Tag Archive: Roger Ebert


Small-Screen Nostalghia

Last night I watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia on MUBI. Released in 1983, toward the end of the great Russian director’s life, it’s the next-to-last of his seven features, and the first one shot outside of the Soviet Union. The plot, such as it is, concerns a Russian writer on a sojourn in Italy searching for… actually, it’s not clear what he’s searching for, not even to him, but he begins to think he might discover some kind of truth from a so-called lunatic he meets in an old Roman bath in the country who has visions of a local saint.

I’m not going to attempt to analyze it in depth it at this point. Suffice it to say there’s a lot going on in this profoundly dreamlike work. My lingering impression this morning is that I’ve never seen a film incorporate surrealism so organically into its narrative – the very strange things that happen, the mind-boggling things we see, seep into the story like water seeps into the Roman bath, and seem to grow out of it as naturally as the moss and lichens that grow on its walls. In the light of day it feels as if I myself was dreaming while watching it.

The question on my mind right now is whether it was a bad idea to watch it on my 11-inch Macbook Pro. Nostalghia is characterized by compositions that are as densely packed with (weird) images and ideas as they are vast in scope. It’s a HUGE film in all ways. It’s common to say, “This film must be seen on a big screen.” OK – but that’s true of most films. But say there’s not a Tarkovsky retrospective happening in your town anytime soon and you just want to check his stuff out. Is it some kind of betrayal of his work to watch it on your laptop? Is it an artistic crime?

Last night after watching the film, I was thinking about Roger Ebert’s vow: “I will never, ever watch a movie on my iPhone. Nor will I read a book on my thumbnail.” I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. But when I looked it up this morning, I found this answer to a reader’s question, with a much softer and more pragmatical stance, and one that would make anyone who grew up loving movies in humble circumstances proud:

From Rodney Welch (Elgin, South Carolina):

Is watching a movie on a cellphone an artistic crime? 

Probably, and I’ve never done it – but then I remember that as a budding movie lover I grew up watching classic cinema on a small portable black-and-white TV. That’s where I fell in love with Citizen Kane, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca and all the other Hollywood classics. I was 10 or 11, and I couldn’t have cared less about aspect ratio or poor lighting. All I cared about was decent reception and sound – and if I had that, then I have to say that at that time and that age I had as fine an artistic experience as I could have hoped for. The story, the performances, the script, the allure – all those most important elements can very definitely come through a tiny screen if you’re an alert and interested viewer who yearns for a good story. Didn’t Scorsese grow up the same way – watching afternoon movies on the tube? Didn’t we all?

Watching a movie on your cellphone, with stereophonic sound (if you use headphones) is actually probably a step up from what I had then. If you handed me an iPhone and a Netflix or Hulu Plus subscription in 1974 – I would have thought I had died and done to heaven! (Especially if you grew up in the rural South, and you knew that you would be forever denied any chance at all of seeing a movie by this guy Buñuel that Pauline Kael raved about unless you moved to a big city.)

By all means I think you should see a movie on a big screen with a fantastic print and superior sound – that’s the ultimate experience – but if a cellphone is all you have to work with, go for it.

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I find it impossible to neatly summarize my feelings about Beasts of the Southern Wild. After the considerable hype I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by it. I found it way too messy and all over the place, and frankly short of the mark that I could almost palpably sense it aiming for. Yet simultaneously I thought it was uniquely brilliant and loved it in a very genuine if troubled way, the way you might love a scruffy stray dog you can’t afford to take home. It’s an impossible movie not to love. I can’t remember another instance that admiration for and disappointment in a film have resided together so comfortably in my mind. It’s like I feel a sense of ownership. This is exactly my kind of film, or would be, and maybe that’s why I’m hard on it. In any case I can’t get it off my mind.

Beasts is the debut feature from writer/director Benh Zeiltin, who hails from Queens but is now based in New Orleans. It’s quickly become the most talked-about American independent film of the year, winning the Grand Jury Prize in the US Competition at Sundance before going on to win the Camera d’Or (for best new film) at Cannes. It’s even got an early Oscar buzz. The story is not easy to explain, but if you’re not already on board with the key elements you can get from a really basic blurb – little girl hero, magical realism, backwater bayous, apocalyptic storms, rampaging prehistoric beasts, post-Katrina American mythmaking, nonprofessional actors – we don’t have much in common. Little Hushpuppy and her father Wink live somewhere on the Gulf coast in an impoverished but spirited and tight-knit delta community called the Bathtub, which seems to exist in its own space and time. When a massive storm cuts the Bathtub off from the outside world, its cantakerous residents attempt to pick up the pieces in defiance of the local authorities, while all of nature seems to be turning against civilization. Meanwhile her dad’s degrading physical and mental health creates a crisis of self-reckoning for Hushpuppy at a tender age.

