Movies postsWednesday July 30, 2008
Roger and Gene
It’s 1978 and I’m flipping between the five channels our TV offers — and doing it the old-fashioned way, without a remote — when I come across a scene from Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret, a movie that has just been released in theaters. I can’t believe my luck. Then two guys come on and talk about it. There are scenes from other movies and the same two guys talk about them, too. One guy is tall, thin and bald, the other is fat, with big glasses and a mop of hair swooping over his forehead. The whole thing feels like it’s a one-off or a mistake and I assume it’ll end any second. How can they show scenes from new movies…on TV? That isn’t allowed, is it?
The show was, of course, PBS’s “Sneak Previews,” and three of the reasons it was unique — it was 1) an entertainment show, 2) offering clips of new movies, 3) while two guys argued — have become, in the three decades since, so ubiquitous as to be part of the downfall of our culture. But even after Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (the fat guy and the bald dude, respectively) left PBS for their syndicated shows (“& the Movies,” “At the Movies”), and even after they were copied to death, it was always worthwhile to follow them to whatever channel in whatever market in whatever time-slot they wound up in.
They weren’t pretty. They didn’t dress well. Obviously no one told them to smile at the camera. All of these things worked in their favor. They were about as non-corporate as you could get. They snuck onto television the way Ed Sullivan snuck on. The people following in their wake — Jeffrey Lyons, Neal Gabler, Michael Medved, et al. — all felt a little less genuine.
Siskel and Ebert loved movies. You could feel it through the TV screen. They argued all the time, usually intelligently, always forcefully, sometimes bitterly. One of the dumbest things people say about movies today — “Hey, it’s just a movie!” — would never have occurred to them because movies mattered too much to them. I remember a special episode they did in the late ‘70s slamming all of the gratuitous violence against women in movies. They chastised Hollywood for all the tired sequels. They encouraged the studios to take the right path. Insert your own joke here.
I always thought I agreed with Roger more than Gene — that Gene seem bitter in the 1980s — but looking over old clips, on both YouTube and At the Movies, I wonder about this. Gene seems more amused by their fighting, while Roger sits still and angry. And was it my imagination or did Roger give a free pass to too many films starring or directed by African Americans? I mean, She Hate Me? Roger, Roger, Roger.
It's gone now. Gene died in 1999, while Roger, battling thyroid cancer, has been more off than on since 2002, but the official notice came last week when Disney announced the replacements for Gene’s and Roger’s replacements. Both are young, both are named Ben, both have cinematic lineages. Neither snuck in.
It’s just time passing, of course, that’s what’s truly sad about it, but Roger has a nice farewell here. I wish I could offer him a better tribute than this. But I will remember to save him the aisle seat.
Repeating last year’s performance looks like a long shot, given the rest of this summer’s lineup. This batch is light on sequels, gloomy in spots (as with “The Dark Knight”) and heavy on comedies...The mix may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive...
— The New York Times, May 15, 2008
The success of “The Dark Knight” is an example of what can happen when an array of factors coincide...The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.
— The New York Times, July 28, 2008
Different writers, to be sure, but it raises this question about movie audiences: Do people go to films to escape the national mood or reflect it? Or do they just go?
And just what are the “array of factors” Brooks Barnes gives in yesterday's article (via quotes with industry executives) for The Dark Knight's continued success? Let's see: 1) expertly executed promotion plan, 2) brooding film matched national mood, 3) sour economy forcing families toward cheaper entertainments like movies, and 4) the publicity following Christian Bale's questioning by the police last week.
Wow. Nothing on the stuff we talked about last week. No mention of the word “quality.” No mention of the phrase “word-of-mouth.” That's part of the problem with relying on quotes from industry executives. Those guys are in a bubble. They're in a town that talks about movies constantly so they can't tell the difference when people really start talking up a movie. In Seattle (or in Minneapolis, Omaha, Denver, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Portland, take your pick...), it's a little easier. One wonders if relying on industry executives for quotes about movies is a little like relying on Dick Cheney for quotes about WMDs.
Both articles also remind me of something I tell my writers in the magazines I edit: Just because someone gives you a quote, doesn't mean you gotta use it.
