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#64 May 25, 2011

Marie writes: There's a glorified duck pond at the center of the complex where I live. And since moving in, my apartment has been an object of enduring fascination for Canadian geese - who arrive each Spring like a squadron of jet fighters returning from a mission in France, to run a sweeping aerial recon my little garden aka: playhouse for birds... (click to enlarge)

Movie Answer Man

Now you see 'em, now you don't

Q. You said at the end of your Great Movies article about Kurosawa's "Red Beard": "I believe this film should be seen by every medical student." It might please you to know that my old judo teacher Dr. Paul Harper, who was also a surgeon and researcher at the University of Chicago, required all his surgery residents to watch "Red Beard." Just reading your description of some of those astonishingly beautiful scenes stirred deep emotional memories of the film. (Dave Fultz)

Roger Ebert

The London Perambulator

I started walking around London in my mind. It started when I wrote the entry about Jermyn Street. In mentioning Wilton's I should have mentioned that on my first visit there I ordered roast turkey with fresh peaches. I know, it sound like the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore routine about the Frog & Peach, but nevertheless that's what I had, with a raspberry syllabub for dessert.

In my mind my walk didn't stop when Jermyn Street ended at St. James. I imagined walking down St. James and into the park, and around the ponds. And admiring the view of Westminster Abbey from the bridge. And then perhaps out one end of the park toward Victoria or into Pimlico.


Debate Based on Total Lack of Logic

"We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men." -- George Orwell

The above headline excerpt is from an article at LiveScience, but this post (like my earlier one, "Maybe Bill Maher was right...") is not about health care or Obama or Nazis. It is about logic -- critical thinking -- and why our brains just aren't terribly good at it. All of our brains. Not just those inside the skulls of people who "disagree" with us. Because how often are we even able to locate the precise nature of the "disagreement"? Writer Jeanna Bryner reports that sociologists and psychologists are studying why humans are such irrational creatures:

The problem: People on both sides of the political aisle often work backward from a firm conclusion to find supporting facts, rather than letting evidence inform their views.

Roger Ebert

Ebertfest in Exile

April 24, 2008 -- On Wednesday morning I became seduced by the idea that I would, after all, somehow turn up at the festival. I would get there by ambulance, limo, MediVan, who knows what? But at the present I can't take a step with my fractured hip, so it would have taken two physical therapists to essentially haul me around. Thinking about it overnight, I decided it would be a great gesture to turn up and wave to my friends, but at what cost of pain and medical risk? The logistics just didn't add up. So while the festival unwinds in Urbana-Champaign, I will continue therapy at this end.

Chaz told me lots of people with experience of hip injuries advised her a six-hour round trip by whatever means would likely be very painful. (Flashback to old Trevor Howard story: "Right you are, old chap! Bloody difficult! Damned painful! No sense in my going!")


What does a movie mean?

View image This is this. You know what I mean, right?

"This is this!" -- Michael Vronsky (Robert De Niro), The Deer Hunter

Three little words (well, two, really) -- each, individually and collectively, with flexible meanings. Yes, the significance of that short statement really does depend on what the definition of "is" is -- and "this," in both contexts, at the beginning and the end of the sentence. What does he mean when he says this? Well, to even begin to understand, you have to consider the moment in the movie and go from there.

When a critic adopts the attitude of De Niro's character, well, film criticism itself is automatically made superfluous. A bullet is a bullet, a killer is a killer, a zombie is a zombie, a gangster movie is about gangsterism, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, and don't even ask about the cigar. Lift and separate "content" from the movie and, once you've removed the context, what more needs to be said? In Keith Uhlich's eloquent words, such an approach exemplifies "the dubious product of American literalism, of an inability to grapple with a film's numerous layers of experience, falling back on easy prejudices and dichotomies as a way of stopping discussion and disagreement cold." (That's from a profile of Jonathan Demme at sensesofcinema that I recommend to literalists and non-literalists alike.)

We're familiar with the ways politicians use this technique (invading Iraq = war on terrorism; questioning policy = siding with terrorists; smoking gun = mushroom cloud). Substituting dogma for evidence is an easy way to evade the possibility of meaningful debate, something that might challenge an assertion of monolithic authority. The same thing happens in film criticism all the time. The trick is simply to eliminate the subject (the film itself) from the equation. This way, opinions don't have to be based on anything because there is no verifiable external reality with which to compare them.

