How did I become a movie geek? It started either with Roger Ebert or Netflix. On Netflix I discovered I could get DVDs of dozens/hundreds of old/classic/foreign films I had missed or not seen in decades. Roger educated me about how to view movies (although perhaps that wasn’t his intent). And I started exploring the auteur theory of film criticism, which views the director as the primary creative force behind a film, as defined by Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris (h/t Roger Ebert).
So I began working my way through the films of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Robert Altman, Luis Bunuel, Pedro Almodovar, Kevin Smith and Christopher Guest. Then later I discovered Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrej Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier and Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and Guy Maddin. Both the ridiculous and the sublime.
Recently I joined a Meetup film group. Many of the members are incredibly knowledgeable about film of all kinds, from all periods, in all technologies. The meetings where we dissect and trash or adore a film at a bar or coffee shop are great fun – and informative as well.
As a result of my movie geekiness, I’ve seen a lot of quite wonderful, bizarre and obscure films. Here are five of my favorites in no particular order; I’ll explain why you might like them too. None of the five is available for streaming on Netflix, although several are on Amazon Instant Video.
Night on Earth, 1991, Jim Jarmusch, 129 minutes
This is one of those “anthology” movies, where we get to share taxi rides with five different drivers and five different passengers in five cities — Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki — over the course of one night. There’s always a clock involved to position the story in the night. The cinematography is beautiful and there are some great surprises. Like Roberto Benigni talking (and talking and talking) to his priest passenger in Rome. Giancarlo Esposito trying to get home in New York. Winona Ryder as a tough driver in LA, who really doesn’t want to be in the movies. A few drunks in Helsinki and an African driver in Paris who learns something from a blind passenger. Cumulatively, we learn a little about race, sex, kindness and money. And time. Jarmusch must have had an unusually big budget for this film compared to his other work. Not only did he travel the world to film but also he had some actual big name stars, not his usual style. (May I recommend his Stranger in Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train?) Oh and there’s music by Tom Waits too. Perfect combination of tragically urban cool combined with nutritious pop culture.
Waking Life, 2001, Richard Linklater, 99 minutes
My film group discussed this on a night I couldn’t attend. There was a group consensus that we should discuss an animated film. I thought oh, ok, I don’t really like animated films so I don’t mind if I have to miss this meeting. Then I decided to watch the film anyway – and I was so sorry I missed the meeting. Waking Life is a remarkable film. It isn’t an action hero or cute animal cartoon. Linklater has woven together a series of cultural, philosophical and personal discussions about life, time, dreams and reality. A nameless single character played by Wiley Wiggins is part of each segment; he may be awake or he may be dreaming and he’d like to know which. He talks with or listens to professors in classrooms, artists in coffee shops, writers walking down the street, people who are passionate about ideas. In one segment, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy talk about reincarnation in a scene that might have been part of Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). The situations and characters are different in each segment. This often-existential talk could easily become pretentious but it’s playful and there’s plenty of humor to break the serious mood. How does this become animation? Linklater filmed each segment and then invited 31 different artists to digitally draw or paint over the footage of one segment in their own styles. Art director Bob Sabiston was the genius who managed that.
Waking Life is talky, provocative, beautiful, and quite sophisticated—both visually and conceptually. One reviewer said it is a “wondrous talky roundelay about and for people who love life.“ I just put it into my Netflix queue again, but maybe I’ll actually buy a copy. (I rarely buy DVDs; just Bruce Springsteen concerts and films; and several by Christopher Guest.)
