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Review: Endless Poetry

Jul 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221699:43659:0[/embed] Endless Poetry (Poesia Sin Fin)Director: Alejandro JodorowskyRating: NRRelease Date: July 14, 2017 (limited)Country: Chile/France While Herskovitz plays Jodorowsky at the start of the film, he's soon replaced by Adan Jodorowsky. It marks a jump in time in from Alejandro's early adolescence into his adulthood, and a move toward adult concerns. It was fascinating to see Herskovitz again, however, who's seemed to age so fast in just a few years. Adan, who was a child in Santa Sangre, looks so much like his father; Brontis, who was just a child in El Topo, looks like he could be Adan's father. Throughout the movie, Alejandro Jodorowsky himself appears on screen, offering a kind of wizened and reflective narration for these moments in his past. If The Dance of Reality was essentially a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story), Endless Poetry functions more like a künstlerroman (a story about an artist's development and maturation). Alejandro becomes a poet, though it happens too easily, which is where Jodorowsky's flair for surreal and alchemical indulgence butts up against the mundane realities of the writing process, especially for people just starting out. Alejandro is fully formed as a poet the moment he reads Lorca for the first time, like a single book unlocks a preternatural facility with language. There is no struggle with bad poetry, there is almost no self-doubt, and no need to find his footing as a writer. The closest the film alludes to these conflicts is in one early scene at a typewriter. Alejandro pecks out a minor triumph as the giant spectral face of his father dominates the other half of the screen, calling his son a maricón over and over again, deriding the masculinity/sexuality of being an artist. But the film isn't much concerned about that. Alejandro is already great without the essential work to achieve greatness, and always certain about his greatness without a more troubled relationship with language. He's even gifted his own bohemian pad to have parties with all the rakes, wits, and creatives of Santiago. Art has no limitations, but it's part of the artist's journey to discover that on their own, and that journey isn't embarked upon here. We've already arrived at the outset. It undercuts one of the more powerful moments toward the end of Endless Poetry. On a circus stage, Alejandro transforms from a simple clown into a poet and then into a melancholic mime right out of Children of Paradise. This ought to feel like some transcendent apotheosis, a transformation from a fool into a different figure (at least a much wiser fool), like progressing through the major arcana in a tarot deck. Instead, it feels like a tautology. It's not built into the grand arc of Endless Poetry, but a smaller arc of some adjacent scenes in the movie. This sense of being fully formed as an artist extends into Young Adult Alejandro as a sage. He rarely does wrong around his friends, and if he does there's at least some justification for it. In a moment that nods to El Topo, Alejandro happens by the apartment where a dwarf friend is attempting suicide. He saves her life, teaches her a spiritual lesson about the value of living, and sleeps with her even though she's on her period. It's a little too saintly, and maybe even self-congratulatory, which undercuts the deeper sadness of the scene and what it means. This woman is the girlfriend of his best friend, Enrique Lihn (Leandro Taub), who is drunk and violent and asleep on the front porch the morning after the assignation. Alejandro's damaged their relationship, which has been built on their mutual anarchic virtuosity as poets, but Enrique was a jerk and the reason his girlfriend tried to take her own life. This is an autobiographical work, so of course Alejandro's the center of our attention and of this story, yet there's something that feels off to me about making yourself the Mary Sue/Gary Stu of your own life. In a lot of ways, Enrique seems like the classic and perhaps more compelling künstlerroman hero because of how flawed and embarrassing and raw he is as a person. The same guy who clowns with his best friend walking down the street as an aesthetic lark is the same raging drunk who can neglect those he loves. Maybe Alejandro and Enrique could be viewed in tandem as a composite of Alejandro's early life, where the desire to be wise was complicated by an uncontrolled appetite, and where a mastery of language was essential since other aspects of life couldn't be so controlled. But maybe that's my attempt to make this less compelling aspect of Endless Poetry work in context with the multi-film, autobiographical capstone to a career that has changed my life as a lover of film. Like I mentioned in a Cult Club piece on Santa Sangre, I keep finding Jodorowsky's fingerprints on my imagination. There's so much I love about Endless Poetry despite the middling moments and a lot of visual blandness that plagues much of the film. (Like The Dance of Reality, too much of the cinematography seems too flat, too plain, and uncinematic.) There's a strange 80s-deco art-bar like something out of Brazil where Alejandro is drawn to technicolor poet Stella Díaz Varín. She's played by the same actress who plays Alejandro's mother for maximum Freudian impact. There are a few scenes where art seems like the only refuge from the rising Ibáñez dictatorship; I'm missing that cultural and historical context that would enliven the film. There's a moment when Young Adult Alejandro and Old Alejandro must make peace with Alejandro's father. A complicated love emerges when one views a pivotal moment in the past knowing what the future holds. I might have liked more of Old Jodorowsky hopping into the film and commenting about the people and places of his life. He's the center of it all, so why stay outside when there's so much I'd like to know. What did he love about this woman? What did Lorca's poetry say to him as a young man, and what other poets spoke to him? What is machismo in the face of art? What does it mean to him to be a man? What regrets are there and what would he have liked to do differently? I wonder if the next film will be the last one, and what this all might feel like viewed as a single work rather than loose chapters with a looser shape. If this marks the end of Jodorowsky, it's fitting that it also feels like the beginning.
Review: Endless Poetry photo
A portrait of Jodorowsky as a young poet
In what may be the final years of Alejandro Jodorowsky's life, his work has turned inward and become sentimentally personal. He's exploring his own autobiography, but retelling it in his own odd way. Jodorowsky's previous fil...

Clive Barker contest photo
Clive Barker contest

Clive Barker and Shudder offering $300,000 to an aspiring horror filmmaker as part of contest

Barker will executive produce the film
Feb 02
// Hubert Vigilla
Clive Barker may never direct a horror movie again, but he wants to help young talent make their first movie. The author, artist, and filmmaker is participating in a contest with the horror streaming service Shudder and Adapt...

Review: Paterson

Dec 26 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220910:43125:0[/embed] PatersonDirector: Jim JarmuschRelease Date: December 21, 2016 (France); December 28, 2016 (USA, limited)Rating: R 2003's American Splendor may be the best companion to Paterson. That film chronicled the life of comics writer Harvey Pekar. Pekar lived and wrote in Cleveland, and kept a day job at a VA hospital. Paterson in Jarmusch's film works as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He uses little catches of time through the day to write poetry in his notebook. This is the writing life of working people--no parties with literati, no salons, no scenester-ism, no pretension, just toil and care with words. Paterson follows a week in the life our bus driver. At the end of the first day, we get the broadstrokes of this character's routine. He wakes up beside his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), he walks to work, he eavesdrops on people's conversations, he returns home, he walks their bulldog, and he has a drink at the local bar. The routine might seem stifling, but Jarmusch enlarges the world that Paterson lives in. Side characters get fleshed out in unexpected ways, and we get new details about who Paterson and Laura are through careful reveals and well-observed scenes. The initial claustrophobia of the structure both folds out and opens inward. Paterson's acts of noticing help convey his sense of the city he lives in, his interior life, and the lives of people around him. Bad poetry ruins everything. To avoid that danger, Jarmusch hired New York School poet Ron Padgett to write original work for Paterson. Paterson's poetry reads like actual poetry (a pastiche of William Carlos Williams) rather than the hokey stuff that movie-poetry often sounds like. Jarmusch depicts the writing of this poetry through voiceover and superimposed text over montages. It isn't the most ideal representation of the creative process, but it works. The whole of Paterson is imbued with its own poetic flourishes, like the constant appearance of twins, doubles, or mirrored lines, as if trying to find a visual equivalent for internal rhyme or rhyming couplets. (Intentional correspondence: William Carlos Williams, writer of the five-book poem Paterson, is the favorite poet of a man named Paterson who lives in Paterson, NJ in a movie called Paterson. Coincidental correspondence: Adam Driver cast as a bus driver. ) One of the more fascinating things I noticed about Paterson was how it explores the relationship between Paterson and Laura. They spend most of their time apart, but thanks to the new information we get about each of them as the film unfolds, I'm able to understand not just how they work as a couple but why. On the surface, Laura seems like a manic pixie dream girl artist who wound up with a polite stoic, but they complement each other and know the importance of space and time in their relationship. Driver is a delicate soul in this film rather than his usual hipster scumbag. His performance reminds me of an artist friend back in the Bay Area who struggles to make time to paint. Farahani adds depth to Laura, who, like her boyfriend, is a type of optimistic American dreamer. Maybe this space and togetherness between Paterson and Laura is an example of the power of interpersonal enjambment. There's been a lot of discussion in the online literary community about the role of writing in the lives of writers. Is writing just a hobby? Can writing really be considered a job? As if those are the only options. Paterson seems to offer its own answers with a zen-like Jarmusch cool. While Paterson keeps so many of his poems to himself in a journal, he writes because he can't live without it. It's where he finds and creates meaning, and issues of ego, publication, notoriety, and the local scene never factor into the significance of what he does. It is significant simply because it is. Perhaps the melancholy of the score is meant as a counterpoint to Paterson the man. So much about the surface of his life suggests the misery of obscure solitude. That might be true in other stories, but Paterson is a writer, and in addition to his good fortune for having the friends he does, he has writing to fill the empty spaces of each day.
Review: Paterson photo
The city, the man, the joyous everday
Jim Jarmusch's Paterson is work of subtle optimism. It's a gentle film, kind and generous, funny, too. Watching the movie, I sensed Jarmusch giving me a reassuring push, like a parent at a swing or a child casting off a toy b...

J.R.R. Tolkien biopic photo
J.R.R. Tolkien biopic

J.R.R. Tolkien biopic Middle Earth coming from producers of Lord of the Rings

Hope it's not hours of battle scenes
Nov 07
// Hubert Vigilla
To put it politely, The Hobbit films were underwhelming. Yes, they were extremely successful at the box office, but that trio of movies was bloated filmmaking at its most bloated. They had nothing on The Lord of the Rings Tri...

Bill Finger and Batman photo
Bill Finger and Batman

Bill Finger finally getting screen credit for co-creating Batman

Bob Kane was THE WORST
Sep 21
// Hubert Vigilla
Many people credit Bob Kane as the sole creator of Batman, but in truth, Batman was a co-creation with Bill Finger (1914-1974). It was Bill Finger who suggested the iconic costume for Batman--the cape, the cowl, the gauntlets...

Deep Analysis: The End of the Tour - Is it capital-T Truth or capital-B Bulls**t?

