Rightwing Film Geek

Thumbs up, Rog

ebert.jpgApparently, the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Roger Ebert is expected to recover from complications from his latest round of cancer surgery. Still, no man is immortal, and he will be eligible for Social Security next year. (But then … gulp … my father will be the year after that, and my mother another year later.)

But Ebert was the man who first taught me that movies could be taken seriously. I doubt there are many US-resident cinephiles of my generation of whom that was not true. His books from the late-80s were the first film criticism I ever read, and the fire was lit under me. But his books also introduced me to the Sight & Sound poll, giving me the start of a canon to work with, and always included think-essays and reviews of theatrical rereleases of classics (his recent video guides, consisting entirely of reviews from the last several years, don’t have this value; I bought four from 1987 to 1993; none since). He could even get into the ring with Richard Corliss in FILM COMMENT when he went after their show, and said the problem with American movies is that they’re star-driven and exercises in marketing. Good call, Rog. Thumbs up.

I can’t say I read Ebert as much as I once did. It’s not as crass as “I’ve outgrown him,” more that he’s made his mark (plus Richard Roeper is simply a twit). The purpose Ebert served for me as a budding cinephile, he no longer can. I have a good sense of film history of my own; with my own areas of special interest (silent films, Bollywood, e.g.); I’m confident enough in my tastes that I don’t need to be assured that it’s OK to hate a film everyone else loves; I go to festivals myself, so I don’t need him as a gatekeeper, etc.

It’s tempting to forget now, with Mister Roper on the other side of the aisle, just how good Siskel & Ebert TV show was in the 80s. For us, Siskel & Ebert were doing something other than hyping the latest blockbusters and running Top 10 grossing lists, like Entertainment Tonight. It was the only word you could get at the time that there were the important Indie and foreign films to look out for if they eventually came to your town. And the two actually had something to say about film history and the classics. Again the comparisons with the clone shows — involving Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved, or Rex Reed, Bill Harris and Dixie Whatley — make the point about how much more substantial Siskel and Ebert’s show was. The other mentioned critics are all justly forgotten (except for Medved, who’s carved out a career as a political commentator).

But Siskel & Ebert was a great show and I still have about seven or eight VHS tapes of memorable shows. The clips and the verbal rassling was fun, but the specials were what was really memorable. Not just the annual and decade Top 10s, but shows like “the movies that made us critics,” where Gene and Roger described what films moved them at various stages of life — A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, the Judy Garland A STAR IS BORN, LA DOLCE VITA, BONNIE & CLYDE (I just astonished myself by remembering these titles of Roger’s without having to look them up); a show called “you blew it!”; special shows on black-and-white films and silent films; theme shows devoted to directors and stars like Spike Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They also got to be big enough celebrities to be invited onto other programs, and not just Carson, Letterman, and Arsenio. I cheered when during NBC’s Olympics coverage, the two did a segment about the greatest sports films of all time, and mentioned Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece on the 1936 Berlin games, OLYMPIA. The made the point that the very spectacle we were watching in Seoul (both in Korea and the coverage of it) would have been unthinkable without Riefenstahl.

Yes, Ebert is a liberal who can sometimes be annoying. But this post isn’t just an exercise in “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” (and not just in the sense that Ebert’s obviously not dead). He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for not marching in lockstep with the lefty twits who dominate the world of film criticism, the snootier you get, the thicker the smog is. Off the top of my head, I can think of his review of CLOSET LAND (he dismissed it as “a politically correct allegorical dirge” on the S&E show); the comments he gave to the LA Times in July 2003 (no longer online, but it was called “Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology: Film school isn’t what it used to be, one father discovers.”) about a Marxist-infested film-studies program at UC-Santa Barbara. Ebert said (working from memory, probably a wee bit off): “film theory has nothing to do with film; these programs are worthless and nobody with any taste or intelligence would take them.” Thumbs up, Rog. And then there was his famous diss on PRIEST (Ebert, a Catholic, already had complained once on the show, I forget where, about the cheap use of the sanctity of the Confessional), but he ended his review with this walk-off:

For this movie to be described as a moral statement about anything other than the filmmaker’s prejudices is beyond belief.

Wow. It was … “the most famous critic in America is actually slamming a movie on the grounds of religious bigotry and stupidity.” I don’t know if I can communicate how inspiring that was to me, in 1995, when I was just starting to write my first film criticism, on Usenet.

Get well, Rog. You’re still needed. And always be loved.

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July 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Ready for the big semi-final

… food recipes here;

… celebratory film-festival programming here;

… flags here;

… fan discussion here (with a good diversion into England and ESPN bashing here);

Força Portugal!