Beasts screened in Official Competition here at Sydney Film Festival a few weeks after Cannes with the highest possible expectations. Local fans and cinephiles went apeshit for it, and everyone assumed it would take the Sydney Film Prize in a cakewalk. Instead the jury handed the award to Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps, an icily cynical and absurdist black comedy that bitterly divided audiences here – a controversial choice (if a stream of resentful tweets counts as controversy). Me, I think Beasts is superior to Alps on most counts, and infinitely more likeable of course, but I had to admire the jury’s cojones and privately chuckle at the monkeywrenching of a consensus.

I saw Beasts on the first Friday of the festival at the opulent State Theatre, back to back with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Surely there won’t be a better or more interesting double feature all year. It was on the one hand a study in contrasts: Anderson’s obsessive perfectionism, his maniacal focus on design – each frame so lovingly composed the whole thing feels like an animated feature; versus Zeitlin’s rowdy, rambling, handheld, deliriously beautiful mess of a film. Yet the thematic parallels between the two are worth exploring: child protagonists, isolated rural communities, storms as key turning points. Going in my expectations were sky-high; I loved both films, but came out bearing reservations. (More on Moonrise later.)

Yeah, Beasts is a rough and messy film. Should I feel bad about pointing that out? Is that like complaining that Wu Tang Clan are too raw, or that Meg White isn’t the greatest drummer? Is it just part of the magic? Maybe the same thing would have been said about Breathless or Stranger Than Paradise when they first came out. Don’t we need a dose of, well, wild energy in cinema on a regular basis? If it was more polished would it also be more boring?

By “rough” I’m not referring to the often quite shaky hand-held camera – I’m fine with a bit of shake. To me the culprit is the editing. There are times during the film when two people are talking and it’s cut in such a way that somehow you never get a good look at either of their faces. Often you’re not sure of the shape of a room or space, or what exactly you’re looking at (however beautiful it might be), or which characters are taking part in a scene. (The fact that a lot of the dialogue is mumbled doesn’t help with the latter.) I suspect a re-edit might have solved some of those issues without selling out the film’s energy at all.

This pervasive sense of disorientation also applies in a macro way to the narrative. Within each scene the style of the film is naturalistic (and wonderfully so); but the overall story doesn’t have much organic sense. Fantasies need internal logic; here, because a lot of this made-up world goes unexplained, we’re not always sure what’s at stake, and there’s a disconnect between the crazy plot twists and the inscrutable choices made by the characters. At times we can almost hear Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar tapping away furiously on their MacBooks. “OK, now this has to happen!” Settings and locations change with little warning – we were in a hospital, but now we’re on a beach – while motivations and conflicts are taken up and set aside again like toys. It’s almost as if they wanted the story to reflect the short attention span and freeform imagination of a child. (A friend of mine compared it to Maurice Sendak; others have cited Miyazaki.) Does it work? I’m still deciding. My gut reaction is that it’s absolutely inspired at times – as zany and explosively creative as beat poetry or freestyle graffiti – but sloppy and incoherent at other times.

Some have said the film could have done without the prehistoric monsters. It’s true they don’t help the general problem of clutter in the story – it’s just one more thing that doesn’t tie together and isn’t fleshed out very well. But no way would I get rid of them. If anything I want more of them, along with more clarity about them. Likewise, curmudgeonly types said the dinosaurs didn’t belong in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life; but that film wouldn’t be as visionary without them – the flights of fancy are what make the study of the family so much more. Zeitlin has established an important signpost with the audacious fantasy elements of his film: because special effects are a lot cheaper to accomplish these days, independent filmmakers don’t need to be stuck in the ghetto of realism anymore. Movie magic has been democratized.

Eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance as Hushpuppy has been the focus of much of the film’s press. If I can risk sounding cynical here, I think some of it amounts to so many indirect or quasi-intellectual ways of saying, “That little girl is so adorable!” I’m not saying her performance isn’t remarkable. I’m saying the commentary on it lacks nuance.

Of course it’s a remarkable performance! Kids can do amazing things when given the chance; but Quvenzhané has extraordinary poise and grit. As Roger Ebert wrote recently (in his review of Glendyn Ivin’s great Last Ride), “I have run out of words to account for young actors.” Without taking too much away from Quvenzhané, I would say Zeitlin also deserves credit for trusting in her and letting her do her thing in such a natural way. This is where the rough style of the film shines, in the way the girl’s rambling and running amok and randomly destroying things is such a part of its aesthetic. It’s reminiscent of the way Steven Spielberg’s early films seemed revolutionary in the way he allowed kids to just be themselves onscreen, with their cluttered rooms and cluttered lives, their dirty faces, their heartbreaking way of shrugging off adult abuse and neglect, their casual violence.

