A movie is not about what it’s about; it’s about how it’s about it.
As you’ve probably heard, the sweetest old man of American film criticism died yesterday, at the age of seventy-one, due to the jaw cancer he’s had for years, and inspired a great horde of affecting memorials (particularly good are those by Jim Emerson and Andrew O’Hehir).
(In good news, he got to watch the latest Terrence Malick film last week; and in good news for us, he’s written about it.)
To illustrate what sort of a person he was, let us go back to December 2009. Roger Ebert got a mail about a reviewer called Dan Schneider; Schneider had some pretty dismissive things to say about Ebert, mainly based around the assertion that he was a great writer but not much of a critic. Ebert put up the whole letter he’d got, all the pieces in which Schneider had mentioned him, and a short answer on his blog, and asked his commentariat to judge. What Roger said:
Dan Schneider is observant, smart, and makes every effort to be fair. I would agree that I am a more emotion-driven critic than Siskel or Schneider, and indeed many others. My reviews usually include a reflection of how I felt during a film, since film itself is primarily an emotional, not a cerebral, medium. For example, although like most everybody I found “Triumph of the Will” evil, I also lingered on how boring it was. If you’re not comfortable sitting through a film, what can you easily get from it?
I must say I still agree with my opinions as quoted by Schneider, and I conclude he is more analytical and less visceral that I am. Readers find critics who speak to them. What is remarkable about these many words is that Schneider keeps an open mind, approaches each film afresh, and doesn’t always repeat the same judgments. An ideal critic tries to start over again with every review.
There are three things on which we adamantly disagree. (1) I do not have a broader film knowledge than Donald Richie, and Schneider may be the only person who has ever thought so. (2) I disagree with his dismissal of Spielberg. The man who made “E.T.” is not a schlockmeister purveying tripe. (3) The third is Ingrid Bergman, and my “burblings” about her lips. A critic who doesn’t acknowledge the role of her face and presence in a “Casablanca” will, I fear, date just about anybody. Our critical differences I leave to you. I invite you to continue your discussion in the Comments below.
What I said at that time is a much better tribute to the man than I have been able to write today:
I attribute much of my knowledge of film to reading too many of your reviews. In July I was stuck with nothing to do except a computer whose only interesting aspect was its internet connection, and I remembered reading a review by some guy which completely changed my view on The Reader, so I went to his site and read his reviews for 10 days. This did two good things to me: I learned to trust my own emotions (don’t even ask about my history of appreciation, though I should say I was regularly put too much on my guard because I realised that I was unable to dislike a movie), and I learned the need to analyse my emotions.
That said, I think that you are horrible at writing negative reviews. Instead of trying to think/write about why you thought Dead Poets’ Society was gimmicky, you just said that it was. In fact, in most of your negative reviews, I don’t see an attempt to understand why you reacted negatively to many of these movies (there are notable exceptions like Fight Club and Memento), rather I see a discourse on what you saw wrong after finding the movie bad. In these cases, even you forget about subjectivity (I see it surfacing many times throughout your oeuvre, more often on the blog).
The Dead Poets’ Society review is like a sore thumb to me because I ended up agreeing with you.
So, I mainly treasure your positive reviews, because you show in them a love of cinema and pure emotion (I am a rather emotional viewer myself). Of course, there’s also insight. (Personal favourites out of your reviews: Ikiru and The Apu trilogy – both reviews had me crying – and Disgrace – just plain beautiful) I come and read one of your reviews every time I find something confusing in a movie, because you take special pains to convey your insights without actually spoiling the movie (this last has influenced me too much, because it makes review-writing so much more fun, and even necessary).
[…] when I look back at my life, I’ll see those ten days in July (yes, this year) as the most significant part of my development. From now on, I’ll just be building on the legacy of that.
He continues to be just such a large presence among my influences. However, that’s more or less about it; I can’t say that my soul has torn its way out of my body because he died, because I didn’t know the guy. But that doesn’t prevent me from taking this opportunity to commemorate a writer of dazzling brilliance and tenderness.
So, in memoriam, some excerpts from his reviews, that show how damned nice and insightful he was, not just simultaneously but inextricably.
La Dolce Vita: This is a movie he cited as the one that most continued to fascinate him, and in some sense his favourite.
Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw “La Dolce Vita” in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.
When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.
There is a moment at the end when old and new hang in the balance. The wounded Sanjuro no longer has his sword, but we have seen him practicing with a knife — skewering a bit of paper as it flutters around a room. He faces Unosuke, the gunman. Without revealing precisely what happens between them, let me ask you to consider the moment when Unosuke aims his pistol at Sanjuro. It may be loaded, it may not be. Sanjuro cannot be absolutely sure. He is free to move away or to disarm Unosuke, but instead he sits perfectly motionless, prepared to accept whatever comes. This, it strikes me, is the act of a samurai aware that his time has passed and accepting with perfect equanimity whatever the new age has to offer.