Aug 14 // Hubert Vigilla
Although of Course You End Up Being Different Things to Different People"Simple thing: everyone sees him differently." -- David Lipsky, Although of Course...   David Foster Wallace is a person and an idea. That split is impossible to avoid, and more complicated than the Platonic notion that I've seemed to present. There's the person who existed, and then there's this other level, a kind of public version or public perception of the person who existed, or an idea of Wallace through his writing and interviews--a text. While the real Wallace was available to his friends and family, for everyone else there's just a public version or a text. There's something about the intimacy of writing, and I think this is discussed in Lipsky's book, that makes readers think they know an author. That seems to hold true for lots of creatives since so much ineffable stuff about your inner life is communicated through creative acts. Any connection that's made through art might seem more profound because of this ability to articulate a common yet personal feeling of joy, sadness, or affection between people who've never met. Art can make you feel less alone, and it can help you understand someone else. But often only so far or just a facet. There's another layer to this person/persona split, of course. I'm not judging the propriety of it (at least for now), but people can do whatever they want with that public idea of a person. They can find meaning in the persona, impose their own meanings on the persona, reconsider the persona without considering the actual multi-faceted person behind that public idea. It's one reason why David Foster Wallace winds up meaning different things to different people, or being a different person to different people--a literary wunderkind, a rockstar of the book world, the next _______, the voice of _______, a friend, a confidant, a relative, etc. Recently, a piece by Molly Fischer ran in New York Magazine's The Cut considered David Foster Wallace a hypermasculine hub for chauvinistic literary bros. (Sometimes a big, hard novel is just a cigar. A really big, hard cigar.) Kenny in his piece for The Guardian touches on this when he writes, "Something I've noticed since Wallace's suicide in 2008 is that a lot of self-professed David Foster Wallace fans don't have much use for people who actually knew the guy. For instance, whenever Jonathan Franzen utters or publishes some pained but unsparing observations about his late friend, Wallace's fanbase recoils, posting comments on the internet about how self-serving he is, or how he really didn't 'get' Wallace." Kenny and Wallace were friends who met and corresponded regularly or at least semi-regularly. Lipsky, by contrast, was an outsider sent to observe Wallace for a few days and then left. Kenny takes issue with the way Lipsky presented Wallace in the book, writing: In the opening of Yourself, Lipsky describes Wallace speaking in "the universal sportsman's accent: the disappearing G's, 'wudn't,' 'dudn't' and 'idn’t' and 'sumpin.'" Segel takes Lipsky's cue. But in my recollection, Dave spoke precisely, almost formally, the "Gs" at the ends of gerunds landing softly, not dropped. I can't help but feel both of these perceptions and ideas of Wallace were accurate simply given the nature of these respective relationships. People act differently around friends and colleagues than they do around strangers, particularly journalists. There's a constant self-consciousness that Wallace has when talking to Lipsky, mentioning how Lipsky can craft an image of Wallace that may not be the real Wallace. To that I wonder how much of the sportsman's accent was Wallace's own way of maintaining control of his persona, presenting a certain type of David Foster Wallace for this interview. Ditto the various asides to high culture (e.g., John Barth) and low culture (e.g., "movies where stuff blows up"). Wallace suggest he and Lipsky play chess against each other in the book during an early interview. Make of that what you will. (Sometimes a game of chess is just a metaphor for a sword fight with cigars.) These differences in proximity to Wallace, intimacy with Wallace, and personal perception of Wallace don't delegitimize Kenny or Lipsky. It's just pointing out that they each saw facets of a man and each came away with their own assessment. Wallace was Kenny's friend, and Kenny saw more facets of the man over a longer period of time. For Lipsky, he got a glimpse of Wallace at age 34 at the end of a book tour during "one of those moments when the world opens up to you." Although of Course You End Up Becoming a Fictional Version of Yourself"So we've ended up doing Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre." -- David Lipsky, Although of Course...   So there's a persona, and then there's a movie, and that's where these issues of proximity, intimacy, perception, and propriety become even more difficult. The End of the Tour, even though I enjoyed it, is a recreation and fictionaliziation of real events and real people, all of which is depicted at various divides from the real thing. Since so much of the basis for The End of the Tour is Lipsky's book, the film presents a version of David Foster Wallace as filtered through Lipsky's perceptions. Though Lipsky tried to be unobtrusive in the transcript, there are numerous observations in book, ones that wonder what Wallace is thinking in the moment, that assume certain answers are calculated deflections, that editorialize the nature of Wallace's smile in just the choice of adjectives. On top of that, The End of the Tour is the book as restructured by screenwriter Donald Margulies, tweaked further by director James Ponsoldt, with an additional layer of interpretation by the two lead actors who are reciting the real-life dialogue. While the lines may be straight from Lipsky's book, there is a gulf between the real people and the page and the screen. Lipsky, even in just the book, points out an artifice of a subject and journalist in forced-interaction that occasionally feels like something genuine. He likens an exchange they have to something out of Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre. (When not engaged in a kind of big brother/little brother semi-envious duel, Lipsky in the film generally plays Wallace Shawn to Wallace's sage-like Andre Gregory.) This series of divides from the real events to the film are less like photo copies of photo copies that become blurrier and blurrier with each subsequent version, but more like interpretations of interpretations that are distorted but perhaps share an amorphous-something in common from iteration to iteration. (This simile might be just be my charity for the film since I liked it.) Short version: real life and the film are a long way apart, and one is left to wonder if there's mostly capital-T Truth between the two or mostly capital-B Bullshit. There may be another layer to all of this that gets a bit more difficult. Anytime a writer writes about writers or writing, there's inevitably a little bit of the writer's own ideas about writing that wind up in there. So while the film is a recreation of conversations between two real writers, the way it's framed seems to allow Donald Margulies to write about his own ideas about writers to some degree. Lipsky gets to represent a type of male writer, Wallace another kind of male writer, and a dynamic of masculine opposition, jealousy, and respect emerges as these personas interact. Margulies introduces a fabricated moment of sexual competition between Wallace and Lipsky, and also a mute hostility or resentment leading into the last act. Both of these fictions play into a larger theme of control and writerly chess that was real in the text at a subtextual level, but mostly they're also just inventions to facilitate a dramatic arc. The moments of The End of the Tour I liked least were the parts that seemed too bent or overshaped, particularly in the framing narrative, which was dominated by certain kinds of writerly cliches (e.g, watching a writer type in a fit of inspiration). It may have been Ponsoldt and Margulies' ways of incorporating an idea from Lipsky's book regarding Wallace's death to lend this wandering conversation a path: "Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction." To that, while reading Although of Course..., I couldn't help but pause anytime Wallace brought up killing himself in passing, as if it were just some self-deprecating remark. I'm not sure The End of the Tour necessarily needed any explicit or neat emotional arc since these things rarely exist in real life. As a movie, The End of the Tour could have just done the My Dinner with Andre thing (or the Richard Linklater thing, if you prefer) and existed as this peripatetic meeting of minds on the road. And yet I liked some of the invented moments since they reminded me of other exchanges I've had with friends, or experiences with people I know, or trips I've been on, or that secret insecurity when talking with writers I admire who are way further in their careers than I am. Sometimes bullshit feels true even if it's not factual. (This might be a messy but succinct definition of Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth.") Then again, like Kenny brought up earlier, this justification of invention might ultimately be self-serving. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Impossible to Encapsulate"They already feel as if they know you--which of course they don't." -- David Foster Wallace in Although of Course... by David Lipsky   Eisenberg's portrayal of David Lipsky hasn't gotten much flak, but that's because Lipsky's alive and not a major/mythologized persona in the literary world. (You don't read any essays that reduce his work to dick-wagging.) Lipsky's role, in the book and the film, is predominantly a vessel into the thoughts of David Foster Wallace. Segel's been widely praised for his performance as DFW, though I think Kenny's criticisms of his performance are worth noting since they highlight differences in perception, person, and persona between people: Physically, Segel's got Wallace all wrong too: bulky, lurching, elbowy, perpetually in clothes a half size too small. This, too, contradicts my own memory of Dave as a physically imposing but also very nearly lithe and graceful person. But as Segel's exuberantly horrible dancing at the end of the film practically blares in neon, this awkwardness represents Segel's conception of a Genius Who Was Just Too Pure And Holy For This World. Kenny also wrote that the David Foster Wallace of The End of the Tour is "for those people who cherish This Is Water as the new Wear Sunscreen: A Primer For Life." It's like Kenny's Lloyd Bentsen burn: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." This comes back to the idea of facets of people and the way The End of the Tour winds up being these layers of interpretation by different parties about a real person. As much as I like Segel in the film and think his performance is strong, it's not David Foster Wallace in the way that all portrayals of real people are not the real thing. Christopher Walken impersonations are generally caricatures of his start-stop vocal rhythm; all Michael Caine impressions are just people just saying, "My name's my cocaine." Segel can't possibly recreate all of the small facial expressions, body sways, or winces of David Foster Wallace, or even the same physiology, but he offers an impersonation suited to the film. (Good vs. good enough. Another writerly concern?) If Lipsky's a vessel into Wallace's thoughts, Segel's Wallace is an interpretation of a persona. People and their personas, while linked, aren't the same. So what to make of the propriety of The End of the Tour? Wallace died less than 10 years ago, and here's a movie that the estate was not involved with in which Wallace's death is a framing device. It's painful, and it may always be too soon for anyone who knew Wallace personally. The End of the Tour aims to be a tribute to a writer, as if that makes the pain more bearable, and yet the movie veers dangerously close to hagiography. David Foster Wallace, the film persona, embodies an idea of a good writer with a troubled soul, maybe too troubled to live in a fallen world. That might not be overstating it either given the way the movie concludes. My friend Leah Schnelbach of also liked the movie, but she rightly used the term "St. Dave" to describe some of the uncomfortable fawning over DFW when it's not offset by his depression and underlying sadness. Maybe tributes unintentionally and inartfully stumble into hagiography or near-hagiography as they try to make a final sincere statement about the subject. There's no neat wrap-up to these rambling thoughts on The End of the Tour, because even though I'd meant to write this a while ago, these ideas remain unresolved and half-formed. I still think it's generally a very good film about writers despite some of those weaker bits, but that might be because it's so rooted in the actual conversation of two writers. Even when they're not talking about writing, it sounds like writers talking. As for David Foster Wallace, the persona on film as portrayed by Jason Segel, he's just an interpretation of one part of the real David Foster Wallace during a particular point in his life.While many times removed from the real thing, this persona makes the actual man's absence more apparent.
The End of the Tour photo
The blend of truth, fiction, and reality
I really enjoyed James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour, which primarily covers the last days of David Foster Wallace's 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest. Wallace committed suicide in 2008 after his antidepressants proved no lon...

RIP The Dissolve (2013-2015)

Jul 08 // Hubert Vigilla
RIP The Dissolve photo
A great place for film writing is gone
The Dissolve was one of the best places on the internet for intelligent, funny, in-depth, and insightful film criticism and features. This morning, editor-in-chief Keith Phipps announced that The Dissolve would be shutting do...

The End of the Tour photo
The End of the Tour

See Jason Segel's award-caliber performance in the trailer for The End of the Tour

Learn to love David Foster Wallace
May 28
// Hubert Vigilla
The End of the Tour was a major hit at Sundance, leading to rave reviews for stars Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, who play real-life writers David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace, respectively. Based on Lipsky's 2010 non-fi...

Trailer for Listen Up Philip lets Jason Schwartzman be wonderfully acerbic

Sep 18
// Liz Rugg
Listen Up Philip stars the always fantastic Jason Schwartzman as a self-absorbed, sarcastic writer and the equally fantastic Elizabeth Moss as his equally brusque girlfriend. Things get rocky for the couple when Schwartzman'...

Book Review: SCREENWRITING 101 By Film Crit Hulk!