Richard T. Jameson's article, "Style vs. 'Style'" (Film Comment, March/April, 1980), which I have recently re-read (and hence have been quoting a lot), ought to be as widely anthologized as any piece ever written about film, for the way it zeroes in on the heart of what a movie is: "Content" is not content; "the meaning" is not a concrete certitude cunningly buried so that one may have the pleasure of a civilized, mental version of hide-and-seek, strip-mining through "the story" to get to "the themes." "The meaning" is only one more piece of material, as deformable by the operation of the artistic sensibility as the sea is by the pull of the moon's gravity. Content is what happens from moment to moment, and then in the suspended moment that is one's life within the aesthetic life-system the artist has created. And content is at the beck of style.This would be a good opportunity to jump into a discussion of the confusion of "craft," "technique" and "style" (all related; by no means equivalent) that riddle so much film criticism today, but I'd like to save that for a separate piece.

In a moving and illuminating 2005 article (that poetically invokes Jonathan Richman's haunting "That Summer Feeling," a favorite song of mine), Adrian Martin wrote that his view of film, and writing about film, is shaped by "a rigorous analytical sense, a demonstration of some form-to-content logic... often dazzlingly intuited and demonstrated." These days, film criticism — even the best-written — does little for me, finally, unless it can unearth, propose and in a way prove the existence of the logic that makes a film 'tick', as we say, that coheres it into some kind of whole work, whether classical-expressive or modernist-disjunctive. Godard, in fact, said it best in his challenge to Kael and, beyond her, all critics: "Bring in the evidence," he demanded. Film analysis or criticism without that logic, that evidence, is just assertion, and assertion is something I can take or leave (perhaps depending on whether or not I agree with it!).Then again, assertion as a substitute for thought, as David Bordwell has written (citing specific examples), is "so glancing and elliptical that we can scarcely judge it as right or wrong."


No Country for Old Literalists

View image Something dark and shapeless approaches in "No Country for Old Men."

"Adapted from what is generally considered a minor Cormac McCarthy novel, 'No Country for Old Men' is a very well-made genre exercise, but I can’t understand why it’s been accorded so much importance, unless it’s because it strokes some ideological impulse."

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Here's where I agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum on the Coen brothers' new movie: 1) it is based on a ("minor") novel by Cormac McCarthy; 2) it is a very well-made genre picture; and 3) Rosenbaum does not understand why it has been accorded so much importance. When Rosenbaum says the only way he can account for the critical response to "No Country for Old Men" (and "The Silence of the Lambs" before it) is to assume it's "because it strokes some ideological impulse," I believe he means what he says even though I don't know what he thinks he's trying to say. [Rosenbaum responds, in comments below that "the core of my argument [is] the occupation of Iraq and the daily killings and torture that we simultaneously support and strive to ignore."]

His review is based on the assumption, stated in the third paragraph, that "No Country For Old Men," is a "psycho killer" movie like "Silence of the Lambs," which it most emphatically is not. It is a genre movie, but Rosenbaum gets the genre(s) wrong. It's a noirish crime thriller and a western and a detective story. (The Library of Congress catalogues the book under "drug traffic," "treasure-trove," "sheriffs" and "Texas.") But the motives of Chigurh (Javier Bardem's character) have nothing to do with the psychology of a serial killer like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates or Michael Meyers. There's no psychologist on the scene to explain him ("What does he seek?," as Lecter puts it), because he is not compelled to kill and he derives no pleasure from it and he does not choose his victims or his methods according to some profile or pattern.

Chigurh is out to retrieve a MacGuffin (briefcase full of cash), and he simply eliminates anything or anyone that gets in his way, using whatever means are available to him. The plain fact that he favors an efficient tool for quickly dispatching cattle (something not uncommon in Texas ranch country) reinforces how little emotion he attaches to the killing of most of his victims. He'll just as soon strangle them or shoot them. Or maybe he won't, if he has nothing to gain. He doesn't fit Rosenbaum's profile any more than he fits the ones Law Enforcement initially tries to impose upon him in the movie.