The Poetry of Philippe Petit
Nearly 10 years ago I was asked to write a couple of entries for Encarta, Microsoft’s encyclopedia, about certain celebrities they suddenly deemed encyclopedia-worthy. They included sports stars (Ivan Rodriguez, Lindsey Davenport), a movie star (Meg Ryan) and Philippe Petit, a French funambule, or wire walker. When I started, Petit was the one I knew, and cared about, the least. By the time I finished, the reverse.
Two years ago, when I was writing a piece on the history of the World Trade Center in movies, I came across him again, in Ric Burns’ documentary, “New York.” Petit was featured, of course, in the eighth episode, about the World Trade Center, created post-9/11. Although he fascinated, although you could say he was the best part of that very good documentary, I couldn’t fit him into my story. My story went a different way. But I have fond memories of watching the footage of him dancing on the wire between the two towers in 1974, and, more, of the cop, that great New York cop, talking about the poetry of him dancing out there above the void.
Now James Marsh has a documentary about the incident called Man on Wire, which got a great write-up by A.O. Scott in the Times yesterday. I would love to see it, but, at the moment, it’s playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York and...c’est tout. Monday it starts in the Lumiere in San Francisco but that’s still a fur piece. I’m hoping it plays in Seattle soon.
Trumbo, for those keeping track, still hasn’t made it.
UPDATE: Select theaters nationwide on August 8. C'mon Magnolia, don't fail me now.
Dave Kehr: A history lesson every Tuesday
Tuesdays I know there will be at least one smart movie-related article to read: Dave Kehr’s DVD column in the New York Times, which tends to focus on recent releases of historical films rather than recent films rushed to DVD before they lose whatever slight cache they have. Here’s Kehr a few weeks ago comparing two screen goddesses:
Where Ms. Loren is a pagan goddess, all bosom and hips, with almond eyes and pillowy lips, Ms. Deneuve is a perfectly proportioned Renaissance angel, thin-lipped, wide-eyed and enveloped in a nimbus of golden hair. Ms. Loren has the imposing physical presence of a monumental statue; Ms. Deneuve the exquisite, pocket-size beauty of a cameo brooch. Ms. Loren invites us to live more intensely in our world; Ms. Deneuve exists in another space entirely, one surrounded by velvet ropes, and she’s not sure she wants to share it at all.
Kehr’s column today is about two horror films from 1933: Universal’s original Mummy and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s avant-garde follow-up to The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Vampyr.
Most of the Internet feels noisy to me — a zillion opinions shouting at each other without reason— but Kehr’s column feels quiet and dignified. I don’t feel anxious there. It’s as much as reflection on culture as it is on film. It is, as my friend Steve says, a history lesson every Tuesday.
We interrupt this vacation to bring you a Slate piece
I’ve got a piece on Slate about movie box office and critical acclaim. If you’ve arrived here from there, apologies. It’s no fun to travel and find the same shit you saw in the last place.
The argument in the article is basically two-fold: 1) Quality films — as judged by critics’ rankings on Rotten Tomatoes — do better at the box office than people realize, and 2), as a result, critics, who are perceived as elitist, and moviegoers, who are, by their numbers, populist, are actually closer in taste than people realize. I’ve made this argument before. It’s the numbers-crunching that’s new.
While on vacation in Minneapolis, I’ve been re-reading David Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business. Mamet isn’t much of an essayist. He tends to wander within the confines of even a short essay — exploring four themes in four pages — but he packs a wallop, and the world, in a paragraph. It’s worth reading, or re-reading, for the paragraphs.
Mamet is an outsider who went inside; he knows how Hollywood works better than I ever will, and so it’s nice that some of my assumptions, about how audience-testing squelches innovation, and thus possible cash cows, are borne out by his experience.
Hollywood outsiders can never be sure. There’s that tendency to think, “Well, they’re professionals; surely they know what they’re doing.” Pushing against this is that great lesson from All the President’s Men: “The truth is, these aren’t very smart guys, and things got out of hand.”
We’re all involved in our self-fulfilling prophecies and maybe the numbers-crunching is mine, and maybe opening schlock in 3,000 theaters is Warner Brothers’. Who knows? But I’ll keep watching the numbers.
OK, back to vacation.