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#280 July 12, 2016

Matt writes: Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away July 4th at age 76, was one of the great masters of the cinematic art form. I'll never forget the experience of watching his 1990 landmark, "Close-Up," in its pristine Criterion edition, or becoming entranced by his 2010 masterwork, "Certified Copy," when I first saw it on the big screen. Patrick Z. McGavin wrote a beautiful tribute to Kiarostami, as did Godfrey Cheshire, who reflected on his friendship with the icon. Various staff members at RogerEbert.com also pitched in to offer their own remembrances in a lovely multi-voice piece. 

Scanners

It Ain't the Meat (It's the Motion): Thoughtson movie technique and movie criticism

"People who are just getting 'seriously interested' in film always ask a critic, 'Why don't you talk about technique and "the visuals" more?' The answer is that American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn't very interesting. [...] The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made - -which is more or less implicit." -- Pauline Kael, "Trash, Art and the Movies" (1969)

"By neglecting to analyze technique, Miss Kael can do no more than assert that a given film is new, or beautiful, hoping that her language will provide the reader with something parallel to the qualities implicit in the work of art." -- Charles T. Samuels, reviewing Kael's 1970 collection Going Steady (which includes "Trash, Art and the Movies") in the New York Times Book Review

"It is this implacable ignorance of the mechanics of filmmaking that prevails in all Kael's books. Yet she is never called on it. The reason, of course, is that her audience knows even less of these mechanics than she does, and professional film people do not wish to incur her displeasure by calling attention to it. She seems to believe that films are made by a consortium of independent contractors -- the writer writes, the cutter cuts, the actor acts, the cameraman photographs. In effect she is always blaming the cellist for the tuba solo." -- John Gregory Dunne, reviewing Kael's Deeper Into Movies (1973) in the Los Angeles Times Book Review

"To me, a good review, good criticism -- whether it's in the Cahiers du Cinema or Film Comment -- would be trying not to say, 'I don't feel,' or 'I don't see it the way you saw it,' but, rather, 'Let's see it. Let's bring in the evidence.'" -- Jean-Luc Godard, debating Kael in 1981 and challenging her approach to criticism

"Listen, you miserable bitch, you've got every right in the world to air your likes and dislikes, but you got no goddam right at all to fake, at my expense, a phony technical knowledge you simply do not have." -- director George Roy Hill in a letter to Kael (quoted in Brian Kellow's biography, "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark")¹

- - -

In her 1969 Harper's essay "Trash, Art and the Movies," Pauline Kael made her case for trash, saying semi-famously: "Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them." But what separates "art" from "trash" (whatever she means by those labels) and is it really an either/or question? What if the differences have something (or everything) to do with "technique" (by which Kael, depending on which sentence you cite, might mean anything from technology to professional craftsmanship to directorial style)? After all, her favorite filmmakers (Altman, Peckinpah, De Palma, Godard, Spielberg) are stylists whose artistic vision (trashy vision?) is inseparable from their distinctive techniques. Even at a glance, you're not likely to mistake these auteurs' films for anyone else's.

So, I'd like to look into how the term(s) "technical" and "technique" are used by Kael (mostly in "Trash, Art and the Movies") and in those cherce quotations above. Way back when, Sidney Lumet said he considered Kael one of the most "perceptive and articulate" reviewers to come along in years, but that, like most critics, she lacked "any technical knowledge of how a movie is made." That mattered to him -- maybe especially after she said in his presence (after many spirited libations) that her job was "to tell him which way to go."²

Dunne, the occasional screenwriter, observed: "Few critics understand the roles of chance, compromise, accident and contingency in the day-by-day of a picture."³ I'd add that a failure to recognize the collaborative back-and-forth of the creative process -- and the industrial process -- of making movies (including contractual measures and union guidelines) also contributes to embarrassing critical misunderstandings that regularly find their way into print.

Far Flungers

Lisa Nesselson from Paris: On the man who made you think you spoke French

Paris, Jan. 11 -- The phone rang at 5:30 p.m.. It was France's around-the-clock cable news station France24 asking if I could speak about the death of Eric Rohmer, live, in about 10 minutes. The news was very fresh in France and this was the first I'd heard of it.

Except for François Truffaut and Louis Malle, who both died relatively young, the most prolific talents of the French New Wave era are still at it. Claude Chabrol makes at least one film a year; Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais released new features in 2009; Agnes Varda is busy mounting conceptual installations when she's not making her delightful documentaries; Jean-Luc Godard is still tinkering away on digital video.

You begin to think they're immortal -- that much like symphony conductors who live to ripe old ages because waving their arms around is excellent exercise, that "pointing into the distance" pose so characteristic of film directors may be a boon to their longevity.

May contain spoilers

Interviews

Eric Rohmer: In Memory

We've lost a gentle and wise humanist of the movies. Eric Rohmer 89, one of the founders of the French New Wave died Monday Jan. 11 in Paris. The group , which inaugurated modern cinema, included Jean-Pierre Melville, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette and Louis Malle. Melville, Truffaut and Malle have died, but the others remain productive and creative in their 80s.

Scanners

Wes Anderson scavenger hunt: Truffaut, Welles, Peanuts...

Those who doubt how thoroughly the sensibilities of the French New Wave have been absorbed into the work of today's filmmakers (see discussion of the recently posted Opening Shot for Truffaut's "The 400 Blows") should check out Matt Zoller Seitz's series of video exploring the "scavenger-hunt" sensibility of Wes Anderson, "The Substance of Style," at Moving Image Source. Part 1 (of five) has been posted, with the rest to follow over the first week in April.

Matt -- as writer, editor and narrator -- not only compares images that Anderson has lovingly quoted and reinterpreted from the works of Francois Truffaut, Orson Welles and Charles Schultz (and Bill Melendez, director of the Peanuts television specials), but teases out subtler influences at play in Anderson's work -- his features ("Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore," "The Royal Tennenbaums," "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," "The Darjeeling Limited), shorts and commercials, including his famous American Express ad based on the Opening Shot of Truffaut's "Day for Night." (Coming in Part 2: Martin Scorsese, Richard Lester and Mike Nichols.) Says Matt:

Anderson draws much inspiration from French New Wave filmmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard, a clear influence on his cutting, and Louis Malle, whose "Murmur of the Heart" heavily influenced the tone of all his films. But towering over the rest is François Truffaut, an impresario in the Welles tradition, but a warmer and more earthbound auteur.

Roger Ebert

"You give out too many stars"

That's what some people tell me. Maybe I do. I look myself up in Metacritic, which compiles statistics comparing critics, and I find: "On average, this critic grades 8.9 points higher than other critics (0-100 point scale)." Wow. What a pushover. Part of my problem may be caused by conversion of the detested star rating system. I consider 2.5 stars to be thumbs down; they consider 62.5 to be favorable. But let's not mince words: On average, I do grade higher than other critics.

Now why do I do that? And why, as some readers have observed, did I seem to grade lower in my first 10 or 15 years on the job? I know the answer to that one. When I started, I considered 2.5 stars to be a perfectly acceptable rating for a film I rather liked in certain aspects. Then I started doing the TV show, and ran into another wacky rating system, the binary thumbs. Up or down, which is it?

Gene Siskel boiled it down: "What's the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don't want a speech on the director's career. Thumbs up--yes. Thumbs down--no." That made sense, but in the paper it had the effect of nudging a lot of films from 2.5 to three stars. There is never any doubt about giving four stars, or one star. The problem comes with the movies in the middle. Siskel once tried to get away with giving thumbs up to a 2.5 star movie, but I called him on it.