them and a month later the phrase will turn up in a new song.

Prine's songs are all original, and he only sings his own. They're nothing like the work of most young composers these days, who seem to specialize in narcissistic tributes to themselves. He's closer to Hank Willilams than to Roger Williams, closer to Dylan than to Ochs. "In my songs," he says, "I try to look through someone else's eyes, and I want to give the audience a feeling more than a message."

That's what hapens in Prine's "Old folks," one of the most moving songs I've heard. It's about an elderly retired couple sitting at home alone all day, looking out the screen door on the back proch, marking time until death. They lost a son in Korea: "Don't know what for; guess it doesn't matter anymore." The chorus asks you, the next time you see a pair of "ancient empty eyes," to say "hello in there...hello."

Prine's lyrics work with poetic economy to sketch a character in just a few words. In "Angel from Montgomery," for example, he tells of a few minutes in the thoughts of a woman who is doing the housework and thinking of her husband: "How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, come back in the evening, and have nothing to say?"

Prine can be funny, too, and about half his songs are. He does one about getting up in the morning. A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare him down, and won. But "if you see me tonight with an illegal smile - It don't cost very much, and it lasts a long while. - Won't you please tell the Man I didn't kill anyone - Just trying to have me some fun."

Prine's first public appearance was at the 1969 Maywood Folk Music Festival: "It's a hell of a festival, but nobody cares about folk music." He turned up at the Old Town School of Folk Music in early 1970 after hearing Ray Tate on TV. He did a lot of hootenannys at the Fifth Peg and at the Saddle Club on North Av., and the Fifth Peg booked him for Sunday nights in July and August.

In those two months, the word got around somehow that here was an extraordinary new composer and performer. His crowds grew so large that the Fifth Peg is now presenting him on Friday and Saturday nights; his opening last weekend was a full house by word-of-mouth. He had a lot of new material, written while he was on reserve duty with the Army in September.

There's one, for example, called "The Great Compromise," about a girl he once dated who was named America. One night at the drive-in movie, while he was going for popcorn, she jumped into a foreign sports car and he began to suspect his girl was no lady. "I could of beat up that fellow," he reflects in his song, "but it was her that hopped into his car."

A concert with John's friend Steve Goodman.

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Herzog looks ahead to the Cave

Herzog at Toronto 2010. (Photo by Ebert)

In April at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Werner Herzog spoke of the 3D film he was making, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."

On the night of 9/13/10, the film had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

In a conversation that afternoon at TIFF's Bell Lightbox, Herzog said, "It was only finished yesterday. I haven't seen it myself."

Here's what he said in April about filming it in 3D:

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Jonathan is three and loves great music

I posted the Beethoven video not long ago and it inspired enthusiastic comments, many of them coming down to: Who is this kid?

Under another video online I found a comment, possibly by his mother, saying Jonathan started trying to conduct before he could walk, and is now receiving violin lessons from a teacher he really likes.

There are more videos online, but embedding has been disabled.

Of Jonathan conducting the 4th movement of Beethoven's 5th, I found this comment on a blog named Murphies:

This is the same symphony that Forster wrote about in "Howard's End" in what some of you already know is my favorite piece of writing about music anywhere. I think Forster and Jonathan would understand one another perfectly. Here's what Forster had to say about the segment Jonathan is conducting:

"The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things." 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; if (WIDGETBOX) WIDGETBOX.renderWidget('1b397149-af9a-4c53-b8cf-a8894526dbcf'); Get the Roger Ebert's Journal widget and many other great free widgets at Widgetbox! Not seeing a widget? (More info)

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Attack of the Second-Rate Monsters

What a poignant fate, to terrorize the globe and yet be forgotten. But we must reserve our sympathy for the terrified humans fleeing in the foreground.

Found at Cover Browser, which claims to have 450,000 covers.

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The Black Mask Boys

This must be the only photograph of most of the great hard-boiled crime writers who wrote for Black Mask magazine in the 1930s. In the back row, from left to right, are Raymond J. Moffatt, Raymond Chandler, Herbert Stinson, Dwight Babcock, Eric Taylor and Dashiell Hammett. In the front row, are Arthur Barnes, John K. Butler, W. T. Ballard, Horace McCoy and Norbert Davis.

William F. Nolan wrote novels featuring them as the Black Mask Boys.

The original photograph is online here.

Here's the website of Black Mask Magazine.

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Marilyn Monroe's dressing recipe

In her own handwriting:

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Claude Chabrol, RIP. The master at midpoint

Claude Chabrol, who died Sunday, Sept. 12 at 80, was a founder of the New Wave and a giant of French cinema. This interview, which took place during the 1970 New York Film Festival, shows him at midpoint in his life, just as he had emerged from a period of neglect and was making some of his best films.

