October 8, 2013

The Best American Argument for Judging a Book by Its Cover

Filed under: Books,Real Life — DB @ 12:45 pm
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At the risk of throwing my readers into a state of confusion, I’d like to take a brief detour from my usual subjects of movies and TV to talk about books. Yeah, I read books too. Sometimes. So what if they’re mostly by Dr. Seuss or have titles that end with “for Dummies”?

We’re always told not to judge a book by its cover, and though the phrase is usually used as a metaphor, I assume it did originate as advice about bound reading material. Yet some of my best reading discoveries have come from ignoring that nugget of age-old wisdom. Once, while browsing the Used section of San Francisco’s Green Apple bookstore, my eye was drawn to a red spine with a picture of a white owl. Upon picking up the paperback book, my first impression was that I liked the cover. The book was The Manikin, by Joanna Scott. It was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I read the following summary:

The Manikin is not a mannequin, but the curious estate of Henry Craxton, Sr. in a rural western New York State. Dubbed the “Henry Ford of Natural History,” by 1917 Craxton has become America’s preeminent taxidermist. Into this magic box of a world—filled with eerily inanimate gibbons and bats, owls and peacocks, quetzals and crocodiles—wanders young Peg Griswood, daughter of Craxton’s newest housekeeper. Part coming-of-age story, part gothic mystery, and part exploration of the intimate embrace between art and life, The Manikin is compulsively readable and beautifully written.

The book was in good shape, so I bought it, read it, and dug it. I think what I liked most about it — and this may drive book lovers crazy, but here it is — was that I saw such great cinematic potential for it. I still have a dream of seeing this book made into a movie, albeit with some alterations. (Much as I liked it, there were a couple of plot developments I didn’t buy.) I tried to adapt it myself once, just as a personal project, but I didn’t get very far.

It happened again not long afterwards. While drifting about the books department at the city’s now-defunct Virgin Megastore, I noticed a book cover depicting a gothic-looking structure against a blue and pink sky. I went in for a closer look. The building on the cover reminded me of something Terry Gilliam might have drawn in his Monty Python days. I grabbed Everything and More by Geoff Nicholson off the shelf. The description went like this:

The first novel to combine shopping and terrorism, Everything and More is the story of what happens day and night in Haden Brothers, a vast London department store designed as a replica of the Tower of Babel. It caters to all known human wants, as well as several more mysterious needs. Into this shopper’s Eden comes young Vita Carlisle, captivated by Haden’s wares since her youth. Her childhood dream is realized when she is hired to work in the legendary emporium. Then one evening Miss Carlisle shows up in the mysterious penthouse office of Arnold Haden, the reclusive scion of the founders.

Three pieces of dynamite are taped to her perfect waist.

She’s angry.

She’s about to explode.

It sounded good, but I wasn’t in a buying mood that day. I replaced the book on the shelf and left, but I kept thinking about it. I liked the plot summary, yes, but really it was the cover that I couldn’t shake. I kinda wanted that cover. So soon after, I bought the book. Read it, loved it, started reading more Geoff Nicholson.

This judging a book by its cover thing was working out pretty well for me. And so it happened again that, while walking through the fiction section in a bookstore that I can’t remember now, I saw out of the corner of my eye an illustrated cover that reminded me of a poster that was hanging in my bedroom. The poster was for the Todd Solondz film Happiness…and if you’ve ever seen that movie, you might consider it disturbing that anyone would want a 27″ x 41″ reminder of it on their wall. I liked the movie — as much as one can “like” a movie as uncomfortable to watch as Happiness — but having the poster up wasn’t about the film (which deals pretty explicitly with such happy-fun-time subjects as pedophilia, masturbation, deep loneliness, emotional isolation, rejection, adultery and decapitated heads in freezers) so much as the poster itself. I just really liked the poster, which was illustrated by Daniel Clowes, the graphic novelist behind Ghost World.

So anyway, I saw this book cover and thought, “Is that cover art by Daniel Clowes?” I picked up the book, The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2003, and confirmed that Clowes was indeed the featured artist. Then I took a look at the book itself. I was aware of Houghton Mifflin’s “Best American” series, but while I had come across editions for such groupings as Short Stories, Mysteries and Essays, I’d never heard of the Nonrequired Reading line. A look at the back explained that this collection, edited by Dave Eggers, contained a potpourri of works including short stories, nonfiction, comics, essays and more, culled from a spectrum that included national magazines like Time and The New Yorker as well as online zines. This edition included work by Sherman Alexie, David Sedaris and Mark Bowden. Intrigued, I decided to buy it.