As for Rosenbaum's confession -- "I can’t understand why it’s been accorded so much importance, unless it’s because it strokes some ideological impulse" -- I can only wonder what that ideological impulse might be, but it's clear Rosenbaum does not succumb to it. Do those who accord the film importance even know that their response is based on an ideological impulse?

I remember writing something similar about "Rambo: First Blood Part II" and "Back to the Future" in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan presented us with "Morning in America," which meant that the way to face the present and the future was to return to an idealized fantasy version of the past. Heck, it wasn't even too late to retroactively win in Vietnam! (Never mind that John Rambo was a psychologically disturbed Vietnam vet in the first movie.)

Rosenbaum compares Chigurh to the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which is an illuminating comparison, though not necessarily for the reasons he gives: In O’Connor’s vision, perfectly captured in a mere 16 pages, the Misfit is an emblem of religious despair, but in the less considered genre mechanics of Cormac McCarthy and the Coens, religious despair is nothing more than an alibi for violence. It’s invoked as a way of covering all the bases, tapping into fundamentalist fatalism without really buying into it."Religious despair"? "Fundamentalist fatalism"? Loaded terms, but they reflect a very limited reading of O'Connor and McCarthy and the Coens, of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "No Country for Old Men." Perhaps if Chigurh needs to be reduced to an "emblem" of something, it's ruthless, indifferent force in the single-minded pursuit of any goal (religious, financial, political, genocidal). Some people would define that as the nature of "evil."

I've read two or three other bewildered reviews of "No Country for Old Men" that concentrate on the plot and/or Javier Bardem's haircut, or how the stuff they think is supposed to be funny isn't funny to them. And everybody -- even those who really don't approve one bit -- want to assure their readers that the Coens and DP Roger Deakins are technically proficient, which tells us almost exactly nothing except that they think it has "beautiful cinematography" or something equally meaningless. But, fine, if that's what somebody feels the need to write about in response to this movie, then that is evidently what they have to say about it, and that's that.

I have more to say, but I would like to refresh my memory of the movie, which I saw once last September near the beginning of the Toronto Film Festival. Here's something from my initial (preemptively defensive) response back then: "No Country for Old Men" is one of those movies I think provides a critical litmus test. You can quibble about it all you like, but if you don't get the artistry at work then, I submit, you don't get what movies are. Critics can disapprove of the unsettling shifts in tone in the Coens' work, or their presumed attitude toward the characters, or their use of violence and humor -- but those complaints are petty and irrelevant in the context of the movies themselves: the way, for example, an ominous black shadow creeps across a field toward the observer ("No Country" has a credit for "Weather Wrangler"); or a phone call from a hotel room that you can hear ringing in the earpiece and at the front desk, where you're pretty sure something bad has happened but you don't need to see it; or the offhand reveal of one major character's fate from the POV of another just entering the scene; or... I could go on and on. To ignore such things in order to focus on something else says more about the critic's values than it does about the movies. It's like complaining that Bresson's actors don't emote enough, or that Ozu keeps his camera too low.Those words were written in the thrall of the movie, and I stand by them. Rosenbaum begins his review with a quote from George Orwell:The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.So... "No Country For Old Men" should be pulled down because it is a cinematic concentration camp? What of those who don't recognize a good wall when they see it, and mistake it for something it is not? What if they think they're pulling down a concentration camp wall, but it's actually a New Orleans levee and there's a hurricane on the way? What if they think it's a terrorist outpost and they bust down the walls only to discover it's really the home of an Iraqi family? What if the sturdy walls and magnificent arches of the Mezquita de Cordoba are left standing after the Moors are vanquished and the Christians build an elaborate Baroque Cathedral smack in the middle of the mosque?

Enough word games. More later...


Helena Bonham Carter: Queen of the period picture

She is the queen of the British period pictures, the forceful heroine with the flashing eyes and the knack of looking as if she's worn those costumes all her life. Helena Bonham Carter has played Lady Jane Grey and Ophelia, and the heroines of Forster's "Room With a View" and "Howard's End," and the evil doctor's lover in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," and Olivia in "Twelfth Night," and if she somehow missed starring in one of the Jane Austen adaptations, now here she is as Kate Croy, a woman prepared to loan out the man she loves, in Henry James' "The Wings of the Dove."