Duel, 1971, Steven Spielberg, 90 minutes
This is a terrifying movie about a traveling businessman (Dennis Weaver), who passes a giant, smoke-spewing truck while driving toward his next appointment on a two-lane rural highway outside Los Angeles. The truck then passes Weaver’s beatup red sedan in a way that feels almost belligerent—and that’s how the duel begins. Weaver tries to pass the slow-moving truck again and the truck cuts him off. An early example of road rage. We never see the driver of the truck; we just feel the suspense and the animosity of his driving. The truck becomes an evil character. Weaver stops at a roadside diner and there are several trucks in the lot. He tries to figure out which guy at the counter is the driver. He calls his wife and we learn that he has to be home at 6:30, so that adds to the tension. This is Spielberg’s first film, made for television from a short story that first appeared in Playboy. It’s low budget and masterful. The ending is spectacular.
After watching Duel, you will never look at a semi on the highway the same way again. I was driving on the TriState on a rainy night, feeling like my Beetle was about to be sandwich meat smashed between two giant semis.
Russian Ark, 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov, 99 minutes
Russian Ark is a technological and artistic masterpiece, despite being plotless. Every review mentions first that it was filmed in one take. Yes, one take, one straight-through 99 minutes of digital video. No editing. But it’s so mesmerizingly beautiful that you almost forget the role of the Steadicam operator in capturing it. The premise of the film is that a 19th century French aristocrat is visiting Russia, which he has previously excoriated in his memoirs. With the unseen narrator, he visits the former Winter Palace, now the State Hermitage Museum, and views and comments upon the art. We see many of the paintings and sculptures in the museum as well as the people, in one scene even in contemporary style. There’s an exquisite scene where Czar Nicholas and Alexandra dine with their children in a magnificent dining room, where costumes and décor are in shades of white. The film includes some whimsical scenes of the Russian aristocracy at work and play. Most beautiful are the final scenes where some 2,000 actors dance at a grand ball, in military fancy dress and beautiful gowns and jewelry. At one point, the camera seems to sweep up in to the orchestra as it gets a rousing ovation from the attendees. Finally, there’s a grand processional down an elaborate staircase as the guests depart, chattering amongst themselves as the camera moves smoothly among the sea of beautiful people. This really should be seen on a big screen in a movie theater, but if you missed the run of Russian Ark at the Gene Siskel Film Center, renting it on DVD on your own flat screen HDTV will still be rewarding.
Nights of Cabiria, 1957, Federico Fellini, 110 minutes
This is a wonderful film and a worthy addition to this list. But the main reason I include it is to counteract the sickening saccharine sweetness of its supposed spinoff, the musical Sweet Charity. Gag me. This musical has been hanging around way too long and it’s the main reason I stopped subscribing to Writers Theatre in Glencoe, which is otherwise a fine theater. But they had to produce this lollipop when they should have shown the real thing — the Fellini film — instead. Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, is Cabiria, a sweet and naïve prostitute, who wanders Rome looking for business and for love. She has worked hard, saved her money and owns a small house. Over and over again, men deceive and mistreat her. Her boyfriend Giorgio steals her purse. One night, she meets a famous movie star in a bar and goes home with him. She is astonished at his lavish lifestyle and at first he is kind to her. Then his girlfriend appears and Cabiria must hide in a closet. On another night, she goes to a magic show and the magician lures her on stage and hypnotizes her. She confesses her desire to be married and have a happy life. The audience laughs at her. Afterwards, Oscar, one of the men in the audience, wants to meet her. At first she’s cautious but after a few dates, she is in love with him and he proposes to her. On their wedding day, she has sold her house and brought all of her savings for their future. Later they walk in the woods; he takes her purse and abandons her. In the final scene, she is in tears, walking down the road back to Rome. A parade of happy young people forms around her, playing music … and Cabiria smiles sweetly through her tears. It’s a dramatic and poignant black-and-white film, with no egregious singing and dancing. You can view the 1998 restored version.
If you like–or hate–any of these movies, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about your favorite quirky, bizarre film favorites too.
I had to restrain myself to stick to five, so I will do this again some time. I had to leave out Children of Men, The Saddest Music in the World, Rome Open City, Wings of Desire, Holy Motors, The Earrings of Madame De ….. I might even include Gloomy Sunday – A Song of Love and Death (Ein Lied von Liebe ind Tod). It would be an amazing pairing with the Guy Maddin film, The Saddest Music in the World.