Shortly after the purchase, I was flying from San Francisco to Boston, and thought this would be the perfect book to take on the plane. I like reading short pieces when I’m flying. With all the distractions that accompany air travel, I frequently look up from my reading to see what’s happening around me. (Is that cute girl going to sit in the seat next to me? Is that overweight man going to sit in the seat next to me? Is that couple with the already-crying baby going to sit in the seats next to me?) I started to pick through the book looking for the pieces that seemed most interesting, but then I considered that the point of a volume like this was to read things that I might ignore or not come across otherwise. Cherry-picking my selections would defeat the purpose, so I started at the beginning and read it straight through. From Eggers’ foreword, I learned that the pieces for the collection were chosen by a group of San Francisco Bay Area high school students, who met weekly with Eggers at his SF-based writing center, 826 Valencia. I read it all, cover to cover. I enjoyed some of the pieces, while others didn’t do much for me, but I loved the concept. From that point on, The Best American Nonrequired Reading has been my flying companion. I don’t fly all that often, so I’m usually a couple of years behind with the series, but I buy each new edition (released every October, the newest hits shelves today) and work my way through, no matter how long it takes. I only read it when I travel.

My experience is always the same: some pieces I like, some stay with me, others do little for me and are quickly forgotten, but each new selection is a mini-mystery. Among the standouts over the years are a New York Times Magazine article by Chuck Klosterman, called “The Pretenders”, about a Guns N’ Roses cover band (included in the 2003 edition); a Pulitzer Prize winning story from The Washington Post, titled “Pearls Before Breakfast”, about a social experiment in which world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell performed, to little notice, in a Washington D.C. subway station for 45 minutes during a weekday morning rush hour (it appeared in the 2008 volume); and “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?”, an article by Charlie Leduff that paints a powerful, painful depiction of Detroit’s ills. Broad enough to give a sense of the entire city’s hopelessness and intimate enough to capture individual citizens’ devastating realities, the article could serve as the blueprint for a new version of The Wire. Originally published in Mother Jones, it was featured in the 2011 Nonrequired Reading. In 2004, the collection included a short story titled “The Minor Wars”, which was later expanded into a novel called The Descendants, gaining wider exposure when it was adapted into the Oscar-winning 2011 film starring George Clooney.

The impressive roster of authors that have been represented over the years includes David Mamet, Miranda July, Michael Lewis, Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Kurt Vonnegut, Conan O’Brien, Alison Bechdel, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Jhumpa Lahiri, while artists like Viggo Mortensen, Beck, Matt Groening, Judy Blume and Ray Bradbury have contributed the foreword. And unlike most entries in the Best American series, which enlist a new guest editor every year, this one is the permanent domain of Dave Eggers and his student committee. In recent years, they introduced a front section full of random amusing lists such as Best American Fake Headlines (collected from The Onion), Best American New Band Names, Best American Things to Know About Chuck Norris (from ChuckNorrisFacts.com), Best American Fictional Character Names, and so on. The combination of eclectic literature, entertaining lists, thoughtful forewords and an always amusing introduction by Eggers himself, as well as short bios of the students, makes The Best American Nonrequired Reading series a perennial favorite. Whenever I read it, my enthusiasm for writing is sparked and I find myself inspired toward journalistic intentions that inevitably go unfulfilled. My pointless little blog remains my meager venue for exorcising that demon. Still, those brief moments of inspiration feel nice. I always look forward to a new volume of The Best American Nonrequired Reading, which I never would have discovered if I hadn’t judged a book by its cover. And the best way to have that experience is to undertake the declining pleasure of browsing aimlessly through a bookstore and allowing your eye to wander until something catches it.

August 6, 2013

Separating the Art from the Artist. Or Not.

Filed under: Movies,Real Life — DB @ 4:15 pm

While scrolling through my Facebook wall on Saturday, I came across a post in which a friend — to protect the innocent, let’s call this person Hermione — explained that she had once stated her refusal to see a certain artist’s films in the theater because she did not agree with the person’s life choices. Upon hearing that remark, a colleague responded, “Hate the artist, not the art.” To which Hermione asked her Facebook community, isn’t an artist inextricably linked to his or her art? She added that the artist in question is Woody Allen, and that with Allen’s new movie Blue Jasmine currently earning strong reviews, big box office (“big” for an independent film) and major Oscar buzz for Cate Blanchett, the debate was once again on her mind. It’s a valid question, which elicited about 60 responses from her friends. I read through them all with great interest, and decided that since I’ve given the topic some thought myself in the past, I would raise it here where I could expound on it more than I could on Facebook.

