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Django Unchain my heart (and set me free)

Quentin Tarantino has found his actor in Christoph Waltz -- someone who can speak Tarantinian fluently and still make it his own. When Waltz uses a self-consciously ostentatious word like "ascertain" (as in, "I was simply trying to ascertain..." -- the kind of verbiage QT is as likely to put in the mouth of a lowlife crook as a German dentist, or a Francophile plantation slavemaster, for that matter), it sounds right. As someone to whom Tarantino's dialog often sounds cliche-ridden and cutesy, it's a pleasure to hear Waltz saying the words in character rather than simply as a mouthpiece for the writer-director.

Oh, stop. This isn't sounding the way I want it to.


Missing Bingham: Alchemy and the movies

(Photo by Russell Yip, SF Chronicle)

Since I learned Monday that my friend Bingham Ray had died of a stroke at Sundance, I've been tweeting random memories of him. He was 57, but we first met in 1984 when he was 30 and I was 27. In the years I knew him, he worked at New Yorker Films, Alive, Samuel Goldwyn, Avenue Pictures, October Films (which he co-founded with Jeff Lipsky), United Artists, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment... I can't keep track of them all, but I hadn't spoken to him since he moved west in November to head up the San Francisco Film Society. What I can't fathom right now is that I won't be running into him, as I could be sure I would, at a film festival or his office if I happened to be in town, or calling or e-mailing him on a whim... What I treasure most are the things I've been spontaneously remembering and tweeting about, like:

* Bingham Ray was a New Yorker. When he first moved to LA he took the bus [on Santa Monica] to [work at] Goldwyn -- the only passenger who wasn't a Beverly Hills maid.

(He learned to drive and got his license.)

* Great memory: Spontaneous BBQ lunch w/ Bingham Ray, Jeff Dowd, RTJ, K. Murphy, Julia Sweeney & me at the (tiny) 2000 SxSW Film Fest.

(This was one of those coincidences that wound up becoming a treasured afternoon. I remember being so happy to have these favorite people from different yet overlapping parts of my life for so long -- I'd known "The Dude," Richard, Kathleen and Julia since the 1970s -- all together at one table! You just never know which moments are going to stay with you indelibly.)


Shooting the rapids with Werner Herzog (Part 1)

"People should look straight at a film... That's the only way to see one. Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates. And film culture is not analysis, it is agitation of the mind. Movies come from the country fair and circus, not from art and academicism."

-- Werner Herzog, 1978 interview quoted in John Sandford's book, "The New German Cinema" (1980)

We knew it was going to be interesting. Seeing "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972) for the first time in 25 years (even though I'd seen it many times before) with Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Roger Ebert and a Conference on World Affairs Cinema Interruptus audience in Boulder, CO, last week reconfirmed that not only is Herzog a magnificent, instinctive director, but a first-class showman in the carnival tradition, a compelling speaker and storyteller, and a wonderful actor. Some of the wild tales he related to the audience in Macky Hall are, I'm told, also on the director's commentary track of the American DVD of "Aguirre" -- and some I've heard him tell many times over the years, but there's nothing quite like hearing Herzog spin his spiels in the flesh -- even (or maybe especially) when he's a booming voice in the dark.

Ebert Club

#6 April 14, 2010

Ebertfest T-shirts on now on sale. They display the design above on Heather Grey, and come in sizes small to XXXL. All profits go directly to support Ebertfest and not into the Grand Poobah's pocket. At this point sales are only available in the United States, but our staff Foreigner, Marie Haws, is suitably exercised and vows that the Club will find a way to make purchases of Club goodies available almost everywhere.  However Ebertfest T-shirts are not being sold by us.  To order please visit 2010 Ebertfest T-Shirt.Note: Located outside the United States? You can can still purchase a 2010 Ebertfest T-shirt as long as you use a U.S. shipping address and then get an American "friend" to forward it to you, wherever that may be.

Roger Ebert

The ecstasy of the filmmaker Herzog

I saw "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" for the first time in a defrocked Lutheran Church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, which Milos Stehlik had taken over for his newly-born Facets Multimedia. "It is a film you must see," he told me. "Bring a pillow. The pews can get hard."

I saw a great film, one of the greatest ever made. An essential film. In 1999, I made it one of the first titles in my Great Movies Collection. Now I wonder if I really saw it at all.


Off to CWA

I'll be in Boulder this week for another round of the Conference on World Affairs.

