Friday, April 26, 2013


Three score and ten is the life expectancy the bible allots us, and that is the age at which the film critic Roger Ebert died on April 4. He was, as the lengthy obituaries declared, the most famous movie critic of our era, and, in an epoch in which fame is measured in television time, so he was. In this, no one could compete with him.

“A Critic for the Common Man,” read the headline of the New York Times obit by Douglas Martin on April 5. On April 6, came an appraisal of him by A. O. Scott, one of the Times film critics, who, a fellow Chicagoan, grew into film criticism under Ebert’s initial skepticism and eventual patronage. That article was headlined “Critic Whose Sting Was Salved by His Caring.” On television’s “Nightline,” a segment was dedicated to Ebert, who was hailed as not one of those highfalutin film critics, but one of us.

The Times also quoted Mick LaSalle, movie critic of the San Francisco Chronicle: “In the century or so that there has been such a thing as movie criticism, no other movie critic has ever occupied the space held by Roger Ebert. Others as influential as Ebert have not been as esteemed. Others as esteemed as Ebert have not had the same direct and widespread influence. And no one, but no one, has enjoyed the same fame.”

Well, yes: he was the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer, the first to be honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and the first to be memorialized by a president, Obama, another Chicagoan, who said in part, “For a generation of Americans—especially Chicagoans—Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest, when he did, he was effusive—capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.” That last bit sounds like escapism, not the most praiseworthy characteristic.

Most interesting to me was his own estimate of his TV show that went by various titles and was always shared with one other critic. It was not, he told Playboy, “a high-level, in-depth criticism,” but it demonstrated to younger viewers that one can bring standards of judgment to movies, that “it’s O.K. to have an opinion.” His own opinions could be gleaned also from his Sun-Times column, as well as his blog, Facebook and Twitter, where he had more than 800,000 followers.

Now, I wonder: unless those younger viewers were the age group from 8 to 12, why should they need to be told to have opinions about movies? And what is the value of opinions that need this kind of coaxing? Even more questionable is the whole thumbs up, thumbs down critique Ebert practiced, inherited from the Roman emperors who thus granted clemency or death at the gladiatorial contests. In Ebert’s case, the thumb was mightier than the word: wouldn’t such a shortcut take precedence over whatever verbiage followed it?

Never mind, though. I do not wish to minimize the importance of Ebert, who, I gather, wrote 15 books, some extending beyond film criticism to rice cookery and rambles through London. My unawareness of them, and never hearing a reference to them from anyone in my circle, are no proof of unimportance, merely a reason to give us pause.

I had very little contact with Ebert, though our paths occasionally crossed at screenings or film festivals. I know we exchanged words at a chance meeting in a video or music store, though I can’t recall any of them. I was once on a Telluride panel with him and 11 others, where we managed to disagree about the quality of writing about film in general. And I once published a brief comic piece about Siskel and Ebert in Chicago magazine. That is all.

What it all comes down to is this. I have doubts about someone who wrote screenplays for the soft-core pornographer Russ Meyer, and apparently “never tired of talking about it.” But my main problem is the notion of the critic as a common man, no different from the masses of moviegoers except for writing out his opinions and opining on television.

I firmly believe that the film critic should have a special expertise, like any kind of art critic. Like a physician, he should know more about medicine than a layman who picks an over-the-counter drug for a cold; like an architect, he should know more about architecture than a mere gaper at buildings.

The opinions of common men about film may be of genuine interest, but are of no major importance. To be sure, a failure in medicine is made manifest by the patient’s demise; a failure in architecture, by a collapsed building or a permanent eyesore. For failure in criticism, there is no such manifest evidence. Only time has the last word, but the good critic foreshadows it.

Granted, Ebert knew more about films quantitatively than the average moviegoer, but qualitatively—when it comes to taste and intellect—I very much doubt it. I feel truly sorry for Ebert’s sufferings from cancer: his loss of a jaw and the inability to eat, drink or talk. I do admire his staunch defiance of these depredations. But I must disagree about his alleged esteem, which, however widespread, does not seem to come from artists, scholars or intellectuals. I must also take issue with A. O. Scott’s contention that “wielding the thumb of judgment takes more dexterity, more art, than you might think.” Except from the palsied or mentally defective, it takes no dexterity whatsoever, let alone art.

