RIP Roger Ebert, 1942-2013
Roger Ebert had a tremendous impact on how I thought about criticism and how a review should be written, voiced, pitched. I didn’t always agree with the guy, but I loved watching his show (usually more than the films he and Siskel reviewed) and reading his reviews, and I loved following him on Twitter, where I’ll miss him most I guess.
Do you still need an idea for a jack o’ lantern? Are you a fan of Hayao Miyazaki films? Even the really sweet and gentle ones, like Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro? And, are you, like, totally skilled at carving pumpkins? If so, have at it with this cool stencil by Flickr user PlayWithFire:
- The first 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey
- The last 10 minutes of if . . . .
- The first half of Barry Lyndon but not the second half
- Every minute of Days of Heaven
- Every minute of Russian Ark
- The opening sequence of Ponyo
- The last five minutes of Aguirre, the Wrath of God
- The closing titles sequence of INLAND EMPIRE
RIP film critic Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012.
Sarris wrote film criticism—meaningful, real writing, not just film “reviews”—for half a century, publishing several books, and writing regularly for first The Village Voice and then The New York Observer. Sarris was one of the earliest proponents in the US of the auteur theory of film (he’s credited with coining the word in his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962“), first put forward by Truffaut and other persons active in the French New Wave. In 1971, Sarris got into a good ole fashioned fight with fellow film critic Pauline Kael over the auteur issue when he responded to her Citizen Kane essay “Raising Kane,” contending that, yes, the film was guided by the unique vision of Orson Welles (even if others helped). His response essay is still worth reading.
In his 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Sarris famously named a “pantheon” of 14 top-tier directors: here’s that list:
Joseph Von Sternberg
Sarris later added Billy Wilder to this pantheon.
If you like lists, check out this archive of Sarris’s favorite films by year—from 1958 to 2006.
Like any great critic, whether or not one ultimately agreed with Sarris was beside the point—his scholarship and criticism was insightful and enlightening the kind of writing that frankly makes for better film audiences.
For a more detailed obit, check out Scott Tobias’s piece at AV Club.
1984’s Dune is unquestionably the worst movie of Lynch’s career, and it’s pretty darn bad. In some ways it seems that Lynch was miscast as its director: Eraserhead had been one of those sell-your-own-plasma-to-buy-the-film-stock masterpieces, with a tiny and largely unpaid cast and crew. Dune, on the other hand, had one of the biggest budgets in Hollywood history, and its production staff was the size of a small Caribbean nation, and the movie involved lavish and cutting-edge special effects (half the fourteen-month shooting schedule was given over to miniatures and stop-action). Plus Herbert’s novel itself is incredibly long and complex, and so besides all the headaches of a major commercial production financed by men in Ray-Bans Lynch also had trouble making cinematic sense of the plot, which even in the novel is convoluted to the point of pain. In short, Dune’s direction called for a combination technician and administrator, and Lynch, though as good a technician as anyone in film, is more like the type of bright child you sometimes see who’s ingenious at structuring fantasies and gets totally immersed in them but will let other kids take part in them only if he retains complete imaginative control over the game and its rules and appurtenances—in short very definitely not an administrator.
Watching Dune again on video you can see that some of its defects are clearly Lynch’s responsibility, e.g. casting the nerdy and potato-faced Kyle MacLachlan as an epic hero and the Police’s resoundingly unthespian Sting as a psycho villain, or—worse—trying to provide plot exposition by having characters’ thoughts audibilized (w/ that slight thinking-out-loud reverb) on the soundtrack while the camera zooms in on the character making a thinking-face, a cheesy old device that Saturday Night Live had already been parodying for years when Dune came out. The overall result is a movie that’s funny while it’s trying to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of a flop as there is, and Dune was indeed a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop. But a good part of the incoherence is the responsibility of De Laurentiis’s producers, who cut thousands of feet of film out of Lynch’s final print right before the movie’s release, apparently already smelling disaster and wanting to get the movie down to more like a normal theatrical running-time. Even on video, it’s not hard to see where a lot of these cuts were made; the movie looks gutted, unintentionally surreal.
