Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Scott Tobias

Roger and me

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Roger Ebert

Somewhere in my parents’ home, there’s a book with both its front and back covers missing. When it first fell into my hands, it was brand new, and I would have been about eight years old, which I remember because I can still see exactly where it stood on the bookcase in our old house. The strange thing is that it wasn’t on a shelf I could reach: either someone took it down for me or I made a point of retrieving it myself, and it’s been so long that I’m not sure which was the case. All I know is that for the next ten years, it was rarely out of my sight, and throughout the most formative decade of my life, it was probably the book I read the most. Even now, I know much of it by heart, and I’ll occasionally find its phrases and rhythms appearing in my work, like fragments of my own memories. It was Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, and when I look back now, I realize that it wasn’t just the book that first introduced me to the movies—which would be legacy enough—but one that made me think for the first time about journalism, criticism, and countless other aspects of the world and culture around me.

I’ve written at greater length about Ebert’s role in my life here and here, and I won’t repeat myself. I never had a chance to tell him in person how much he meant to me, although I’d like to think that he saw what I wrote here, and he certainly heard much the same thing from countless other writers and movie lovers. Still, the fact that I never met Ebert, despite having lived the last few years of my life in Chicago, will always remain a profound regret, although I’m very grateful that I got to see him in person at the celebration of his favorite film music at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For a while, Ebert and Gene Siskel were my two favorite guys on television, and I can still hum the opening theme for At the Movies, which was always a high point of my week. I’ll never forget where I was when I learned that Gene Siskel had died, and I’m sure I’ll remember where I was when I heard that Ebert was gone. (To give you a sense of how big a part of my life Ebert was, my wife called me with the news from work, and a college friend emailed later that day to say she was thinking of me.)

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel

If there’s a silver lining to Ebert’s death, it’s that it gives us a sense of how deeply he influenced a whole generation of writers and critics. Will Leitch’s bittersweet remembrance in Deadspin, which recounts how he benefited from Ebert’s example and generosity, then foolishly threw it all away, is essential reading. But the words that linger with me the most are those of Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club, which reflect my own feelings to an almost frightening extent:

Cinema is a river with many tributaries, and I’m sure I’m not alone among movie-crazy teenagers in the ‘80s in using Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion as the boat downstream. You go through all the four-star reviews. You see Taxi Driver, and then of course you have to see Raging Bull, and then every other Martin Scorsese picture that sits on the video shelf. (And then you get into the movies that influenced Scorsese, which is a lifetime in itself.) You argue with him, you glean insights in the things you watch, you learn an entire new way of thinking, talking, and writing about the movies. And you never stop watching. You never stop debating. You have a companion for life, even now that his is over.

“The old man was around for a long time,” Ebert says of John Wayne in The Shootist, and although Ebert was only in his thirties when he wrote those words, the same could be said about his own career. Ebert was the one who first taught me that, at his best, a critic is sort of an island of stability, staying at the same desk for forty years to regard a changing world through a very particular lens, until his body of work says as much about the decades through which he lived as about the movies themselves. Ebert once seemed more stable—and certainly more substantial—than most, and at his prime, it was hard to believe that he would ever be gone. Toward the end, of course, this changed. Yet it’s in the last act of his life that his influence will be the most profound: he proved that criticism, a trade that has often been denigrated and dismissed, can give us the tools to face the fact of our own mortality with honor. At the end of his life, Ebert seemed reduced to little more than his words and, remarkably, his thumb, as if his most famous trademark had really been a mysterious preparation for a time when it would be all that remained. And in the end, his words were enough.

Written by nevalalee

April 5, 2013 at 8:24 am

Birdemic and the lure of awful movies

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Over the weekend, on the recommendation of the AV Club’s New Cult Canon, my wife and I finally watched the film that has become the darling of the midnight movie circuit: Birdemic: Shock and Terror. I’d already heard of Birdemic, which was shot around Half Moon Bay in California—one of my favorite places in the world—for something like $10,000, but had managed to avoid seeing it until now. And reader, I loved it, so much that I watched it twice, first on its own, second with the Rifftrax commentary. Somewhat to my surprise, I preferred the original version, which lets you savor the lengthy driving scenes and incomparable dialogue as they were meant to be experienced. (My favorite exchange comes after the hero asks if he can accompany his love interest back to her apartment. She: “I’m not that kind of girl.” He: “Ok.”)

My sudden affection for Birdemic has taken even me off guard, because I’m not someone who normally goes in for ironic appreciation. Yet there’s something so charming about Birdemic’s ineptitude that I can’t help but love it. The director, James Nguyen, obviously adores movies—his first two films are both homages to Hitchcock—and every hopeless frame of Birdemic is filled with his obvious enthusiasm. As Scott Tobias points out, the underlying premise (an environmental remake of The Birds by way of An Inconvenient Truth) isn’t even half bad. And there’s something appealingly innocent about the proceedings, from the film’s earnest discussion of environmental issues to its PG-level nods toward its exploitation roots (mostly consisting of a few shots of Whitney Moore, very fetching, in her underwear).

