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

Hollywoof Americana

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SYRIANA (Stephen Gaghan, USA, 2005, 4)

This is a movie about a country that assassinates Arab leaders with car bombs. Because this movie was called SYRIANA, I assumed it’d be about the similar-sounding country Syria, which has a habit of doing this. But alas, this is Hollywood movie and so having Arabs as the main villains would be unthinkable. Remember when the book of SUM OF ALL FEARS had Muslim terrorists trying to nuke a US city. Hollywood decided that was stupid and so rewrote the movie script with the much more believable, hard-hitting, risk-taking and relevant story line of *neo-Nazis* trying to nuke a city. (Doesn’t everybody go to bed at night worrying about neo-Nazi weapons of mass destruction? I know I sure do.) That rewrite was so awesome that, since the notion of Arab states or Arab terrorists car-bombing each other’s leaders and leaving craters in each other’s highways is obviously equally stupid, the film-makers decide to make a movie in which the *CIA* does such things. And by push-button from an office in Washington, like in a long-distance video game.

If. Only.

The real CIA doesn’t even want to give the rubber-hose treatment to captured terrorists in secret prisons and is far more adept at overthrowing White House policies it doesn’t like (for any number of a-ideological, institutional reasons) than at assassinating foreign princes. But then, SYRIANA also takes place in that weird alternate universe where Arab princes need to be advised by a mid-level 30-ish American bourgeois oil-industry analyst (one who sees Mossadeq as an inspiration, BTW) that they should invest their wealth to create a real economy for when the oil runs out. (Hand slaps forehead.)

And by gum, if Hollywood is gonna show Muslim suicide bombers, then it’s ferdamnsure gonna contextualize and/or minimize them — by (1) making them exploited Pakistanis (not the typical suicide terrorist profile); by (2) making their target an oil industry installation (rather than, say, US jetliners, or European trains, or Iraqi mosques or Israeli pizza parlors or German discotheques or wheelchair-bound American Jews); and by (3) portraying the explosion by turning the screen to white light as the bomber closes his eyes and gets ready for his 72 virgins (rather than say, showing fire, mangled corpses, blown-up pipes, loss of wealth for Matt Damon’s idea of investments).

Actually, ideological beefs aside, SYRIANA has a far far FAR more basic problem — you can’t make nor tail of it while following it. Roger Ebert put SYRIANA #2 on his Ten-Best list (I will not, obviously). But his capsule on that list is actually revealing in ways I don’t think he intended:

Stephen Gaghan’s film doesn’t reveal the plot, but surrounds us with it … no one in this movie understands the big picture.

That about sums it up, I think, and in my book that’s a pretty good definition of bad storytelling. Ebert’s regular review is more of the same, and frankly it’s inconceivable to me that someone could write this way about a movie he liked:

Even then, the studio e-mailed critics a helpful guide to the characters. I didn’t look at it. Didn’t want to. I liked the way I experienced the film: I couldn’t explain the story, but I never felt lost in it … Already I regret listing all of these names. You now have little tic-tac-toe designs on your eyeballs. … The more you describe it, the more you miss the point. It is not a linear progression from problem to solution. It is all problem. The audience enjoys the process, not the progress. We’re like athletes who get so wrapped up in the game we forget about the score.

But the analogy in Ebert’s last sentence, about getting buried in stats and progress presupposes something not the case in SYRIANA — the intelligibility of the game itself. No sport is interesting if you don’t understand how it is played. To remember the score, we, the audience, at least have to know what the game is, what the rules are, how you score, whether high score or low score wins, etc. This movie is such a total mess, its action just tossed in media res in from nowhere — “surrounds us with the plot” — that it’s like PRIMER on a $50 million budget.

One of the all-time great Hollywood movies, and also one of the most popular and beloved, has an unintelligible plot about a man thrown into political and spy intrigue about which he doesn’t have a clue. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST — a film that stands in rebuke of SYRIANA as an example of how to make unintelligible intrigue into a coherent, watchable and exciting plot (but try reciting what happens in NORTH BY NORTHWEST off the top of your head).

