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Posts Tagged ‘obituary’

Goodbye, Mr Ebert

Posted by Ronak M Soni on April 6, 2013

Originally published at MadAboutMoviez.

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.

Annie Hall:

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.

The Apu Trilogy:

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.

2001: A Space Odyssey:

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.

The Mummy Returns:

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:

“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.

And, to leave you, an audio-visual reading of one of his best reviews from Kim Morgan and Matt Zoller-Seitz, both themselves bright stars in the internet film critic community:

Posted in General, Movies | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

“Why is this ultimate phoney ignoring me?”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on February 4, 2010

J. D. Salinger passed away due to natural causes on January 27th this year, at the ripe age of 91.

I am writing this retrospective on the only book of his that I’ve read, The Catcher in the Rye, in place of an obituary. I first (and last) read it in June. I will also write about his Nine Stories in the upcoming two three or four weeks (delay due to shipping problems).

Finally, I’d like to thank fellow book blogger Kevin (from Canada, I believe) who made me actually sit myself down to write this piece (rather indirectly, actually; you can read how he got me to as well as where I got my title from in the comments section of his retrospective).

Catcher in the Rye cover

I find it hard to take this book seriously in any of its other covers.

I’ll always have a special connection to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. That has, however, to be taken with a pinch of salt; out of around fifty to sixty books I read in 2009, I think so of about twenty-five. But, this book is special over and above that; I began and ended this book with a slice of medium pizza (I was chewing well, and the book took me two hours).

Okay, that’s a lie. The real reason I love it so much is that the book perfectly portrays… what does it portray? The life of a teenager? If it did, all the schools would have shut down by now. Society? Won’t even answer that. Growth? To an extent, yes, but most people think that Holden, the narrator, doesn’t actually mature in the novel. Angst? Possible, but… some explanations just don’t feel right.

Now, that was a digression I’d never have imagined was going to come. It’s so clear in my head. Maybe I’m having this problem because I read this book in June. Then again, maybe not. Fine, from the beginning on.

The book is about and narrated by Holden Caulfield, an ex-student at a boarding school called Pencey close to but not in New York. The narration is happening a year or so after the events we are going to encounter. This bit tells you as much about the style as you want to know.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

There are only two people Holden really cares about, his sister Phoebe (another one of life’s mysteries that I read this book very soon after I watched the American series Friends, the best character in which is called Phoebe Buffay) and his English teacher Mr. Antolini.

No, he’s not a misanthrope. He just hates ‘phonies’. It is, in fact, hard to find a page in which he doesn’t express his hate for them. This idea of the phony, I suppose, is one of the major reasons I connect with this book so deeply.

For me, at the time, it wasn’t a new idea, but I’d never seen it confirmed by someone I hadn’t attempted to explain it to. This confirmation was important to me, because I saw these phonies all around. Everywhere. Every bloody where. In fact, I still do, but adopt a more philosophical (read: explanatory, therefore comforting) view about it.

So, why do I claim that Holden is not a misanthrope? Because it is in this rejection of what he believes to be half-human that he expresses his true love for humanity. Witness, for example, the type of books he likes:

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you are all done reading it, you wish that the author was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

I, for example, am no misanthrope, and I know that I wouldn’t want to call up authors. Neither, I believe, would most ardent readers. But Holden understands that, because there are so few non-phonies, the few of these who write (the sentence above is immediately followed with “That doesn’t happen much though.”) shouldn’t be segregated as people you don’t want to meet. They should be met and known and hung out with. It’s not because of a special approach to books; his approach to books, by all other indications, is fairly normal.

The real fact about these phonies is that we all prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet. Some people just prepare more elaborate ones than others, and they can’t always keep it up. These facades, they fall in often very subtle ways, like when someone rationalises something out of a piece of art which he doesn’t actually feel that it’s right (this is rather more obvious than most people would think). Also, the most intricate ones end up looking like facades. Is it really such an irritating book if it complains about something so real? For me, no.

For me, in fact, this book is about these overdone facades, and how we deal with them. It is, of course, true that this might not have been the case if I hadn’t come across the idea earlier in my life, but then, which interpretation has been done in a vacuum? (Aside: answer may be found in the last paragraph; there is a sense in which that is done in a vacuum, because the interpreter is refusing to use any of his experiences except those involving his logic.)

So, what does this book have to say about these facades? ‘They are a bad thing, voila’? I think it is a big enough service that it points them out. But, there could have been more. Holden could have learnt to philosophise about it by the end of the book, but either Salinger disagreed with me or he didn’t think of it. What does happen is that Holden realises his life’s vocation; he grows up, matures, but doesn’t leave this idea behind. He decides to become the catcher in the rye, teaching young children like his little sister Phoebe not to become phonies.

What is really interesting about this is that the Robert Burns’ song Holden thinks is ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is actually ‘Comin’ through the rye’. Make of it what you will. I know what I do, but I have no right to spoil this idea for people who haven’t read the book, so I’ll stop here.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Salinger, J. D. | Tagged: , , , , | 8 Comments »