I found her high-pitched scream annoying, but the filmmakers must have thought it was cute because we get to hear it a lot. (Remember Carrie Henn’s tea-kettle-like squeal in Aliens? It sounds like that). Some of her character’s dialogue is a bit forced, and even sappy, especially when she talks about history or the future in a grandiose way – it’s as if she’s working too hard to impress the audience or pull their heartstrings. (Again, at these moments I hear the screenwriters tap, tap, tapping away.)

Quvenzhané’s best moments – indeed, the film’s best moments – are the seemingly improvised scenes with Dwight Henry, who plays Wink. There’s so much fierce affection there, so much electricity between the two, as Wink insists on toughening up his daughter to face a harsh world alone, it seems like documentary footage. With all the attention on the little girl, Henry’s gutty, gloriously ragged performance has somehow managed to fly under the radar. (His work is all the more amazing considering he’s a baker by trade who had never acted in a film before.)

There’s much more to discuss about Beasts of the Southern Wild – just one example is the fabulous production design, with beautifully chaotic sets and crazy vehicles welded together from scrap parts like something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It’s an unforgettable film, filled with piercing ideas and images, even if it doesn’t have very good control of them. It’s the type of thing that might have blown my mind and changed the way I look at film if I’d stumbled across it as a kid late at night on cable TV – the way, say, the very messy Repo Man did. You should see it; everyone should see it – it’s definitely one of those rare indies capable of very broad appeal with little or no compromise. And years from now, when it’s considered an American classic, you can read this review in the archives and scoff at my shortsighted crotchetiness.

I saw Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere on its opening night in Australia, at a cineplex on the top floor of a vast mall in the middle of the suburban sprawl of Sydney’s North Shore. There was only one other party in the large stadium-style theater, bringing attendance to a grand total of maybe five people. When I opened my M&Ms, the sound of paper tearing echoed through the theater as through an empty cavern. It was pretty depressing.

But the lack of a vibe suited the film, right from the opening shot of a Ferrari circling again and again around an empty track in a California wasteland. The static, long-range shot goes on unedited for several minutes, the car running mindlessly in and out of the frame on its circuit. Roger Ebert has often quoted an old film exhibitor: “If nothing’s happened by the end of the first reel, nothing’s going to happen.” Uh, yeah – is that a bad thing?

Sofia Coppola’s work is all about emptiness. Her characters are always privileged and popular people who are lost, suffering from existential ennui, in danger of being annihilated by the social apparatus they serve – whether it’s the entertainment industry (Lost in Translation) or the French aristocracy (Marie Antoinette). She’s back to meditating on show business. This is the world she was raised in and she knows it through and through.

The owner of the Ferrari is a Hollywood leading man named Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) who’s between projects and adrift, self-exiled in Hollywood’s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel. He drifts from one party to another in an alcoholic stupor, engaging in mindless sex with whatever blonde happens to be available.

This is not as glamorous or pop-sleazy as it might sound. Johnny is far from fabulous, far from a hipster, coming across like a regular bloke in jeans and a band T-shirt. He looks like he isn’t sure why he’s world famous. He gets a lot of attention, and has a certain magnetism. But he has no personality. He’s inarticulate and uncomfortable around people (except for strippers) and is treated as little more than a child by his agents and handlers. He’s never had to grow up, never had to think about who he is. He’s forgotten how to feel good.

We spend a lot of lonely time with Johnny. Coppola demands our patience as we watch him stumble through his life, late for appointments, stuck in shallow conversations at parties. Mostly we watch him by himself, in medium shots, at a distance from us and from himself, bored in his hotel room, drinking. A couple of strippers come and go; what we see of them is sort of entertaining, but mostly weird and a little sad. It makes the high life look pretty bleak.

I couldn’t place where I’d seen Dorff before. At first, I thought it was just my own ignorance (I can’t keep track of Hollywood stars, are you kidding?) But I looked up his filmography and realized there’s no particular reason I should recognize him. He’s most noteworthy for a supporting role in Blade. This relative anonymity is perfect for the film. Dorff totally inhabits his character. We completely forget we’re watching a performance; sometimes I think he forgets he’s giving one. There are many moments when we’re staring at Johnny as he’s lost in thought, and Hollywood conditioning leads us to expect a flash of insight, a heroic decision, some new resolve. But it remains elusive. Johnny’s a tabula rasa.

