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September 28, 2011


Roger Ebert at the NY Times

Roger Ebert at the NY Times

I've been watching and reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews for just about as long as I've been able to watch and read, so seeing him at the NY Times last night was one of the most exciting movie-related experiences I could have. A big reason I'm so into movies is that when I was growing up, I watched Siskel & Ebert talk about movies every week on TV. Because those two smart, thoughtful, funny guys were excited about movies, they got me excited about them, too. I don't always agree with Ebert, but he still writes about movies more compellingly than just about anyone, and I'm always interested in what he has to say.

Since Ebert got cancer and lost the ability to talk about 5 years ago, he stopped appearing on TV, but he's become unbelievably prolific in his writing. He reviews a bunch of movies every week (A.O. Scott, who interviewed him last night, said Ebert reviews at least twice as many movies each week than any one else he knows), writes a blog, an excellent Twitter feed (500,000 followers!), plus he has a new memoir out and, my personal favorite, a cookbook for rice cookers. He'll probably never speak again, but the man still has a lot to say.

A couple of things about the interview, which Ebert conducted by typing into a talking laptop:

  • He got into movie reviewing entirely by accident. The former movie critic at the Sun-Times retired, and Ebert got assigned to take over because, he claims, he was the youngest journalist and had the longest hair.
  • A.O. Scott talked about 3D and Ebert's well-publicized, unwavering contempt for it, and said that Ebert was on the record saying he thought 3D was a "disaster". Ebert immediately corrected him, via talking computer. "Abomination," he said. Preach it, Roger!
  • He told a story about the legendarily tough critic Gene Siskel about a time Siskel took his young daughters to see a movie. When they were leaving the theater, he asked his younger daughter what she thought of it. "Daddy," she said, "I didn't like it." "I've never been more proud!," he told Roger.
  • A.O. Scott asked Ebert for a few of those movies, among the hundreds of thousands he's watched, that are most special and meaningful to him. He named four, which I thought were surprisingly arty and relatively obscure, considering he's probably the best known mainstream movie critic ever:

    Ikiru, by Kurosawa. I think I watched this for a class on Japanese film when I was 20 years old, and almost definitely fell asleep. Ebert says it's a wise film about mortality and death, topics that probably don't resonate with a junior in college who still thinks Goldschlager is a very nice drink in the same way they would with someone who's survived cancer.

    Floating Weeds, by Ozu. I haven't seen it. Actually, I still haven't seen any of Ozu's movies, probably because I've heard they're lengthy, quiet studies of Japanese family life, and I always end up picking something less lengthy and quiet instead.

    2001: A Space Odyssey, by Kubrick, which Ebert said "knocked his socks off". Maybe sometime he could explain to me what happens in the last 20 minutes.

    Gates of Heaven, by Errol Morris. This is the one about pet cemeteries, definitely one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. As A.O. Scott pointed out, it's impossible to tell if Morris has compassion and respect for the people in the doc who select these cemeteries as the final resting places for their beloved pets, or if he thinks they're a bunch of lunatics that make good punchlines. Maybe both?

One other thing about Siskel & Ebert and their lasting legacy. I was out at karaoke last week, and someone performed Bloodhound Gang's "The Bad Touch", a song that's very popular at karaoke despite it being almost impossible to get through. When the line "Yes I'm Siskel, yes I'm Ebert, and you're getting two thumbs up" line came along, the lyrics displayed on the screen read: "Yes I'm Sisco, yes I'm Evil, and you're getting two thumbs up." An unintentionally surrealist lyrical reworking, there.

Whoever transcribed that line perhaps doesn't speak English as their first language, but still, it made me wonder if young people don't actually know what "Siskel & Ebert" means anymore.

Many old "Siskel & Ebert" reviews are archived, so you can watch them argue about, for example, The Big Lebowski. It's still fun to watch the two of them.

categories: Culture, Media, Movies, Robot-on-the-Spot
posted by amy at 1:44 PM | #

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Here is an interview with Kubrick explaining 2001. I think this may help you with that last 20 minutes.


Posted by: Colin Davis at September 28, 2011 3:26 PM

This is great! Thanks for this totally lucid clarification straight from the man himself.

It might not shed much non-psychedelic light on what's happening in that last part of the movie, at least as far as our present earthbound frame of reference allows. But it definitely makes me regret that I never got to sit in a dorm room doing tequila shots with Stanley Kubrick.

Posted by: amy at September 28, 2011 5:07 PM

I spend three weeks on Ozu every year in my film studies course, although I use his final film, An Autumn Afternoon. For years the only Ozu I had seen was Tokyo Story, which is as heavy as lead, and which looks terribly washed out (there are no good prints left of the original negatives), so I kind of avoided his stuff.

His later period work (Floating Weeds, An Autumn Afternoon, Equinox Flower) have a light touch that mixes gentle humor in with the drama. But he's beloved of film buffs for his carefully composed shots (he's formalist, like Antonioni), and unique editing scheme, which through a variety of techniques allows him to smoothly break the 180 degree rule, and open up the film space. Tati is the only other major director I know of who does (did) that, although he did it for laughs.

I love Ozu, and I've seen about 20 of his movies, from his silent comedies to his final color films, but even I have to be in the mood for it. I could write about him forever (and in fact I'm working on a paper about his influence on Wong Kar Wai) , but I don't want to bore you too much. If you'd like I can email you my teaching notes on Ozu, although they might be a bit thin without the accompanying film clips I use to explain them.

The framed film posters that decorate my classroom include Ikiru, by the way, although I think Takashi Shimura overacts a bit too much in it, a view shared by Kurosawa himself.

Posted by: Tim at September 28, 2011 8:36 PM

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