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Ebert Club

#122 July 4, 2012

Marie writes: If you're anything like me, you enjoy a good book cover as much as a good story; the best often speaking to inspired graphic design. Indeed, I know I'm not alone in my admiration...Welcome to "The Book Cover Archive" for the appreciation and categorization of excellence in book cover design; edited and maintained by Ben Pieratt and Eric Jacobsen. On their site, you can gaze lovingly at hundreds of covers complete with thumbnails and links and even the name of the type fonts used. Drool....

{click image to enlarge]

Ebert Club

#107 March 21, 2012

Marie writes: I received the following from intrepid club member Sandy Kahn and my eyes widened at the sight of it. It's not every day you discover a treasure trove of lost Hollywood jewelry!

Grace Kelly is wearing "Joseff of Hollywood"chandelier earrings in the film "High Society" (1965)(click image to enlarge.)

Ebert Club

#57 April 6, 2011

Marie writes: ever stumble upon a photo taken from a movie you've never seen?  Maybe it's an official production still; part of the Studio's publicity for it at the time. Or maybe it's a recent screen capture, one countless fan-made images to be found online. Either way, I collect them like pennies in jar. I've got a folder stuffed with images, all reflecting a deep love of Cinematography and I thought I'd share some - as you never know; sometimes, the road to discovering a cinematic treasure starts with a single intriguing shot....

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) Cinematography: Harry Stradling(click images to enlarge)


I am pleased to do Kevin Smith a small favor

I believe Kevin Smith has said all this before, but now he's got another movie to promote (called "Red State," due in 2011), so he's evidently saying it again. reports that Smith is "taking to Twitter and radio" with this message:

Smith says that he doesn't hate critics, but simply disagrees with the fact that they get to see movies for free in order to write a review. His argument is that critics are just doing their jobs and sometimes don't want to see a certain movie, which means that they probably go into the theater hating it. He adds that he would rather show his movies to 100 fans and let them write reviews even if they don't have a newspaper.

Makes sense to me. Smith would prefer to have his movies reviewed by his fans -- those who've seen his other movies and who are predisposed to like them -- rather than by critics who have seen his other movies and therefore may be predisposed to not like them, so that sounds like a good proposition for him. (And I agree he should let the fans write reviews even if they don't have a newspaper, or a blog or a keyboard or a napkin and a Bic.) Not screening his movies for critics (or making them pay) also sounds like a pretty good deal for the critics who don't want to see or write about his work. They could watch or write about something else instead -- and not have to worry about all the ethical dilemmas involved in paying or not paying to see a Kevin Smith movie. The world would be a cleaner and more orderly place.


Who killed the movies?

For Francois Truffaut, it was James Bond. In a 1979 interview with Don Allen in Sight & Sound, Truffaut said he felt "the film that marks the beginning of the period of decadence in the cinema is the first James Bond -- 'Dr. No.' Until then the role of the cinema had been by and large to tell a story in the hope the audience would believe it... For the first time throughout the world mass audiences were exposed to what amounts as a degradation of the art of cinema, a type of cinema which relates neither to life nor the romantic tradition but only to other films and always by sending them up."

As Ronald Bergan points out in his book "Francois Truffaut: Interviews), the Cahiers du Cinema critic turned nouvelle vague auteur was "recognizing postmodernism before the concept became current in the 1980s." Truffaut (himself known as "The Gravedigger of French Cinema" for his scathing reviews in Cahiers during the 1950s) died in 1984. Surely there were those for whom the French New Wave itself indicated the End of Cinema -- a decline in professional production values and, well, what Truffaut himself attacked as the tradition "the well-made film."

Festivals & Awards

Ebertfest: Synecdoche, Champaign-Urbana

Charlie Kaufman, the writer and director of "Synecdoche, New York" (2008), my choice for the best film of the decade, will appear after the screening of his masterpiece at Ebertfest 2010. The 12th annual festival will be held April 21-25 at the landmark 1,600-seat Virginia Theater in Champaign-Urbana, and for the first time ever, all festival Q&A sessions and panel discussions will be streamed live on the Internet.


"You're taking this very personal..."

"Those who think "Transformers" is a great or even a good film are, may I tactfully suggest, not sufficiently evolved. Film by film, I hope they climb a personal ladder into the realm of better films, until their standards improve."