An artist is inextricably linked to their art simply by having created it, but I don’t think the art necessarily speaks to the opinions of the artist. The creation may be a story that reflects an entirely different set of values than those of the artist. In fact, I think this is a mistake we make too often when we consume a story, whether in a book, a song, or a film. We assume that it correlates to the author’s own morality or viewpoint. But sometimes, an artist wants to tell a story of vile people doing vile things that they themselves would never do in reality. Eminem may not have lived the purest life as a young man, but he sings about an awful lot of unsettling things that I think it’s safe to say he never actually did. Colin Meloy, lead singer of my beloved Decemberists, might have been in a dark place when he wrote “The Rake’s Song” — in which a selfish widower who despises his three young children murders them all and feels totally fine about it — but I don’t think Meloy is promoting or condoning filicide. (He’s written some perfectly sweet and lovely songs too; don’t judge him by “The Rake’s Song”, which is about as dark as he gets.)

The Woody Allen situation is different, of course. The problem people have with Allen — the problem relevant to this discussion, at least — is not that his movies contain themes or ideas that make them uncomfortable, but rather that Allen himself has done things that trouble them. They don’t want to spend their money supporting someone whose actions they find so offensive, for doing so would be tantamount to excusing these things. Or the money is irrelevant, and they just can’t enjoy the work because their personal feelings are too strong. It’s an absolutely reasonable stance to take, and the point of this post is not to argue for or against it, since there is no right or wrong answer. It’s a decision every consumer has to make based on their own feelings. Many of Hermione’s Facebook friends agreed with her and said they do not go to see Allen’s movies. Others said they are able to separate their feelings about Allen from their enjoyment of his films. Some brought up Roman Polanski as another artist who poses the same conundrum.

I fall into the latter category. I don’t let an artist’s real life circumstances interfere with my desire to see their work. “Don’t let” may not be the best way to phrase it, actually, since I never made a conscious decision about it. I simply don’t have trouble appreciating this movie or that because of what its star, director, location manager, etc. has done. I’m a Woody Allen fan, so however sketchy some of his off-screen behavior may be, I’m not going to stop watching his movies. If Roman Polanski has a movie out that interests me, I’m going to see it regardless of his past inappropriate conduct. Ditto for Mel Gibson. Yes, I’m troubled by many of the things he’s said and done in recent years. But I can’t bring myself to reject Lethal Weapon or Braveheart because of it, nor am I going to boycott future works of his that look appealing. I’m sure there are some people who don’t understand how I could continue to support the career of such a person. All I can say is that for me, the work is the work. By avoiding it, I’m only punishing myself. Those that think they’re impacting the artist’s financial rewards by withholding patronage are kidding themselves, but if it makes them feel better, I won’t argue it. I’ll just say that if that’s their sole reason for avoiding something that they would otherwise choose to experience, the loss is theirs, not the artist’s. (And for these people, I’m curious: does your opinion change once the artist has passed away?) If the reason is not monetary, but instead an inability to watch that person’s work without thinking about who they truly are and experiencing some degree of disgust, then they should stand by that, as long as that feeling outweighs their interest in the movie, album, book, etc. I’m not sure what it says about me, if anything, but I have no problem separating my opinions. I can still happily watch The Naked Gun without dwelling on O.J. Simpson’s crimes, or see David Lynch’s Lost Highway and be creeped out by Robert Blake’s character, but not by the man himself and the murder for which he was convicted. When I listen to “Unchained Melody”, “Be My Baby”, “Imagine” or “My Sweet Lord”, I don’t think about Phil Spector serving time for murder (though in truth, I don’t think I knew Spector was involved in any of those songs before watching the recent HBO movie with Al Pacino).