By Roger Ebert

NEW YORK -- Claude Chabrol's "This Man Must Die" is advertised as a thriller, but I found it more of a macabre study of human behavior. There's no doubt as to the villain's identity, and little doubt that he will die (although how he dies is left deliciously ambiguous).

Unlike previous masters of thrillers like Hitchcock, Chabrol goes for mood and tone more than for plot. You get the notion that his killings and revenges are choreographed for a terribly observant camera and an ear that hears the slightest change in human speech.

For this reason, particularly, it's necessary to put up a squawk and insisted on the film's original subtitled version; without the rhythm of the sound track, the movie simply doesn't work. New Yorkers saw the subtitles, of course, but Allied Artists apparently decided to let the rest of the country see a wretched botch of a dubbing job.

I wouldn't be surprised if the dubbed version flopped; "Z" ran for months in its exquisite subtitled version, but flopped in the neighborhoods because a lousy dubbed version was substituted.

Let's face it. Movies by director like Chabrol or Costa-Gavras are intended for the more literate section of the movie audience. You can dub a spaghetti Western and nobody cares, but mess with Chabrol and you're eliminating the very quality audiences respond to in his work.

In any event, we're seeing the good version here, and it is one of the best Chabrol films since he began his new career as a student of murder. With Godard veering ever more erratically into left field, and Truffaut exhibiting an alarming tendency to get cute, it's actually beginning to appear that Chabrol will become the front-running French director of the 1970s - commercially, and maybe even artistically.

Yet as recently as 1967, in his "Interviews with Film Directors," Andrew Sarris was actually able to write about Chabrol in the past tense: "He quickly became one of the forgotten figures of the nouvelle vague . . . Chabrol found himself so demode by the mid-1960s that he was forced to accept commissioned projects to keep his hand in."

But just then, when his career as a serious director seemed most in doubt, Chabrol arrived at the 1968 New York Film Festival with "Les Biches." It was an artful combination of lesbianism and very Chabrolian irony, with a nice bit of murder at the end, which forced you to re-think all the characters. And Chabrol, the first of the New Wave directors to be hailed and the first to be dismissed, was very clearly back in business again.

Les Biches

"Les Biches" was the first film Chabrol made with Andre Genovese, a young Parisian who is, Chabrol says, the only producer he has ever been able to work happily with. They followed it with "La Femme Infidele" (1969), Chabrol's greatest critical success since "Les Cousins" a decade earlier. Then came "This Man Must Die," "Le Boucher," one of the hits of this year's New York Film Festival, and "Le Rupture," still unseen in the United States. ("We're certainly going to have to change that title for the American release," Chabrol notes cheerfully.)

Taken together, this group of films seems to announce that, at 40, Chabrol is finally realizing the great promise of his early career, There have been 18 Chabrol features so far, and they reflect a distinctly erratic chapter in the history of the New Wave. Chabrol was there at the very beginning, first as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema and then as the director of perhaps the first New Wave film. His "Le Beau Serge" (1958) preceded Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" by a few months, and when Godard's "Breathless" appeared the original triumvirate of New Wave directors was established. It still rules.

Chabrol's sensationally successful "Les Cousins" followed, also in 1958, and the next year he made "A Double Tour" and "Les Bonnes Femmes."

Although he was by then routinely linked with Truffaut and Godard, his style and taste in material didn't resemble theirs (nor did they resemble each other, of course, although they made a convenient grouping because of their common disregard for the existing writer-dominated French cinema.)

Chabrol's 1962 "Landru," from a screenplay by Francoise Sagan about a World War I mass murderer, can be seen in hindsight as characteristically Chabrolian but having little connection with the concerns of other New Wave directors. It was coolly professional and exhibited the fascination with murder that has been his subject in all the recent films produced by Genovese.

Le Boucher

"Landru" was a commercial and critical success, but "Ophelia" the same year was a failure, beginning a period of involuntary idleness for Chabrol. He married the actress Stephane Audran in 1962 (she was Jean-Louis Trintignant's former wife and had starred in "Les Cousins"). And then he announced a number of projects, but nothing came of them. In 1964 he directed the first of three comedy thrillers he considers potboilers.

All three were frankly jobs done for money, and if some auteur critics defended them, not many others found them worthy of Chabrol. A 1967 "comeback" project for Universal's European production division, "The Champagne Murders," starred Anthony Perkins and was praised in France. But the mutilated U.S. version was a disaster.

One night recently, Chabrol sipped a Scotch and soda in the Greenwich Village apartment of a friend, and talked about it.

"How do you become a director? First, you must start. Second, you must find a producer who is a human being. Andre Genovese is a human being. I can say of all my previous producers that I hated them and they hated me. Just before I met Andre, things were at their blackest. I was doing 'The Champagne Murders,' and the producer, so called, was a young man named Jay Kanter who was in charge of Universal's operation over there.