The only thing he has going for him in real life is his daughter, Cleo, the adolescent child of a messy divorce, who literally arrives on his doorstep one day. He’s been tasked with looking after her for an indefinite period while her irresponsible mother clears her head. Cleo is a wondrous creature, all gangly limbs and gleaming intelligence and earnestness yet undimmed by her difficult upbringing. (Obviously an analog of Coppola herself.) Elle Fanning’s performance in this role is bright, natural, nearly pitch-perfect. The film sets Cleo’s life-affirming spirit against the void that gnaws at the middle of her father.

Does she change his life? It would happen unequivocally in another kind of film. Here, we’re not sure. Johnny’s love for her is tangible, and very touching. Around her, he seems like a decent person. She, of course, ends up mothering him a bit. But there is hardly a plot, hardly any tension, just a series of sketches as Cleo gets pulled into the running joke that is her father’s life. We observe them interacting. The emotional arc runs silent and deep.

I wasn’t sure about Somewhere while I was watching it. Maybe it was the empty suburban cineplex that weighed heavily on my experience, but my initial thought was that Coppola had set out to show us a meaningless existence and, well, succeeded. I have a lot of patience for slow cinema, but I was dismayed by something lacking here. The film seemed like a shrug followed by a dry sob. I cringed at the thought that Sofia, who is often regarded lightly (especially after Marie Antoinette), had further armed her critics. I was also disappointed by the music, which is much less dynamic and integral to the storytelling than in her other films. The music in Somewhere is largely incidental and often ironic.

Time passed. I thought I would quickly forget about Somewhere. I did not. I find myself thinking of it often. Something about it sticks with me and grows on me, like a deceptively simple melody. I’m not alone in this. When it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered, jury president Quentin Tarantino said, “From that first enchanting screening, it grew and grew and grew in our hearts, in our analysis, in our minds and in our affections.” Somewhere now seems like one of the best films I’ve seen recently. Coppola’s minimalist approach somehow softly shapes the story into something that intrigues over time.

In his four-star review of the film, Ebert writes, “Coppola is a fascinating director. She sees, and we see exactly what she sees.” It’s all about the gaze. The scenes where we simply watch things happening are central to the film: the Ferrari circling, the strippers dancing, Cleo figure skating, Johnny pacing around his hotel room. It’s improbably compelling. You’ve got to hand it to editor Sarah Flack, who constructs it all so delicately – when she’s doing her job, you don’t know it. Meanwhile Coppola’s visual storytelling is as indelible as ever, with a strong sense of composition and color, and exquisite use of sunlight – Harris Savides’ cinematography is superb.

There are (somewhat) more structured narrative scenes, but the focus is always on the day-to-day. She creates a kind of documentary fascination, as when Cleo makes brunch for her dad, and we follow each step of the process. Time loses its momentum; we’re just watching a girl cook eggs, as if that was the point, as if it was a cooking show. Each object or activity is approached this way. The film is like a collage of observations.

This organic approach allows the characters and their feelings to resonate. There’s a scene where Johnny says goodbye to a parking attendant at his hotel; it’s such a genuine little moment, the kind of prosaic human interaction you don’t often see in a film. Yet it adds something to our impression of Johnny’s internal crisis. There’s real compassion at work here.

I would place Somewhere in a school of American minimalist cinema along with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (which was also shot by Savides) and the wonderful films of Kelly Reichardt. But I wonder if it will receive its due. I’m glad it got love at Venice, but I duly note the cold shoulder from Oscar. It falls through the cracks: it’s too quirky and difficult to be a blockbuster, and it won’t ignite passion among the critics and cognoscenti who are easily swayed by the flashy, the extravagantly gritty, the “important.” Somewhere has been called boring, but I find the list of Best Picture nominees boring.

It makes me angry if I really think about it. How many widely-distributed female directors are as independent-minded and true to themselves as Coppola? Is she judged harshly because of her background? If she was the spoiled princess she’s often made out to be, she would have sold out long ago. Marie Antoinette would have been a predictable, overacted epic (starring Cate Blanchett, perhaps) and would have made much more money and maybe gotten a few award nominations. Somewhere could be far more conventional and appealing – mocking the Hollywood game, sure, everyone’s meta these days – but cashing in with big stars and glamor.

Instead she’s doing her own thing with her own vision. She doesn’t make prestige pictures. She doesn’t reformulate her Hollywood upbringing as product – grist for the apparatus – like a lesser talent would do, but she assesses it with the honesty, detachment and adventurous spirit of the indie rock that is such a big influence on her. Her films are often flawed but they have a unique grace and humanity. (At least Tarantino sees it.) Here’s hoping she continues making them just as she pleases for some time yet.