Simpson, Blake and Spector may be extreme cases, but there are many famous people who have engaged in behavior that some might find troubling. Where do we draw the line about what we’ll tolerate? I ask that not as a defiant challenge intended to trip anyone up on their own morals, but as a legitimate query. In 1965, at the height of his James Bond fame, Sean Connery gave an interview to Playboy in which he said there was nothing wrong with slapping a woman in extreme circumstances. Christian Bale was involved in a highly publicized incident a few years back on the set of Terminator: Salvation, where he unleashed a profanity-filled tirade on the cinematographer, who was moving around during a scene and causing Bale to become distracted from his performance. Russell Crowe was known to exhibit bad behavior earlier in his career, including a 2005 incident in which he threw a phone at a hotel employee. In 2007, Alec Baldwin left his 11 year-old daughter an enraged voicemail complete with name calling. While directing Three Kings in the late 90’s, director David O. Russell was allegedly abusive to crew members, prompting star George Clooney to confront him about his inappropriate behavior and reportedly leading the two men to blows. A few years later, Russell and Lily Tomlin got into a heated feud while shooting I ♥ Huckabees that escalated to the point of Russell screaming and kicking equipment around the set. Another incident between the two showed that Tomlin was just as capable of bad behavior. Winona Ryder shoplifted. Eddie Murphy and Hugh Grant were caught with prostitutes. These are just a few examples of bad behavior gone public. Who knows how many other artists, from filmmakers to writers to musicians, have abused co-workers verbally or physically, or engaged in other actions that might be a turn-off to fans. I’m sure if we knew about all the cases of womanizing or infidelities among professional creative types, we would end up with a list many pages long.

Now for the record, Crowe and Russell have apologized for their actions, and seem to have mellowed out considerably. Clooney and Russell even made up after years of lingering animosity. As for Bale, his outburst seemed to be a one-time episode. More to the point, most of these offenses are certainly less serious than those attached to Polanski, and most are less questionable than the things Allen has done. (In her Facebook conversation, Hermione noted that it was not just Allen’s history with Soon Yi Previn that made her uncomfortable, but also other accusations leveled by Mia Farrow in her autobiography, which Hermione acknowledges is one-sided and strongly biased.) But my point in raising all of these examples is to illustrate that artists — like anyone else — display all manner of bad behavior and poor choices. Sometimes chronically, sometimes just once (as far as we know). So anyone who has such a problem with Allen, Polanski, Mel Gibson, etc. that they refuse to support that person’s work is completely entitled to do so. But it’s not unreasonable that if you’re going to make moral judgements on an artist for one thing, you have to ask yourself where you draw the line for other offenses, and be prepared to not necessarily like your answer.

Another consideration to keep in mind in nearly all these cases involving famous people’s crimes and misdemeanors (see what I did there?), is that we rarely know the whole story. We aren’t witnesses to these events, and have no idea what the full picture would reveal. The media can be biased, and the entertainment media in particular loves to bring down the very people they make such efforts to anoint. Equally important to consider is that people are not necessarily defined only by their uglier characteristics. Whatever Woody Allen has done privately, consider that as an artist, he has provided actresses and audiences with some of the most compelling and rich female characters on film in the last 30-plus years, if not of all time. In a movie landscape that is increasingly driven by action movies and comedies that put men front and center, isn’t Allen’s consistent ability and desire to write so well for women something worth celebrating? There might be other artists who have contributed to society in positive ways that don’t get the attention devoted to their more embarrassing or disturbing episodes and tendencies. Only in the fictional works created by the artists we hold to such high standards are the lines between good and bad so clear. In real life — and in the more complex and morally ambiguous movie worlds that filmmakers like Allen and Polanski occupy — we dwell in shades of grey. Think of Matt Dillon’s character in the movie Crash. (Yes, I realize I’m using a fictional character to make an actual point, but I’ve said many times that I’m incapable of connecting to reality without using movies.) Dillon plays a racist policeman who, early on, pulls over a black couple and then crosses a line when frisking the wife. Yeah, he’s that guy. But he’s also a son who watches with helpless, heartbroken frustration as his aging father deals with medical problems that go untreated due to insurance denials. And of course, he later risks his life to save the same woman he pulled over, rescuing her from a burning car before it explodes. The lesson, which that whole (often derided) movie puts forth, is that we’re quick to pass judgement on people without knowing their full story.

I’ll wind down the topic with what I’ve always considered one of the most challenging examples of this art vs. artist quandary. Elia Kazan is the pioneering theater and film director whose work in the latter medium includes A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden and A Face in the Crowd. He is a founder of the Actor’s Studio, and is widely regarded as the greatest director of actors in history. Dozens of outstanding performers who went on to long careers were first introduced, either in theater or on film, by Kazan. Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty and Eva Marie Saint were among the most prominent, but his discoveries also included great character actors like Pat Hingle and Rip Torn. He also directed the original Broadway productions of Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Streetcar. Without a doubt, Kazan is one of the most significant and influential artists of the 20th century.

