Sunday, February 20, 2011 :::
I Loved, Loved, Loved
There were two ways to begin this essay, so A Mind That Suits has chosen all three.
A Mind That Suits found himself sitting at his usual Sunday morning perch, a barstool at his local Ruby Tuesday, downing a seafood omelet with soda water on the side and laughing at the shenanigans of the young staff who barely made it into work. He was watching Fareed Zakaria when the single gentleman to his left blurted out, “Are things that serious?” To which A Mind That Suits responded, “I am afraid so.”
Indeed, he commented to long-time internet friend James, who runs The Best of the Web Today over at that other website every educated layman goes to for news and commentary, the Wall Street Journal, that, with Egypt, the budget, Planned Parenthood, and, now, the Apocalypse in Madison, things to make fun of are in rather short supply.
Faced with an accusation of being negative from a reader during the Blitz in London, the great George Orwell said he liked praising things, when there was anything to praise, but “the fact is we live in times when causes for rejoicing are not numerous.” He said that as preface to a charming essay on the roses one could buy cheaply before the war at Woolworth’s, the English equivalent of Kresge’s before it became K-mart and nearly went out of business.
A Mind That Suits has many things to say about Madison, the most cheerful being that the unions have found a way for everyone to focus on how ridiculous their contracts are. But he would here like to take a page from the great Orwell, and spend a moment praising something, or rather, someone: the great Roger Ebert.
A Mind That Suits is very fond of movies, but he is not a movie person, the way movie people describe themselves. He would lose at a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but never tires of his favorite films, Saving Private Ryan and Lawrence of Arabia topping the list. But he does keep up with the movie industry, both as a matter of personal interest and financial interest.
There are lots of movie reviewers, but only a handful from whom A Mind That Suits has turned to for a real education. The list makes clear that A Mind That Suits is not in the Spring of Life, as there are some younger reviewers who are quite good. But these have repaid careful reading many times over.
Stanley Kauffman has written for The New Republic for 53 years, since 1958,but remembers seeing Fred Astaire’s last Broadway show, some time in the 1920’s (when, admittedly, he must have been very young indeed.)
Pauline Kael wrote memorable reviews, of course, but one had to sort of brace oneself before settling in, as her work had that over-indulgent length afforded writers for the New Yorker in its heyday. Still, her reputation is well-deserved.
John Simon of the National Review was never less than fascinating—a true master of his second language—but not for nothing did his critics reach for the cheapest and laziest adjective to hurl at Germans. A Mind That Suits can hardly think of anyone else he read as a wee slip of lad simply so it would sharpen his skills at disagreeing with someone. It wasn’t just Simon’s snarling anti-Ameicansim—though one wonders why the fiercely patriotic William F. Buckley, Jr., hired him—nor the fact that he wore his erudition heavily. No, one profited from reading Mr. Simon as an object lesson in the kind of personality traits one should discourage in oneself.
Then there is Mr. Ebert. A Mind That Suits, having first become acquainted with Mr. Ebert on TV, used to go to a Roger Ebert print review half expecting a screed filled with bile and sarcasm. The thing is, he almost never found it, and now he knows what to expect.
Despite the crusty exterior, Mr. Ebert seems to have an absolute inability to be unfair. He determinedly reviews each movie on its own terms, and so will not, say, pair a Muppet movie with a nihilistic German allegory involving an necrophiliac elephant, the way John Simon would have. (Mr. Simon would have found a way to say that the elephant had something to teach infantile Americans. He called a collection of reviews of European films Something to Declare. Clever title, but one only has to declare valuables. That about says it all. The same title was used, by the way, for a collection of lesbian travel writing.)
That is another endearing thing about Mr. Ebert: though clearly a leftist, he is thoroughly comfortable in his American skin. It would be probably impossible to find a sentence he wrote after the age of 30 which even hinted at some mystical superiority of European films.
Moreover, Mr. Ebert is the kind of person who improves with age. He finally found true love, in the person of a prominent trial lawyer (so she’s tough), and he has borne a nearly unbearable illness with grace and wit.
Put all that together, and what you get from Mr. Ebert are enjoyable fair-minded reviews that convince you to skip a lot of movies for the simple reason that, as the great director Sidney Lumet put it, most movies should never have been made. One never wastes one's time reading Mr. Ebert, however.
Boy, does that man know movies.
And boy, can he write. The most famously difficult thing in criticism is to explain why something is good. Mr. Ebert, perhaps frustrated that he spent so much time being fair to movies that did not repay the compliment, began a series of essays on what he calls simply The Great Movies. Those reviews now number 300, and every one repays careful scrutiny. One learns how every detail of the film craft contributes to a masterpiece.
By the time he builds to this line—“Of all the movies I have seen, (The Third Man) most completely embodies the romance of going to a movie”—you just know he is right, you know why, and you have an uncontrollable urge to log in to Netflix and stream The Third Man onto your desktop.
Which is exactly what A Mind That Suits did.
Mr. Ebert was right. And A Mind That Suits knows why.
He is also capable of writing this lovely line, which, one must remember, was inspired by a trial attorney: “You don’t just find true love; you team up with somebody and build it from the ground up.”
But that lovely line came in one of those rare things, a truly scathing Ebert review.
He hates, you see, the Hollywood myth of true love dropping into your lap, as it were. Even though it is the experience of A Mind That Suits that some people do indeed find true love at first sight, the blessed souls, Mr. Ebert is by and large correct: those who set out to find true love are often bitterly disappointed, and the movies that acknowledge that are usually better.
But the flip side of Mr. Ebert’s fair-mindedness is that when a movie really deserves it, he gives it everything it deserves. Poor things.