In a strange way, though, Dune actually ended up being Lynch’s “big break” as a filmmaker. The version of Dune that finally appeared in the theaters was by all reliable reports heartbreaking for him, the kind of debacle that in myths about Innocent, Idealistic Artists In The Maw Of The Hollywood Process signals the violent end of the artist’s Innocence—seduced, overwhelmed, fucked over, left to take the public heat and the mogul’s wrath. The experience could easily have turned Lynch into an embittered hack (though probably a rich hack), doing f/x-intensive gorefests for commercial studios. Or it could have sent him scurrying to the safety of academe, making obscure plotless l6mm.’s for the pipe-and-beret crowd. The experience did neither. Lynch both hung in and, on some level, gave up. Dune convinced him of something that all the really interesting independent filmmakers—Campion, the Coens, Jarmusch, Jaglom—seem to steer by. “The experience taught me a valuable lesson,” he told an interviewer years later. “I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don’t have final cut.”
—From “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by David Foster Wallace; collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
The Best Film Titles of 2011
The Tree of Life: Solid, evocative, stately.
Melancholia: Simple and meaningful, but also easy to remember.
Star Watching Dog: I have no idea what this movie is, but I love this as an idea or as an image, or as a plot for a film. It makes me want to find out which of those three it actually is. If I’m lucky it will be all three.
We Need to Talk About Kevin: This has the right kind of loaded evocation to it. It’s great as a long-but-not-too-long title.
Tyrannosaur: Awesome. One word with a huge amount of weight, probably the best title of the year except for the obvious problem that it probably confused people into thinking the film was about dinosaurs. But other than that it doesn’t get better than this.
Your Sister’s Sister: I don’t really know what this means. Is it wordplay? Is there plot relevance? It makes me want to know though.
Another Earth: A brilliant combination of two words that manages in three syllables to open up hours upon hours of thoughts and possibilities.
Outside Satan: I would compare to the previous entry. A great two words that sounds good and suggests a lot of weird things, many of which I can’t quite put my finger on. Definitely makes me want to see what happens in the movie.
I Am A Good Person/I Am A Bad Person: Maybe it’s too long. And maybe it’s totally confusing. But I would watch something called this for sure.
The Rabbi’s Cat: Well it sounds like I know upfront two things I can expect to see. And I like both of these things.
The Catechism Cataclysm: Alliteration sucks. Here’s an exception that proves the rule.
Blackthorn: I would buy a cut of meat called Blackthorn, I would buy a bottle of wine called Blackthorn, I would vacation in a mountain city called Blackthorn, I would buy an album from a doom metal band called Blackthorn. Blackthorn would be a good word for many things. This time it is a movie.
Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver: Double puns! Really? Okay fine, sure. It’s better than all the Air Bud titles combined.
Red State: Two evocative words, a sort of double-entendre but still easy to remember.
The Future: I would eat a burger called The Future, I would name my car The Future, I would name my dog The Future, I would love for my friends to give me the nickname The Future. So yeah I would watch a movie called The Future.
I Melt With You: Memorable and emotional, it tells me nothing about the film in any literal way, but it gives me some kind of sense of expectation.
Hobo With a Shotgun: Perfect. Truth in advertising; we’re all on the same page here.
The Worst Film Titles of 2011
Margin Call: What the hell is a Margin Call? Why would I voluntarily pay for anything called Margin Call. It sounds like something your accountant would suggest, but that’s why you hire that guy: to deal with boring stuff like Margin Calls. I would rather be watching a good movie than worrying about a Margin Call. If there are two things, and one is called Tyrannosaur and the other is Margin Call, which do you think I will be buying?
Hugo: Hugo is a stupid little word and I don’t like saying it or hearing it. The only thing worse is the original title, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Gross. Cabret is far too close to Cabaret and Cabaret is least appealing noun I can think of.
Weekend: Wow, title your indie movie the same thing as a famous art film. Always a good idea when your only potential audience is the miniscule slice of people who know this. Watch for the director’s next small festival hit, sure to be called The 400 Blows.
The Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best: Alliteration is the worst.
A Beautiful Belly: Further proof of the above sentiment, only this one is also gross sounding. The only way I can even imagine saying this out loud is if it was the humorous name of a menu item at the best BBQ joint in Atlanta or something.
The Skin I Live In: I blame the second-language aspect here, but something about this sentence is annoying.
Martha Marcy May Marlene: AKA Marble-Mouthed Nonsense. I will concede that this one may be actually brilliant, as everyone who sees the film seems to universally love the title after the face. Still, there is definitely something idiotic about giving yr film a title no one can remember.