I will be part of these panels, on such diverse topics as dogs and international politics (that's one subject), ad hominem mouthpieces in the media (Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, O'Reilly), the politics of "Avatar," blatant and condescending forms of racism, and why we go to the movies. My pal Julia Sweeney will be joining the ranks of participants. And I get to be on two panels with the fantastic Ike Wilson, who's also delivering the keynote!

Oh yes: Ramin Bahrani will be returning for the Cinema Interruptus (last year he guided us through his own "Chop Shop") -- this time exploring, shot-by-shot, Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" with Herr Herzog himself, Roger Ebert (who, I hope, will be using his Mac voice), the audience, and me. I plan to handle remote control responsibilities to the best of my ability (pausing for questions and comments, rewinding and re-playing) -- but, for the most part, I intend to shut up and learn something. And, as usual, I know I will. And, whenever I get a chance, I will be posting (and tweeting) about it...


Compatibility and taste: Bad sneakers and a piña colada, my friend

Somebody named Michael Jones -- essentially the same Mr. Jones Bob Dylan wrote about years ago -- appeared on HuffPo recently with a piece called "That Steely Dan Moment" -- you know, about a discovery of musical taste that makes you wonder if you could ever love the person who possesses it. The twist is that he's the one who falls short and doesn't know it. Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening, Mr. Jones.

Anyway, I wouldn't have paid attention except that his story (who knows where or when it originally appeared if it was on HuffPo) reminded me of an article my friend Julia Sweeney did for the February, 1993, issue of SPIN magazine that was written and edited by the staff of "Saturday Night Live." It probably wasn't an entirely original idea then, either, but it was called "Men, Music & Me," and in it she discussed her assessments of collegiate and post-collegiate boyfriends -- using their cinematic and musical tastes as a guide. (Please also see my entry on Carl Wilson's book, "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.")


Haven Hamilton lives!

But I am deeply saddened to report that the great Henry Gibson has died. "Laugh-In" ("A Poem... by Henry Gibson"), "The Long Goodbye," "Nashville," "Mullet" (a short), "Magnolia"... he has always been an inspiration to me.

I am in Boulder with my friend Julia Sweeney for a CWA-related athenaeum, talking to students about comedy, critical thinking, death... and any and all other subjects, depending on where the conversations lead. I'll be back this weekend and plan to write more about Henry Gibson then. R.I.P.


Quentin Tarantino's top 20 movies since Reservoir Dogs

A predictably eclectic list of QT's favorite films that have been made since he started directing in 1992. I mean, who else would even do something like this? The guy demonstrates again and again that he lives and breathes movies. One of my own fondest moviegoing experiences was in 1992 or 1993 when (drop, names, drop!) QT took Julia Sweeney, Kathy Griffin and a few others (David Cross? Janeane Garofalo? Phil LaMarr? Margaret Cho? I can't remember who all was there that day...) and me to see Jackie Chan in "Supercop" (aka "Police Story 3") at the Laemmle in Santa Monica. It was my first Jackie Chan movie and I was blown away (as any Buster Keaton devotee would be). I'm forever grateful -- and happy to see that movie on his list, along with some of my personal faves, including "Boogie Nights," "Dazed and Confused," "Fight Club," "The Insider," "Shaun of the Dead," "Memories of Murder," "The Host," "Unbreakable" and... you just have to see him deliver it himself.

Full list after the jump...


Deeper into movies

View image "Reservoir Dogs": Opening credits.

The death of Sherman Torgan, owner and proprietor of the New Beverly Cinema, reminded me of an evening in 1993 when my friend Julia Sweeney and I met up with Quentin Tarantino, Tim Roth, Laurence Tierney, Chris Penn, and Michael Madsen (I think that was the whole crew) at Insomnia (Beverly and Poinsettia, near El Coyote) and did "The Walk" down Beverly Blvd. to the theater, where those guys were going to do a Q&A with the audience after a showing of "Reservoir Dogs." We were a block down the street before I consciously realized we were re-enacting the opening credits of the movie -- in streetclothes. I wondered if anybody on the street had a flash of recognition as they drove by, one of those little "Did I just see that?" moments that happens so often in a moving vehicle, and especially in Los Angeles.