And what about a “sting salved by caring”? No one who writes steadily about film (or any other discipline) does so without caring. Furthermore, a critical sting is not like a slight flesh wound, treatable with ointment. If intentionally negative, it has to sting. This is the only way it is noticeable, the only way it could make a difference. That is to say if any criticism makes a difference.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Logic is a wonderful thing of which there is all too little in our world. It would, for instance, be nice if a course in logic were part of the high-school curriculum, or, failing that, a least one mandatory semester in college. But even without knowing what a syllogism or an enthymeme is, couldn’t there be more logic, or even common sense, in our daily lives? Instead, we get flagrant kicks in logic’s teeth wherever we look. Let me give a few illustrative examples, prime among which is the battle over abortion rights.

Abortion should be universally legalized and unquestioningly available. Raising a child is a costly and demanding endeavor, at which even the most eager mothers can fail. How much more so the unwilling ones! The woman who wants an abortion honestly acknowledges that she is unfit or unwilling to be a mother; forcing her to become one is likely to be disastrous both for her and her child. Hence such sensible legislation as Roe vs. Wade exemplifies the frequent pattern of every logical step forward eliciting two steps back.

This, to be sure, is where religion, which has nothing whatsoever to do with logic, comes in with its meddling where it does not belong. Genuine life predicates the cognizance of mortality. Even an infant knows the difference between being suckled and being throttled; an embryo does not. To a world burdened with overpopulation (Malthus is revolving in his grave), abortion provides at least some amelioration. The alternative mode, war or revolution or suicide bombing, is clearly less desirable.

In a good many conservative societies, abortion is permitted at least where childbirth would endanger the life of the mother. So why isn’t a long-lasting misery for her and her brood considered equally unpalatable? Isn’t the Catholic Church’s and pro-lifers’ opposition to birth control a facilitator of unwanted birthing? Where, I ask, is the logic in all this?

And what about infanticide? The typical schema for that is a single mother’s baby crying too often, as babies logically do. Like the mother, her lover resents the baby’s importuning, so he clobbers it, often with the mother’s consent and collaboration. It happens, needless to say, mostly in impecunious households, which are often ethnic, eliciting indignation from nonethnic others, which in turn encourages their racism.

But let’s look at a specific, profoundly illogical case, that of Amanda Knox, the American student in Perugia, who, with her Italian lover was accused of killing her female British housemate. She was offed in what was fairly obviously an accidental bit of overenthusiasm during kinky sex games. What else could it have been? Amanda and her boyfriend claimed that they were downstairs, while some burglars upstairs turned murderous. But why was nothing stolen? Why was a friendly bartender, on whom accusation was cast by the others involved, clearly so innocent as not even to be tried? Why was another member of the group given a lengthy jail sentence, but pretty Amanda—and her (by that time ex-) boyfriend—eventually set free?

This coming summer a new trial by a higher court will take place, with or without Amanda’s presence. But the delay, Amanda’s having already spent some years in jail, her happy return to her family in Seattle, various publications in her favor, even her good looks, may all militate on the side of innocence, logic be damned.

Now what about smoking? It is the one addiction about whose serious harmfulness there can be no doubt, whose danger is made clear on the very packaging of cigarettes, whose ravages are graphically shown in scary TV ads, but for which there is no rehab, and certainly no legal prosecution, even though the mere secondary smoke is harmful to bystanders. I suppose that where the mighty tobacco industry’s survival is at stake, no less wealthy opponent and mere logic have the slightest chance of prevailing. Why, even against oversized, harmful sodas sold to innocent kids at school cafeterias—and despite Mayor Bloomberg’s valiant campaign—there is no logical solution to be expected.

What would happen if the word “poison” were displayed on wrappers and containers? I imagine the courts would not uphold such a procedure, logic notwithstanding. I am amused—or, rather, horrified—by the difficulties, perhaps even impossibility, of arriving at sensible anti-gun legislation, even highly rational background checks. The usual argument is that it would always be possible to get guns, etc., illegally. True, there may be no hundred-percent solution, but is that a logical argument against an at least partial one?

The problem has much to do with human nature, and that, alas, is unlikely to change. Let me adduce just one example of how even highly intelligent persons can go rampantly illogical where their vanity and eccentric self-indulgence are at concerned.  Take the case of Terrence Malick. The pleonastic second R in Terrence can be blamed on his parents, but what about the rest? Here is a Harvard graduate who also attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, worked for Life and The New Yorker, and even taught philosophy at MIT.