First — concentrate on a single character with whom the audience identifies and give him a single role and aim (finding George Kaplan). SYRIANA juggles plot threads and has no central character.
Second, make him as clueless as we. SYRIANA is filled with characters who know stuff and withhold it from other characters and thus us.
Third, and this is the most important, don’t get bogged down in the MacGuffin. In Hitchcock’s terms, SYRIANA is a film that is not about the human beings, but only about the MacGuffin(s) they encounter, written by a man who thinks unraveling the MacGuffin matters. Coincidentally (or not), this was a tick Hitchcock, in his book-length interview by Francois Truffaut, said he always had to warn screenwriters off.

In the same interview, Hitchcock said NORTH BY NORTHWEST was his best MacGuffin because it was “nothing at all.” But imagine NORTH BY NORTHWEST if it followed James Mason and Martin Landau from the beginning, had a separate Eva Marie Saint plot thread, and was concerned with the business of every character at the meeting headed by Leo G. Carroll, where it’s decided that there’s nothing that can be done for Cary Grant without blowing Kaplan’s cover. And we could hear Carroll’s explanation of everything to Grant that Hitchcock wisely obscured with a roaring plane engine. That’s SYRIANA, in a nutshell.

I can’t make any reference to Ebert’s Top 10 listing of SYRIANA without noting this … remarkable … quote:

The movie has been called “liberal,” but it is apolitical, suggesting that all of the players in the oil game are corrupt and compromised, and in some bleak sense must be, in order to defend their interests — and ours.

If this act of “suggesting” is Ebert’s idea of “apolitical” … words fail me. As if “Oil = Evil/Oil Causes Evil/We’re Evil Because of Oil” isn’t the quintessential liberal stance on a host of issues (particularly for the Lifestyle Left, as distinct from the union hardhats who once formed the Democrat Party’s base). From climate change to automotive regulations to urban sprawl to Alaskan or offshore drilling to Bush’s personality to war and peace itself (as in “No Blood for —–“) … whatever side “oil” is on, liberals will be on the other as if it were a law of nature.

December 26, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Gangsters and Nothingness

“Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.”
Henry Wilbourne, in the William Faulkner short story “The Wild Palms,” from “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem”

“Between guilt and nothing, I will take guilt.”
Maxim as reworded to apply to Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Italy/USA, 1984)

I saw this film, Leone’s last before he died in 1989, for the first time on the big screen last weekend at the gorgeous American Film Institute theater, where I had already seen two of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns — THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — earlier this fall.

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Though it’s obviously great to see this masterpiece in a theater, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was actually one of the earliest case studies in the virtue of home video. After playing at the Cannes Film Festival at 238 minutes, the film’s U.S. distributors chopped it by 100 minutes and completely re-edited the film to ditch its complex 50-year flashback structure (some critics have even suggested that it all takes place in the opium-filled head of the central character) in favor of straight chronology. But at approximately 2:20, it was still too long and remote to appeal to younger audiences, and the savaging it got from American critics as incomprehensible meant that it had no shot at being a succes d’estime.

But when the film was released on tapes in the late 1980s, just as home video was becoming ubiquitous, Leone’s cut was the version released in the United States. What videotapes and discs did was to provide a reliable mass market for films after theatrical release. Thus some movies could get a potential second bite at the box-office cherry, and it made potential sense to go back and revisit bad box-office decisions with specials like Director’s Cuts (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA only grossed 1/6 of what it cost to make). What was done to the film was obviously a crime, but home video enabled the amelioration of some of the damage, giving Leone’s actual film a chance later to succeed or fail, to find its audience, a chance it might not have gotten otherwise. Roger Ebert called ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA “a murdered movie, brought back to life on home video.” And now, coming back full circle, some spiffed-up theatrical prints are making their way across the country, often in concert with those spaghetti Westerns that first made Leone’s name. And if you’re in a city where they’re playing — run, do not walk …

leone.jpgThe gangster film put Leone’s talent in a new light. He lost something in having to forgo the grungy pictorialism of his landscape- and face-dominated Westerns, but gained that much back in the kind of ravishing luxury more suited to the kind of movie he was making here — an intimate, elegiac opera.