I just had another one of those experiences this evening. Hadn't eaten all day and suddenly I knew I just had to have a club sandwich: crispy bacon, turkey, ham, lettuce, tomato, Swiss cheese -- maybe a slice of red onion -- on rye or wheat toast. It became my holy grail, the focal point of my existence. I went to a nearby sports bar-type restaurant near the University of Washington, a place I remembered from college, where I knew I could get just such a sandwich, quickly and painlessly. I was sitting in the bar and just before the waiter appeared, a song started playing and -- again, before I was even aware of it -- I was lifted out of the book I was reading and transported somewhere else.

View imageLast scene of the last episode of "The Sopranos": Best movie of 2007, so far.

It was Journey: "Don't Stop Believin'." And I got goosebumps. How the hell did that happen? Two months ago I wouldn't even have recognized the song. I still don't remember it existing before the last scene of "The Sopranos." But now, it was invested with a power that transformed my awareness completely. I felt a tension, an excitement, a wistfulness that had nothing to do with the song as it had previously existed and everything to do with the context in which I'll now hear it forever. I sat, a little bit dazed, and soaked up the atmosphere, pretending it was a diner in Jersey. When the guy arrived to take my order, I got a club. And onion rings.

Got any stories of moments when you suddenly felt you were in a particular movie? If so, I'd love to hear 'em....


Los Dias de Los Muertos: Thoughts on the dead & undead

Just a few pieces from my Days of the Dead art collection that make me very happy. That's Catrina on the right. Meanwhile, in the rear center, the Virgin of Soledad is calming the "orrendas visiones" of Doña Micaelita Dominguez on Nov. 2, 1897.

"The Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery." -- Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, 1976

I'm sure Paz intended that statement as a tribute to the defiant spirit of the people of Mexico.

Seven years ago, my dear friend Julia Sweeney and I were in Oaxaca, Mexico, for the Days of the Dead (Los Dias de Los Muertos), October 31-November 2, the holiday that has had the most personal meaning for me ever since I found out about it. Discovering that there was a three-day holiday -- the biggest and most festive of the year, surpassing Christmas even in a now mostly Catholic nation -- in which people build altars to remember and celebrate their dead, decorate graves with marigolds and stay up all night drinking and partying in cemeteries, where kids eat sugar skulls and "demons" are invited to join families in dancing and feasting... what a revelation!

View image Señor Deadline sneaks up behind me and fractures my bleeding skull with a golden hammer while I'm seated at my desk.

For somebody who was raised in a culture where death was rarely acknowledged with anything but whispers in hospitals or screams in movie theaters, the Mexican embrace of death with a three-day fiesta seemed to me to move beyond denial to something much richer and healthier. No, I don't believe the souls of the departed dwell in the Land of the Dead and return to visit their loved ones for three days a year -- but I sure think it's a fantastic idea.

I think Julia was still more or less Catholic (her background) when we were in Mexico -- although I'll never forget her exclaiming, in reference to how the Mixtecs skillfully adapted their pagan gods and beliefs to accommodate, and escape the wrath of, the Spanish missionaries: "Wow, they just took Roman Catholicism and ran with it!" (Viva la Virgin of Guadalupe!)

View image O, happy reunion!

Fifteen months (and one cardiomyopic heart-stoppage on my part) later, we would be in Guangzhou, China, where I accompanied Julia as she adopted her daughter Mulan. While we were in the People's Republic, we learned that Mulan's birthday had been November 2, 1999 -- All Souls' Day, the very time we had been on the other side of the world, in Oaxaca, celebrating the Days of the Dead. (Cue Theramin music here.) Neither of us, I think, is inclined to attribute such a delightful and miraculous synchronicity to any Divine Influence or Plan -- indeed, we revel in the wonder of such an occurrence all the more because it is so spectacularly fortuitous. (Hi Mu: I'm so glad I was with your mom when you were adopted in China!)

I was introduced to the Days of the Dead through a little import shop on "The Ave" in Seattle's University District, La Tienda Imports, where as a Junior in high school I discovered a wonderful white coffin with my name on it ("Jaime"). You pull the string at the foot of the coffin and Jaime's skeletal head pops up through the hole on top of the coffin. This little handcrafted item has been with me for more than 30 years now. In 1976 I saw the extant footage of Sergei Eisenstein's "Que Viva Mexico" at the Second Seattle International Film Festival at the Moore-Egyptian Theatre, and fell in love with the holiday.