I’m a cancer survivor. Twice. 16 years and counting. So I had particular empathy for Roger Ebert’s decade-plus battle with cancer. Despite his pain, many surgeries, and finally his inability to eat, drink or speak, he never flagged in his writing, film reviewing and outrage at political insanity. In 2012, he reviewed 306 films, his record. When he died yesterday, his tweet count was over 31,000.
He didn’t invent it, but he thrived on the internet, tweeting and blogging madly. He was one of the first people I followed on Twitter (just after Bruce Springsteen, who actually doesn’t tweet) and found him endlessly provocative. He didn’t just review and write about films. He also commented upon and provided links to items on important social issues and political controversies. He was an unreconstructed liberal and I valued his comments.
Something Roger said in his memoir helped get me started on this blog. I quote this on my What I Believe page. He said his blog taught him how to organize the accumulation of a lifetime. ”It pushed me into first person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself into manageable fragments.” For Ebert, his blog was the beginning of writing his memoir, Life Itself (2011, Grand Central Publishing).
I did meet Roger and his wife Chaz once years ago at LAX. I was waiting to get home from a business trip and I knew they had been doing something much more glamorous in Hollywood. I had the opportunity to speak to him and I said something silly about a review he had written about a film I liked. I wished we could have had a longer conversation.
I regret not taking any of his film classes but reading his reviews ultimately was like listening to a film scholar. He was a humanistic reviewer. He wrote thoughtfully about the characters in the films he reviewed and often expressed insights that made a film and its people more meaningful. Recently I wrote here about This Must Be the Place, which is admittedly a rather weird film (just my type). A lot of reviews were negative or neutral at best. But Roger made an effort to help us understand Cheyenne, the aging glam rock star, and his sadness, a part totally inhabited by Sean Penn. https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2013/03/21/whats-showing-not-for-the-faint-of-heart/
Roger introduced me to many types of films, and showed me how to appreciate the skills of directors as well as cinematographers and other production staff. He wrote about the work of Andrew Sarris, whose concept of the director as “auteur,” or the true author of the film, is important in contemporary film viewing and in encouraging us to follow the work of certain directors.
I always loved movies, from the time I was old enough to walk to the Montclare Theater on Grand and Harlem with my friends Carol and Dolores. When we were in high school, we went to the Mercury Theater on North Avenue and Harlem, where we could smoke in the bathroom and flirt with boys from other high schools. Movies were more than entertainment.
After I subscribed to Netflix and had access to its large film archive, I was able to visit or revisit many classic, foreign and indie films that I had either seen in decades past or missed entirely. I started catching up on the great directors I had missed, reading Roger’s reviews as I went along. It was fun to read his early reviews of great directors like Altman, Antonioni, Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini, Kieslowski, Lang, Scorcese and Welles and later reviews of some of my favorite contemporary madmen like Pedro Almodovar, Guy Maddin, Christopher Guest, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. (What would I do without imdb.com, the wayback machine for movie junkies?)
Of all the obits and encomiums about him, one of my favorites is the editorial on the back of the special Roger Ebert wraparound section in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It’s titled “Do you love what you do?” and describes how Roger did. And we all should.
There are many fine film reviewers today, like Tony Scott. Peter Travers, David Edelstein, Dana Stevens and Mick LaSalle. But none of them will replace Roger. Because the balcony is closed.
If you’d like behind-the-scenes insights about the Siskel and Ebert TV era, I recommend an ebook titled Enemies, A Love Story: The Oral History of Siskel and Ebert by Josh Schollmeyer. It’s a series of interview quotes about every aspect of their TV history from many of the people they worked with. The ebook is published by Now and Then Reader, which publishes original short-form nonfiction in digital formats. See their site at nowandthenreader.com.