His first feature film, Badlands was a masterpiece, eliciting from me a glowing review in Esquire that many, myself included, consider one of my best. But Days of Heaven was less good, and so progressively—or regressively—The Thin Red Line and The New World. But it took The Tree of Life and now To the Wonder to be thoroughly illogical, egregious fiascos.

Consider To the Wonder, whose very title is clumsy. It purports to be the story of “an American traveling in Europe.” I quote the synopsis provided in the press handout. This fellow, Neil, “meets and falls in love with Marina, an [sic] Ukrainian divorcee who is raising her ten-year-old daughter Tatiana in Paris.” We don’t see how they met, or even what Marina is doing in Paris, and does for a living. What we do see pell-mell  are some of the most popular tourist sites, as the film becomes a kind of travelogue that might be distributed by the French Office of Tourism.

Suddenly the pair is at the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, another major tourist site, gamboling barefoot in the island’s surrounding sea-washed sands, and briefly also around the Abbey itself. The helpful synopsis, a kind of Rosetta stone to the film, informs us that the Abbey is largely considered a wonder, hence the film’s title, though we are forthwith in America, to which Neil, Marina and Tatiana have migrated.

More precisely, we are in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a nice little town but scarcely a wonder. It is not clear what Neil does there (though he went to school there). Although the synopsis, but not the dialogue, informs us that he is an “environmental inspector,” whatever that is, Tatiana is a schoolgirl in miraculously good English, and Marina, apparently, a happily loving and loved housewife, occupied chiefly with picturesque wanderings.

Dialogue throughout is sparse, whether in narration or in the painfully pseudo-poetic subtitles, mostly pretentious platitudes; the former, spoken sometimes by others, but mostly it would seem (improbably) by Marina. There is a good deal of sex, but, for no shown reason, the love cools. Here the synopsis avers that “work pressures and increasing doubt,” none of which we see, “pull Neil further apart from Marina.” If there are any pressures, they would be limited to Marina, though we see none, as any gainful and satisfying employment here as in Paris seems nonexistent for her.

We are told—the synopsis again—that Marina seeks solace from Father Quintana, “a Catholic priest undergoing a crisis of faith,” which we, however, must take on unconditional faith, despite certain subtitular maunderings about Christ having forsaken him. The good father, by the way, maunders in Spanish, though he speaks in English. This allows Spanish to join Neil’s English and Marina’s Russian and frequent French on the soundtrack. At one point a hysterical Italian woman is introduced out of nowhere shouting in Italian, but there’s no German, I regret to say. There are also scenes, sometimes in regional American, with prisoners in their jail cells as well as other irrelevant characters about whom the synopsis itself seems stumped and mute.

Marina and Tatiana, by the way, have returned to Paris, where Marina falls into some kind of invisible “hard times.” This interrupts the idyllic love affair between Neil and Jane, a rediscovered former schoolmate, which gives rise to more American (understated) sex scenes with this blonde. (Marina is a brunette.) Anyway, Neil is promptly back in Paris to Marina’s rescue, and, this time without Tatiana, they return to Bartlesville. 

A good part of the film now concerns assorted goings-on for the renewed lovers and still agonizing Father Quintana. I cannot begin to summarize—or even understand—all that goes on, but there is more fine cinematography by the excellent Emmanuel Lubezki, which includes radiant daylight, sunsets, night scenes, underwater scenes, and many colorful American landscapes, sometimes with the characters wandering through them, sometimes with only the wind fumbling through tall grasses. (See, I can wax poetic, too.) But even the finest photography is to a film scarcely more than a fetching cover and beautiful typography to a book. Finally, the film ends with a repeated shot of Mont Saint-Michel, very pretty but in cool colors, as befits such a monastic wonder to which, albeit without the characters shown this time, we return.

As Neil, Ben Affleck is mostly stony-faced, from which grayness only the richly polychrome tattoos that cover his arms and shoulder offer brief relief. As Father Quintana, Javier Bardem manages to be equally inexpressive, but in Spanish. Olga Kurylenko, as Marina, is a splendid actress and gorgeous woman; as Jane, Rachel McAdams is very attractive too, although not quite to the same extent.

So what is it all about? “Love and its many phases and seasons,” says the synopsis, although that is only what the photography is truly about. It is really about the swelled-headed, essentially narcissistic, illogical Terrence Malick, and about 113 minutes of our lives very nearly wasted. Logic, where art thou?