This is a movie that establishes its tone by constantly switching between tones: The switches reflect the restless mind of the filmmaker, turning away from the apparent subject of a scene to find the angle that reveals the joke. “Annie Hall” is a movie about a man who is always looking for the loopholes in perfection. Who can turn everything into a joke, and wishes he couldn’t.
I watched “The Apu trilogy” recently over a period of three nights, and found my thoughts returning to it during the days. It is about a time, place and culture far removed from our own, and yet it connects directly and deeply with our human feelings. It is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray.
Best films of the noughties: Notice how little his list has to do with any others you saw, and yet how each movie deserves to be on the list.
On watching The Godfather with the Wachowski brothers(now the Wachowski siblings):
One thing he noticed in “The Godfather,” he said, was how director Francis Ford Coppola filmed the moment when Michael finds the gun in the restroom and pauses before returning to the restaurant to commit murder for the first time.
“Michael stops, runs his hands through his hair, stares at the door and prepares his mind,” Larry said. “Coppola does that moment as a high-angle shot from behind. Any other director would have moved around for a close-up. It’s so much better the way he does it. We’re forced to think about what’s ahead of him that he’s walking into, not just look at a shot of his face.”
“I can see the whole camera crew jammed up there next to the ceiling in the john,” Andy said. Everyone laughed. It occurred to me that the scene might have been shot using a studio set. But why bring it up? They knew that.
The Departed: Ebert, a devout Catholic, felt an almost spiritual connection to Scorsese’s work, praising him from the moment he saw his first movie. This is nowhere more apparent than here.
It is intriguing to wonder what Scorsese saw in the Hong Kong movie that inspired him to make the second remake of his career (after “Cape Fear“). I think he instantly recognized that this story, at a buried level, brought two sides of his art and psyche into equal focus. We know that he, too, was fascinated by gangsters. In making so many films about them, about what he saw and knew growing up in Little Italy, about his insights into their natures, he became, in a way, an informant. I have often thought that many of Scorsese’s critics and admirers do not realize how deeply the Catholic Church of pre-Vatican II could burrow into the subconscious, or in how many ways Scorsese is a Catholic director. This movie is like an examination of conscience, when you stay up all night trying to figure out a way to tell the priest: I know I done wrong, but, oh, Father, what else was I gonna do?
Then there is Malkovich, an actor who is so particular in the details of voice and action. After you see “Disgrace,” you may conclude no other actor could possibly have been cast for the role. He begins as a cold, arrogant, angry man, accustomed to buying his way with his money and intelligence. He is also accustomed to being a white man in South Africa. In no sense does David think of himself as a racist and probably always voted against apartheid. But at least it was always there for him to vote against. Now he undergoes experiences that introduce him to an emerging new South Africa — and no, I don’t mean he undergoes conversion and enlightenment. This isn’t a feel-good parable. I simply mean he understands that something fundamental has shifted, and that is the way things are.
The genius is not in how much Stanley Kubrick does in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but in how little. This is the work of an artist so sublimely confident that he doesn’t include a single shot simply to keep our attention. He reduces each scene to its essence, and leaves it on screen long enough for us to contemplate it, to inhabit it in our imaginations. Alone among science-fiction movies, “2001” is not concerned with thrilling us, but with inspiring our awe.
And, let’s not forget, when his critical faculties took apart a movie, there was much about it that was awesome too.
1. The ads give the Rock, the World Wrestling Federation star, equal billing with Fraser. This is bait-and-switch. To call his appearance a “cameo” would be stretching it. He appears briefly at the beginning of the movie, is transmuted into a kind of transparent skeletal wraith and disappears until the end of the film, when he comes back as the dreaded Scorpion King. I am not sure, at the end, if we see the real Rock or merely his face, connected to computer-generated effects (his scorpion is blown up to giant size, which has the unfortunate effect of making him look more like a lobster tail than a scorpion). I continue to believe the Rock has an acting career ahead of him, and after seeing this movie I believe it is still ahead of him.
2. Alex, the kid, adds a lot to the movie by acting just like a kid. I particularly enjoyed it when he was kidnapped by a fearsome adversary of his parents, chained and taken on a long journey, during which he drove his captor crazy by incessantly asking, “Are we there yet?”
3. The dialogue “You have started a chain reaction that could bring about the next Apocalypse” is fascinating. Apparently we missed the first Apocalypse, which does not speak well for it.
“Fight Club” is the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since “Death Wish,” a celebration of violence in which the heroes write themselves a license to drink, smoke, screw and beat one another up. Sometimes, for variety, they beat up themselves. It’s macho porn — the sex movie Hollywood has been moving toward for years, in which eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights. Women, who have had a lifetime of practice at dealing with little-boy posturing, will instinctively see through it; men may get off on the testosterone rush. The fact that it is very well made and has a great first act certainly clouds the issue.
Helena Bonham-Carter creates a feisty chain-smoking hellcat who is probably so angry because none of the guys thinks having sex with her is as much fun as a broken nose.