Sunday, December 03, 2006


I remember the first cinematic opinion I got my ass kicked over: Grease. I was the only person in my class who didn't go ga-ga over the movie John Travolta did before Moment By Moment, and when I expressed my displeasure with this poorly directed musical debacle, people played Hand Jive on my face. It was then I knew I wanted to be a film critic, preferably one with a stronger jaw. I started devouring every film review I could get my hands on, and in nearly three decades I have found some memorable opinions on which to chew. I have also endured numerous cases of heartburn. Here are a smidgen of the former and a dash of the latter.

1. Roger Ebert. Cinema snobs always pick on poor Rog, but I am not ashamed to admit I love Mr. Ebert. He influenced me in so many ways, even though I frequently disagree with him. His writing always seemed like a friendly conversation, a trait I have tried to mimic. He won the
Pulitzer, which I've dreamt about since I was 8 years old. He did fun, unusual things in his reviews (I am still trying to figure out his take on The Howling). And like me, he loves Black women and big tits: Of Queen Latifah in Living Out Loud, Rog wrote that she "is tall, striking, carries herself with placid self-confidence and wears dresses that display her magnificent bosom--not as an advertisement, but more in a spirit of generosity toward the world."

Sure, his positive reviews of dreck like Cop and a Half made my head hurt, but I admire (and emulate) his utter lack of shame.

2. Bosley Crowther's Bonnie and Clyde review. Nobody did histrionic outrage better than Bosley
Crowther, who seemed at times to be permanently stuck in 1937. I was always impressed at how distressed he got over post-Production code movies; as hard as I tried, I could never get that pissed over light shooting out of a projector. Crowther's review of B&C plays like Rex Reed minus the Paul Lynde bitchiness and the Winona Ryder jazz hands. For someone so upset by the film's violence, he sure can't stop talking about it. "This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth," growls Crowther at one point. He warns us that "astonished people are machine-gunned" (as opposed to "slightly displeased people"), and uses the same adjective to describe himself a paragraph later. "And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap." Perhaps he felt machine-gunned.

Crowther announced his resignation from the Times shortly after this review. Like so many other critics, he wound up in Hollywood, taking an advisory position at Columbia Pictures. You may remember then as the studio that passed on M*A*S*H because, according to them, "people don't say 'fuck' in films from Columbia Pictures."

3. Joe Klein's review of 1989's Do The Right Thing infuriated me like Bosley Crowther at a screening of Pulp Fiction. Klein called Spike Lee's film "reckless" and indicated that only White people would be able to have a civil, detailed discussion on the film's message. "Black teenagers won't find [the film's message] so hard," Klein wrote, "white people are your enemy." In 1989, I was one of those people Klein painted with his monolithic brush, a Black 19-year old computer science major entering his final year at college. Despite dreams of being a critic, I had become a computer science major because there were no Black film critics (or so I thought), and I didn't think I'd be able to get a job. Klein's erroneous predictions of race riots at every screening made me wish I had done the right thing and gotten that degree in journalism or film, if only so I could publicly let him know what an asshole I thought he was. As a result, I started writing reviews for anyone who would read them. I owe 1,542 movie reviews to Joe Klein's comments.

4. The Divine yet Frequently Wrong Ms. Pauline Kael gives the Odienator his moviegoing credo: "The movies are so rarely great art, that if we can't appreciate great trash, there is little reason for us to go." That's from her essay "Trash, Art and the Movies."

5. The Passion of the Seitz. He'll kill me for doing this, but I could not leave our very own Matt Zoller Seitz off this list. As the resident The New World and Miami Vice dissenter on this blog, I have had my disagreements with Matt, but I can't help but be inspired by his passion for the films that challenge and change him. When he falls in love with a movie, he falls hard, and his prose is so vividly seductive that even I, after rolling my eyes in disagreement, wish I could have seen the movie with him as my projector.

In his 10 best blurb for 2004's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Matt invoked Peanuts, a very odd analogy. I wrote him a snarky E-mail saying the Peanuts analogy was "appropriate; I think Charlie Brown's comic strip is boring as shit too." This is part of what he wrote me back:
"I also think that if you accept the movie on its own terms -- i.e., if you agree to give in for a couple of hours and see the world through Anderson's eyes -- the emotion becomes apparent. On its most basic level, The Life Aquatic is about confronting and accepting mortality, a theme expressed in the bookending dramatic events (the death of Zissou's partner at the hands of the Jaguar shark, and the death of his maybe-son in a random helicopter crash) as well as in Zissou's obsession with leaving behind an exploration/filmmaking legacy that will endure after his death. It's about accepting the fact that you can't do anything about death. ("I'll fight it, but I'll let it live," Zissou tells a skittish backer who doesn't want him to slay the shark that killed his partner. "Now where's my dynamite?") The finale where the mini-sub goes right up to the Jaguar shark and observes it without confronting it, much less fighting or killing it, is a metaphor for the need to get close to death, to understand death, without succumbing to it."
Even though I still thought the movie was garbage, I saw a different perspective on it. That's what great criticism does for a person.
The Odienator occasionally haunts The House Next Door, professing an undying love for Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck and good trash. He also looks a lot like Cuba Gooding Jr.


Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

I've never had an email quoted back to me in an article before, so I'm not quite sure how to react, except to say I'm glad I got your attention, and one of these days I hope to convince you that The Life Aquatic is a great movie. Maybe we should watch it together, with me wearing a Charlie Brown shirt.