Jan 01 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
SCREENWRITING 101By: Film Crit HulkRelease Date: December 10, 2013Buy it: Amazon SCREENWRITING 101 is technically a book about screenwriting, but it's much more significant than that. Most of my friends want to make careers (or at least paying side-projects) out of writing fiction, and I have recommended SCREENWRITING 101 to every single one of them. By the time I had gotten to page 30, I had recommended it. By the time I hit page 90, I was sending them annoying texts about it. Now that it's over, nothing has changed: everyone with the slightest interest in fiction should read this book. And the reason I say that is because until the sixth and final section of the book, the majority of its lessons can be applied (with minimal tweaking) to novels, plays, or slash fiction. Whatever you want to write about, you can get something from this book. Hulk apologizes for this, or for the fact that so much of the early stuff is not specific to screenplays or screenwriting, but he shouldn't; he should celebrate it. When he does an elaborate take down of the three-act structure or the generally conceived understand of the Hero's Journey, that is important. That may be the most important thing that the book does, in a broader sense. Formatting skills can be learned with practice and proper use of software; lessons of language can be learned by practicing and reading good screenplays until the quality sticks. It will take a while, but it can happen. But these structural concepts like beat sheets and saving the cat and blah blah blah will show up again and again in screenwriting books and classes and lessons. A whole lot of people will do what they can to convince you that structure is really as simple as A, B, C. Hero does this. Hero does that. Hero does the other thing. Roll credits. Million dollars. Boom. Yes, that's a gross oversimplification, but it's much closer to the truth than it has any right to be. That's boring, and it leads to the sort of sameness that is found in Hollywood today and the soul-crushing work of the studio interns who have to deal with all of the terrible same-y scripts that will never get made. So pretend that we're all doing this for the interns, not for ourselves or for money or for the betterment of cinema. It's all about the interns. I am working on a screenplay. I have been working on it since March, and it's undergone some serious revisions in that time. It's not feature-length, but it's something I'm going to be producing myself in the first half of this new year, and I want it to be the best damn thing I've ever made. It will be the best thing I've ever made. And that starts from the fact that it's the strongest screenplay I've written yet. (I've been told by people who know a lot more about this than I do that I'm pretty good at writing screenplays.) But as I read through SCREENWRITING 101, I kept thinking about things. I understood much of what he said on a fundamental level, but I had never really had the ability to. Even in screenwriting classes where I was taught some of these concepts (but not as many as I would have liked), it was never as clear as it is here, even obscured by walls of capitalized text. [On that note, SCREENWRITING 101 is available in both an all-caps version and a case-corrected one. I made it through about five pages of the all-caps version before I switched over (fortunately, they come together). The least interesting thing about Film Crit Hulk is his use of caps lock. It's a gimmick that makes you take notice but becomes mind-numbing pretty quickly. Without a case-corrected option, I would have never gotten through the 180+ page book. It wouldn't have mattered how packed with complete and total genius it was, because the headache it gave me would have killed my retention anyway. If (when) you read it, I suggest you do it the same way. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming] And a lot of the things I thought about made me look back at my screenplay and slap my forehead in dismay. "Why did I do that?" "Why did I think that was a good idea?" "No, of course not." "Hey! I totally did that. Good for me." Lots and lots of things. Around the three-quarters mark, I had an aneurysm. And by aneurysm, I mean not an aneurysm. I was sitting on the Metro North train heading into New York City reading the book on my tablet. I read it, and then a lightbulb went off in my brain. Well, more of an entire stadium floodlight. I realized that my ending as written was about twenty seconds too short, and what should be in those twenty seconds would make it extremely more powerful, because it would properly connect the opening scene-- Oh. My. God. I texted basically everyone I had ever heard of because I realized what the story had been missing this whole time. And when I looked at it, it was right there the whole time! The changes needed to implement this massive shift were/are miniscule, but they make the whole thing a lot more meaningful. They will add the empathy that was missing to everyone who wasn't me. And suddenly the world felt new again. I was Adam in the Garden of Eden, and instead of apples, the tree of wisdom was growing new copies of SCREENWRITING 101. And then when Eve appeared, I was all like, "Cool." And then I looked up to the sky and said, "Thanks, Hulk." Hyperbole? Less than you'd think. SCREENWRITING 101 is not a step-by-step guide to writing an amazing screenplay. It does not tell you how to structure a screenplay or what your narrative needs to be good. It's like a well-organized toolbox designed by someone who is a lot smarter than you are. But even though he's given you fifteen different wrenches, all of which have clear uses in theory, the thing you're trying to build is this ethereal cinematic masterpiece that nobody can see, because it's just a bunch of words. Yes, the best screenplay is better and more cinematic than many movies, but the majority of people who look to SCREENWRITING 101 aren't writing the best screenplays. They're writing anything from atrociously bad ones to great ones, but few will be better. (Edgar Wright wrote the intro; he's an exception.) But I truly believe that if someone reads this book and then pulls up Celtx and sits down to write the next Great American Movie, they will end up a hell of a lot closer to their goal than they would have without it. The punchline, that it is just a series of recommendations and a toolkit rather than a set of perfect building blocks that will pump out great stories, is not the crushing realization that Hulk makes it out to be, at least not for people who really care about storytelling. Because little lightbulbs went off in my head a dozen times while reading, and I will be citing this book until I die. As someone with some experience doing this stuff (and who has also been a more-than-occasional film critic for two and a half years), it was generally more of a solidification of ideas I already had or an clarification of things I was pretty sure I understood. There weren't a ton of wholly, completely new ideas, but that won't be true for the majority of people who read it. And those few things that were wholly new? Blew my mind. But that's not the point. The thing that turned on that lightbulb for me wasn't a completely new idea. It wasn't even a completely new idea in the book (he had referenced it at least a couple of times before), but it was the context of what I had been reading, the movies I had been watching, the writing I had been doing, and everything else. It all just clicked and it all came together in such a way that. And I don't believe I would have come to it on my own, at least not before production got started on this script. It is going to be the best thing I've ever made, and SCREENWRITING 101 is one reason why. To Hulk, who is not reading this review but whatever: Thank you. You gave me something amazing. In return, I'm going to tell everybody I ever meet to buy your book. Because it's the best book on screenwriting ever written by anyone ever. To you, the reader who made it to the end of this: Buy the book. It's $5. I don't care if you have to miss a meal or whatever to do that. It's worth it. Not interested in writing? Doesn't matter. If you're reading this (and reading this far), you have some interest in cinema and presumably some interest in the writing process, and you will get something out of the book. Maybe you'll read it and want to write screenplays. Maybe years down the line you and I will submit screenplays at the same time to the same depressed intern and he'll like yours more than mine and throw mine in the trash, and then you'll be a famous screenwriter when it could have been me and I'll regret having told you to skip a meal in order to afford this book. That would suck for me, but you know what? It would be worth it.
SCREENWRITING 101 Review photo
Save the intern
I first heard about Film Crit Hulk about a year ago. I had written an article about why Tom Hooper should have been drawn and quartered for his butchering of Les Miserables, and one of the commenters, rather than say anything...


J.R.R. Tolkien film in the works

A reality pic about a man who created fantasy
Nov 22
// Matthew Razak
With basically anything that has the name J.R.R. Tolkien attached to it printing money and a pretty interesting life story it's easy to see why a J.R.R. Tolkien biopic is in the works. The creator of Middle Earth will be join...
The Purge 2: The Purgerer photo
The Purge 2: The Purgerer

The Purge writer/director returning for the sequel

The Purge 2: The Purgererereres
Nov 07
// Nick Valdez
After a sequel to The Purge was announced shortly after it made its original run in theaters (and I apologized for it), we haven't heard much news since that announcement. That just means someone jumped the gun, right? Couldn...

Review: The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

Oct 31 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213180:39102[/embed] The Pervert's Guide to IdeologyDirector: Sophie FiennesRelease Date: November 1, 2013Rating: NR  [Editor's note: The above clip is from The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, not The Pervert's Guide to ideology.] The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is a sequel to Žižek's previous film with director Sophie Fiennes, 2006's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. They take similar forms: Žižek runs through his divergent thoughts over clips of movies, and even becomes integrated into them. In Cinema, for example, Žižek sits down in Morpheus's green-tinted room in The Matrix and drives a motorboat like Tippi Hedren while discussing The Birds. In Ideology, we open in the alleyway from John Carpenter's They Live. Žižek stands in front of a dumpster as if he's watching Roddy Piper and Keith David off camera. Later, Žižek is hanging out in a recreation of Travis Bickle's apartment in Taxi Driver (or as Žižek calls it, "The Taxi Driver"). He has a breather in the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange. He's in a plane looking out the window at the opening shots of Triumph of the Will; on an airstrip where Joseph Stalin was descending from a plane in some Soviet propaganda film (a narrative one, not a documentary.) He's even in a lifeboat at night in the North Atlantic while talking about Titanic. "What am I doing in a lifeboat?" Žižek asks, as if to say "Why am I out here in the North Atlantic? Let me answer that for you," and "Why the hell am I doing something so ridiculous for this movie?" It's a hilarious question. He's obviously on a set, the sky behind him totally black with bright stars. It's like Žižek in a diorama of Titanic (the movie) commenting on the film which is a melodramatic fiction about a real event. Žižek's own lectures and writings are often filled with jokes, and here, he's telling them and inhabiting them. But jokes have that interesting quality where they reveal the wobbliness of language, the strangeness of everyday life, and the weirdness of our beliefs. Like everything else, jokes are a manifestation of ideology. George Saunders wrote that "humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to," and I think he was onto something. In Astra Taylor's 2005 documentary Žižek!, we got some insight into the way Žižek composes his thought. He jots ideas in flurries and frenzies until they're all down, and then he tries to find the bits that connect them together to form a book. In a way, Žižek's philosophy reminds me of something I once heard music journalist/cultural critic Greil Marcus say about the nature of criticism: it's about letting an idea take hold. There seems like there's some connection there between Žižek's impulses and Marcus's notion. Both have to do with identifying what hooks the mind about an object in culture. For Žižek, he's looking for a path from idea to idea, a back and forth between the object and the culture and vice versa. For Marcus, it's the idea sparked by a cultural object that creates a path toward the writing about that object and the culture that gave rise to it. The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is basically a work of ideological exploration through film criticism -- not the "you should see this, 4 stars" sort of criticism where the value of a work is assessed in a reductive up or down vote, but the "x-movie made me think y-thought" sort of criticism that goes beyond the film and into what it says about the world. (Interestingly, my first encounter with Žižek's work was a piece on Lost Highway he did for some film journal while I was still an undergrad.) Žižek is inside these films because the x-movie/y-thought criticism is about stepping into the film as a cultural artifact and finding real culture in it, and then stepping out of the film back into culture to find film stuff in the world. This may be the prevailing method of lots of contemporary book-length criticism. It's reflective, playful, and at times memoiristic. I'm thinking here of the 33 1/3 music criticism series and the Soft Skull Press movie criticism series Deep Focus (which hopefully isn't defunct). So going back to They Live, it's about what the glasses say about contemporary capitalism and consumerism, and how much it hurts to understand the nature of the veil. Or in The Sound of Music, we're eyeing the sexual tension and fundamental friction of the Catholic structure and what "Climb Every Mountain" is really getting at. In Titanic, what is Žižek doing in that boat? He's calling BS on the idea of Titanic as a romance. If Jack and Rose got to shore alive, they'd have incredible sex for three weeks. After that, Rose would get bored with being lower class and Jack would want to draw someone else, and that would be it. What's Titanic really about to Žižek? It's about a spoiled rich girl who, at a turning point in her life, sucks the vitality out of the lower classes (and James Cameron's idealization of the lower class, no less) in order to reaffirm her own ego. I think he's onto something. Žižek steps outside of film in order to get at a broader look at ideology. He drinks Starbucks and Coca-Cola and talks about slacktivism and Lacanian desire, respectively. There's a fascinating segment about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, particularly the "Ode to Joy" part, and how various cultures and governments relate to it and make it suit their ideological ends. And of course the riots in London, the Arab Spring, and Occupy get explored a bit in the film since those are current reactions to the prevailing ideology of the West. These real cultural moments help underline one of Žižek's most interesting questions in the film: why is it that so many people in the West can imagine an asteroid obliterating planet Earth but can't imagine changes to a capitalist economy? I don't have the intellectual footholds to engage in a critique of Žižek's thought process in this film, at least not right now. Whenever reading dense material, the analytical machinery in my skull only gets working on the second or third read. In the case of The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, it'll take another watch before I can really parse the arguments. The first time through, I just dazzled at the spectacle of ideas. The audacity of Žižek and the playfulness of Fiennes (and the other way around) are a kind of intellectual Rube Goldberg machine: a series of madcap chain reactions -- history as a process, ideology as inescapable, cause and effect and divergence. There's just something so enthralling about watching ideas take hold. You get a grip on it and continue the ascent, upwards, around and slanted, until you've reached the end. These ideas result in a kind of conclusion that solves nothing but remains invigorating. (Philosophy not as a solution to big problems but as a reassessment and reframing of big problems. Solutions not required.) Like the criticism that invigorates me, at the end I find myself on top of something new that allows me to look at all the cultural stuff around me in a different way. Žižek wants you to make like Maria and climb every mountain because the hills are alive with the sound of global capitalism. [embed]213180:39101:0[/embed]
Pervert's Guide Review photo
Slavoj Žižek climbs every mountain and fords every stream
Slavoj Žižek is one of the most popular public intellectuals in the world, though maybe in a "big in Japan" sort of way. (Most public intellectuals who aren't Noam Chomsky or a member of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism have ...