And the result is much closer to the urgency of genuine bad cinema than the endless self-aware variations on grindhouse films that we’ve seen over the past few years. Birdemic is nothing less than the natural, more likable successor to Manos: The Hands of Fate, with its long, pointless conversations and interminable driving sequences. (Umberto Eco once pointed out that only in pornography do you see a main character get into his car, pull out of the driveway, and head for the location of the next scene, with the film showing every red light along the way. If Eco ever saw Manos and Birdemic, he might be inspired to expand his definition.) And watching it reminded me of my adolescent love of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I once saw as the ultimate television show, a pop cultural laboratory in which the tropes and vocabulary of an entire civilization could come out to play.

In a way, that’s the real virtue of bad cinema: it puts a spotlight on a culture to an extent that great filmmaking rarely can. Birdemic is the bad movie we all deserve: achingly well-intentioned, squeaky clean, and seduced by the false promises of CGI. And your enthusiastic response to a bad movie can tell you more about yourself than your reactions to a masterpiece. To name just two of my own favorites: Beyond the Sea is jawdroppingly misguided, but there’s something seductive about Kevin Spacey’s vision of himself as the ultimate pop crooner, greater even than Bobby Darin, that cuts to the heart of what stardom and show business is all about. And Angels & Demons is a travesty, but also a summation of the overproduced blockbuster thriller, sumptuous, gorgeous, and without a thought in its pretty head. Birdemic is much more modest, but it tells us more about the underlying dream of all filmmaking, which is that a man with $10,000 and a movie camera can make a masterpiece. Or, failing that, at least Birdemic.

Psycho, Black Swan, and the problem of surprise

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A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a memorable showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho at the CSO, with a live orchestra playing Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score. It was the second time in just over a year that I’d watched Psycho with a live audience—I saw it last August in Grant Park—and it’s always a lot of fun: everyone is appropriately jaded by the film’s most famous scene, but then there’s that second murder, which is much less well known, and which invariably results in a big scream from the audience, fifty years after the movie’s original release.

Before the screening, we attended a discussion of the film with the AV Club’s Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, where Phipps shared the following story (which, if you haven’t seen Psycho, I’d advise you to skip):

I took a friend to see Psycho…Not only had he never seen Psycho, he had somehow managed to remain ignorant of its twist. We sat in front of a pair of elderly women who decided to provide a running commentary about the film, specifically about how much things had changed since the 1960s. “Gas sure was cheap back then,” one commented as Janet Leigh pulled into a gas station. “Cars sure were big back then,” the other responded. (It might just be my memory making the story better, but I could swear one of them also said, “It sure was dark back then.”) It was annoying. But not as annoying as the moment shortly after Leigh’s death, when one said, “Isn’t he pretending to be his mother or something?”

Phipps says that he then saw his friend “tense up with rage.” Well, sure. These days, it’s so rare for anyone to see Psycho without any previous knowledge that those women deserved, if not to be stabbed in the shower, then at least to watch that awful psychiatrist’s speech over and over again.

Not long after seeing Psycho at the CSO, I had a plot point for Black Swan spoiled for me, appropriately enough, by an anonymous commenter on the AV Club. Needless to say, I tensed up with rage, and was afraid that the movie had been ruined. But when I mentioned this on Twitter, Scott Tobias responded: “No worries. The film will work for you (or not) regardless.” And, strangely enough, he was right. I don’t think my experience of the movie was any less compelling because I knew where the story was going. I may even have enjoyed it slightly more.

So what makes Black Swan different from Psycho? One difference, obviously, is that it’s a greater crime to spoil a classic: Psycho is one of a handful of movies that will probably be watched a hundred years from now, while the jury is still out on Black Swan. More important, though, is the nature of Psycho’s secrets, which fundamentally undermine the movie that the audience is anticipating: first the star is murdered, and then the killer turns out to be something…unexpected. Black Swan’s spoilers are inherent in its premise: we know from early on that this movie will be about a young woman going mad, and the only surprise lies in what form that madness will take.

Is there a lesson here for writers? I’d like to think of it as another example of the power of constraints. Psycho tells us that it’s a film of suspense, then radically destroys our expectations of what to expect from such a movie. Black Swan, by contrast, establishes from its opening scenes that it’s a psychological horror film, then does pretty much what we expect, even if it gives itself more stylistic leeway than Psycho does. The former kind of surprise, needless to say, is much more powerful than the latter, but it only works if the story first lays down the rules that it intends to break. In a film in which anything can happen, it’s hard to expect the audience to be surprised—or moved—by what eventually does.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2010 at 7:50 pm

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