Unusually, for a film that spans 50 years and looks like an epic on first glance, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is an interior psychological film, primarily about the guilt of one gangster (Noodles, played by Robert De Niro) over betraying his boyhood friends (the closest being Max, played by James Woods) to the police and having them die in the resulting shootout. The drama unfolds in three relatively short spans in the teens, early 30s and late 60s. But the chronological juggling is needed, because certain scenes have to take place in the order they do for emotional sense, not chronological sense (including the last, more anon). The film is fundamentally about what time changes and doesn’t change, and a chronological structure is too naturalistic for such a story.

The virtuoso opening sequence tells the basic plot, about Noodles’ betrayal (we don’t know why), the death of his three closest friends, his fleeing town with no money (we don’t learn the source of the money he’s picking up or why or how it disappeared) and as he sinks into a guilt-wracked opium haze, we hear loud telephone rings on the soundtrack. They continue long after we’ve gotten the point and learned that the phone is at a police desk. And that *is* the point. The telephone never stopped ringing in Noodles’ head. We flash to the late 1960s and Noodles getting a call to return to New York (he doesn’t know why), and then we mostly follow the principal characters as they grow from child delinquents into hoodlums and then gangsters (with some flashing forward to the late 1960s). Although it sounds complicated, it really isn’t. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the original cut “it takes real concentration to follow … (but) is compulsively and continuously watchable.”

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is full of wonderful moments, touches and grace notes — a young boy debating between flattering the neighborhood tramp with a cream cake and eating it himself, Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,” a frisbee coming out of nowhere, the line “Noodles, I slipped,” Ennio Morricone’s mournful theme as played on a pan flute by Gheorghe Zamfir (yes … THAT Zamfir), the limo driver rejecting Noodles’ money and leaving him incredibly alone, Deborah closing the window curtain as the train departs, the dissolves between the Jewish neighborhood at various times … it’s all lovely and sad. When it gets to the late 1960s, we reach a revelation (SPOILER WARNING).

Noodles has been invited to New York by a “Secretary Bailey,” a Cabinet member and successful businessman who is on the verge of losing everything in a widening corruption probe (imagine Richard Nixon in June 1974). Only Bailey is actually Max, who really wasn’t killed in the shootout whose memory has consumed Noodles’ life. Instead, Max fooled Noodles into betraying him and their two friends, so Max could make a clean break, take the group’s stash, and start life anew — respectable and able to climb the greasy pole of success. Now, to avoid exposure, Bailey is offering Noodles a chance at revenge by killing him. “I took your money, I took your girl, all I left you was 35 years of grief over having killed me,” “Secretary Bailey” tells Noodles.

noodles.jpgBut Noodles doesn’t bite, refusing to look back at Sodom. Partly, he doesn’t want to turn into a pillar of salt, but also because he can’t have the 30 years back. There is no redemption or undoing the past, because the past is what has made you what you are. Throughout the scene, Noodles refers to him as Secretary Bailey, not Max, and pretends not to know any of the back story. It’s as if he would rather live as he has for the past 30 years — a guilt-ridden ex-gangster — than look back. “It’d be a shame to see a lifetime of work go to waste,” Noodles tells Max. He’s referring on the surface to “Secretary Bailey’s” achievements, but he’s also referring to himself. His last 30 years would have been a waste if he were to acknowledge having been conned by taking vengeance on “Max.” Between guilt and nothing, he’s taking guilt.

In some ways, the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME resembles the last scene reversal in MEMENTO — both have a man prefer the delusion he can live with to an empty, meaningless truth. But it’s also the opposite — in the later film, the last scene turns Guy Pearce’s character Lenny from victim to agent (even if it’s the agent of his own self-delusion); here, Noodles says agency and autonomy isn’t worth it to him. He’s turning his back on the most fundamental of Today’s Virtues — being your own man and leaving the past behind.