But of course, these achievements are not all that he’s known for. Kazan is also infamous for his 1952 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, during which he named names of fellow artists who had been connected to the Communist party. All of the names he provided were already known to the committee, but his appearance as a friendly witness was nevertheless seen by many as a betrayal. His testimony may not have directly led to any blacklisting, but his cooperation upheld Joe McCarthy’s institutional witch-hunt that ended countless careers in Hollywood and beyond. If Kazan had refused to testify or name names, his ability to make films might have ended, but his thriving career in New York theater would likely have continued unaffected. He also had enough clout that if he had challenged HUAC, he might have helped put an end to its despicable activities. Instead, he played ball and saw his good fortune continue to flourish while others saw theirs evaporate. And yet, a mere two years later, Kazan was given the Academy Award for Best Director (his second) for On the Waterfront, a movie that deals with the consequences of informing and which has been interpreted by many as Kazan’s attempt to justify his actions regarding HUAC. When you think about how political the Oscars are known to be, and how many factors other than the movie itself make their way into people’s voting process, Kazan’s 1954 win is stunning. But here was a case where even in the wake of his controversial action, the film community still saw fit to recognize his artistic achievement. And although he went on to continued success and many accolades, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 1982, some organizations, such as the American Film Institute, refused to celebrate him later in his life. His appearance before HUAC — and his refusal over the years to apologize or admit that it was a mistake — were stains that many could not forgive or forget. So when it was announced that Kazan would be presented with an Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1999, the reaction was unsurprisingly divisive. The Academy’s decision stirred up long-dormant feelings about the McCarthy and blacklist years, with those critical of the selection pointing out that (among other things), Kazan had already won two Oscars, making this an unnecessary tribute. The Academy’s position was that Kazan was being honored for his work, not his politics or his personal behavior, although many other Honorary Oscar recipients over the years were cited for their offscreen morality and good deeds as well as their contributions to cinema. (That includes Kirk Douglas, who received a similar award three years earlier, and whose accomplishments as mentioned by presenter Steven Spielberg included helping to “hammer the blacklist to pieces.”) When Kazan’s Oscar night moment came and he took the stage, many in the room gave him a standing ovation, while others remained defiantly in their seats, arms folded. Some stayed seated but still clapped.

Would you have stood and applauded for the artist? Or would you have stayed in your seat and clasped your hands, protesting the man? Elia Kazan, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson…the circumstances around each one are different, but the question that we ask ourselves as fans of the art they all practice is essentially the same. I’m not blind to the real life factors that cloud these artists’ reputations, but my desire to experience their work ultimately trumps all. For others, it’s an understandable and recurring debate.

April 5, 2013

A Final Thumbs Up

Filed under: Movies,Real Life — DB @ 6:00 pm
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On Tuesday, Roger Ebert published a post on his blog announcing that he would be slowing down for a while, reviewing fewer movies and instead focusing on other aspects of his expansive brand — a move prompted by the recurrence of the cancer that had been chipping away at him for years. Ever the optimist who refused to let the disease stop him, Ebert referred to this adjustment as a “leave of presence.”

On Thursday, Roger Ebert passed away.

I’ll try not to regurgitate facts about his life that, in the past 24 hours, have already been offered by admirers and colleagues who can eulogize him more eloquently and effectively than I can. If you haven’t read any of them, you should. Ebert lived a rich and colorful life. This piece from The New York Times does a nice job of covering the highlights, as does this one from The Hollywood Reporter. Fellow critics and journalists like Owen Gleiberman, Todd McCarthy and Jeff Greenfield have paid tribute to his importance and influence. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Harvey Weinstein, Taylor Hackford and President Obama all released statements honoring him, as did Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker whose work was long championed by Ebert and who presented the critic with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005. Other directors like Danny Boyle and Darren Aronofsky offered remembrances as well. Reactions have poured in on Twitter from actors, filmmakers, and other members of the media who were touched by his work.