The scandal surrounding Michael Cimino’s career ending flop Heaven’s Gate has somewhat receded, and there are those who maintain that its reputation as the biggest film disaster of all time is unearned.
Roger Ebert would not be among those who maintain that. His review commences: We begin with a fundamental question: Why is Heaven’s Gate so painful and unpleasant to look at? I’m not referring to its content, but to its actual visual texture. This is one of the ugliest films I have ever seen.
By the time you get to the end of that review, you know that Heaven’s Gate fully earned the reputation that it has, you know why, and you are certain that Mr. Ebert is right.
And now A Mind That Suits has reached the end of this little appreciation, and finds he has an opening unused. He was going to talk about bathroom books, and the need to have a well-chosen shelf full of them.
No, not those kinds of books. He means books that have worthwhile things to read in short chunks. The best tend to be books of quotations—especially books of quotations from idiots, such as Rock Confidential, compiled by Coral Amende, which embodies all that Frank Zappa meant when he said that rock interviews were written by people who can’t write about people who can’t talk for people who can’t read. But—to cut to the chase—it is just as good to have a well-written book full of deft writing. Mr. Ebert got the idea to put his rare completely negative reviews into book form, and so we have I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, published in 2000 (To show how rarely such reviews come from Mr. Ebert’s pen, the book spans 30 years.)
To give his readers a taste, A Mind That Suits here provides a sampling, more or less chosen at random. Actually,that's not exactly right: he found so many pithy quotable comments he just gave up the game.
He will comment however, that the book provides an example of what William F. Buckley said on being asked to write an introduction for a Doonesbury compilation: when daily offerings are read in one sitting, one notices things that one might not have if each piece was read as it was first published.
In the case of this book, it is clear that what drives Mr. Ebert nuts is a bad script. He might praise the cinematography and acting in a good movie, but in bad one—well, it’s the thought that counts
At the end A Mind That Suits includes what is, without question, the most "inside babeball" put-down he has ever read.
On Jim Carrey’s Ace Venture: Pet Detective:
The movie basically has one joke, which is Ace Ventura’s weird nerdy strangeness. If you laugh at this joke, chances are you laugh at Jerry Lewis, too, and I can sympathize with you even if I can’t understand you.
On Alligator, written by John Sayles”
The alligator is smart enough to travel all over the city without being seen…You would not think it would be that easy for a forty-foot alligator to sneak around incognito, but then, New Yorkers are awfully blasé.
On a Richard Dreyfuss movie that would explain why we don’t hear about Richard Dreyfuss anymore:
Mad Dog Time is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time.
On some movie or other:
He’s the kind of lawyer ambulances chase.
On Jungle 2 Jungle, a Tim Allen vehicle.
The plot…has been removed from a French film. The operation is a failure, and the patient dies.
(He was even harder on the French film.)
On Frozen Assets (never heard of it either):
If I were more of a hero, I would spend the next couple of weeks breaking into theaters where this movie is being shown and leading the audience to safety.
On a Billy Crystal/Robin Williams vehicle:
Father’s Day is a feature-length sitcom with too much sit and not enough com.
On Hard Rain, a disaster/crime flick:
By the time we arrive at the actual story, I am essentially watching a documentary about wet actors at work.
The following could apply to a lot of this guy’s movies:
When Roman Polanski makes a bad movie, he does it with a certain thoroughness.
And now, for the pièce de résistance.
There is abroad on the face of the earth a creature named Rex Reed, who aspired at one point to be Oscar Wilde, but who settled for being a film reviewer, in which capacity he revealed himself to be a gossip writer. His reviews primarily discuss whom he loathes and whom he would like to sleep with--at least they did when he was famous. That was when Women’s Wear Daily was not primarily about women’s wear, but the grasping society mavens who wore the dresses. Mr. Reed was both their arbiter, and pet poodle.
He is a type that has been with us at least since La Rochefoucauld, but Mr. Reed was really made possible by mass media. Ultimately, there came to be so many of him—he is easily reproducible—that they had to come up with a phrase—"the pretentious, anti-American Euroweenie." The condition is much worse in Mr. Reed’s case, because he is not actually European.
Now, in all honesty, A Mind That Suits gets his prejudice in part from his beloved mother, a stringer for WWD, and his beloved uncle, the reporter and novelist. They both knew him personally, and couldn’t stand him.
But they were not alone. Indeed, the one time A Mind That Suits found the heavy erudition of John Simon useful was when Mr. Simon unleashed a withering review of a collection of Rex Reed’s reviews. The attack provided far more heat than light, but it did prove—if it needed proving—that in a battle between an educated, pretentious anti-American Euroweenie and an illiterate, pretentious anti-American Euroweenie, the educated one will win hands down.
Mr. Ebert chose the high road. In one review, he slips in a story about Mr. Reed. Here, Mr. Ebert shows his mastery. The entire story is told simply—about a man caught in a misunderstanding, with no scolding of the reader for not getting the inside joke.
For his real audience, however, the true cinéphiles who frequent Cannes and live and die by the Cahiers du Cinéma, he delivers a coup de grâce that is beautiful in its economy.
From a review of a film called Nomads:
That reminds me of a classic story from the Cannes Film Festival a few years back, when Rex Reed got an engraved invitation in French. The only word he could read was “Eskimo.”
For the rest of the story, read Mr. Ebert’s full review.
A Mind That Suits may have misled the unsuspecting reader. Alas, the copy he is reading of I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie will not be taking its place on the bathroom shelf. It belongs to American University, and they have already notified him that they want it back.
However, Mr. Ebert decided to commit a new compilation of negative reviews. A Mind That Suits found it remaindered on Amazon, and his copy now has pride of place in a certain stack of honored books.
::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 4:36 PM