Fifty Shades of Problems photo
Fifty Shades of Problems

Fifty Shades of Grey loses Charlie Hunnam, needs rewrites

Hunnam and Fifty Shades weren't drift compatible
Oct 15
// Nick Valdez
Over the weekend, Universal's Fifty Shades of Grey motion picture (out August 2014 as of now) has been going through a few issues. First of all, Universal hired Patrick Marber to do some quick fine tuning of the script. Short...

Trailer: The Counselor starring Fassbender, Pitt, Bardem

Aug 20
// Liz Rugg
In The Counselor, Michael Fassbender stars as a lawyer who finds himself in way over his head when he gets involved with the dangerous world of drug trafficking. Judging from this trailer, things go awry pretty badly, and Fa...

Bret McKenzie writing a fairy tale comedy musical script

Will probably be cute and funny
Aug 08
// Liz Rugg
In an interview with the dudes over at Collider, Bret McKenzie, of Flight of the Conchords and The Muppets fame, revealed that he is in the process of writing a script for a "fairy tale comedy musical" with "singing dragons a...

Flixist Discusses: Save the Cat & formulaic storytelling

Aug 06 // Hubert Vigilla
Hubert: What set this all off is a combination of a couple things. There's the Slate piece by Peter Suderman on the influence of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat on formulaic Hollywood storytelling. (Read the Slate piece here.) Then there's a piece that showed up on Marketplace about Hollywood using an algorithm to alter scripts for highest potential box office, which means changing plot points, determining which characters should be in the film, and even picking the cast. (Read the Marketplace piece here.) That's like Netflix's MO for original programming but taken to a new and dastardly height since it's applied to scripts. And so on top of that, there was a Guardian piece by Anakana Schofield I read a the other week about the struggles of first-time authors, ending on a note about people more interested in tips on how to write rather than being interested in actual literature (read the Guardian piece here), and this put me in mind of an older piece in The Atlantic by Richard Bausch about the horrors of how-to writing books/manuals (read the Atlantic piece here). So in the bizarre Rube Goldberg machine way my head works, this led me to pitch a feature by email and declare in a fit of over-coffeed rage: ...Anyone who writes a novel, a non-fiction [work], or a screenplay based solely on advice from a how-to book is a talentless hack bastard who can't write for shit and doesn't care about the craft of writing and should go fuck themselves... Fuck, I may tell people [in this feature] to quit it with the god damn hero's journey already. Yeah, Campbell's great and you can do that Jungian stuff however you want, but dammit, we need new structures and new tales and new heroes and a new take on storytelling rather than people repeating script guru formulas, or conversely aping [the style and formal complexities of David Foster Wallace for the mere appearance of depth and novelty] when they don't have the same talent. Anecdote: I remember in a screenwriting class way back as an undergrad we watched a Syd Field video and the teacher shut it off and just said, 'This is fucking stupid.' We spent the rest of the class talking about off-beat movies we liked and looking at their structure instead. So that's where this discussion began. Jim: Sadly, the tragic thing about Campbell's Hero's Journey story structure is that it's become so ubiquitously tried-and-true because it WORKS. And it works, because it always has. It is self-fulfilling prophecy, to a degree. As an audience, we are simply hard-wired to accept that style of story format, no matter how often it crops up. The basic blueprint was deeply-entrenched enough even by Campbell's time that all he did was analyze centuries' worth of existing storytelling, and point out the extant patterns. He didn't really INVENT it, he just wrote it out. One hero, a thousand faces. From Jesus to Odysseus to Ulysses to Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and everyone in between... People just respond to that structure. And, total disclosure, I've read buttloads of screenwriting books. And at the end of the day, whether it's McKee's three-act structure, Syd Field's "paradigm," or Blake Snyder's bullet-pointed Save the Cat beat-sheet, none of them are so much paint-by-numbers blueprints as they are just sets of instructional guidelines regarding the most effective, efficient, and ready-for-audiences ways to tell stories. And to tell them in such a way that people are already prepared to enjoy them before they even introduce cheeks to seat. Does knowing this have a tendency to make you cynical once it sinks in? Sure. Does it kind of ruin movies in a way to pull back the curtain like this, and show off the wires, spackle, and seams? Sadly, yeah. But at some point, it really becomes clear that for all the griping about predictable, formulaic story structures, the meat of any story lies within the art of the telling of it. To put a finer point on it (and speaking of meat): When you go to a restaurant and order a steak, it's because you want steak. You have a pretty decent idea of what it is you're going to get before you even plop your posterior into the chair. And even if what arrives is expected and standard, you're still pretty satisfied. But if the chef has gone the extra mile, and really done something special with the flavor, preparation, or plating? That piece of meat can still have the ability to delight and surprise. It can still be memorable long after it's done its job. The devil is, as ever, in the details. Hubert: With the hero's journey -- which I'm not saying Campbell invented but simply codified using Jung as his guide -- I think it could be said that a lot of people are forcing their own stories to fit into the framework rather than allowing their stories to tell themselves on their own terms. The familiar framework ought to be the afterthought rather than the guiding principle for the characters and the plot. I mean, the myths of the past were simply told and the structures were not conscious decisions by the tellers of myth. There should be more emphasis on the act of telling rather than fitting a story into a mold; and if these are unconscious/subconscious structures of certain stories, then these things are internalized and will manifest themselves in different ways regardless without needing to consciously force stories into that mold. The value of learning structures -- and I think there's more inherent value in Campbell since it examines stories in terms of their greater cultural function, whereas the work of Snyder, McKee, and Field seems less interested in actual craft or culture and more focused on how to reduce stories to efficient story-commodities -- is to know what's been done and how to use patterns, avoid patterns, and subvert patterns with purpose. When it comes to screenwriting and Hollywood product, these formulas and script-guru guides (and now screenwriting algorithms) take on an extra level of cynicism only because it's such blatant pandering. Yes, it's product, and yes, it's assembly line, and yet people will gobble it up regardless, but I think this stuff is more like bad Chinese take-out than decent steak -- we digest this junk and are still starving. The steak is the stuff that manages to get past the formula and the cynicism (even if there is an underlying familiar structure) because the story itself is so involving. Like I think about that Atlantic piece a while ago and I think that's where I'm always thrown when articles like the Slate one come out every couple of months. It reveals that people are less interested in crafting something wholly their own and more interested in consciously resorting to formula. There's a line that appears in Julio Cortazar's novel Hopscotch that goes something like, "Let us try to create new passions or at least reproduce the old passions with a like intensity." What most of the formulaic stuff out there lacks is any sense of passion or intensity because familiar structures are being used as crutches when they should be leaping-off points for risk and play. And really, the works that make most people want to become screenwriters or novelists or good non-fiction writers are the ones with that sense of risk, even the competently cooked steaks -- they're bloody still, and that's how you can tell they're good. I'm not arguing for fine meals all the time, but just better fast food from mainstream entertainment. Less McDonald's, more In and Out Burger. (And sadly, yes, I am the type of person who will quote South American novels while drunk at parties, sometimes in the same sentence as a dick joke.) Jim: Though it may seem like I'm defending rote, same-y features borne of "How-To" books, I'm really not. I've decried the rise of "Tab-A-into-Slot-B" formula films for ages, because I really do feel like following predictable, pre-set roadmaps sucks a lot of the endemic creativity out of the process. Once audiences begin to discern the patterns, it can make them cynical, and creates an environment where EVERYONE is afraid to take chances, no matter which side of the screen they're on. Ultimately, that's bad for movies in general. So, if there's any sort of "defense" to be read into my position, I suppose it's tepid, at best. I recognize and acknowledge the place of features with tried-and-true structures much in the same way that I would respect a hard-working cover band. In as much as you more or less know what you're getting when you go in. It may not be original, but it's familiar. Comforting, even. And it still holds some inherent entertainment value. Good for the nights when you want to hear "Mustang Sally" and "Brick House," and don't feel like rollin' the bones on checking out an original band. One that may end up disappointing you. I guess, in that light, I sort of look at stuff like Snyder's "Beat Sheet" as almost a form of sheet music. But still somehow... less than that. More like a sort of shove in a proven direction. Like, if you're going to write blues, you might want to think about starting off with a 12-bar, I-IV-V progression. Because that's pretty much what the blues IS. I mean, hell... A guy I know is the primary singer/songwriter of a popular alt-pop trio that had it's heyday in the '90s. And though they're still doing well touring, he has carved out a lucrative second career writing songs for other people. Songs that inevitable do really well. And every song he's ever written goes the same way: Intro > Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus > Outro That's his M.O., and he makes it work. Every. Single. Time. He also almost always manages to stick in a vocal-and-acoustic-only quiet inverted bit at the end of every bridge, which has become something of a calling card. His method is so consistent. Once I even took two songs he'd written for two different female artists and slapped them directly on top of each other in a sound-editing program. They became an INSTANT mash-up, because the tempo, chord progression, and structure were IDENTICAL. The only real differences were the melody, and lyrics. And that guy? He's a multi-millionaire. He gets paid ludicrous amounts of money for simply knowing the equation, and repeatedly solving it in incrementally different ways. Thing is, he does so WAY better than most, and that's why the checks keep on showing up. So, in any creative area, there's going to be mass-produced "comfort food" to a degree. It's intended for a large, lowest-common-denominator, four-quadrant audience, and it works great as that. It is exactly what it needs to be. And I don't even mind admitting that I like some of that stuff, if it's well-done. It has every right to exist for its intended audience. But. When I look back over my favorite films, the ones that really stick with me, I think of movies like The City of Lost Children, A Clockwork Orange, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and, what is hands-down my favorite film of all time, one I've easily seen over 200 times, Clerks. So, it's really all relative. All art has merit. Some of it just has a more niche appeal compared to the rest. [embed]216215:40537:0[/embed] Hubert: I think we're on a similar page here, Jim, because I can see the value of those books and structure as, like you said, guidelines. The problem is when people take the guidelines as rules and/or rely more on the guidelines than they do their own creativity. It'd be better for people to go back to the works that moved them as inspiration rather than to look at some dumb how-to book. (This is Hollywood, though, so of course they wouldn't do that. A lot of the suits probably don't like watching movies or reading books.) With songs it's interesting because it's all about how to play with rhythm, melody, and form, and the most effective way to a hook is the pattern, whereas film, books, and other mediums work in different ways. But great pop songs seem to be about the play that takes place within the pattern. There's a structure there -- though I'm not sure it's necessarily like plot points -- but like you mentioned earlier, the devil's in the details, and you can do a lot with a verse-chorus-verse structure, which is a pattern but seems like something different than a mere formula. Like I think of songs like "All My Friends" by LCD Soundsystem and "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)" by Talking Heads. Both are just built on a spine of repetition, but they're played with different layers and variations that alter mood, meaning, and intensity. And then there are ways you can switch tempo, drop instruments out for effect, and do key changes that reveal the real creativity within structures that aren't pre-determined by the structures. I mean, I think back to "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" by The Four Tops. If I remember right, that was originally two different songs that were stitched together with that drop into the almost-silent pre-chorus, which is just a bass line and tambourine for a bar. It's such an awesome transition and isn't something that's formulaic at all. That was the creativity of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team doing problem solving in their own heads rather than with a how-to. Actually, the song thing is interesting because the verse-chorus-verse progression is tried and true and great, and it only seems to get bad when songs get bland and pander or become formulaic. There was that study/survey that led to the creation of the world's most wanted song based on a series of pop cliches. And Christ, it's fucking wretched. (Read about and listen to the most wanted song here.) It's the stuff that's built by committees in order to cynically appeal to the largest audience possible that reveals the worst in the formulas/algorithm approach to creativity. It reduces entertainment to a checklist for palatability and middle-of-the-roadness, and in the process this stifles the interesting human stuff of a work, whether it's a story or a song or whatever. By the human stuff, I just mean all the bloody, risky, unique, and catchiest parts of the work we wind up loving. It's like the two steaks in The Fly: the non-telepod one is real and tastes like actual steak, the telepod one tastes synthetic because the machine has reinterpreted the flesh but doesn't actually understand the flesh. I'll give you the closing thoughts on this. Jim: Case in point: I actually really want to see The Wolverine. I do. Even though going into it, I absolutely know what the basic (adamantium) skeleton of the story is going to be. It's a big, summer-tentpole, superhero popcorn-muncher. So I can uncategorically guarantee they're not going to be taking any ill-advised risks with the story structure. All the beats will happen exactly where they're supposed to. And -- here's the thing -- I'm perfectly okay with that. And on some level, I think I'd be disappointed if they didn't. I WANT to see Wolverine get enticed to go on a journey he may not want to, but then fully commit and decide to go after an inciting incident that all but guarantees his commitment. I already know he has a meeting with a wizened mentor, because that shit is straight-up in the trailer. So is our boy getting brought down by a hail of arrows, and seemingly defeated. And you can damn well bet that, just when it seems like he's beaten down, he comes back with a vengeance to kick ass and walk away victorious. And whether or not he gets his powers of regeneration back, there's STILL going be the old "You didn't need your powers, because you had the strength inside you all along" chestnut floated as a theme. I know it's going to happen. So do you guys. So does everyone else, whether they realize it or not. But -- also whether they realize it or not -- that's what they WANT. Nobody wants to see a pensive, moody Logan playing chess with death on the beach. They just don't. (Since writing this, I have seen The Wolverine. And...Yep. It's all there.)
Should We Save the Cat? photo
The ups and downs of formulaic, midde-of-the-road storytelling
The summer movie season is coming to a close, and you probably noticed something about the blockbusters you watched: a lot of them were pretty much the same. The films probably told similar stories with similar plot points. F...