Like so many, I came to know Ebert through his TV show with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, who also died too soon of cancer, in 1999. I mentioned last year, in a post about the beginnings of my life as an obsessive movie fan, how I watched Siskel & Ebert every week just out of pure excitement to see clips from the movies. I wanted them to like the movies I liked (or the ones I was excited to see). Whether they agreed or disagreed, they were great fun to watch, and they were doing the only thing that I had any interest in doing: they were talking about movies. When I heard the news about Ebert’s passing yesterday, I went straight to YouTube and started searching among the wealth of available clips from their show for a few specific reviews from the summer of 1987. I couldn’t find the ones I was looking for, but soon fell down the rabbit hole and watched probably a dozen, including their appraisals of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (complete with the show’s opening credit sequence…wow, the memories!)…*

Blue Velvet, on which Ebert stood out in the critical community as a voice of dissent…

…and Overboard, a nice little comedy that I’ve always enjoyed. Ebert liked it too. Siskel did not.

Here’s their review of A Few Good Men. I remember watching this at the time, and having liked the movie, wanting to disregard Ebert’s main problem with it.

But damn him, I couldn’t put it out of my head. It kept gnawing at me. Still does, when I see the movie. And even though I like it, I know he’s right. Whether or not I could share their opinions, I always found them entertaining and appreciated what they were doing. I looked forward to their Memo to the Academy specials, where they made suggestions to Academy members about films and performances that deserved nominations, as well as their annual If We Picked the Winners episodes, where they opened each other’s envelopes and discussed their thoughts on who should win the Oscars. I remember that Academy special in 1993, when Siskel couldn’t explain his choice of The Crying Game in a certain category without giving away the film’s big secret, so he suggested viewers turn down the volume on their TV sets until he was done and gave a signal to turn it back up. Ebert was upset by that, and their bickering made news. Siskel and Ebert’s public persona seemed to be that they were always bickering, but while they often did disagree — sometimes strongly — and poke fun at each other, their rapport always came through. They frequently appeared together on David Letterman’s shows, and many of those clips are also available on YouTube. This one, from 1990, finds them discussing GoodFellas, the importance of movies to the public, and the NC-17 rating, which was new at the time.

Siskel and Ebert were a major part of my movie-centric childhood. When I was probably around 11 or 12, I randomly wrote a poem in which the two of them did a show about horror movies that people could rent and watch at home. I have no recollection of how this came to pass; I didn’t even like horror movies, and certainly hadn’t seen many at that age. But I wrote it, and sent it to them after tracking down their address through the local Boston channel that syndicated their show. They sent me back a personally autographed copy of the picture below. I also recall seeing some program on TV where Ebert showed off his home movie theater. And I don’t mean a living room with home theater equipment. I mean a small movie theater in his house, complete with a lobby that had a popcorn machine and movie posters in the same lit-up frames you would see at a real theater. Inside were red plush seats and not a big screen TV mounted on the wall, but a real movie screen (albeit, smaller than your typical one). That was just about the coolest thing I had ever seen, and it became a dream that someday I would be able to have a similar home theater. (Now that I’m older, I realize it will never happen.)

Although Ebert became widely known because of the TV show, his career began and ended with the written word. The thumbs up/thumbs down rating system that he and Siskel introduced provided a simple way to offer opinions to the mass audience (and was sometimes scoffed at by more “serious” critics for being too simplistic), but what kept Ebert relevant for me even long after I’d stopped watching the show was his writing. He wrote about film so knowledgeably, passionately and entertainingly. Reading Ebert, you could see how smart he was and how well he understood film, yet he always talked about it in a way that was accessible and straightforward. He was the first person to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, and right up until the end — as the lengthy “leave of presence” blog post linked at the beginning demonstrates — he was still writing with warmth and enthusiasm.

His comments sometimes resulted in angry reactions from those whose work he panned, but if anyone engaged in a war of words with Ebert, they were bound to lose. Director Vincent Gallo did not take kindly to Ebert’s scathing review of his film The Brown Bunny at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Gallo hurled insults, but Ebert’s way with words made him the winner of that feud. Another memorable diss from Ebert came in 2005 when he commented on Rob Schneider’s verbal assault of Los Angeles Times critic Patrick Goldstein, who had raked Schneider’s film Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo across the coals. Yet despite verbal altercations such as these, Ebert’s humanity and passion for film always won out, and even Gallo and Schneider couldn’t stay mad. After The Brown Bunny was shortened, as mentioned in the article linked above, Ebert interviewed Gallo and the two cleared the air. Schneider naturally disagreed with Ebert’s assessment of his work, but respected him nevertheless, and even sent flowers after one of his bouts with cancer, a gesture which Ebert wrote about on his website.