"He was a good agent, they told me. Why not? But as a producer he was a joke. After I finished the film, they brought in an editor who was described as a 'doctor.' He was supposed to make a film out of my film. So what did he do? He made a hodgepodge. For the English version, he cut out 20 -minutes, and inevitably they were the exact 20 minutes for which I made the film."

Chabrol spread his hands in a gesture of futility. "Editors have an uncanny ability to find what you feel is most important, and cut it out," he said. "I could have made a stink, but I wasn't in a very strong position just then. At least they let me have the final cut for the French version. Perhaps I'm not the purist I ought to be. When we were all writing for Cahiers, we looked at Hollywood films that everyone thought were commercial, and we discovered art and morality in them. Fifteen years later, with these recent films of mine, perhaps I'm taking art and morality and making them commercial . . ."

In a sense he's correct, although "commercial" is a word too negatively charged to describe the exquisite subtlety of "Le Boucher" or "This Man Must Die" (even if they are advertised as thrillers).

Perhaps professionalism is the quality that ought to be substituted; the early Cahiers critics appreciated that quality to such a degree that they actually prized directors whom accepted routine assignments and turned them out competently. Even today, when the budget is not exactly critical, Chabrol makes a point of telling you that John Ford shunned covering shots, and that every shot Chabrol takes is in the film.

Because Genovese respects this, Chabrol says, he gives Chabrol a free hand in making his films, and that, you see, is why the last three years have been so productive for Chabrol.

"Most of the French producers," Chabrol explained, "are like Zanuck. No, not like Zanuck. Like a little Zanuck. I have a certain regard for Zanuck himself. You know I used to work for him. That's right! I was the Paris publicity man for 20th Century-Fox in 1955."

Chabrol sipped his Scotch very seriously, for comic timing, and then allowed himself to grin. "When I quit," he said, "you'll never guess who got my job. I gave it to Jean-Luc Godard. Of course he was even worse as a publicity man than I was.

"He always made sure to have the lavatory key. He would come into the office and look busy for an hour, and then say he was sick. Then he would lock himself in the lavatory and read scripts. I know the feeling because I like to read all the time myself, when I'm not watching movies. During the war I was sent out into the country -- I must have been about 10 at the time -- and I read detective novels all day.

Ten Day's Wonder

"It was at that time I first read 'Ten Days Wonder,' by Ellery Queen, which will be my next film. In writing the script, I worked from the very same copy of Ellery Queen that I read 30 years ago.

"When I wasn't reading I was going to the movies. I saw 'Snow 'White' at least 10 times between 1937 and 1940 and I think it influenced my work, a little. It was a good horror film. The death of the witch was the best thing Disney ever did. Of course, murder always heightens the interest in a film. Even a banal situation takes on importance when there's a murder involved.

"I suppose that's why I choose to work with murder so often. That's the area of human activity where the choices are most crucial and have the greatest consequences. On the other hand, I'm not at all interested in who-done-its. If you conceal a character's guilt, you imply that his guilt is the most important thing about him. I want the audience to know who the murderer is, so that we can consider his personality."

Chabrol said he is rather happy right now about the way his career is going.

"With the films since 'Les Biches,' I think I'm on the right track. Not that I was ever on the wrong track, but I believe that period of idleness helped me think things over. You might consider a concert pianist, suddenly unable to give concerts. So he sits at home and practices for two or three years, until somebody hires him again. And then they don't think about the two years, they think about how well he plays . . .

"Certainly I'm happy right now making these films about murder. My interest isn't in solving puzzles, but in studying human behavior. Nothing else interests me so much. I'm not a chansonnier, a man obsessed with the events of the day. I am a Communist, certainly, but that doesn't mean I have to make films about the wheat harvest. I think Godard's political films have been messy. Right now, Jean-Luc seems to be going through a bachelor's crisis: Should I marry politics or remain free?"

Chabrol leaned forward to share a confidence.

"I'll tell you a Party secret," he said. "Spiro Agnew is a double agent. Of course, he doesn't know it, but that's the best kind of agent there is -- because he can never blow his own cover!"

His face opened into a beatific smile. He finished his Scotch. He sighed. "Now we go back to France to make a film about murder again," he said. "In this one, I kill everyone, but it's no big deal. They're living at the beginning and dead at the end. In between, there's a story about a man who breaks the Ten Commandments, one by one. Catherine Deneuve will star, and of course Orson Welles will play God." I have many Chabrol reviews online. Use Search on my home page. Here is my Great Movies Collection review of Le Boucher. From the Telegraph, the best Chabrol obituary..

Chabrol's 50th and final film: "Inspector Bellamy" (2009)

☑ All of my TwitterPages are linked under the category Pages in the right margin of this page.

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