-- Roger Ebert, "I'm a proud Brainiac"

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is the "Dark Knight" of 2009. In what way? It's the pop-smash action picture that has excited a bunch of fanboys fans who don't usually read movie critics to howl with inarticulate rage about movie critics who don't like their movie. Of course, "The Dark Knight" was met with considerable mainstream critical acclaim, and "ROTFL" with equally considerable mainstream critical disdain, but the important thing to remember is: critics had nothing to do with making these movies hits.

Want to see critics made completely superfluous? Bestow upon them the magical power to predict box-office success. Instead of awarding thumbs or stars or letter grades, they can just provide ticket sales projections that can be quoted in the ads: "I give it $109 million in its opening weekend!" Voila! Instant redundancy, instant irrelevance. Why do you need critics to gauge grosses when you already have tracking reports, followed by the actual grosses themselves?


Oscars: No comment (almost)

Except... really, was there a worse-directed movie than "Slumdog Millionaire" this year? ("Jumper"? "Speed Racer"?) I didn't get around to watching it until this week because, as I mentioned in Toronto last fall, Danny Boyle has long been on my "Life is Too Short for..." list. But this one seemed unavoidable.

I regretted my decision from the opening sequence, which intercuts an interrogation on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" with the eye-candy torture (beating, high-voltage toe-shocking) of a kid who's tied up and suspended from the ceiling -- all with thudding music (just like the TV game show!) and Dutch angles galore. (The television show is black and blue; the torture chamber is orange and red -- all glossy as can be.) This is Danny Boyle, slumming. Like its title, "Slumdog Millionaire" is so picturesquely "gritty" it's oleaginous. Even the cruelty is pristine. Casting is skin-deep: The good characters are pretty, the mean ones are distinguished by cosmetic irregularities, the slimy ones are... slimy-looking. At times it's like watching the reincarnation of Alan Parker.

Not since "Crash" -- or possibly "Mississippi Burning" -- has a movie packaged brutality in slicker, shinier, tighter shrink-wrap. It's asphyxiating. You will never have to worry about what you are supposed to feel and when you are supposed to feel it because the movie will always feed you the answers, then smack you when it's your cue to emote. You can "surrender" completely to the experience (it demands nothing less), and you needn't worry that you will be given an idle moment in which you will be left to feel, or breathe, on your own. This is the kind of mechanical spectacle people like to call an "audience picture," but that's simply because it doesn't allow any space for non-autonomic responses. Don't even get me started on the schematic, dramatically flat structure (game show question followed by flashback to how how the contestant learned the answer)...

Oh, I forgot I wasn't going to comment. Sorry. But, wow, I was unprepared for how much I detested "Slumdog Millionaire."

(Above: It's a movie, it's a game show, it's a t-shirt.)

Stories on reactions to "Slumdog" in India, where it opened Jan. 24:

Critics rave over 'Slumdog Millionaire,' Indian public mixed (AFP)

Indians don't feel good about 'Slumdog Millionaire' (Los Angeles Times)

"Why Slumdog fails to move me" (BBC)

I have no issues with Boyle's cheery depiction of the resilience of slum children and the sunny side of slum life: it is part of the unchanging popular oriental stereotype of poverty equals slums equals dirty, smiling children. Been there, seen that. [...]

My quibble with Slumdog Millionaire lies elsewhere. [...]

I suspect what Boyle tries to do is a Bollywood film -- the dirt-poor lost brothers, unrequited love -- with dollops of gritty realism. But at the end of it all, it is a pretty callow copy of a genre which only the Indians can make with the élan it deserves. The realism skims the surface, and in spite of some decent performances, style dominates over substance.


The Evil, the Bad and the (Self-)Important

When she put "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" on her Worst Movies of 2008 list, Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum referred to the Holocaust melodrama as "Honey, I Gassed the Kids." And, if she honestly believes the movie is as awful as she describes it (and I have no reason to think she doesn't), it is her moral duty as a critic to pummel it with everything she's got. A "dumb summer comedy" can be awful, undendurable; an irresponsible or simpleminded film that exploits and trivializes a "powerful subject" (genocide, racism, pedophilia, rape, suicide, torture, any number of historical atrocities) can be flat-out evil -- precisely because it presents itself as Serious (or Risky or Important or Challenging) Cinema. If filmmakers choose to play with fire, they'd better be morally and artistically equipped to handle the responsibility, or they deserve to get burned.

"The moral of this outrageous, British-accented nonsense appears to be that if you build a death camp, sometimes the wrong people get killed," Schwarzbaum wrote. "Not for the last time, alas, has the Holocaust been co-opted into a kitschy 'universal' story of 'tolerance' about how we're all 'one.' But this one is supposed to be a story for children!"