While Ebert’s health problems didn’t keep him from watching and writing about films, they resulted in a physical transformation so startling that it made me sad to look at him, no matter how much bravery and humor he displayed in handling his physical deterioration. The details of his disease and the toll it took on his body are documented in an excellent profile that appeared in Esquire in 2010. I remember when it came out, the accompanying picture was the first time I had seen him since his jaw had been removed. The photo made my heart hurt. But Ebert wasn’t going to be defined by his disease or what it did to him, and even now after his death, his legacy will remain that of an unstoppable champion of movies. The film festival he’s hosted in his native Illinois for 15 years was set to take place this month, and will proceed as planned. Known as Ebertfest, its purpose is to spotlight movies that have been ignored or forgotten by the general public and which Ebert felt deserved more attention. (It was originally known as Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival.) Ebert will also be the subject of a documentary called Life Itself, based on his 2011 memoir of the same name. The project, which Martin Scorsese and Oscar-winning screenwriter/director Steven Zaillian are executive producing, has been in production for some time, with Ebert’s participation. Its director, Steve James, made the documentary Hoop Dreams, which both Siskel and Ebert named as the best movie of 1994.

When Ebert announced his “leave of presence” this week, I had a sinking feeling that this latest case of cancer would be the one that took him away, but I thought it would be a matter of months at best, weeks at worst. Did he know how close the end really was when he penned that final journal entry? If he did, he chose not to say goodbye. Instead, he talked about the things he was looking forward to doing and how he would be occupying his time. Yet his final public statement did read as a farewell, even as he looked ahead to work not yet done and movies not yet seen. An impressive trick to pull off, but probably easy for someone who had such a way with words.

With Roger Ebert now joining Gene Siskel in the great beyond, I’ll go ahead and sadly say what so many others have since yesterday: the balcony is closed.

Thanks to both of you for opening it to us in the first place.


*March 2018 – The video with the opening credits, initially included in the post, has since been removed from YouTube. I replaced it with the version seen here, sans opening credits.

January 20, 2013

House of Cards

Filed under: Movies,Real Life — DB @ 4:45 pm
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Do kids still collect baseball cards? I honestly have no idea, but in our digital, wireless world where it seems every toddler has an iPhone and as natural an ability to play video games and browse the web as they do to walk, swallow or breathe, the idea of collecting 4×4 slices of paperboard with player photos and stats seems an antiquated concept. Personally, I was never a baseball card collector. As I’ve said before, I was a weird little kid who lacked the zeal for sports that all red-blooded American boys are supposed to have. Instead, I had movies. But that didn’t leave me without cards of my own to collect. Movies had cards too.

Last year, while visiting my childhood home for what will be the last time before my parents enter semi-retirement and move away, I unearthed a treasure chest from the back of a closet, on a shelf just above the several cardboard tubes filled with movie posters I collected a kid. This treasure chest was in the form of a wine box, and its contents were sweeter than any bottle of Riesling. It contained all the movie cards I still had from my childhood. The loot covered  all three Star Wars movies, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Dick Tracy, and a few one-offs – a pack of Goonies cards, a lone E.T. card, some Aladdin cards, and a small assortment of Fright Flicks cards, which depicted scenes and creatures from 70’s and 80’s horror movies. These are the remains of one of the primary collecting crazes of my youth. I know that at one time, I also had cards from Tim Burton’s Batman, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Jaws 3-D (complete with 3D glasses); I’m sure I had some from the second and/or third Superman movies, and I definitely had a few from…wait for it…Howard the Duck. (Wow…that’s two Howard the Duck references in as many months! How often does that opportunity present itself?) The closest I ever got to sports cards were my World Wrestling Federation cards (all gone now, sadly), though perhaps the Comic Ball cards – illustrated by Chuck Jones and placing the Looney Tunes characters in various baseball storylines – count as baseball cards. But probably not.

Still, how much of an oddball could I have been? Clearly there was an interest in these items. Somewhere out there, other kids must have also been buying up packs of Who Framed Roger Rabbit cards. God bless ’em, wherever they may be. My favorite neighborhood stores to walk or bike to were the video store and the baseball card shop, which, though dominated by sports cards and memorabilia, still catered to my interests with a healthy section of movie and pop culture cards. (Garbage Pail Kids stickers got an awful lot of my money in those days too.) And no matter what kind of cards you collected, whether it was MLB or Rocky (I had a few of those too), you eventually came up against the same problem: completing the collection.