Apparently, Portuguese fans have expressed some angst about their lack of memorable cheers, quietness in the stadium and general sit-on-hands attitude. Fortunately, fellow soccer fan, France-loather and self-described “red-blooded, anti-Islamic patriot” Joseph D’Hippolito sent me the remedy last week, on the occasion of Spain’s upsetting loss. He rewrote (and much improved) “La Marseillaise.” Sung to the same melody (“or is it malady?” he asked). So here’s a great song for tomorrow’s game:

We’re gonna kiss your butt
Because we’re French
And we don’t know what else to do
We’re nothing but limp-wristed wussies
Who won’t fight even for ourselves
We love our wine, women and our song
Ask the German bastards who beat us
Because they had great big guns
With bullets that would really hurt
And we really just couldn’t be bothered
Allez! Vive Petain!
Allez! Vive Laval!
Vichy, Vichy!
That’s who we are
And we don’t care who knows
No, we don’t.

UPDATE: Sore losers! England fans boycotting Portugal as a holiday resort because their injury- and foul-prone stars choked again.

UPDATE 2: Shifted a few words (no substantive rewrite, forfend) in Joe’s song to make the rhythm of the words match the music a bit better. Strange: When Rick’s patrons in CASABLANCA break out into “La Marseillaise,” it always produces a lump in my throat (particularly on the closeup of the woman who had been flirting with the Germans, but her eyes well up upon singing “Mugir ces feroces soldats”).

UPDATE 3: I would have been most disappointed had McLush stayed silent on this topic. Still, I wonder why the frogworshippingbud didn’t suggest Jean-Luc Godard, whom I famously despise, for the new retro. I actually do like the little of Jacques Rivette I’ve seen (though probably not enough to do what Matt Prigge did. I put up on my Documents site a few paragraphs I wrote for The Secret Group on Rivette’s THE NUN.

July 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Billy Wilder, Centenarian

wilder.jpg

Conservative columnist Mark Steyn has a beautiful essay (preserved here) on Billy Wilder, who would have turned 100 last month. (One of my pieces of film criticism of which I’m most proud is an obituary I wrote of Wilder shortly after his 2002 death for a film buff Webzine.) Some of what I like about Steyn’s essay:

  • His analysis of the tone of THE APARTMENT, a film that I’ve been resistant to for a very long time, but which really came together for me when I watched it again a couple of months ago. Steyn notes how the film stays with the “bittersweet” without ever collapsing into “bitter.” And I’m convinced the last line in THE APARTMENT — “shut up and deal” — as good a walk-off line as Wilder ever wrote (and we’re talking the man who wrote, “all right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup” and “well, nobody’s perfect”). It’s weepy high-romance for the stoic and unromantic.
  • His citation of the Jack Lemmon interview at the end, which, as Steyn notes, captures what is missing in today’s comedies without turning either Lemmon or Steyn into the equivalent of some old fart muttering in the corner about the damn-fool younger generation. But Wilder had that craftsmanship. You couldn’t scramble the reels of SOME LIKE IT HOT and have much of it work from the inherent “sketch” funniness. The film is clockwork farce as good as the 20th century produced, and, like other sorts of clocks, can’t be disassembled and still have its “parts” work.

Turner Classic Movies had a mini-retro of Wilder on his birth’s centenary, and I confess I didn’t watch any of the films, as I’d seen them all more than once before, preferring instead to mark the day on TCM by watching BILLY WILDER SPEAKS, the first US presentation of an edited-down interview documentary that German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff made for German TV almost two decades ago. (Schlondorff also wrote a personal memoir on Wilder’s passing for the LA Times last month, which had this priceless gem that explains part of what makes Wilder so congenial to myself and so many other Gen-X cinephiles: “Deflecting every serious moment with a joke, Wilder gained a reputation as a cynic. But for him it was only a question of dignity: The really serious things we should keep to ourselves.”) Wilder comes across as so, no other word for it, lovable in these interviews, like a wise old uncle that you could listen to for hours.

But the specific moment I’ll remember best from BILLY WILDER SPEAKS is a political observation, which I’ll try to quote from memory (for now; will check my DVD-R later)

Here in America, you don’t really worry too much about politics. If the Democrats win, great. But if the Republicans win, that’s not too bad either.

This was a man who lost most of his family in the Holocaust — he knew political extremism from political extremism. He understood, although he might not have been able to put it in the precise terms that this former political-philosophy professor-wannabe will, that America has a political consensus, in which there are two parties that garner 95+ percent of the populace and basically both support the liberal democratic order. Politics operates within the 40-yard lines and isn’t really life-defining. This isn’t to say there are no differences between the two parties or that those differences don’t matter (and Wilder’s sympathies within that order are clear from the quote). But it is to say that revolution or the disruption of the social contract simply is not on the agenda, despite how the Kossacks and Atrioses of the world babble about “Bushitler” and the imminent theocracy. Those idiots have no perspective and deserve no respect (nor do the Birchers et al who claim the Democrats are just closet communists; but they’re not at the center of the “people power” movement that the MSM is telling us is reshaping one of the two major parties). It was good to be reminded of that again.

July 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment