The Twilight of Roger Ebert

I had known from vague things that I’d read on Roger Ebert’s journal that he was ill and declining, but had not known exactly why. Today PZ Myers posted a pointer to an Esquire article that explains it all.

I had always respected Ebert’s movie reviews, even when I didn’t agree with them, but had never realized what a good writer he is until recently. His recent post on the demise of Jermyn Street in London is as good as it gets, seems to me. There’s nothing particular fancy or self-consciously artistic/literary about his writing — it’s just good solid prose with a wealth of images written in a natural, conversational style that is eminently readable and entertaining.

Ebert, like me, is a non-believer, and he writes this, quoted in the Esquire piece:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

There’s nothing fancy about the language there, but the structure and flow of the thoughts is quite powerful.

Ebert is not dying imminently, but according to the Esquire piece he’s fading very gradually.

When his last day passes, I, for one, will miss his writing terribly, but for now, I am grateful for each new post to his journal that comes along. He’s not short-winded, and for that I’m very thankful, as it means there’s more to savor. And the conversations that ensue in the comments, with Ebert participating, are worth almost as much as Ebert’s journal entries.

Addendum: Ebert himself responds to the Esquire piece and points out that the article’s “Ebert is dying in increments” line is true of all of us. Indeed, it certainly is.

Blazing Saddles Aside of No Importance

Having recently read a item ruminating on the phrase “we don’t need no stinking badgers,” I was amused to hear “We don’t need no stinking badges” from the Mexican bandits deputized to help with the destruction of Rock Ridge. So far as I can see, the origin of the phrase (and many derivatives) is found on the Stinking Badges home page. The Blazing Saddles usage is a fairly early one, and probably the source of the present-day popularity of the phrase and its variants. But surely it must have been more of a film cliché than the listing on the Stinking Badges page suggests, or Brooks would not have used it. Maybe not.

Movies Watched Last Night

A Child Is Waiting (1963 — recorded by TiVo from TCM).

Starring Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster. Garland’s next-to-last film (I Could Go On Singing (1963) was her last; saw that a few weeks ago — 3.5 stars out of 5). The TCM intro. said it was John Cassavetes’ first Hollywood studio film, and his last. Apparently Cassavetes did not edit the film. It would be interesting to see if he had, for the direction had some very interesting shots, but they often seemed to stand out as unusual, rather than organic to the whole. Sympathetic editing might very well have raised these directorial strategies to the level of outstanding art. For instance, the opening pull-in on an automobile to then swing around and come in the open side door to find a small boy sitting in the back seat had a very, very modern look to it. On the other hand, some shots were just distracting, technically, like the overhead shot of Dr. Clark (Lancaster) picking up the boy from a police station.

The material in the movie tends towards the tear-jerker, and some of the scenes with the retarded children are almost more than I could handle (rehearsed, but still nonetheless authentic (no doubt because the retarded children were not actors) — makes for a terrible conundrum for the curmudgeon who doesn’t want the be Spielberged, i.e., exploited emotionally, but can’t help but respond), but overall, it was an enjoyable movie. It is something of a mess in terms of what it’s trying to say, since one cannot help but be sympathetic to the music teacher’s (Garland) empathy for the small boy, and simultaneously annoyed with Dr. Clark’s seeming lack of empathy. The lesson the film appears to want to teach is that tough love and discipline are superior to flabby, self-interested sympathy/empath, but much of what happens in the movie tends to obscure that message, first by unfairly stacking the deck against empathy, but conversely, in the proportions of the film itself. The two sides of the fight between toughness and empathy are given equal time (though not an equal tone — the narrative strategy clearly telegraphs that we are expected to sympathize with the side of discipline) throughout the first part of the film (as contrasted to the almost understandable abandonment of the parents). But the conclusion, where the boy seems finally to have responded to some of his teaching, thus transforming the boy’s father’s bleak view of his son’s future, seems rather tacked on. And it’s not clear whether the music teacher’s original strategy of unconditional love and attention is the reason or if the success came from the music teacher’s application of Dr. Clark’s philosphy. Perhaps some scenes illustrating the music teacher’s application of discipline to the child were cut — the one scene that is in the movie shows only the minorest discipline of the boy, in the face of quite a bit of jealousy on the part of the other children, and doesn’t see sufficient to me to justify the conclusion that the music teacher is doing anything other than treating the boy with the same empathy that she domnstrated at the beginning. Because of that, the ending, with a victorious Dr. Clark handing over to the music teacher the intake of a new boy into the institution seems forced. And it’s not clear to me whether Dr. Clark has been won over to the music teacher’s approach or if we are expected to believe that her kindness to the new boy somehow reflects the disciplined approach.

And, naturally, the forced opposition of the two approaches is particularly upsetting. Why should discipline and structure preclude sympathy and kindness? Perhaps what the script is supposed to be saying is that it takes both. If so, the movie made from that script does a poor job of getting that message across.

I wonder also if Garland herself is too much present in the film for us to be able to see her as the character or as herself. Her struggles with addiction certainly parallel the difficulties of the retarded children, who are frequently described in this film as needing structure and discipline if they are ever to be able to overcome their handicaps and participate in society. Garland herself surely needed both love and discipline to overcome her own problems, and I wonder if this might have contributed to her very compelling performance as the music teacher.

A minor note: when I first saw the boy’s father I just knew that I recognized the actor, and about halfway through the film realized it was Steven Hill, who for many years played the D.A., Adam Schiff, on NBC’s Law and Order. I recognized him before the credits — he was so much younger and seemed so much taller than the character he played on Law and Order, but many of the mannerisms that were so perfect for Schiff were present in the young man.

Blazing Saddles (1974 — rented from Netflix).

Naturally, I’ve seen Blazing Saddles before, but never uncut. I rented this precisely so that I could finally see the famous “It’s twue! It’s twue!” scene. Also, since the last time I’d seen it, I have seen Rancho Notorious, a film in which Marlene Dietrich plays an important role as a woman rancher who runs an operation that is not just a ranch but (presumably) a brothel and a refuge for bandits of various types. The Madeline Kahn character in Blazing Saddles and the “I’m Tired” routine is clearly based on this Dietrich character and the musical number in Rancho Notorious (which I thought was quite a good movie, despite the awful theme song). I enjoyed seeing Blazing Saddles again and laughed frequently. But as a movie, it’s just not that good. The completely over-the-top ending is particularly jarring as it makes clear that Brooks just didn’t have a clue as to how he could possibly end the thing, so he simply didn’t end it at all. I’m glad to have finally seen a widescreen version and all of it, but I don’t think there’s any need for me to ever see it again.

From TiVo to American Beauty

I’ve been a big Babylon 5 fan for years, but because of the unreliability of the local affiliate’s broadcast of it during its first run (WWOR, which never seemed to understand that people like to know a program is going to be on at the same time every week!), I’d missed out on a lot of episodes. I’d watched my first episodes during the last half of season 2, and then watched a large part of season 3. By the end of that, I was completely hooked, and watched all of seasons 4 and 5. By that time I was surfing the Lurker’s Guide and reading to keep up on things (and JMS was read and posting pretty regularly back then), so I was pretty happy when SciFi Channel started rebroadcasting B5 on weeknights at 7pm — I’d rush home to be sure to be there.

Well, by late May 2001, I was getting very frustrated because I was just missing way too many episodes that I’d never seen before. So, I went out and bought a TiVo. A TiVo is what’s called a “digital video recorder.” Sounds dull and boring, but it really changed my life.

I know it sounds remarkably silly to say such a thing, but it did.

I’ve never been one to record with the VCR, because you have to always be switching tapes, and I knew way too many people who had scads of videotapes that they had never watched, and probably never would watch. And I’d recently moved (in Nov. 2000) and that process had made me realize how much junk I was carrying around with me that I really didn’t need. More videotapes was not the answer. But a DVR — that was the ticket.

I’m not sure how I even knew it was a good idea. Yes, I’d read about how great it was to pause live TV and to have instant replay of live TV, but as it turned out, I really didn’t have a clue about what it was really good for. A TiVo is actually a box that has a Linux PC inside, with a large hard drive on which the programs are recorded. Sounds simple, but if that’s all there was to it, it would really be just a VCR with a really lengthy tape, since the hard drive eventually does fill up.

What I quickly found out was that the promotions about skipping commercials (ReplayTV) and pausing live shows were really missing the point. The main thing to get the TiVo for was the fabulous program listings, which gave you lots of capabilities to find shows that you’d never find in the stupid TV Guide.

Now, there’s a real rant: I’ve never understood the success of TV Guide. The local newspaper listings have always seemed vastly superior to me because they are in a sensible grid format, whereas I’ve never been able to find a thing in the TV Guide, where the listings are so poorly laid out.

Well, TiVo makes that irrelevant because it makes it quite easy to find shows that match your viewing desires, rather than simply finding out what is on right now.

This is actually why the promotions that make such a big deal about pausing/rewinding live TV are so off-the-beam, because that’s not what a TiVo is really for. A TiVo is useful for finding programs that you would otherwise not know about, programs that are on at times of day when you’re not watching (say 7am!), or on channels that it never occurs to you to check. If you use your TiVo properly, there are always plenty of programs recorded and waiting for you, programs that match your own viewing preferences, things you specifically requested be recorded. Because of that, there’s never any need to resort to watching what’s being broadcast right at this very moment.

Anyway, once I got the TiVo I was very happy to have all my Babylon 5 programs recorded, but then started thinking about the other things I wanted to record. For one, I’d always wondered about why everyone thought Bette Davis was so fantastic. Yes, I’d seen some of her movies and they were good, but it always seemed like she was playing Bette Davis, rather than any particular roles. So, I set up what TiVo calls a Wish List to record all of her films. A Wish List can be for a category (Science Fiction), an actor (Dirk Bogarde), a director (Alfred Hitchcock) or a title (Easy Rider). And if the listings the TiVo downloads happen to have a match on any of your wishlists, the TiVo will record it for you.

The TiVo also has Season Passes for weekly series. It has several really good advantages over the VCR. For instance:

  • It will catch rebroadcasts if the original broadcast is cancelled, or adjust the time if the originally planned time is changed (e.g., next week The Sopranos goes an extra 20 minutes, easy to miss with a traditional VCR).
  • If you arrange your priorities right for the Season Passes, you can record programs that are on at the same time if one of them has a rebroadcast. For instance, once Queer as Folk starts up again, it will clash with The Practice. But since QaF is rebroadcast, I can set The Practice as the higher priority and it will be recorded at 10pm on Sunday, and QaF will be picked up on the rebroadcast.
  • For programs like EYEWITNESS NEWS you can set it to record all broadcasts but keep no more than one at a time. I do this for the local and national news broadcasts, and the result is that when I turn on the TiVo I always have the last 6:00/11:00 news broadcast and the last 6:30 national newscast.

With all of these features what I found was that, instead of turning on the TV and watching it over my shoulder while doing something actually interesting at the PC, or reading the newspaper while “watching,” I would actually want to sit down in front of the TV and really watch a movie or program. This is because it was a program that I really wanted to see, and not just whatever happened to be on that was not execrable.

And I quickly found out exactly why Bette Davis is considered so great. And became puzzled why Frank Capra is lauded so much (he seemed to me to be making the same sentimental movie over and over again). And learned why Marlon Brando was such a sensation when young and such a laughing stock in his old age.

Yes, TiVo changed my relationship to the TV — it is no longer on until I want to watch. And I don’t watch until 8 or 9pm, when I go into the living room and relax for a couple or three hours of actual entertainment.

And I’ve found out that I like movies. I really like movies. I’ve been trying to fill in gaps of important/famous movies that I’d never seen (The Graduate, Apocalypse Now, Birth of a Nation, The Third Man and a whole host of others).

And that brings me to the purpose of this whole entry, to explain how I got to the point where I want to write at length on the movie American Beauty. I had never seen it until I rented it from NetFlix (more on how fabulous Netflix is later), and I am still feeling the effects of this film. I have a lot to say about it, and that will be my next entry.