A year or two later I would try a mind-altering substance for the first time (courtesy of "The Dude," later immortalized in "The Big Lebowski") deep in the bowels of this same theater on the opening night of that edition of the festival, and then get lost trying to work my way through the "catacombs" to the surface for the midnight premiere of George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," still the goriest, funniest, and my favorite of all "undead" movies (I was a little too young for "Night of the Living Dead" when it was first released). John Huston's underappreciated-masterpiece adaptation of Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano" also begins with Days of the Dead imagery, in Cuernavaca (and the credits sequence is one of the most eerie and delightful I've ever seen).

So, I've been reflecting on what it is, exactly that scares us so much about the "undead" (in the sense of Romero's "Living Dead" and other zombie-spawn)? Well, first of all, they're ugly, smelly, and have a ravenous appetite for human flesh, of course. But a dead body is a dead body -- an inert object (see poem by William Carlos Williams at the end of this post). The terrifying thing about the living dead is that they're dead but they won't stay that way. It's not their death that horrifies us, it's their life -- their refusal to play by the rules of the natural world. The living dead are very much like the "pod people" of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," only they have a harder time "passing." (They still go to the mall, though, in "Dawn of the Dead" -- because it was "once an important place in their lives.")


Letter: When theories become fact

From Joe Killin, Lakeland, FL: I am a nineteen year old college student in Lakeland, Florida, I am a self-proclaimed thinker, and more often than not, I am a fool. I was originally homeschooled as a child by -- of course -- my mother. I have been brought up as a Christian (a term I hate, by the way), I've been educated with Christian cirriculum, but only recently did I decide that I wanted to be a Christian.

I'm sure you have received a multitude of letters on this topic already, but I hope mine stands out because I want to point out some things that I have not seen anyone else point out -- namely, things about our culture's way of educating people.


'The Da Vinci Code': Faith in fiction?

A scene from "The Da Vinci Code" -- or, possibly, one of the "Hellraiser" movies, it's kinda hard to tell.

My favorite headline of the week (so far) comes from Reuters: "Reading 'Da Vinci Code' does alter beliefs: survey." According to a poll of Britons, Dan Brown's phenomenally popular novel has effectively re-written the bible for many Christians and non-Christians alike -- so much so that some Catholics are saying the book and the movie should carry "a health warning": LONDON (Reuters) - "The Da Vinci Code" has undermined faith in the Roman Catholic Church and badly damaged its credibility, a survey of British readers of Dan Brown's bestseller showed on Tuesday.

People are now twice as likely to believe Jesus Christ fathered children after reading the Dan Brown blockbuster and four times as likely to think the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei is a murderous sect.

"An alarming number of people take its spurious claims very seriously indeed," said Austin Ivereigh, press secretary to Britain's top Catholic prelate Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. "Our poll shows that for many, many people the Da Vinci Code is not just entertainment," Ivereigh added....

ORB interviewed more than 1,000 adults last weekend, finding that 60 percent believed Jesus had children by Mary Magdalene -- a possibility raised by the book -- compared with just 30 percent of those who had not read the book... Hold on a minute: They're saying a whopping percentage of (at least technically literate) Brits now believe the pseudo-biblical "revelations" in "The Da Vinci Code" are true? I suppose it's no wonder millions of people in the modern world claim they believe in the bible, "Intelligent Design" and astrology -- even when they admit they know virtually nothing about them. In so many ways, we still live in the Dark Ages. Just let me say that if you are so credulous that a novel (fiction!) or Hollywood movie can upend your comprehension of one of the most dominant religious traditions in the world, then you are possessed of all the faith (and reason) you deserve.

A "prominent group of English Roman Catholic monks, theologians, nuns and members of Opus Dei" commissioned their poll from Opinion Research Business (ORB) and, according to the Reuters article, has "sought to promote Catholic beliefs at a time when the film's release has provoked a storm of controversy." (If they hire a publicist, I do not recommend Tom Cruise's sister for the job.)

Ron Howard's ultra-super-secret movie of "The Da Vinci Code" kicks off the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday. And the Catholic establishment is... madder than heck:


Julia Sweeney puts her pain in perspective

When she found out her brother Mike had cancer, Julia Sweeney dealt with that fact in different ways. One was to have her brother move into her house so she could care for him. Another was to talk about it every Sunday night in a comedy club.

Festivals & Awards

A critic's ordeal

TORONTO -- We are a little past the halfway point of the 23rd Toronto Film Festival, and my colleagues are looking more hollow-eyed and gaunt than usual. It is a strange occupation, going to three or four movies a day, and critics begin to resemble fishlike creatures from unlit caverns. This year is worse than usual, because the facilities are better.