Paul Schrader & Spike Lee may do Clarence Thomas film

The biopic would be crowdfunded
Jul 30
// Hubert Vigilla
I unfortunately couldn't get to the world premiere of Paul Schrader's new (and quite possibly schlocky) film The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan and written by Bret Easton Ellis. The Dissolve reports that during the discussio...

Star Trek 3 grabbing new writers

To boldly go where many other writers have gone before
Jul 23
// Matthew Razak
Rumors are popping up that two new writers have been brought on for the next Star Trek film as Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof leave to go mess around with some other beloved franchise. Bad Robot, JJ Abrams production compan...

Review: Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp

Jul 18 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213181:39085:0[/embed] Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a PimpDirector: Jorge HinojosaRating: NRRelease Date: July 12th. 2013 (VOD); July 19th, 2013 (limited) Like any movie that celebrates a writer, there's a kind of evangelical zeal about the work that's been produced. Chris Rock says that Pimp is one of his favorite books of all time. Henry Rollins is there boosting Iceberg Slim's writing as well, and ditto actor Bill Duke. Snoop Dogg sings praises on his couch, with two Ugly Dolls right behind him. A number of black writers also speak fondly of Iceberg Slim for his work, which remains as observant as James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison but was earthier and lurid, and in that way more real. Ice-T, who produced the film and is also one of its interview subjects, says that if you open up an Iceberg Slim book to any page and read paragraph, it's the craziest shit you've ever read. (Ice-T also offers up a hilarious anecdote about using the writings of Iceberg Slim to play pimp with a friend of his.) The first paragraph of Pimp goes like this, recounting Beck's sexual abuse at a very young age: Her name was Maude and she Georgied me around 1921. I was only three years old. Mama told me about it, and always when she did her rage and indignation would be as strong and as emotional perhaps as at the time when she had surprised her, panting and moaning at the point of orgasm with my tiny head between her ebony thighs, her massive hands viselike around my head. What's fascinating is seeing footage of Robert Beck talking about being a writer and being a pimp. There's the infamous interview on The Joe Pyne Show, where Beck wears a black mask that makes him resemble The Invisible Man (Wells, not Ellison) or some sort of supervillain. He's pure charisma, with a sonorous sort of voice that could persuade people to do anything. But he talks about pimping frankly and without shame, and he does lots of unconscionable things as part of the game. It was a way to live, and something he couldn't abandon even when he tried to go legit and start his own family. To hear about his family life is like hearing about a dreamike reformation (at least for a while). Beck meets a beautiful young woman named Betty in Southern California when he tries to ditch the pimp life. He was dressed as dashing as ever -- a knight in shining velvet -- and she was just a young gal working at a burger joint. They were an interracial couple when it was still somewhat taboo, and lived on the outskirts of the neighborhood where they wouldn't be judged. It's because of Betty that Beck started to write books, and we realize how positive this love between them was, and how strong. Yet when we first see Betty in the film, it's well after Beck passed away. She smokes in bed wearing a nightgown, her voice gruff, and one eye is a milky turquoise from a cataract. While jumping between the literary life, the pimp life, and the life of the family man, director Jorge Hinojosa also delves into some of his psychology, trying to find connections between his troubled childhood in Chicago and his adult relationships. Amid all the archival footage, photos, and talking heads, there are stylish injections of animation and pulp art. We glide around illustrated cutouts of hookers, tricks, and pimps taken from magazines and paperback covers. It sets the life of Robert Beck into the literary world painted by Iceberg Slim -- maybe there was no division. Some of these moments remind me of Thomas Allen's brilliant photos and collage art in Uncovered. Hinjosa also has an interesting invisible framework for the film built around three major riots that occurred during Beck's life: the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the Watts Riots in 1965, and the LA riots of 1992. They're almost like what Halley's Comet was to Mark Twain. It's coincidental maybe, but it sets Beck's life and his work in a time of passionate violence and changing race relations in the 20th century. He wrote as a reflection of the tumultuous times in which he lived. The documentary is honest with only the right kinds of embellishment for flavor. The story of how Iceberg Slim got his name is all about the kind of invention through storytelling that's rooted in the national character. There's a reason for the evangelical zeal and why his work remains in print. In some ways I feel like the documentary misses a step after the dissolution of Beck's first marriage. The portrait of Beck in his waning years doesn't seem well explored. Given, there might not have been much to his life after a certain point, but it feels like there's a piece or two missing. Even Beck's family seems like it could have been given more time on screen. Betty is fascinating, especially since two of her daughters think she's crazy. Camille, one of their daughters, also seems fragile and manic, but more than her mother. It made me wonder what else had gone on during their lives -- what little tragedies, what major problems. There probably could have been a Crumb-like documentary based on the Beck family alone. Yet I don't hold too much of that against Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp. The film's ability to explore the cultural, literary, social, and personal impact of Robert Beck is its primary focus. It does that right. Most importantly, the film's made me excited to go find the work of Robert Beck and to see if it's as crazy good as everyone says it is.
Iceberg Slim Review photo
It's hard out here for a pimp writer
I know I've heard the name Iceberg Slim somewhere before seeing the documentary Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, but I was never aware of his literary work. Maybe Iceberg Slim was mentioned in American Pimp, the 1999 Hughes ...

