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Blog Posts


Inventing David Geffen: The Art of Self-Creation

"American Masters: Inventing David Geffen" premieres Tuesday, Nov. 20th at 8:00pm on PBS. (Check local listings.) It can also be viewed, where available, via PBS On Demand.

by Jeff Shannon

It was my good fortune to be working at Microsoft when the big announcement was made in March of 1995: Microsoft was entering into a joint venture with DreamWorks SKG, the new film studio and entertainment company founded the previous year by mega-moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen (the "SKG" in the company's original moniker). At the time, Microsoft dominated the booming business of multimedia publishing, and the group I was working in, nicknamed "MMPUB," was producing a dazzling variety of CD-ROM games and reference guides. As an independent contractor I was the assistant editor of Cinemania, a content-rich, interactive movie encyclopedia (later enhanced with a website presence) that was an elegant and in some ways superior precursor to the Internet Movie Database.


Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson's miniatures

Tilt-shift photography was made for Wes Anderson, even if he doesn't actually use it. His pictures often look like they were filmed that way, because they are exquisite miniatures. Keith Uhlich and any number of others have referred to his "shoebox-diorama" aesthetic. There's a hand-crafted feeling to his movies (too bad George Harrison already used the name "Handmade Films"), from the props and set design to the images themselves, a sense "Moonrise Kingdom" underscores with the use of Super 16mm film stock and a softly aged, yellowed visual texture.

The picture begins in what appears to be a toy house with tiny people living inside -- reminiscent of the cutaway ship set in "The Live Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (or Jerry Lewis's famous construction for "Ladies' Man"). The site is New Penzance Island, 1965 -- somewhere, I would imagine, on a fantasy border between New England and France,* probably across the water from Tativille on the mainland. The postal address (clearly marked on the mailbox) is "Summer's End." The movie is obsessed with charts and maps and measurements and procedures and codes -- all those things that (supposedly, at least) help you figure out where you've been, where you are, where you need to go, and what you need to do to get there.

And, the narrator (Bob Balaban, looking like a grey-bearded bespectacled elf in a bright red coat, black and white mittens and a green stocking cap) tells us, looking us right in the eye, it is indeed early September, just three days before a famously ferocious and well-documented tempest, according to the U.S. Department of Inclement Weather, which keeps track of those sorts of things. I would estimate that 98 percent of the time (I wish I had a graph), Anderson's camera is situated on a tripod or a dolly, moves only at right angles, and always with clockwork smoothness. (There's a Keatonesque boat that sets sail with a similar comically pure, precise and idealized motion that I can only describe as deadpan. It's miraculously urgent and serene at the same time.) The dolly-mounted camera can move left or right, up or down, forward or back, except when it pivots (from 180 degrees to 360 degrees) from a fixed point. The compositions, as you know from "Rushmore," "The Royal Tennenbaums" and so on, are generally balanced, stable and symmetrical, as if viewed through a proscenium. Lots of straight lines and 90-degree angles; few diagonals, except as parallel lines that appear to converge in perspective.

Chaz at Cannes

A letter from Chaz

• Chaz Ebert at Cannes

Dear Roger: "We were once indivisible from every atom in the cosmos," and that is how I feel when I am sitting in the Palais watching movies at Cannes with a screen spread out as wide as the galaxy, the audience circling around like protons and neutrons breathing as one in empathy.

Ebert Club

#60 April 27, 2011

The Grand Poobah shared the following recently and which struck me as just the thing to put in here - for it amounts to someone inventing a moving still akin to those seen on the front page of Harry Potter's famous newspaper."You know how people sometimes say that jazz is the only truly American art form? Animated GIFs are like the jazz of the internet: they could only exist, and be created and appreciated, online. That said, PopTart Cat is not exactly on par with Thelonious Monk. But photographer Jamie Beck and motion graphics artist Kevin Burg may have finally found a way to elevate the animated GIF to a level approaching fine art, with their "cinemagraphs" -- elegant, subtly animated creations that are "something more than a photo but less than a video." - fastcodesignAnd sadly, they won't work in here; Movable Type doesn't like animated gifs. It's easily solved however, just visit Far Better Than 3-D: Animated GIFs That Savor A Passing Moment to see an assortment in play!


TIFF: Short cuts

The cast of the Oscar-favorite film, "Home for Purim."

"For Your Consideration" -- Christopher Guest is blessed with the finest comedic stock company since the heyday of Preston Sturges. Guest, Catherine O'Hara (Goddess of Funny), Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Hitchcock, Paul Dooley, Jim Piddock, Larry Miller... I get a thrill just seeing them share screen space in various combinations (and this time they've added Ricky Gervais and Sandra Oh to the mix). Every few years when they get together (the last time they were together was "A Mighty Wind" in 2003), it's like seeing old friends for whom you will always harbor a deep and abiding affection. Here's hoping they keep reuniting for many movies to come.

In "FYC," the subject isn't so much the movie industry (Guest already made the best American dissection of the contemporary film business back in 1989 with "The Big Picture") as the awards and publicity industry. We join a film in production -- a kind of kosher Tennessee Williams melodrama about a Jewish family in the South during the war, called "Home for Purim." Somebody on the web (or the "World Wide Internet" as the typically clueless HollyLuddites call it) claims the lead actress (played by O'Hara), an '80s sitcom star who's been virtually forgotten by the public and the industry, may be giving an "Oscar-worthy" performance, and a rumor is born that (as in "The Big Picture") takes on a life of its own.


Nobody knows criticism, Part 2

Bob Balaban (left) plays an Evil Film Critic in "Lady in the Water."

"Reviews should be objective. Keep your opinions out of your reviews!"

-- actual comments from alleged "readers," sent to Roger Ebert and just about every other critic on every planet in the solar system (except Pluto)

(NOTE: If the above quotation does not bring tears of laughter to your eyes, do not let those eyes tarry here.)

People love to quote William Goldman's famous saying about the movie industry, which is that "Nobody knows anything." Most people who quote it have absolutely no idea what it means. The phrase is tossed about as being the wisest thing ever said about showbiz, and fortunately for those who are doing the tossing, it's just vague enough to sound true under almost any circumstances. So, it is thought to be "right" more often than a stopped analog clock, which is said to tell the correct time twice a day. (The clock is not "right," of course -- it just coincides with external events that allow someone to perceive it as being correct if you check it at certain times. It's a coincidence. That's an important distinction.)

I think perhaps the most profound meaning of "Nobody knows anything" (out of all possible meanings) is not just that nobody knows what will be a hit, but that the audience does not know what it wants. They'll tell you what they want, but if they could really articulate it or quantify it, and if the studios could create some kind of quality control mechanism to manufacture it, Disney and Paramount and Warners and Fox and Sony would be as financially successful as, say, oil companies.


Critics to Philistines: Stop ruining our fun!

View image: Bob Balaban as The Critic: M. Night Shyamalan's "The Lady in the Water" comes with its own built-in film critic, allowing the filmmaker a shot at beating critics of his movie to the punch.

I hope A.O. Scott's editors aren't giving him a bad time for writing about why he thinks "The Da Vinci Code" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" aren't very good movies. He's a terrific film critic (even if he did used to do books) and he's just doing his job, and doing it well. Who cares if those summer movies are popular? It brings up the old analogy: Just because McDonald's has served umpteen billion burgers, does that make fast food fine cuisine (or even good for you)? Would anybody be offended, or surprised, if a Big Mac got a bad review from a food critic? I'd hope not. And who'd make the decision on whether or not to eat a Big Mac based on a review? (Well, OK, maybe a nutritional description might affect one's appetite, but that's a quantifiable assessment, not a critical or aesthetic one. If only we could objectively measure the precise amount of cheese, or artificial pasteurized-processed cheese-food product, present in every movie...)

In today's New York Times, Scott writes about this year's most popular subject among film critics: Film critics. But Scott offers a sensible perspective: Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody’s fun when it doesn’t live up to our notion or art? What gives us the right to yell “bomb��? outside a crowded theater? Variations on these questions arrive regularly in our e-mail in-boxes, and also constitute a major theme in the comments sections of film blogs and Web sites. Online, everyone is a critic, which is as it should be: professional prerogatives aside, a critic is really just anyone who thinks out loud about something he or she cares about, and gets into arguments with fellow enthusiasts. But it would be silly to pretend that those professional prerogatives don’t exist, and that they don’t foster a degree of resentment. Entitled elites, self-regarding experts, bearers of intellectual or institutional authority, misfits who get to see a movie before anybody else and then take it upon themselves to give away the ending: such people are easy targets of populist anger. Just who do we think we are?