As a result, the last shot of the film justifies the complex, jump-around-in-time structure. It’s a full-facial closeup of a young adult Noodles smiling after retreating to an opium den, taking a hit, and rolling over under some netting, and it’s the film’s emotional punctation even though it takes place 30 years before the final dramatic scene. De Niro’s expression and all the ambiguities contained in it *are* what the film is about. In fact, I was kinda mad at Leone for only holding the shot for a few seconds before superimposing the credit crawl. That image needed to be held for an unnaturally long time (30 or 40 seconds at least, whatever is needed to call as much attention to itself as the telephone rings at the start do). And then fade to black.

October 15, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

“Coming Around Again”

THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (Alan Rudolph, USA, 2003)

Early this year, my friend Rod Dreher wrote a vigorous attack on THE HOURS and a Gloria Steinem appreciation thereto, as an apologia for selfishness, applause for walking out on one’s family as a means to “self-actualization.” “A fairytale for contemporary narcissists,” he called it. He also favorably cited a James Lileks bleat about what a dirtbag the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire is for having abandoned his family. “Life is not about always being happy; it’s about doing the right thing,” Rod wrote on the Dallas Morning News’ blog.

Well, here is the anti-HOURS, anti-Hollywood, anti-narcissism movie. And it’s a great film — the somewhat-misleadingly titled THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS. From the title, you’d expect a bizarro comic romp, and the film does give you some of that for a while. But it gradually becomes a serious, dry-eyed and, finally, romantic film about marital love and a husband’s struggles with his suspicions that his wife is cheating on him.

Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play a married pair of dentists, with three daughters, an SUV and another car, one home in the suburbs and another in the country, and all the rest of the setup that might make you think you’re in for AMERICAN BEAUTY. Early on, Scott sees his wife with another man, but not irrefutably cheating. But then he starts having more and more suspicious thoughts through the score of asides, facial looks and “I’ll be home a bit late tonight, dear” moments of daily life. Those suspicions become embodied in a fantasy character played by Denis Leary, a belligerent patient at the film’s start who was on the outs with his wife and wouldn’t get any dental work done until his teeth started to hurt (there’s a lot of metaphor packed away in there, especially considering Scott’s opening voiceover about the strengths and weaknesses of teeth).

Fantasies of unfaithful-spouse-killing has been the subject of comic romps before (as in Preston Sturges’s UNFAITHFULLY YOURS … DENTISTS even has an early scene at an opera), and the fact that DENTISTS plays with two levels of reality in the Leary character and a couple of other scenes may make you think that’s where the film is going. But no. Scott tells Leary that he’s not going to confront her with his suspicions, because “then I have to do something about it.” Hopefully, he says, it’s just a momentary lapse that will pass. Leary taunts him, and the suspicions mount as the film progresses through a nor-especially-eventful plot. There’s a sequence where Scott drives off after a quarrel with Davis over the youngest child and yells at the top of his lungs “fucking bitch!!!” that led me to believe he was going to stray — LAST TANGO IN PARIS starts with a near-identical yell in a similar-looking setting. But no.

Through these sequences, DENTISTS instead shows the romance of routine, what “love” means after sex has worn out its immediate luster. And yes, the title of this entry *is* a Carly Simon reference. Scott and Davis are shown in bed together a few times, but there’s nothing that could qualify as a sex scene (there’s an instantaneous flashback of a quick encounter) or even any particularly sexy clothing or nudity. What “love” means for this couple, and most marriages (I suspect) is the joy-pain of parenthood. There is a lengthy sequence during which stomach flu strikes every member of the family, and it will resonate with anybody who has had a sick child or can remember being one (i.e., all of us, I suspect). And who remembers having his father rush him to the hospital. Scott feels ill himself but still does his best by the varying ill members of the family — gets a little frazzled, fantasizes to the song “Fever,” as the healthy kids make things difficult, as he wipes the vomit off the shoes of the youngest who doesn’t know better, as he takes a daughter to the hospital and stays overnight when the fever hits 105.

