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Phil Ochs: All the news that's fit to sing

"Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune" plays Monday, January 23, at 10 pm EST/PST on PBS American Masters. It will thereafter be available via PBS On Demand, and is currently on Netflix Instant and DVD.

"Mistakes are lodged like harpoons and fish hooks in an intelligent person's soul," says one friend of political folk singer Phil Ochsof the deep depression that eventually led him to suicide in 1976. Och's friends are like that, eloquent and insightful. His mentor Pete Seeger, in particular, speaks like he sings, modulating his voice to give anecdotes a mythic luster and heartbreaking resonance. But after watching "Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune" take a measure of the man's adult life, it seems that some friends put too much emphasis on generic therapist's reasons for his downward spiral -- schizophrenia, alcoholism, declining popularity. It seems that Phil Ochs' fall was inevitable, given the fact that his singing career began when he was barely out of his teens, when JFK's assassination was a couple years off, and crashed after every progressive movement for which his protest songs provided spiritual fuel was crushed.

This is not a standard pop star rise-and-fall story. Ochs was physically involved in the antiwar and social justice movements he sang along with. He headlined, organized and even spontaneously showed up at a staggering number of rallies for various causes. His investment was evident in his performances, presented here with shocking audiovisual fidelity. Even though it's captured on a black-and-white kinescope, a performance of his song "When I'm Gone" feels as clear and urgent as a live event. So, too, is his strumming and crooning at the 1964 Newport Music Festival. (Simply amazing sound and image restoration here.) The sonorous voice and wide, earnest eyes could just as easily belong to a Wall Street occupier serenading Zuccoti Park.

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!

Ebert Club

#45 January 12, 2011

Marie writes: I love cinematography and worship at its altar; a great shot akin to a picture worth a thousand words. The best filmmakers know how to marry words and images. And as the industry gears up for the Golden Globes and then the Oscars, and the publicity machine starts to roll in earnest, covering the Earth with a daily blanket of freshly pressed hype, I find myself reaching past it and backwards to those who set the bar, and showed us what can be accomplished and achieved with light and a camera...

Cinematography by Robert Krasker - The Third Man (1949) (click to enlarge images)

Roger Ebert

An affront to the eyes of God

"Mary, give me one of your Kleenexes," my mother told my aunt one morning long ago when we were entering Holy Cross Church. She held a bobby pin in her lips, reached up to part her hair, and fixed the Kleenex on top of her head. My Aunt Mary already had her handkerchief in place.

"Why do you have to do that?" I asked.

"Because we are going into the house of the Lord," my mother explained, "and we have to spare him from the sight of us."

"But why?"

"It's because we're women, honey," Aunt Mary said.

Roger Ebert

What do you mean by a miracle?

I'm not a miracle. And neither are the Chilean miners. We are all alive today for perfectly rational reasons. Yet there is a common compulsion to describe unlikely outcomes as miraculous -- if they are happy, of course. If sad, they are simply reported on, or among the believing described as "the will of God." Some disasters are so horrible they don't qualify as the will of God, but as the work of Satan playing for the other team.

Roger Ebert

Traveler to the undiscovere'd country

I watched Christopher Hitchens' CNN interview with Anderson Cooper with gathering sympathy. He had cancer. He was going to die. Apart from that, the treatment seemed about to kill him, and he was feeling very unwell. This man who often had a cigarette or a drink close at hand sat with the quiet of a man drained of energy, and reached out a hand to take a sip of water.

He was in the hands of medicine. He was hopeful but realistic. He will come to feel increasingly like a member of the audience in the theater of his own illness. I've been there. There were times when I seemed to have nothing to do with it. One night, unable to speak, I caught the eye of a nurse through my open door and pointed to the blood leaking from my hospital gown. She pushed a panic button and my bed was surrounded by an emergency team, the duty physician pushing his fingers with great force against my carotid artery to halt the bleeding. I was hoisted on my sheet over to a gurney, and raced to the OR. "Move it, people," he shouted. "We're going to lose this man."


Hecklers as critics, critics as hecklers and comics as critics

Psychologists say that depression is rage turned inward. Stand-up comedy, on the other hand, is rage turned back outward again. (I believe George Carlin had a routine about the use of violent metaphors directed at the audience in comedy: "Knock 'em dead!" "I killed!") In the documentary "Heckler" (now on Showtime and DVD) comedian Jamie Kennedy, as himself, plays both roles with ferocious intensity. The movie is his revenge fantasy against anyone who has ever heckled him on stage, or written a negative review... or, perhaps, slighted him in on the playground or at a party or over the phone or online.