Reading Roger Ebert: The Great Movies II

Jul 05 // Hubert Vigilla
Reading The Great Movies II by Roger Ebert Top Directors in Volume 2 There are again several directors with two films a piece in this volume (e.g., Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, John Houston, David Lean). The directors who appear most frequently, however, are: Milos Foreman - Three separate entries (Amadeus, The Fireman's Ball, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) Steven Spielberg - Three separate entries (The Color Purple, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark) Note: If you want to get technical on multi-film essays, the entry on Buster Keaton is a survey on five of his full-length features (other than The General, which had its own entry in Volume 1) and two of his shorts; Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors Trilogy is one essay for three films. Great Movies by Decade in Volume 2 The essays in this volume were originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times from 2001 to 2004. 1910s - 1 film 1920s - 9 films 1930s - 5 films 1940s - 9 films 1950s - 21 films 1960s - 15 films 1970s - 20 films 1980s - 17 films 1990s - 9 films Note: I separated out The Three Colors Trilogy as three entries in the 1990s; the Buster Keaton entry was broken into five films from the 1920s. Most Surprising Inclusions The joy of the later Greats is that there are more surprising inclusions. These films aren't great in the lofty canonical sense but are great nonetheless in their own ways. (I actually think at least two of the movies below should be legitimately recognized as part of the canon.) The most notable surprises in Volume 2 are: A Christmas Story Moonstruck Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Saturday Night Fever Say Anything This Is Spinal Tap [embed]215382:40364:0[/embed] Some Great Observations From the essay on Amadeus - "This is not a vulgarization of Mozart, but a way of dramatizing that true geniuses rarely take their own work seriously, because it comes so easily for them. Great writers (Nabokov, Dickens, Wodehouse) make it look like play. Almost-great writers (Mann, Galsworthy, Wolfe) make it look like Herculean triumph. It is as true in every field; compare Shakespeare to Shaw, Jordan to Barkley, Picasso to Rothko, Kennedy to Nixon." From the essay on Amarcord - "Fellini was more in love with breasts than Russ Meyer, more wracked with guilt than Ingmar Bergman, more of a flamboyant showman than Busby Berkeley. He danced so instinctively to his inner rhythms that he didn't even realize he was a stylistic original; did he ever devote a moment's organized thought to the style that became known as 'Felliniesque,' or was he simply following the melody that always played when he was working?" From the essay on Annie Hall - "Annie Hall is a movie about a man who is always looking for the loopholes in perfection. Who can turn everything into a joke, and wishes he couldn't." From the essay on The Big Heat - "That's the beauty of Lang's moral ambidexterity. He tells the story of a heroic cop, while using it to mask another story, so much darker, beneath." From the essay on The Birth of a Nation - "All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil." From the essay on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie - "Comedies are allowed to break the rules. Most of the films of Luis Buñuel are comedies in one way or another, but he doesn't go for gags and punch lines; his comedy is more like a dig in the ribs, sly and painful." From the essay on The Fall of the House of Usher - "There are times when I think that of all the genres, the horror film most misses silence. The Western benefited from dialogue, and musicals and film noir are unthinkable without words. But in a classic horror film, almost anything you can say will be superfluous or ridiculous. Notice how carefully the Draculas of talkies have to choose their words to avoid bad laughs. The perfect horror situation is such that there is nothing you can say about it." [embed]215382:40365:0[/embed] From the essay on The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly - "In these opening frames, Sergio Leone established a rule that he follows throughout The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The rule is that the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame. At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see, and that gives Leone the freedom to surprise us with entrances that cannot be explained by the practical geography of his shots." From the essay on The Gospel According to Matthew - "If a hypothetical viewer came to The Passion with no previous knowledge of Jesus and wondered what all the furor was about, Pasolini's film would argue: Jesus was a radical whose teachings, if taken seriously, would contradict the values of most human societies ever since." From the essay on Great Expectations - "[David Lean] was an editor for seven years before directing his first film, and his career stands as an argument for the theory that editors make better directors than cinematographers do; the cinematographer is seduced by the look of a film, while the editor is faced with the task of making sense out of it as a story." From the essay on Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy - "Most films make the unspoken assumption that their characters are defined by and limited to their plots. But lives are not about stories. Stories are about lives. That is the difference between films for children and films for adults. Kieslowski celebrates intersecting timelines and lifelines, choices made and unmade. All his films ask why, since God gave us free will, movie directors go to such trouble to take it away." From the essay on Le Boucher - "If you bring enough empathy to her character, you can read the final scene more deeply. It is a sex scene. They don't touch, but then they never did." From the essay on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - "Rarely does a film give us such a nuanced view of the whole span of a man's life. It is said that the child is father to the man. Colonel Blimp makes poetry out of what the old know but the young do not guess: The man contains both the father and the child." From the essay on The Man Who Laughs - "By not alerting us with the logic of language, silent films can more easily slip us off into the shadows of fantasy." [embed]215382:40366:0[/embed] From the essay on Mean Streets - "If Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather fixed an image of the Mafia as a shadow government, Scorsese's Mean Streets inspired the other main line in modern gangster movies, the film of everyday reality. The Godfather was about careers. Mean Streets was about jobs." From the essay on Mon Oncle - "Jean-Luc Godard once said, 'The cinema is not the station. The cinema is the train.' I never knew what that meant, until Monsieur Hulot showed me. The joy is in the journey, the sadness in the destination." From the essay on My Dinner with Andre - "Here are two friends who have each found a way to live successfully. Each is urging the other to wake up and smell the coffee. The difference is that, in Wally's case, it's real coffee." From the essay on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - "Is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest not a great film because it is manipulative, or is it great because it is so superbly manipulative?" From the essay on Paris, Texas - "Wenders uses the materials of realism, but this is a fable, as much as his great Wings of Desire. It's about archetypal longings, set in American myth." From the essay on Picnic of Hanging Rock - "My idea of Australia has been fashioned almost entirely from its films, and I picture it as a necklace of coastal cities, from which depend smaller inland towns, surrounding the vast and ancient Outback--where modern logic does not apply, and inexplicable things can happen." From the essay on Raiders of the Lost Ark - "In a scene where everything is happening at once, [Harrison Ford] knows that nothing unnecessary need be happening on his face, in his voice, or to his character. He is the fulcrum, not the lever." From the essay on Rashomon - "The genius of Rashomon is that all of the flashbacks are both true and false. True, in that they present an accurate portrait of what each witness thinks happened. False, because as Kurosawa observes in his autobiography, 'Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.'" From the essay on Romeo and Juliet - "Romeo and Juliet is always said to be the first romantic tragedy ever written, but it isn't really a tragedy at all. It's a tragic misunderstanding, scarcely fitting the ancient requirement of tragedy that the mighty fall through their own flaws." [embed]215382:40367:0[/embed] From the essay on Solaris - "The films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky are more like environments than entertainments. It's often said they're too long, but that's missing the point: He uses length and depth to slow us down, to edge us out of the velocity of our lives, to enter a zone of reverie and meditation. When he allows a sequence to continue for what seems like an unreasonable length, we have a choice. We can be bored, or we can use the interlude as an opportunity to consolidate what has gone before, and process it in terms of our own reflections." From the essay on Stroszek - "The thing about most American movies is that the actors in them look like the kinds of people who might be hired for a movie. They don't have to be handsome, but they have to be presentable--to fall within a certain range. If they are too strange, how can they find steady work?" From the essay on Sunrise - "Listening to Bailey, it occurred to me that the best commentary tracks are often by experts who did not work on the film but love it and have given it a lot of thought. They're more useful than those rambling tracks where directors (notoriously shy about explaining their techniques or purposes) reminisce about the weather on the set that day." From the essay on A Tale of Winter - "There is sadness in [Rohmer's] work but not gloom. His characters are too smart to be surprised by disappointments, and too interested in life to indulge in depression. His films succeed not because large truths are discovered, but because small truths will do. To attend his films is to be for a time in the company of people we would like to know, and then to realize that in various ways they are ourselves." From the essay on Tokyo Story - "[Tokyo Story] ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections." From the essay on Touch of Evil - "The destinies of all of the main characters are tangled from beginning to end, and the photography makes that point by trapping them in the same shots, or tying them together through cuts that match and resonate. The story moves not in a straight line, but as a series of loops and coils." From the essay on Walkabout - "It is not that the girl cannot appreciate nature or that the boy cannot function outside his training. It is that all of us are the captives of environment and programming: That there is a wide range of experiment and experience that remains forever invisible to us, because it falls in a spectrum we simply cannot see." [embed]215382:40368:0[/embed] Recurring Observations Ebert mentions the music that Fellini played on set at least twice in this volume. Ebert also mentions the way silent films are enhanced by their lack of speech at least twice. Funniest Lines From the essay on The Bank Dick - "Pauline Kael finds Chickadee 'a classic among bad movies,' observing that it never really gets off the ground, 'but the ground is such an honest mixture of dirt, manure, and corn that at times it is fairly aromatic.'" From the essay on A Christmas Story - "One of the details that A Christmas Story gets right is the threat of having your mouth washed out with Lifebouy soap. Not any soap. Lifebouy. Never Ivory or Palmolive. Lifebouy, which apparently contained an ingredient able to nullify bad language. The only other soap ever mentioned for this task was Lava, but that was the nuclear weapon of mouth-washing soaps, so powerful it was used for words we still didn't even know." From the essay on King Kong - "...(it is rare to see a coconut brassiere in a non-comedy)..." From the essay on The Producers - "I remember finding myself in an elevator with [Mel] Brooks and his wife, actress Anne Bancroft, in New York City a few months after The Producers was released. A woman got onto the elevator, recognized him and said, 'I have to tell you, Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar.' Brooks smiled benevolently. 'Lady,' he said, 'it rose below vulgarity.'" From the essay on Shane - "Shane is so quiet, so inward, so narcissistic in his silent withdrawing from ordinary exchanges, that he always seems to be playing a role. A role in which he withholds his violent abilities as long as he can, and then places himself in a situation where he is condemned to use them, after which he will ride on, lonely, to the next town. He has... [sic] issues." Inevitable Moment of "I Told You So" Ebert mentions that he gave Sam Pekinpah's much maligned Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia four stars when it was first released, hailing it as "some kind of bizarre masterpiece." [embed]215382:40369:0[/embed] Reference That Dates an Essay Apart from the many mentions of a title being restored for DVD release, the reference that stood out most comes from the essay on Don't Look Now, originally published October 13, 2002. Ebert mentions how Nicolas Roeg's film evokes dread in the same way as the films of M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan had released Signs just months prior to the essay's publication. He was still at the promising beginning of his career when many hailed him as the next Spielberg by way of Hitchcock. Shyamalan has since become a pariah/punchline; he's also turned into a thoroughly mediocre journeyman. His recent movies still evoke dread, but not in the good way. Contentious Observations In this newer volume of The Great Movies, Ebert makes greater leaps at aesthetic ideas. They don't always seem to hit for me, but they're also well-formed points for debate. Here are a few such observations. From the essay on Being There - "The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier--a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more." From the essay on A Christmas Story - "How Farcus gets his comeuppance makes for a deeply satisfying scene, and notice the perfect tact with which Ralphie's mom handles the situation. (Do you agree with me that Dad already knows the whole story when he sits down at the kitchen table?)" From the essay on Goldfinger - "James Bond is the most durable of this century's movie heroes, and the one most likely to last well into the next--although Sherlock Holmes of course is also immortal, and Tarzan is probably good for a retread. (The Star Wars and Star Trek movies are disqualified because they do not have a single hero or a continuous time frame.)" From the essay on The Searchers - "In The Searchers I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide. The comic relief may be an unconscious attempt to soften the message." [embed]215382:40370:0[/embed] Unexpected Reaction While Reading The Great Movies My eyes inexplicably welled up with tears while reading the essay on The Colors Trilogy since the writing was unexpectedly beautiful. The first tremor came with this line: "[Krzysztof Kieslowski] is one of the filmmakers I would turn to for consolation if I learned I was dying, or to laugh with on finding I would live after all." I can't help but think this is a direct reference to Ebert's own health situation at the time, which involved cancer surgery and radiation therapy. (The essay was originally published March 9, 2003.) Also see the Colors Trilogy entry below in the Great Sentence portion. It's dynamite and another great bit of beauty that's informed by Ebert's sense of mortality. Great Sentences From the essay on House of Games - "Mamet's dialogue starts with the plain red bricks of reality, then mortars them into walls that are slightly askew." From the essay on Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy - "I connect strongly with Kieslowski because I sometimes seek a whiff of transcendence by revisiting places from earlier years. I am thinking now of a cafe in Venice, a low cliff overlooking the sea near Donegal, a bookstore in Cape Town, and Sir John Soane's breakfast room in London. I am drawn to them in the spirit of pilgrimage. No one else can see the shadows of my former and future visits there, or know how they are the touchstones of my mortality, but if some day as I approach the cafe I see myself just getting up to leave, I will not be surprised to have missed myself by so little." From the essay on Rififi - "In these scenes Monmarte seems to cower beneath the damp skies of dawn." Great Closing Lines From the essay on Cries and Whispers. (You'll note that my favorite closing line in the previous volume was from Ebert's essay on The Seventh Seal.) Bergman has made it clear from his other films that he feels imperfect, sometimes cruel, a sinner. Anna's faith is the faith of a child, perfect, without questions, and he envies it. It may be true, it may be futile, but it is better to feel it than to die in despair. Here's another great one from the essay on My Neighbor Totoro. I wonder if these lines were the inspiration for the title of Ebert's memoir Life Itself (which we'll get to eventually). It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.
Ebert: Great Movies II photo
The Greats get more interesting and diverse
The field opens up a bit in Roger Ebert's The Great Movies II. There's more diversity to the picks and a wider (and welcome) definition of "great." The field  will continue to open in The Great Movies III, which inc...

Man of Steel photo
Man of Steel

Max Landis also has opinions about Man of Steel

The guy knows his Superman.
Jun 26
// Nick Valdez
Man of Steel has certainly caused a ruckus with the Flixist staff. Hubes outright hates it, Matt liked it to a certain degree, Alec liked everything but the ending, I love pancakes, but we can all mostly agree that Man of St...

Well this is interesting. Ken Levine, creative director of Irrational Studios, responsible most famously for the Bioshock franchise and and less famously for SWAT 4 and Thief: The Dark Project, has been picked by Warner Bros....

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Prometheus 2

Prometheus sequel is certainly happening, nabs new writer

At least it's not Damon Lindelof...yet.
Jun 18
// Nick Valdez
Whether we like it or not (and despite rumblings of pre-production trouble), Fox is moving forward with a sequel to the blockbuster head scratcher, Prometheus, just as Noomi Rapace hinted at a few months back. Hey it's n...

Reading Roger Ebert: The Great Movies

Jun 03 // Hubert Vigilla
What's interesting about reading the first volume of The Great Movies is reacquainting myself with these essays. Many of them I'd read online at one point or another a couple years ago, but reading them in a collection got me attuned to Ebert's rhythms and hobby horses as a critic. There are a lot of calls for people to look, to notice, and to consider, which I think is key. For years he's lectured on films shown one shot at a time, and I can imagine him saying during one of these lectures "Look at how this shot accomplishes x" or "Notice how this shot mirrors y" or "Consider this shot and what it says about z." For me, reading Roger Ebert or watching him on TV was never about confirming my taste but rather understanding how another person might look at something differently. I'd forgotten how Ebert pulls other critics into the larger conversation of a film. He draws a few comments from IMDb in these essays, but more notably he cites the work of Pauline Kael, Stanley Kaufmann, and other professional writers and critics. The Great Movies is dedicated to Ebert's "Teachers," which includes Kael, Kaufmann, Manny Farber, and Andrew Sarris. The invocation of other opinions is rarely for debate so much as for contrast and for flavor. One of those great contrasts between student and teacher: Pauline Kael claimed never to have rewatched a movie; Ebert loves it and notes its importance. "Movies do not change, but their viewers do," he writes in his essay on La Dolce Vita. Ebert's film criticism rarely made the larger social, cultural, intellectual, or ideological leaps of critics like Greil Marcus or Molly Haskell, which isn't an indictment but merely an observation -- he was still good at acts of noticing, looking, and considering, and he was a fine writer who was capable of poetry when the movies moved him enough. Invoking Kael and the IMDb users might just be Ebert in a nutshell. Like Nathan Rabin noted back in April on The AV Club, Ebert became the figurehead for the popularization and democratization of film appreciation and film criticism. This is a larger conversation about things in culture, and all voices are welcome. And like Rabin also noted, this popularization and democratization is one of the reasons we'll probably never see another Roger Ebert. I remember Marcus once saying that criticism creates a space in which writers can let ideas take hold. Ebert expresses something similar in his essay of Wings of Desire: "For myself, the film is like music or a landscape: It clears a space in my mind, and in that space I can consider questions." One of those questions, fittingly given the nature of large cultural conversations, changing opinions over time, and just the fact of mortality: "When did time begin and where does space end?" There'll be more observations about Ebert as this summer reading project continues. (We'll be doing at least three more of Ebert's books.) For now, here's a lengthy breakdown of things I noticed while reading The Great Movies. Reading The Great Movies by Roger Ebert Top Directors in Volume 1 There are several directors with two films in this first volume (e.g., Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg). The directors who appear most frequently, however, are: Billy Wilder - Four separate entries (The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Blvd.) Luis Buñuel - Three separate entries (Belle de Jour, The Exterminating Angel, Un Chien Andalou) Alfred Hitchcock - Three separate entries (Notorious, Psycho, Vertigo) Note: If you want to get technical on multi-film essays, Satyajit Ray's The Apu Trilogy is one essay for three movies, Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue is one essay for 10 one-hour movies, and Michael Apted's Up documentary series is one essay for (at the time) six movies. Great Movies by Decade in Volume 1 The essays in this volume were originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times from 1996 to 2001. 1910s - 1 film 1920s - 8 films 1930s - 11 films 1940s - 15 films 1950s - 19 films 1960s - 21 films 1970s - 16 films 1980s - 7 films 1990s - 9 films Note: I separated out The Apu Trilogy as three entries in the 1950s and the Up documentaries by year. I kept The Decalogue as one big thing from the 1980s. Most Surprising Inclusions A Hard Day's Night - Not that A Hard Day's Night isn't a great movie -- it's a blast -- but I almost expected this to show up in a later volume rather than the first one. It was the fourth Great Movies essay that Ebert wrote, originally published on October 27, 1996. Peeping Tom - Like A Hard Day's Night, Peeping Tom is a great movie that I expected to appear in a later volume of the series. I expected The Red Shoes to be in this book, but that's not until The Great Movies III. Some Great Observations From the essay on 8½ - "A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank, because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes." From the essay on Citizen Kane - "...By flashing back through the eyes of many witnesses, Welles and Mankiewicz created an emotional chronology set free from time." From the essay on The Decalogue - "The settings are much the same: gray exteriors, in winter for the most part, small apartments, offices. The faces are where the life of the films resides." From the essay on Dr. Strangelove - "Dr. Strangelove's humor is generated by a basic comic principle: People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing." From the essay on Dracula - "Vampirism is like elegant, slow-motion rape, done politely by a creature who charms you into surrender." From the essay on L'Avventura - "It is possible to be rich and happy, of course, but for that you need a mind, and interests. It is impossible to be happy simply because one is ceaselessly entertained. L'Avventura becomes a place in our imagination -- a melancholy moral desert." From the essay on Lawrence of Arabia - "What you realize watching Lawrence of Arabia is that the word 'epic' refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision. Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God didn't cost as much as the catering in Pearl Harbor, but it is an epic and Pearl Harbor is not." From the essay on Nosferatu - "'Nosferatu' is a better title anyway than 'Dracula.' Say 'Dracula' and you smile. Say 'Nosferatu' and you've bitten into a lemon." From the essay on The Shawshank Redemption - "The key to the film's structure, I think, is that it's not about its hero, but about our relationship with him -- our curiosity, our pity, our admiration. If Andy had been the heroic center, bravely enduring, the film would have been conventional, and less mysterious." From the essay on Star Wars - "It located Hollywood's center of gravity at the intellectual and emotional level of a bright teenager." From the essay on A Woman Under the Influence - "Movies are such a collaborative medium that we rarely get the sense of one person, but Cassavetes at least got it down to two: himself and Rowlands. The key to his work is to realize that it is always Rowlands, not the male lead, who is playing the Cassavetes role." [embed]215381:40176:0[/embed] Recurring Observations Ebert mentions Howard Hawk's definition of a good movie twice in this volume: "Three great scenes, no bad ones." Ebert raises the same pair of existential questions in two different essays published months apart (Wings of Desire and the Up documentaries): "Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there?" The last line of Some Like It Hot gets mentioned in at least two other essays apart from its own. Funniest Lines From the essay on Double Indemnity - "Double Indemnity was [Bill Wilder's] third film as a director. That early in his career, he was already cocky enough to begin a thriller with the lines, 'I killed him for money -- and for a woman. I didn't get the money. And I didn't get the woman.' And end it with the hero saying 'I love you, too' to Edward G. Robinson." From the essay on Some Like it Hot (Tony Curtis had said kissing Marilyn Monroe was like kissing Hitler) - "She kisses him not erotically but tenderly, sweetly, as if offering a gift and healing a wound. You remember what Curtis said but when you watch that scene, all you can think is that Hitler must have been a terrific kisser." Inevitable Moments of "I Told You So" Ebert mentions championing Bonnie and Clyde as the definitive film of the 1960s. Ebert also mentions how he publicly declared The Wild Bunch a masterpiece during a press conference the morning after the film's 1969 world premiere. References That Date the Essays Lots of lines about VHS pan-and-scan/full-frame presentations, though it's most apparent in the essays on Lawrence of Arabia and Manhattan. Also, Ebert hates on Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor at least twice in this book. Great Argument for Rewatching Movies The joys of rewatching movies are plentiful in the essays, but I think the one on Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita is the most compelling case for it. Ebert takes a little time to explain what it's like to watch a movie every 10 years or so since the 1960s. Unexpected Reaction While Reading The Great Movies Not going to lie, I almost cried reading the following essays: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial It's a Wonderful Life The Up Documentaries If I wasn't on the subway while reading the E.T. and It's a Wonderful Life ones, I probably would have been teary-eyed. Essays Noting the Imperfections of the Greats Detour Dr. Strangelove Psycho Red River Great Sentences From the essay on The Apartment - "On Christmas Eve, more than any other night of the year, the lonely person feels robbed of something that was there in childhood and isn't there anymore." From the essay on Mr. Hulot's Holiday - "Sight gags are set up with such patience that they seem to expose hidden functions in the clockwork of the universe." A Great Aphorism From the essay on The Shawshank Redemption: All good art is about something deeper than it admits. A Great Closing Line From the essay on The Seventh Seal describing a moment in Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage: The woman awakens with a nightmare, the man holds and comforts her, and in the middle of the night in a dark house, surrounded by hurt and fear, this comforting between two people is held up as mankind's best weapon against despair.
Ebert: The Great Movies photo
The first installment of an Ebert summer reading series
Roger Ebert would have turned 71 this month. His passing has left a hole in the film critic community, which doesn't seem to have a central public figure anymore. There's A.O. Scott of The New York Times, of course, but he do...

Writers Wanted photo
Looking for the best of the best, or those who are willing to write
Do you live in LA? Do you like movies? Do you like writing words about movies and meeting famous people (or at least semi-famous people)? Then do we have the gig for you! Flixist is looking for one or two LA correspondents wh...


Help fund Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

Kickstart post-production on this Tribeca documentary
May 07
// Hubert Vigilla
I really enjoyed the documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a fine portrait of one of the last great public intellectuals in American life. The film could use your help in the post-production phase, however, wh...

Tribeca Review: Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

Apr 29 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215436:40013:0[/embed] Gore Vidal: The United States of AmnesiaDirector: Nicholas WrathallRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD Vidal had the uniquely privileged upbringing that joined young scholarship and erudition with early political consciousness. His grandfather was Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, a blind man who was nonetheless highly educated and supposedly accepted no graft from the oil companies of his state. Vidal was so inspired by his grandfather's side of the family and what they represented that he took on the surname "Gore" as his first name, which does beat the heck out of Eugene. What becomes clear about Vidal is that he was ahead of his time in many respects. He advocated for gay rights back in the middle of the 20th century, and was even blacklisted from The New York Times's book reviews simply for his sexuality. Back in the '60s he talked about the dangers of income inequality, which have only gotten worse in the decades since. Vidal was also against the war in Vietnam before Johnson escalated the conflict. Vidal's close association with the Kennedy White House also meant greater disappointment in Kennedy as a president. He doesn't sugarcoat his feelings about JFK, and regards him as a substandard leader highly regarded for dying young who did plenty of objectionable things (e.g., Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs). But the political and social critic side of Vidal is just part of his personality. He was also a great entertainer. He and his partner Howard Austen hosted celebrity guests at their seaside, mountain-top Italian villa for years. All his life, he was a scenester with feet in Washington politics, Hollywood stardom, and New York publishing. He counted Paul Newman as one of his many close friends, and if I remember right, Newman supposedly threatened to beat the hell out of William F. Buckley for calling Vidal a queer on television. Director Nicholas Wrathall juggles material in his documentary, going between classic footage of Vidal on television and interviews with Vidal from a few years ago, with occasional Vidal aphorisms as a buffer between scenes. Sometimes this archival footage is more interesting than the recent footage. There's no shortage of delight in watching Vidal tussle with Buckley since the two were evenly matched intellectual heavies on opposite sides of the political spectrum. There's also joy in seeing the classic clip from The Dick Cavett Show in which Norman Mailer postures like a literary thug while Vidal and Cavett dismantle him. And yet Vidal's meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev a few years ago pales by comparison. Interesting sure, but not as captivating on film as I would've thought, probably because it's civil rather than acerbic. There's a surprising lifelong consistency to Vidal. His disdain for President worship and flag waving, for instance, endured. There's footage of Vidal watching Obama's speech on election night 2008, and he rolls his eyes wearily at the slightest pander to overt patriotism. This seems like the necessary stance of the gadfly: to avoid fawning, no matter who it is or where his or her politics align with your own. Sadly there's no footage of Vidal opining on Obama's successes and shortcomings in his first term, or on the early stages of the 2012 Presidential election. Vidal passed away from pneumonia on July 31, 2012. Part of the film focuses on who Vidal's heir will be, and for a while it seemed like Christopher Hitchens. At one time Vidal even anointed him as his official successor. Things soured between them over Hitchens's support of the war in Iraq. Vidal was staunchly against all wars, and even relates a moment in his youth that may have solidified his opposition to armed conflict. This rift in their friendship was never mended, and Wrathall captures their last meeting on camera. Hitchens passed away in December 2011. It's a bit hard to say who the successor to Vidal is since there's no one right now who currently occupies a similar position in the literary, celebrity, and political landscape. The country is without a Vidal figure in the same way it's without an H.L. Mencken figure, though it has its surrogate Mark Twains in writers like George Saunders and satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. More gadflies wouldn't be a bad thing. What's surprising is that while the left continues to have its critics, satirists, and wits, the right has experienced a severe deficit of them. The intellectual rigor of the right has been replaced by staunch anti-intellectualism. Gone is the possibility of someone like William F. Buckley representing conservative causes. He'd be shouted down for being a pointy-headed intellectual even though he voiced distrust in pointy-headed intellectuals. The Buckley brand of conservative commentary has since been replaced by dunderhead provocateurs peddling garbage infotainment, like Glenn Beck, Dinesh D'Souza, and Rush Limbaugh. If Buckley saw the state of The National Review today, he would probably weep zombie tears and then sock Jonah Goldberg in the mouth before replacing him with someone like Reihan Salam. (It's also sad state of affairs for conservatism when Victoria Jackson can be considered a worthwhile representative of an ideology, even a fringe one.) That's all really a tangent to the film, but something I found myself wondering for a while after the documentary. That might be the point. The subtitle of the documentary is The United States of Amnesia, and we're a country that so eagerly forgets its own history, so dutifully absolves itself of its own sins, and refuses to look back on events with any thoughtfulness. The United States of Amnesia reminded me of all that public discourse I wasn't alive to see but keep watching or reading online, and why I keep watching and reading and seeking out that stuff: it's worthwhile, it's still relevant, and we haven't learned a damned thing. In celebrating the life of Vidal, I think Wrathall really reminds Vidal's fans and latecomers that what The United States needs the most are its critics and historians. They're the mirrors and the healthy kicks in the pants that help the country wake up and do something, even if that something is as simple as the mere act of thinking.
Gore Vidal Review photo
A fine hurrah for a great American gadfly
It seems like we're well beyond the age of the public intellectual, or even the public author who may show society the way. Writers like Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman, and others used to appear on tel...