I can't vouch for Schwarzbaum's take on "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" (although that title made me throw up in my mouth a little, as they say) because I haven't seen it, but I know exactly what she means. I feel the same way about the denial fable of "Life is Beautiful." (Protect your kid from the cruelty and stress of immediate danger by telling him death camps are just fun 'n' games! While you're at it, why not tell him that if he throws himself under a truck it will just bounce off him? And he can really fly if he wants to, too! Don't shatter his dreams!)


Simply the worst

View image No comment.

How good, or bad, does a movie have to be in order to make an impression -- enough of one, anyway, so that you can remember it, or even still feel like talking about it, 15 minutes after you've seen it? Inspired by "The Hottie and the Nottie," Joe Queenan suggests criteria for The Worst Movies of All Time ("From hell") in The Guardian.

Among the movies he considers: "Futz!" (a 1969 satire, based on a hit LaMaMa Broadway production, about a man who marries a pig), Marco Ferreri's "La Grande Bouffe" (1973), John Huston's "A Walk With Love and Death," Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Salo: 120 Days of Sodom," Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful" ("as morally repugnant -- precisely because of its apparent innocence -- as any film I can name"), Kevin Costner's "The Postman," Martin Brest's "Gigli" and Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate." Queenan writes: A generically appalling film like "The Hottie and the Nottie" is a scab that looks revolting while it is freshly coagulated; but once it festers, hardens and falls off the skin, it leaves no scar. By contrast, a truly bad movie, a bad movie for the ages, a bad movie made on an epic, lavish scale, is the cultural equivalent of leprosy: you can't stand looking at it, but at the same time you can't take your eyes off it. You are horrified by it, repelled by it, yet you are simultaneously mesmerised by its enticing hideousness....


One shot: They wrote that

View image To some, it's just another genre picture. Composition, color, movement, texture, shapes, faces, expressions, bodies -- that's where you begin to experience what this montage sequence is "about."

If film is first and foremost a way of seeing (and I believe that to be the case, even if not everyone sees seeing the way I do), then what we see in a shot, or a series of shots, is as important as... as anything. The movie is what the film does, as the mind is what the brain does. One of my oft-used analogies is Picasso's "Guernica." Now, you can know or not know what the painting is "about" -- the story it depicts, the historical-political events upon which it is based. You may even sense the emotions the artist is expressing and the techniques he's using to express them. But all those things don't even come close to adding up to "Guernica." "Guernica" is a large composition designed to evoke responses in the viewer. That's where you begin to discover the thing itself.

All of which serves as an introduction to one image from "No Country for Old Men" that I would like to point out (separate from the longer piece[s] I'm working on now). It's a second or two of film that occurs just after Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who is being chased through the desert by a truck at night, jumps over a river bank and glances back and up to see how close his pursuers are. It involves seeing dust produced by the braking truck, illuminated by the headlights as it breaks over the edge of the bank, darkly silhouetted against the light from above. It's Moss's POV, and it's a detail we notice because he notices it. The hounds of hell are loose on his trail (or will be in moments), but here's this moment of sinister beauty develops from it, and sticks around just long enough to register before more urgent matters assert themselves.

It's a directorial (and photographical) coup in many ways, but I was delighted to discover that it's one of those images the Coens visualized in advance and actually chose to record in an early version of their screenplay (which deviates from the finished film in several significant aspects): Moss is almost to the steep riverbank. Another whump of the shotgun.

Shot catches Moss on the right shoulder. It tears the back of his shirt away and sends him over the crest of the river bank. Moss airborne, ass over elbows, hits near the bottom of the sandy slope with a loud fhump.

He rolls to a stop and looks up.

We hear a skidding squeal and see dirt and dust float over the lip of the ridge, thrown by the truck's hard stop. That moment, in the middle of a deadly chase, is a "privileged moment" of a kind that, perhaps, Francois Truffaut did not have in mind when he coined that phrase, but it sure is one. For all we know, it could be the last play of the light that this man will ever see -- and we share the site with him. It's natural, it's what perhaps anyone in this situation could see, but the Coens make sure that we do see it. The next several images I don't want to describe right now, but they are among the most electrifying and surreal in all of cinema -- at least since the relentless approach of the nightmare dog in Buñuel's "Los Olvidados" (1950). But at this moment, we're awash in sensations: the squeal of the tires, the clang that tells us something or someone is getting out of the unseen truck atop the bank, the cold river into which the wounded and disoriented Moss is about to plunge...

View image Luis Buñuel's "Los Olvidados" (1950).