As for Ebert, yeah, it's fashionable to dis him these days, and he's not quite the monumental agenda-setter he was in the 80s and early 90s, when he and Siskel would do, say, a whole episode of their show on Do the Right Thing. But people tend to forget that he's been a one-man film school, introducing millions of people to interesting (often excellent) movies they might not otherwise have sampled.

And yeah, the man loves black actors and ample women. Queen Latifah was probably a dream come true for him.

2:45 PM  
Blogger odienator said...

I hope to convince you that The Life Aquatic is a great movie. Maybe we should watch it together, with me wearing a Charlie Brown shirt.

Noooo, because then I'd have to be Franklin, and everybody knows he had no personality whatsoever!

Plus, you being the adult in this pairing, you would talk to me and it would sound like "womp-womp-womp-womp-womp-womp!"

At least you didn't smack me with a CGI fish for disliking The Life Aquatic. You DID however offer me a fascinating point of view on it. You may not change my mind, but you do give it another perspective I have to take seriously.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

I love that: "I'll fight it, but I'll let it live." I think that's at the heart of the movie, too, and part of the reason I'm growing ever-fonder of the movie.

Also, when he pulls the gun on the pregnant reporter! Hilarious.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

I'm with Odienator on The Life Aquatic, though my wife's pleas to get me to sit through it again will eventually win out.

And God bless Ebert for his love of zaftig women of all races, colors and creeds. (He was obviously a good match with Russ Meyer in many ways.) I'm so glad he'll be well enough to check in Dreamgirls.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Ross Ruediger said...

I started writing a piece to add to this madness - but then I saw Odie's entry and his take on Ebert and was totally deflated. Pretty much everything he said is what I wanted to say, but he said it better. (I wrote Odie an e-mail telling him he cockblocked me.)

For the record though, the one piece of Ebert criticism that has always stuck with me - even though I disagree with him point for point - is his review of Blue Velvet, which is, of course, my favorite movie.

What angers me most about the piece is that I can totally see why somebody would view the movie that way; I just hate that anybody does.

But I bet I go back and read that piece at least once a year, regardless. And I love the fact David Lynch saw fit to include Siskel & Ebert's TV review of BV on the DVD.

(P.S. LIFE AQUATIC ~rawks~!)

3:09 AM  
Blogger odienator said...

Ross: What angers me most about the piece is that I can totally see why somebody would view the movie that way; I just hate that anybody does.

I'm with Ebert on Blue Velvet. It was on a few weeks ago and I forced myself to watch it again for the first time since its release. I thought being older and wiser might alter my perception; I was wrong. I hated it about seven times more than I did the first time.

I didn't know Lynch put the S&E review on the Blue Velvet DVD. If I recall correctly, Gene loved it and chewed Ebert out over his review. I also recall Lynch put "Two Thumbs Down!" on the poster for Lost Highway.

DC: And God bless Ebert for his love of zaftig women of all races, colors and creeds.

I'm with Ebert on that too!

I'm so glad he'll be well enough to check in Dreamgirls.

I'm worried: All that thickness might make Rog's heart explode! :)

I hope he uses the word "bootylicious" in his review, says "Baby Got Back," and compares Jennifer Hudson to "a succulent plate of finger-lickin' ribs, a side of collards, some potato salad and co'nbread." Extra points if he says "I wanted to sop her up with a biscuit."

10:53 AM  
Blogger andyhorbal said...

Hear, hear re: Roger Ebert! It would be a great exercise for one of his supporters to write an essay arguing that he belongs on Phillip Lopate's short list of Pantheon critics (James Agee, Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, Otis Ferguson, and Andrew Sarris), especially if it involved supplanting one of the existing members...

12:52 PM  
Blogger Steven Boone said...

oh snap, Matt, Peanuts.

I have always said if Ho'wood ever made the woeful decision to do a live-action Peanuts, the only sensible choice of director would be Wes Anderson.

I'd say that makes us kindreds, but The Life Aquatic tears that: It's slack, indulgent, prissy, preeny nonsense.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Ross Ruediger said...

Since this is becoming an Ebert appreciation thread - which, quite frankly, could go on forever - another Ebert piece I recently ~adored~ was his review of "Basic Instinct 2", a movie he trashes and yet recommends for the trash that it is. (I got about 10 minutes in before turning it off - but that's the difference between a press screening and a DVD rental.)

The review also leads to one of the valuable tidbits of wisdom I learned from Ebert and carry with me as a guideline for viewing movies:

Figure out what a movie's trying to do and whether or not it's successful at doing it; if it does, then it's a good movie. (In other words, there's only so much you can expect from something like BI2.)

I'm sure I mangled the quote/idea - but if anyone can find the original words, please post!

Another Rog standby is "It's not what a movie's about, but how it's about it."

And finally, another Ebert review worth tattooing on your back is his Zero Star dissection of "Jaws The Revenge".

9:49 PM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Ross: Yeah, I still laugh at Ebert's deadpan description of Jaws: The Revenge as being about a shark seeking revenge against the family of the man that killed it.

9:35 AM  
Blogger odienator said...

And finally, another Ebert review worth tattooing on your back is his Zero Star dissection of "Jaws The Revenge".

Ross, that's a hilarious review!

I remember that the cable print of Jaws: The Revenge changes the fate of the Mario Van Peebles character. In the original, his death scene is the only scene in the entire movie that had any value. The cable version tags on a scene where he somehow survives being chomped on by Bruce the "Death Wish" Shark.

Did anybody notice that Jaws the Revenge robs the plot from Orca?!

9:38 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home