Crazy, Stupid, Love.: I hate seeing this written down, I hated typing it, I hate hearing it out loud and I can’t imagine speaking it. There is a weird kind of perfection here. Three words that are just fine on their own, but somehow in this order they make me want to die.
Take This Waltz: And shove it.
No One Killed Jessica: Oh well that’s a relief, you had me worried for a second there. I guess I can skip watching the movie altogether and go eat some lunch or something.
Water for Elephants: This sounds like part of some little piece of wisdom like “pearls before swine” or something, except that you think about it for five seconds and realize that it isn’t and that it’s just dumb sounding.
Twixt: This is one of those words that maybe girls under the age of 16 could get away with saying. Or like the name of new line of sexy dolls, like the new Bratz or something.
Soul Surfer: Soul Surfer sounds like the shittiest tattoo idea possible.
The Beaver: This immediately undercuts the notion that it can be at all serious by virtue of the obvious vulgar connotations. Unless of course the writer only chose the word “Beaver” because he thought it would be such a riot to see it written everywhere and to have serious actors say it a million times for two hours. So either way what we have here is totally ignorant or absurdly immature. Count me out either way.
Our Idiot Brother: If I wanted to watch a shitty ’90s sitcom I would have stayed home.
This Is Not A Movie: Yes it is.
Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins: This is so stupid that maybe it belongs on the “Best” list. Nah, maybe not.
Cowboys & Aliens: This and Hobo With a Shotgun are two sides of the same coin. This side is the shitty one that loses all the time.
I Am Number Four: The only way this could be worse is if it was I Am Number Two.
Green Lantern: The discussion surrounding this movie’s failure brought up a lot of valuable points: 1) Ryan Reynolds is The Worst, 2) The movie was a piece of shit and 3) Martin Campbell is not an auteur. But the big point I think everyone missed is that The Green Lantern is also just a stupid combination of three English words. I don’t care how long he’s been a comic book hero, please compare the title of this movie to the other famous DC tentpole franchises: Batman and Superman. And please analyze the various connotations involved in three titles: One is a man who is also a bat, alright cool. The other is a man who is super, yeah alright I bet he’s pretty tough. This is a lantern that is somehow green… is this meant to surprise or excite me? “No shit!? All my lanterns are blue, this guy must be AMAZING!” Even The Green Hornet is a better title because it has the word Hornet in it and everyone knows that Hornet is basically the coolest word in all of entomology, with the obvious exception of “Scorpion.” No movie with the word Lantern in the title will ever gross 500 million dollars, unless preceded by the words “Harry Potter” or “Twilight.” Lanterns suck and somehow this fact is known deep in the hearts of all Americans.
A Good Old Fashioned Orgy: The obvious sarcasm just tells me right away that this is insincere bullshit.
Straw Dogs: As the title for some weird VHS tape you find at the video store and rent on a lark only to be blown away by how gnarly and intense movies were allowed to be in the ’70s: Yes Straw Dogs is a great title, and it’s implacable weirdness somehow fully encapsulates everything strange an unnerving about that movie. But as the title for a contemporary product on the market for people who have no built-in context I can’t imagine anything worse. It might as well have been called Marble Lanterns, it would have done just as well.
Another Happy Day: Either the movie is actually about a succession of days that are happy, or it is very obviously the exact opposite. Both options annoy me and put me off for different reasons. They could have called it Are We Having Fun Yet? and it might have been a bigger hit, but that is equally stupid and probably taken already.
Ti West’s tense, suspenseful 2009 film The House of the Devil is a slow burning, stomach bending study in horror tropes. It synthesizes its sources (Carrie, Psycho, urban legends about babysitters and Satanic cults, Rosemary’s Baby, the 1980s), to move beyond mere pastiche or parody. At first, the dance montage appears to offer a respite from the nervous dread that West spends most of the film building—it’s also another dead-on moment of eighties filmmaking—but the montage’s content (the violence of the careening billiard balls, the furtive glance into the dark basement, the breaking of the vase) ironically redoubles the isolation of the film’s protagonist. The affirming, protective power of her Walkman cannot resonate beyond her big earphones.
The House of the Devil is a great, smart, scary film that you may have overlooked. Recommended.