But I just wanted to point this out, and that they wanted to be certain it was not just in the film, but even in the screenplay (which in other respects is somewhat different than the film itself). Writers often do that kind of thing, and the credit (or blame) for a shot or sequence will usually be attributed to the director, even if it was right there in the script. But it is the director who bears responsibility for realizing those images, and sequencing them, and presenting them so that they do what they need to do. The Coens, being their own writers, directors, producers and editors, pretty much understand what they're looking for. And they recognize what they've got when a miracle drops in their lap: the birds, and shadows of birds, over the highway in "Blood Simple"; the pelican plopping into the ocean at the end of "Barton Fink").

"Content, as I see it, is a series of connecting shocks arranged in a certain sequence and directed at the audience." Sergei Eisenstein, you are so right! (I wish I liked your movies more.) Shocks as content -- the junior-high equation [ART = FORM + CONTENT] trembles, previously secure elements threaten to swap sides. What Eisenstein theorized about cinema goes for writing, too: words as shocks; shocks arranged in a certain sequence. Words call up images and the images recur, mutate, cross-refer as the words extend in linear space and the reading-experience extends in time." -- Richard T. Jameson, "Style vs. 'Style'" (Film Comment, March/April, 1980)If Michael Bay turns everything up to 11 and assaults you until you feel bludgeoned and numb, the Coens do the very opposite. Bay, from the Alan Parker school of airless imagery, tries to shut you down, to restrict your imagination to fit his literal forms. (If you feel like cattle being funneled through the slaughterhouse, so be it.) The Coens open up the doors of perception, so that you become hyperaware of the many vibrant sensations -- light, color, sound, motion -- that are in the world around us every day, the kinds of living details to which most (flat, inert, mechanical) films just aren't attuned.

So, one brief shot of the dust in the headlights -- it's a small thing, but it makes all the difference. It's just one of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, and one reason I emerge from a movie like "No Country for Old Men" feeling like my senses, my emotions, my mind, have been stimulated, invigorated rather than dulled.


Stanley Kubrick hates you

View image"The Shining": A bug under a microscope.

The most superficial and shopworn cliché about Stanley Kubrick is that he was a misanthrope. This is up there with calling Alfred Hitchcock "The Master of Suspense," and leaving it at that. The cliché may contain a partial truth, but it's not particularly enlightening. It's just trite.

In the free Seattle weekly tabloid The Stranger, Charles Mudede writes about a local Kubrick series, and begins by stating: "Kubrick hated humans. This hate for his own kind is the ground upon which his cinema stands." This is a nice grabber -- particularly for readers who don't know anything about Kubrick, or who want to feel the thrill of the forbidden when reading about him. ("Imagine! He hated humans!")

Unfortunately for readers, this is Mudede's thesis, and he's sticking to it. Here's his summary judgement of "2001: A Space Odyssey": As is made apparent by "2001: A Space Odyssey," his contempt was deep.

It went from the elegant surface of our space-faring civilization down, down, down to the bottom of our natures, the muck and mud of our animal instincts, our ape bodies, our hair, guts, hunger, and grunts. No matter how far we go into the future, into space, toward the stars, we will never break with our first and violent world. Even the robots we create, our marvelous machines, are limited (and undone) by our human emotions, pressures, primitive drives. For Kubrick, we have never been modern. OK, that's one interpretation (though it gets the direction of the movement entirely wrong), but I think it's a facile misreading of the film. Is there really something un-"modern" about portraying the raw, simple fact of evolution, with a little otherworldly nudge?

And why does Mudede have such contempt for apes and "animal instincts"? Is he going to apply "Meat is Murder" morality to primates? (Besides, they're so dirty!) Or does he not feel the awesome and primal beauty in the whole "Dawn of Man" sequence? If he doesn't, I suppose it's no wonder he sees no wonder in the rest of the movie.


Up With Contempt!

Godard is a contemptuous artist, too. Forget "Le Mepris." Ever see "Weekend"?

We heard a lot in 2006, as we do every year, about nasty filmmakers who were said to have viewed their characters (and, hence, their audiences) with contempt, or who "made fun of" them, or treated them with condescension, or who just don't seem to like them very much. Across time, such charges have been leveled at Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Christopher Guest, the Coen Bros., Todd Solondz, Sacha Baron Cohen, and many other artists -- especially those whose work has tended toward the comic or caricaturish. And then there's all of film noir to consider, a whole kind of moviemaking that does not view the human animal with kindness or affection.