Tribeca Review: Adult World

Apr 19 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215360:39981:0[/embed] Adult WorldDirector: Scott CoffeyRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD The difference between a sheltered 16 year old and a 23 year old who successfully completed college can't be understated, especially if the character got good (not just decent) grades at school. A person learns a lot in those seven years, and lives a lot too. If that person's a writer (even a really bad one), he or she is bound to read a fair amount of work and learn a good amount of craft before leaving with a BA. I'm not sure about the undergrad literature department at Syracuse and their creative writing classes, but their MFA program is good -- the faculty includes George Saunders, who's one America's best writers, often compared in glowing terms to both Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain. Amy would probably have done her best to get in the good graces of some poet teaching at Syracuse while she was there. That poet is Rat Billings (John Cusack), whose work she discovers one night on the street after leaving a college party. For some reason Amy, the Billings obsessive who has read all of his work, never knew that Billings taught at her own school, and she never tried to seek him out until after she graduated from college. Come to think of it, I think she's supposed to be a relatively recent college graduate, but somehow she hasn't paid her student loan for months. When we first peek into Amy's life, she's trying to make it on her own without her parents' help. She cluelessly submits her awful work to The New Yorker and Harper's. She gets a job at a quirky, oddball mom-and-pop porn shop called Adult World, which looks a bit more like a local indie bookstore. She makes quirky, oddball friends, including her co-worker Alex (Evan Peters) and a transvestite named Rubia (Armando Riesco). Somehow Amy is sexually clueless at her age and has never hung out with a person in drag; and at one point she even scolds a customer for renting sexist material. (Why a contemporary college grad would be so second-wave-feminism about porn is a bit odd to me since the sex-positive third-wave has been around for a generation now. The kids these days, they love it; the kids my day, they loved it too.) So many of the problems above might have been fixed if director Scott Coffey and screenwriter Andy Cochran just de-aged Amy. She's written like a sheltered 16 year old, so just make her a sheltered 16 year old. Take her out of college completely so there's no problem of too much inexperience and too much naivete and not enough friends. For some reason the only friend that Amy made during college and still talks to is Candance (Shannon Woodward); for some reason Amy didn't want to hang out with other bad poets, which are plentiful -- in most undergrad programs across the country, there are usually four bad ones for every good one. Without the college degree, Amy is now a tyro expressing the amateur's enthusiasm about writing; a character who reads poetry but doesn't understand its music, its meaning, or its pleasures on anything but a superficial level; the exact sort of person interested only in the idea of being a writer rather than what it takes to become a good writer. (Though sadly that sort of delusion and ineptitude persists even in people who have literature degrees from accredited universities.) Maybe I'm a little too harsh on the film since the performances are actually pretty good. While I could do without the overdose of quirky and oddball like a folksy mom-and-pop porn store, it's always nice to see Cloris Leachman around. Riesco's fun when on screen, and Roberts has the right amount of psychotic enthusiasm. Cusack is interesting in the movie in that he lacks the usual quirks of writers depicted on film. He's simply a guy doing work, which is what being a writer is about. There's no magic -- it's a person who takes writing seriously and writes and reads. It's not as romantic as the idea of being a writer, that fantastical thing that draws so many people into writing crappy poetry and wretched prose. The machinery for a small-scale satire on the lit scene is in Adult World as well, though never quite realized. Young and dumb Amy laments not breaking big at an early age. To that Billings plainly says something like, "Fame is the bane of your generation, kid." It's actually pretty true. There's so much pressure felt by twentysomethings to achieve and to succeed when young. For every Jonathan Safran Foer and others in The New Yorker's 20 under 40 list, there are plenty of writers who work diligently and find no success until later in life (Jennifer Egan talked about that after A Visit from the Goon Squad hit big) or even people who didn't publish work until much later in life (e.g., Raymond Chandler). Outside of this pressure to publish while young, Adult World also jabs at the coddling of precious little snowflakes. Both of Amy's folks support her writing and tell her it's great, but it's just plain garbage. It's the kind of dreck that would get polite applause at a sparsely attended open mic and would only be remembered for being quotably bad. The idea that opinions about quality are subjective can be valid with most works made with some level of competence, but sometimes a poem or a book is legitimately bad and there's no getting around it. It would save a lot of frustration if the little snowflakes of the world were just told their stuff was crap when it's crap. The young people who care about their craft would take it on the chin and improve. As I step back from Adult World, I like what it is at its heart: a young writer's journey of self-discovery in which she may learn that she really, really sucks at writing. But as they tell a lot of students in those lower-division intro to creative writing classes, it's all about the execution. [For tickets and more info on Adult World, visit]
Adult World Review photo
A bad young poet tries to write more good
In my blurb review for Neil Jordan's vampire film Byzantium, my main gripe had a lot to do with the age of the main character. Eleanor in that movie is a well-traveled and world-hardened 200 years old, but she's written like ...

Review: In the House

Apr 19 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]214712:39714:0[/embed] In the House (Dans la Maison)Director: François OzonRating: TBDRelease Date: April 19, 2013 (New York and LA); additional cities and dates to followCountry: France Claude's just a teenager, but his writing gets the attention of his French Literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), and Germain's wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). While grading papers, Germain bemoans the stupidity of his students who generally write about pizza, cell phones, and nothing, but Claude is different. When writing about his weekend, he weaves a series of accomplished observations about a friend's family. The young writer reveals his attraction to his friend's mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), a quintessential middle-class housewife who, in the text, smolders with quiet and unfulfilled desire. The brief piece that Germain reads is filled with just the right amount of sophistication and condescension to sound like a precocious teen rather than an adult affecting the writing style of a precocious teen. (The latter is one of the biggest problems with most works about brilliant young writers.) Germain takes Claude under his wing to help mentor the young talent. In their one-on-one workshops they go through basic observations about writing -- Creative Writing 101 stuff -- but what's interesting is how Claude begins to incorporate and subvert these ideas in his own work. The relationship begins as teacher-student, but since this is Ozon, there are various reversals in store. What's fascinating is how gripped Germain and Jeanne are with Claude's story. He ends each of his installments with domestic cliffhangers: whispers, secrets, incipient schemes, tentative seduction. Germain prods his young writer, pushing him to observe and to write more humanely. Some of this is genuine admiration for the young man's gifts, but there's also envy -- Claude is more talented that Germain could ever be, and both know it. Ozon plays with different layers of truth in Claude's writing and his relationships in real life, which points out the artifice of writing, even if it's ostensibly non-fiction. Esther, her son, and her husband are real people that Claude is forcing himself upon, and yet they are also characters in his writing. His tone toward them shifts. At first it's mocking, as if he's trying to make a farce of middle-class comforts and worries. Then it's more like a thriller, then it's charged with eroticism. Both Germain and Jeanne wonder what the family is like in real life, and both come to question how true Claude's story is. Amid the compelling swerves in the story is the meta-fictive material that's unavoidable in movies about writing. Germain and Jeanne are real people reading about fictional characters based on real people, but they're all fictional characters anyway. The various discussions of writing affect the film itself as well as the story-within-a-story that Claude is writing. And then, eventually, Germain and Jeanne find themselves involved in Claude's story on the periphery, and yet they're oblivious to the fact they're characters in the film even though they speak knowingly about the nature of characters. They're making predictions about the lives they're reading, but they're also engaged in a kind of unintentional self-diagnosis. Some of this is explored early on as Germain and Jeanne wonder about Claude's intentions in writing about this family. Claude mocks Esther for her ignorance concerning a collection of Paul Klee prints in the hallway, which she sees as merely decorative. Jeanne works at a bad art gallery that specializes in art as mere commodities: pretty images of the sky, accessories made of used tires, potential investments for people who don't care about art; fine art as tchotchkes, accessories, college fund bric-a-brac. Even the sensational, transgressive art in the gallery seems to be the edgy stuff out of high school -- sex and fascism (literally) in the midst of banal middle-class society. And Germain and Jeanna are blind to it; they're able to look into the windows of Esther's house through Claude's work, but they don't sense that they're also targets in Claude's writing. And then there's the matter of conflict, which is at the heart of the mystery of In the House. Even though he's totally wrapped up in the drama of the unfolding story, Germain tells Claude his narrative is flaggig. The hero of the story (Claude himself) must desire something and overcome obstacles to get what he's after. Claude explicitly states what his character in the story is after, but what is Claude himself actually after? Is he trying to replace his friend? Sleep with his friend's mother? Or is he just trying to toy with people? The conflict of the film is Germain's desire to find out Claude's real-life conflict. But since Germain's an inattentive reader who can't see beyond what the text says on the surface, he stumbles through the house that Claude built, down every intricately placed hallway, through each odd and umarked door, in the dark. The old truism about movies centering on writers is that the writer is a surrogate for the filmmaker's ideas about storytelling. If both Germain and Claude are pieces of Ozon, he seems to be expressing two sides: the reader/writer (or the audience/filmmaker, if you prefer). As Germain, the reader, there is nothing better than getting lost in a story; as Claude, the writer, there is nothing better than to lead people astray. In Esther's home, there's room enough to play with both. More than the meta-fictive stuff, the pleasure of In the House is similar to pleasure derived from any good thriller or mystery: there's a desire to know what happens next, whether it's in Claude's writing or in the life of Germain. I shared in Germain and Jeanne's anticipation for each new installment and felt an excited frustration with each "to be continued..." that Claude dropped. In the House is about the lengths we're willing to go to hear a good story through to its end, and how we unexpectedly compromise when we're driven by that need. On my way out of the screening, three people stood in the aisle and briefly blocked my way. I heard one of them say that the final shots of In the House reminded them of another movie. She declared with excruciating pomposity to her nodding friends, "Oh, there's nothing original, they're never giving us anything new." I don't want to say what movie the final shots make reference to, but I will say that these people were only partially right. On the surface, the shots are about gazes and voyeurism, and yet the note that Ozon closes his movie on is far more sinister than the film he pays homage to. It's as if the people in the aisle, like some of the characters from In the House, didn't understand what they were actually reading.
In the House Review photo
François Ozon explores the act of writing and storytelling as a kind of home invasion
There's a great short story in Richard Yates's Eleven Kinds of Loneliness called "Builders." In it, one of the characters naively but sincerely thinks of writing in terms of building houses, and the windows are places where l...

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