In other words, Scott is an almost-unheard of character in Hollywood movies today and someone whom the makers of THE HOURS looked at with contempt (the John C. Reilly character in that movie) — a conventionally loving good husband and father who is happy in his role and who defines himself and his happiness in those terms. DENTISTS is like an American SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (though obviously far lighter in tone, and more immediately “pleasurable”). Or maybe, something more like an American version of one of French director Eric Rohmer’s films, where little in the way of great dramatic events happens, but rather, like Rohmer once said about his own films, it’s less about what people do than what they think about while they do it.

That approach to this movie is why Roger Ebert is wrong in the one criticism he makes against the movie in an otherwise-positive review. The Leary character is necessary as a route into Scott’s mind. What makes the film lifelike is Scott’s taciturn manner; if they were the kind of overpsychologized couple who hashed everything out, yes, Leary would be redundant and mood-breaking. But in a movie that’s all about surfaces and maintaining appearances, there has to be some way to show us what temptations, suspicions, and ill thoughts Scott is resisting.

And this is ultimately why the husband and wife love one another. They *don’t* act on every impulse. Or if they do, they repent. And the other has the grace to forgive unconditionally, without dwelling on the particulars. (Despite the theological language there and my firm conviction that the film follows a Christian template, DENTIST is a secular movie about a secular family.) Instead, “love” for them as with my parents (I had as happy a childhood as my parents could reasonably have provided), is a verb not a subject. Love is the things they do (and don’t do) without thinking, just *because.* Nothing is said between Davis and Scott. They just do. Exactly.

Another part of what made DENTISTS so moving for me, and enhanced its intellectual appeal for me, is that it doesn’t over-romanticize love. Or turn it into *luv* as Peter Kreeft might put it. Scott and Davis have outgrown both *luv* and the original sexual passion that first brought them together, but still they clearly love each other and their children. To the movie’s credit, there is only one, not-very-long scene near the end where they explicitly try to hash things out “in our relationship.” And it’s not psychologizing or therapyizing, it’s a potentially-nasty confrontation. Tempers start to flare, but the children unintentionally (the key point) get in the way. It’s ordinary routine asserting itself over narcissistic explicitness.

Why DENTISTS is so convincing in its portrayal of an ordinary family may lie in the performances given by the children. Davis is good enough; Scott is merely as brilliant as can be expected (he gave *this* performance *and* the greasy, fast-talking ROGER DODGER at more or less the same time); Leary is nothing short of perfect casting — sarcastic, brusque, rude. So far, so expected. But the kids — Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan and Cassidy Hinkle — are revelations. They’re not “performers” or Olsens-esque muggers. The youngest (Hinkle) looks about 3, openly prefers her Daddy and slaps both her parents in the face. But the slaps are innocent, and somehow Hinkle knows how to slap like someone who doesn’t know any better, rather than as someone following the script. The elder two girls, meanwhile, know how to be in the room with their parents while paying no attention to them, since they’d rather watch the Powerpuff Girls, or eat their own food, or get absorbed in their own quarrels, even as mommy and daddy are cleaning up after them. There’s a natural, unostentatious quality to them that’s both perfect for DENTISTS and the (blessed) opposite of most child actors who get significant screen time.

August 22, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

This week, I prefer Roeper

It has long been obvious to all who cared that Roger Ebert was a liberal Democrat with radical and counterculture sympathies (yet somehow in the pay of Vast Right-Wing Conspirator Conrad Black and the evil Disney Cultural Megamonster). His reviews of the films of Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore came laced with asides and whole paragraphs that made it clear to anyone with the eyes to see. Fine, whatever.

But the subject of President Bush in the past couple of years has pushed him out of the closet, and his own doors have come a bit unhinged in the process. His review of LUMUMBA, a biopic of the 1960s Congolese radical, began with a rant about Bush’s missile-defense plan. And in his post-September 11 review of ZOOLANDER, he more-or-less said the film could cause Malaysians to kill Americans by the thousands. Or something like that.

Now, that kind of stuff is just funny. And Ebert, the most influential film critic of his era, the man who first lit the fire under practically every film geek of my generation, isn’t even the lefty critic most worth laughing at for that sort of thing. (There’s a whole gaggle at the Village Voice). But he crossed the line in an interview in the latest issue of the Progressive.