"Heckler" (I accidentally called it "Harangue" just now) is an 80-minute howl of fury and anguish in which Kennedy and a host of other well-known and not-well-known showbiz people tell oft-told tales of triumphant comebacks and humiliating disasters, freely venting their spleens at those who have spoken unkindly of them. At first the bile is aimed at hecklers in club audiences (with some particularly nasty invective for loudmouthed drunken women), then it shifts to "critics" -- broadly defined as anybody who says something negative about a figure whose work appears before a paying public. Some of the critics are actually interested in analysis; some are just insult comics who are using the Internet as their open mic. It gets pretty ugly, but it's fascinating -- because the comics, the critics and the hecklers are so much alike that it's no wonder each finds the others so infuriating.


The Hitchens/God challenge & The Atheist Film Fest

Jesus W. Bush.

Forget Christopher Hitchens on Iraq. The author of the "controversial" "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (9 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, now at number 2 -- but only among people who buy and read books) has misplaced his delusional faith in the Rumsfeld / Cheney / Bush version of Mess 'o Potamia for too long. When he writes or speaks about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, he is as unintelligible as someone speaking in tongues. Which, essentially, he is.

But when it comes to god, Hitchens is not similarly faith-based. To decide not to profess faith in a personal god in America these days -- when even militant Islamists acknowledge Muslims, Christians and Jews as "people of the book," fellow believers in Abrahamic religion -- is one of the few remaining Politically Correct taboos. Theistic concepts of god are everywhere: on our money, in our Pledge of Allegience, in White House pronouncements from our Televangelist-in-Chief... There are no self-identified atheists ("non-theists") in Congress [correction: one, as of 2007: Rep. Pete Stark], and some state laws prohibit nonbelievers from running for public office -- the "no religious test" provision of the constitution notwithstanding.

So, it's rather surprising for a change to find a small breath of fresh air emanating from Hitchens, who is better known for his stale, flammable whiskey-drenched halitosis. Some of his anti-religious arguments are as irrational as his Rumsfeldian ones (and the religious beliefs he savages), but at least his atheistic provocations lack the overwhelming sense of self-justification that overburdens his ex post facto rationalizations about Iraq.

Responding to a Washington Post piece by Michael Gerson (What Athiests Can't Answer"), Hitchens poses a challenge: Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first -- I have been asking it for some time -- awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.

Essentially conceding that philosophy and secularism do not condemn their adherents to lives of unbridled selfishness, and that (say) the Jewish people did not get all the way to Mount Sinai under the impression that murder and theft and perjury were okay, and also that we could not have evolved unless human solidarity was in some way innate, Gerson ends weakly by posing what is a rather moving problem.

"In a world without God," he writes, "this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature -- imprinted by evolution but designed for disappointment." Again, he substitutes the wish for the thought. We very probably are, as he admits, not the designed objects of the Big Bang or of the process of natural selection. But this sober conclusion, objective as it is, is surely preferable to the delusion that we have been created diseased, by a capricious despot, and then abruptly commanded to be whole and well, on pain of terror and torture. That sick joke is one that we can cease to find impressive, that belongs in the infancy of our species, and gives a false picture of reality that we would do well to outgrow. Which got me thinking: I can think of many, many religious movies (from silents like "Ben-Hur," through the biblical epics of the 1950s, the Christian parables of Ingmar Bergman, up to "The Passion of the Christ" and "Dogma"). But can you think of some movies that are explicitly atheistic, that argue against belief not just in religious dogma but in theism itself? Even "Monty Python's Life of Brian," though a satire of religious history and religious thinking, specifically confirms (in a tongue-in-cheek way) the New Testament version of the birth of Jesus in the opening scene, when the three wise men withdraw their gift-balms from Brian's manger and re-gift them to a child in glowing swaddling clothes nearby....

If you were programming an Atheist Film Festival, what titles would you include? I'm drawing a blank at this moment.


Why the Hell It's Funny Or Not, Part 2 or Possibly 3

Here is Borat ridiculing people who are not in on the joke so that you can feel socially superior, according to Christopher Hitchens and David Brooks.

British crank Christopher Hitchens has been writing about Borat's Kazakhstan for years, only he calls it "Iraq." Still, it's an imaginary place in Hitchens' brain, like Kazakhstan in Borat's or Nicole Kidman in David Thomson's.

I do not read Hitchens much at all anymore because he's stuck in 2002 and can't get out. But Hitchens has a perspective on "Borat" that's worth mentioning. First, he quotes a dim-witted passage from a review in "London's leftist weekly," the New Statesman, in which the writer professes that "it's shocking to witness the tacit acceptance with which Borat's ghoulish requests are greeted. Trying to find the ideal car for mowing down gypsies, or seeking the best gun for killing Jews, he encounters only compliance among America's salespeople."

To which Hitchens replies: Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass"). The tony hostess even takes him and his bag of s__t upstairs and demonstrates the uses not just of the water closet but also of the toilet paper. The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn't give much for his chances....

Is it too literal-minded to point out what any viewer of the movie can see for himself—that the crowd at the rodeo stops cheering quite fast when it realizes that something is amiss; that the car salesman is extremely patient about everything from demands for p___y magnets to confessions of bankruptcy; and that the man in the gun shop won't sell the Kazakh a weapon? This is "compliance"? I have to say, I didn't like the look of the elderly couple running the Confederate-memorabilia store, but considering that Borat smashes hundreds of dollars worth of their stock, they bear up pretty well—icily correct even when declining to be paid with locks of pubic hair. The only people who are flat-out rude and patronizing to our curious foreigner are the stone-faced liberal Amazons of the Veteran Feminists of America—surely natural readers of the New Statesman. I'll stop there for now. Hitchens' point is that "Borat" is something of a comedy of manners, and that what many are seeing as "shocking compliance" is simply politeness and an aversion to confrontation (particularly when there's a camera staring at you). On this isolated point, I think Hitchens is generally correct and the heinous, America-hating leftist is generally wrong. But I wonder if Hitchens (or the other guy) can see that one accurate observation does not make all others invalid. Hitchens' mistake -- a fallacy he indulges endlessly in his writing -- is in thinking the one thing he deigns to mention is all that's going on.


Eyeless in Monument Valley

"What an asshole."

I don't read Slate much anymore since David Edelstein, a real film critic, departed for New York Magazine, and the once-sentient Christopher Hitchens ceased being capable of writing about anything but his own old opinions, circa 2002 and 2003. (Unlike Billy Pilgrim, Hitchens has become stuck in time -- and inside his own head, and nothing beyond what he has previously stated or believed can be processed, mainly because he doesn't seem to think it possible that anything else, like reality, could possibly matter.) A reader reminds me again of why I'm less inclined to visit Slate these days, sending me (with a warning) an inexcusably stupid essay by Stephen Metcalf, of the site's aptly named "dilettante" column, about a classic John Ford Western, called The Worst Best Movie: Why on earth did 'The Searchers' get canonized?"

Clive James, meet Stephen Metcalf.

A better question might be: "Why on earth did Stephen Metcalf think he was capable of writing anything worth reading about 'The Searchers'?" Here's how Metcalf begins: "The Searchers," John Ford's epic 1956 Western, is a film geek's paradise: It is preposterous in its plotting, spasmodic in its pacing, unfunny in its hijinks, bipolar in its politics, alternately sodden and convulsive in its acting, not to mention boring. Impossible to enjoy, and yet not as obviously medicinal as, say, "The Spirit of the Beehive," "The Searchers" segregates the initiated from the uninitiated; and so it is widely considered, by the initiated, at least, to be among the four or five best movies of all time. At his maiden screening, a young Cahiers du Cinema critic named Jean-Luc Godard wept, later adding, "How can I hate John Wayne … and yet love him tenderly … in the last reel of 'The Searchers'?" Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader routinely name "The Searchers" as one of their favorite films...Yes indeed, those qualities Metcalf describes sure do make the movie sound like a "film geek's paradise," don't they? I mean, where is the film geek who does not just crrraaave the spasmodic, the unfunny, the sodden and the boring? Surely, those attributes constitute the very essence of what we -- and Godard and Scorsese and Schrader and countless other crix 'n' geeks -- value in "The Searchers."

By this point in Metcalf's embarrassingly self-revealing scalping (three giveaway words that neutralize the stance of anyone pretending to offer critical insight: "impossible to enjoy"), I found myself thinking not so much of John Wayne or John Ford or Jean-Luc Godard, but of Joey Nichols, the boorish friend of Alvy Singer's father in "Annie Hall," who thought he was so clever to stick nickels on his forehead and his cufflinks as a gimmick to help people remember his name. And my response to Metcalf suddenly formed itself in the words of young Alvy: "What an asshole."

And what a dilettante. Is it worth responding to an ad hominem attack on a movie by someone who has no idea what he's looking at? Probably not. But earlier today I got a (quite good) Opening Shots submission from someone who began by writing: "Originally I wanted to propose an older film to impress the crowd that demands such esotericness from cinephiles..."

Since when are "old movies" -- especially all those Hollywood pictures that millions went to see each week -- considered "esoteric"? What is the difference between an "old movie" and a "new movie" when they both unspool in the immediate present, at 24 frames per second, the way they always have and always will? A movie is always happening right now as you watch it (a film prof of mine used to call this the "eternal present tense"). There's nothing "esoteric" (or, as Metcalf would have it, "medicinal") about it -- unless, of course, you're simply determined to make it so with a blinkered hankering for the new, or a knee-jerk anti-intellectualism (very trendy now) that insists anything valued by smart or talented or passionate people must be beneath one's dignity to appreciate or enjoy.

More on "The Searchers" (and Metcalf's mindless potshots) later. But as for Stephen Metcalf's critical aptitude, here's another apt phrase: Damn him and the horse (or ass) he rode in on. May he (continue to) wander forever between the winds...

(Thanks to Casey Tourangeau... I think.)

UPDATE (07/07/06): This post is continued here.