In answer to specific allegations of of alleged contempt (such as Jonathan Rosenbaum's characterization of Altman's attitude toward Lady Pearl in "Nashville"), I have tried to explain why I think such charges are false, or at least misguided. It seems to me, in these cases, that the contempt being expressed is more likely to be that of the critic for the director or film (or reader) than that of the director for the character or the audience (unless we're talking about a movie by, say, Alan Parker). But it's impossible (and futile) to argue with a blanket statement like: "The Coens mock everybody. They're laughing at the audience!" -- meaning, of course: "They're laughing at me!" (please read in the voice of Piper Laurie in "Carrie"). My response is: 1) that's a rather vague aspersion; 2) if you got the joke you wouldn't feel like you were being laughed at; and, 3) yeah, it's true. Many forms of comedy -- satire, parody, etc. -- contain an element of mockery. Even contempt.

So, I'm here to speak up for contempt! (How very contrarian of me!)

The rich, powerful and pretentious are obvious (and ripe) targets for humor and derision. Their problem is that they're just people, with flaws like everybody else, only magnified (and made more irritating and dangerous) by their position in society. They deserve to be knocked down a few notches. But you don't have to be rich, powerful or pretentious to be a hypocrite, or a boor, or a twit, or an oaf, or a cretin. You don't have to possess great wealth or celebrity or influence to be smug, stupid, petty, ignorant, pathetic, tasteless, crass, callous, crude, or just downright annoying -- and, thus, worthy of comic derision. Such people really exist! I've seen them with my own eyes! What's more, I've been them!

"Hey, look at those assholes over there. Ordinary f----in' people. I hate 'em." -- Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), "Repo Man" (1984)

"Hell is other people." -- Jean-Paul Sartre, "No Exit" (1944)

I sometimes wonder if those who worry about expressions of contempt for characters (particularly "ordinary people") in movies have ever had jobs in which they had to deal with the general public. Or have ever attended some kind of party or social function at which they have met some people they would rather not have met. Is this not part of the human experience? Don't most people have some pretty awful qualities? Why should an artist be expected concentrate on their benign or "sympathetic" traits -- or to come up with some kind of artificially "fair and balanced" view of them? Some people's most interesting characteristic is that they are idiots. Or worse. Did you like "Seinfeld"? Those characters were despicable in every way. Some people thought that was why they were funny.

Is misanthropy not the most universal and understandable of all sins? For all our achievements and evolutionary refinements, we are a pretty damnable species. And, as the only one capable of (and perhaps unwittingly committed to) destroying all life on our own planet, we are also the richest, most powerful and pretentious. Don't we deserve to have a laugh at ourselves -- or, at least, at those idiots right over there?

P.S. I am reminded of the words of Luther Ingram and Mack Rice, as sung by the incomparable Mavis Staples (and, yes, I'm going through one of my periodic obsessive Stax phases, so get used to it):

Keep talkin' 'bout the president won't stop air pollution Put your hand over your mouth when you cough, that'll help the solution

Mavis means you. And she's singing in the context of a Christian family gospel/soul group. Good gosh a'mighty, now -- even the Staple Singers aren't afraid to make the average person the butt of an occasional, rather contemptuous, joke. Amen to that.


Darkness for 'Donnie Darko' director?

Buffy Barko. Sarah Michelle Gellar in Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales."

When "Donnie Darko" sank without a trace after its theatrical release in October, 2001, writer-director Richard Kelly feared his (potential) career had gone down with it. Then, the movie became a cult phenomenon on DVD and Kelly, like his alliterative hero, was given a second chance.

The signs since then have not been enouraging: a screenplay for Tony Scott's "Domino," a film that graced many of last year's Ten Worst lists; and (far more disturbing) a "director's cut" of "Donnie Darko" that indicated Kelly didn't know what he'd done right the first time. All the best qualities of the film -- its teasing ambiguity, its creepy playfulness -- were nearly crushed in an attempt to laboriusly spell out an elaborate science-fiction/time travel mythology. What was once a tantalizing undercurrent was thus made literal and dull. More "explanation" of geeky but arbitrary "rules" simply reduced the movie's sense of possibility and imagination... and made it a lot less fun. If the "DD" director's cut had been the original version of the movie, it would never have piqued enough curiosity to have developed much of a cult following.

Now, the reviews from Cannes of Kelly's long-awaited and highly anticipated sophomore feature, "Southland Tales," suggest Kelly hasn't learned anything from his "Donnie Darko" director's cut experience. Most of them are devastating -- by which I mean they're at least as bad as the ones for "The Da Vinci Code," and worse than the ones for "X-Men: The Last Stand."