Much of it was fine and par for the course, until he began exhibiting a generational and intellectual arrogance that I find utterly breathtaking, but entirely typical for Ebert’s kind of culture snob. I suppose there isn’t really any point in my saying anything since I’m a generation younger than Ebert and therefore never took a civics class. And this is all obviously the same “Limbaugh rhetoric” from “parrots” who “don’t have any ideas of their own.” But reading tripe like that makes me think I was in the first generation that ever took a logic class.

The double standards are appalling and legion. Sean Penn is “probably not dumb” because he’s the greatest actor of his generation. Um, OK. About anyone who would make that argument — who thinks there’s a greater correlation between intellect and acting ability than between intellect and thinking you’d learn the truth about Iraq from Saddam Hussein and Baghdad Bob — that person probably *is* dumb. But let that go. How does this “probability” sit alongside Ebert’s repeated and open contempt for Dubya as stupid? The man has degrees from Harvard and Yale. Yes, he had all sorts of connections and advantages that middle- and lower-class people didn’t, but Harvard and Yale don’t just hand out degrees, even to their legacies, and they don’t graduate dummies. Yes, Bush is not philosophically sophisticated or reflective (very, very few people are), but that’s not the same thing as being dumb, as in the caricature Ebert and the his SDS pals draw. And Ivy League degrees have a far greater “probably” relationship to intellect than acting ability (which is essentially the ability to convincingly pretend, a skill that the uncharitable might note is much closer to self-delusion than to knowledge).

And what’s this born-yesterday piffle about religion and politics? “Religion in the White House has crossed the line between church and state … we finally get a religion in the White House” in the form of Bush? Was Ebert taking so many civics classes that he skipped history classes? In fact, if anything Ebert’s generation, far from being the last to have a civics class, was the first to decide on a new, secular sense of “civitas.” Prior to approximately the time of Kennedy, religion had proudly never left the White House or American politics — the only questions had been what religion and to what ends. Does Ebert think the Puritans were people with funny hats and turkeys who came to America to set up the “shining city on a hill” as a secular republic? Has he read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, in which he explicitly interprets the Civil War in providential and salvific terms? Or anything by the civil rights movement from *Reverend* King or Fanny Lou Hamer? Or does he know about the Calvinist Woodrow Wilson, who justified U.S. imperialism as God’s civilizing hand (and was far from alone in so doing)? Or Teddy Roosevelt, who justified same as a form of muscular Christianity (James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was of that school of religion)? Or the Abolitionist movement, which was a product of the Second Great Awakening? Where was he when Jimmy-fricking-Carter was in the White House? Or when Bill Clinton publically set up a counsel of religious elders to look after his soul during the Year of Monica? Or … I could go on and on, but why bother? It’s obvious Ebert is just parroting a set of ACLU talking points because he’s never had an original thought of his own. Doesn’t he even remember from 1959-1960 that the wider-shared objection to Kennedy wasn’t that he’d bring *religion* into the White House, but that he’d bring in the *wrong religion* — Catholicism, the foreign tyranny of the Pope of Rome and all that. Again, prior to Kennedy, it always had been assumed that the president and Congress would come from one or another strain of mainline Protestantism and govern accordingly. Maybe little Rog skipped that day in civics class. Or maybe he was busy praying for the election of Harry Truman (no church-state separation issues or cause for thoughts about the stupidity of a man who thinks God takes sides in politics there of course).

The “civics class” comment is self-righteous demogoguery. And wholly unjustified as an opinion for Ebert to have about his own intellect as demonstrated here. To avoid being one of those who “don’t understand the First Amendment,” one must first have read it, and what it says is “Congress shall make no law …” (This prohibition was later extended to state and local government through the 14th Amendment.) What it says absolutely nothing about, what no court has ever construed it to say, is private action, private criticism, private open-mindedness or anything else private. It’s a restriction on government. The only offenses cited are Fox being a meanie to the brilliant Sean Penn, the refusal of some stations to play the Dixie Chicks and right-wingers’ dismissal of his own political columns as worthless (an entirely justified one; the Florida recount columns are comedies of forensic errors, not excluding lies). Oh … and some people on the Internet keep a list of who they see as U.S. enemies. Big fat hairy deal. What does any of this have to do with government action, the only thing the First Amendment speaks about? Maybe little Rog skipped that day in civics class too.