With most of these cards, there were usually at least two series, distinguished by different colored borders. With Return of he Jedi, for example, there was a 132-card set with red borders, and an 88-card set with blue borders. While I had both, it was the red-bordered set that I came nearest to completing. Problem is, when you would have most of the cards in a series, continuing to buy new packs was a maddening endeavor since you were all but guaranteed a bunch of doubles. With each pack bought and each plastic wrapper peeled back, it was like hoping to find one of Wonka’s Golden Tickets. If you flipped through the eight or ten cards and actually found one of the few you still needed, the elation would nearly match what Charlie Bucket experienced when he finally found his slip of gold, and there was no “Mr. Slugworth” on hand to spoil the triumph.

I remember my mother sending me down to the neighborhood market one day in the summer of 1990 to pick up a carton of milk or something. By that time, I had nearly completed my collection of Dick Tracy cards, and had reached that period where every pack I bought was full of doubles. Tired of throwing my money away, I would try to carefully open the pack in the store, before buying it, to see if it had a card I needed. This, of course, had to be handled discreetly. That day, I delayed the milk to hit the candy and card aisle first. I picked up a pack, and carefully peeled open the back, trying to keep the folds intact so that if I found nothing but the expected duplicates, I could slide them neatly back into place, fold the edges back down and return the pack to the box without anyone being the wiser. Unfortunately, the manager came through from the rear of the store and caught my suspicious behavior. He pointedly asked me if there was something I needed. Caught by surprise, I told him I was fine and proceeded a moment later, after he’d walked on, to get the milk. My heart was racing. I felt like I had been caught stealing. The manager must have suspected the same. When I got to the counter to pay, he asked me where the cards were. I told him I decided not to get them, and he continued to look at me doubtfully, as if I was a thief.

I hadn’t really done anything wrong. So I opened a pack of cards without buying it. It’s not like it was a carton of food that was going to spoil. It’s not like I licked that thin, rock-hard stick of gum those packs of cards always included. But I still left the store in a panic, feeling guilty and stressing about what would have happened if he had banned me from the store. How would I have explained to my parents why I could never return there? Card collecting had driven me to the fringes of the criminal life. Even now, I sometimes awake suddenly in the night, broken out in cold sweat over the haunting memory of being briefly suspected of pilfering a pack of Dick Tracy cards.

Anyway, part of my task while home on this recent trip was to go through things of mine that were still in closets, the basement and the attic so I could get rid of lingering childhood artifacts before my parents move. But I couldn’t part with the cards. I stuck the wine box in a shopping bag and brought it as a carry-on when I flew back to California. I have no idea why. What can I do with them? What did I ever do with them, other than lay around in my room flipping through them and reliving the movies? I just couldn’t bear to toss them or give them away. (I should add, I also had to go through two carrying cases full of Star Wars action figures. I couldn’t give all of those up either, so I packed about 20 favorites in my suitcase, tucked in among the clothes, and made my peace with the rest of them – and the C-3PO and Darth Vader carrying cases – being given away to a little cousin or the grandkid of one of my parents’ friends, or who knows who.) So now the box of cards is shelved in my own closest, unlikely to be touched except on occasions where nostalgia takes hold and I feel an urge to recall days of yore.

I was just looking through my Dick Tracy collection, which contained 88 cards and 11 stickers, and son of a bitch…I’m still missing card #45.

December 24, 2012

Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas

Filed under: Real Life — DB @ 3:45 pm

Just a quick post to wish a Merry Christmas to those of you celebrating the holiday. In light of the recent big news involving Lucasfilm and the future of Star Wars, I thought this Christmas message starring Jabba the Hutt would be appropriate…even though it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen and I have no idea what’s going on, other than that Jabba is apparently really tired. And hungry.

I don’t know; I just work here. At least it wasn’t something from the infamous Star Wars Christmas Special. Thanks to Nick, who sent this link to me and others last year.

And how could I resist sharing this video, wherein Samuel L. Jackson and Anne Hathaway argue over whose Christmas Day movie is more bleak? I’ve already had a chance to see Les Misérables, so after taking in Django Unchained tomorrow, I’ll know which of them can claim victory in their quest to leave us emotionally battered and bruised.

With that, I leave you to your Christmas Eve celebrations, or for the Jews, your perusal of Chinese food menus and movie showtimes. Enjoy the holiday.

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