If you want to argue a policy, you first have to understand and talk specifically about what is happening. And on the most basic of economic concepts, Ebert is just plain all thumbs. Now it could be, in principle, a perfectly reasonable complaint that the tax system is insufficiently progressive or the welfare state insufficiently generous. Or that certain politicians have made it thus and that’s bad. But what is this Ebertish babble about “their money is being stolen” and “a concerted policy of taking money away from the poor and giving it to the rich”? The poor have little or nothing *to* take away or call “theirs” to be stolen … that is why they are called “poor.” What is this “concerted policy” that Ebert is talking about? Tax cuts? All they can do, by definition, is let people keep more of what they have earned in the first place. To the contrary, the Earned Income Tax Credit actually “gives” money (there is no “Negative Income Tax”) to people … but only the working poor. Further, the share of people near the bottom who pay no federal income tax at all has grown in recent years, and will continue to expand under Dubya’s tax cuts. Government spending programs? Leave aside the empirical (and therefore far too complex for Ebert’s posturing) question of whether they have in fact been cut (they have not … nondefense government spending under Dubya is as high as it has ever been). Just think conceptually about what Ebert is saying. Government spending programs give some people money or benefits they didn’t have before. A government might cut such programs, but that could only give the beneficiaries less, and that’s just not the same thing. This might sound like a Jesuitical distinction, but Ebert was too specific and too repetitive in his usage to think he was speaking loosely. Besides, he took all those civics classes that gave him a corner on reason against those who parrot Limbaugh rhetoric and have never had a thought of their own. He genuinely seems to live in a world where the government robs from the poor to give to the rich. And that is just plain nuts, except under some Brezhnev Doctrine of permanent entitlement growth or some absolute objection to any and all private property.

Speaking of Marxism, I also loved the way this millionaire presumes to speak for the poor. Remember how the Progressive’s writer mentioned Ebert’s car license plate, but didn’t say what kind of car it was? That was awesome. He complains that so many “ordinary people” are “voting conservative and thinking that the conservatives represent them” and then haughtily says “they don’t.” Has it ever dawned on this guy that other people might be at least as decent (maybe better) judges of their own interests and who represents them as he is? Or that people’s interests might be broader than economics (e.g., the culture war or foreign policy)? Or that, heaven forfend, he might be wrong about economics. No, Ebert is just so sure, so sure. His certainty doesn’t come from political or economic realities; it comes from apparently on high.

These are acute distinctions, I realize, but I have no patience with them or tolerance for them when they come from someone who so pointedly looks down on other people’s intellects, say they parroting Limbaugh’s talking points because they never took a civics class and have no thoughts of their own and all that rubbish. The reason I suspect that Ebert only gets rude dismissals from conservatives is simply that when he talks politics, he isn’t worth engaging. In fact, as a general rule, the more profound somebody’s distaste for a political view, the less likely he is to address it.

Ebert plays like he wants a civil discussion, why can’t we celebrate people with different opinions and argue with them, etc., but how can one have a civil discussion with someone who wrote a snob-act-masquerading-as-a-column on the presidential daughter’s wardrobe choices, calling her “uncouth” and a “yob,” but exactly what you’d expect from such dumb family stock? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who compared Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris to Bill the Butcher from GANGS OF NEW YORK? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who says Bush getting caught in the London rain proves that missile-defense is a bad idea [I am not making that up]? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who defends the Florida Supreme Court’s conduct with “I trust that if any of those justices believed in their hearts that their decision was wrong, they would have said so” and yet has no problem with calling the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision a “federal coup” [the double standard stinks to high heaven]?

And why would one want to?

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Ebert icon from Rentertainment.

August 22, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment