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On April 10, I received a message from Tracy Cox-Stanton, the editor of a new online journal, The Cine-Files. This journal is run out of the Cinema Studies department of the Savannah College of Art and Design. The message was an invitation to contribute to the fourth issue of the journal, of which, I must admit, I had been unaware until that time.
The invitation included two options. One was: “Offer a brief (1000-2000 word) reading of a film “moment” that considers how some particular detail of a film’s mise-en-scène (a prop, an actor’s gesture, an aspect of costume, a camera movement, etc.) illuminates the film as a whole, helping us understand the relationship between a film’s details and the overall “work” of cinema. We encourage the use of film stills.”
Having lived for decades in an academic publishing world which tended to discourage the use of film stills, I found this a cordial invitation indeed. Still, my initial thought was, if I had an idea for a study of a film “moment,” I should put it on our blog. We bloggers tend to become selfish about ideas for compact, easy-to-write analyses.
The other option, however, seemed more feasible: to respond to three questions as an online interview. It seemed a simple way of encouraging a promising new journal, and I accepted.
The Cine-Files is an appealing project. In place of the recent focus on cinephilia , which has often encouraged self-absorbed pieces in which film-lovers ponder the nature of their own love of film, “Cine-Files” implies good, hard study, with research resulting in files full of data that can result in informative, meaningful history and analysis.
It reminds me of The Velvet Light Trap in its heyday, though its format is quite different. In 1973, when David and I first arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, graduate students in the young cinema-studies program and coordinators of film societies (showing 16mm prints by the dozen each night) published this extraordinary magazine. It was a combination of auteur worship, studies of studios, and genre analysis. The Velvet Light Trap was a film journal in an era when such things were rare and graduate students could be tastemakers.
The Cine-Files is similarly focused on films in their historical context. It is semi-annual and alternates open-topic and themed issues. Its first themed issue was on the French New Wave. Remarkably for a new journal, it attracted comments from experts such as Dudley Andrew, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Richard Neupert. The newest issue, to which I contributed, is on Mise-en-scène. The topic for interviews, however, was a bit broader: “close readings.” The new issue, #4, has recently been posted, and my interview is here. There is also a call for papers for the fifth issue, an open-topic one, here.
Tracy has kindly agreed to our re-posting my responses to the three questions about close readings here. We have slightly modified the original post to suit this venue. We thank Tracy for a set of questions that provoked what we hope are interesting responses.
What is at stake in close reading?
To begin with, I don’t use the phrase “close reading.” I prefer “close analysis.” The notion of close reading is presumably a holdover from the 1970s and 1980s, when semiotics was a popular approach in film studies. Cinematic technique was thought to be closely comparable to a language, with coded units and grammar. Although there are some comparisons to be made between the techniques of cinema and a language, I don’t think the similarities can be taken very far.
“Reading” to me implies that interpretation is one’s main goal in looking closely at a film. I usually use interpretation as part of analysis, but it is seldom my main goal. Analysis, loosely speaking, to me means noting patterns in the relationship of the individual devices in a film (devices being techniques of style and form) to each other and figuring out why those patterns are there. What purposes do they serve?
What is at stake in close analysis depends on what sort of analysis one is doing. I’m assuming here that the subject is scholarly or semi-scholarly analysis intended for publication. My own purposes for analysis fall into at least these categories:
1. The simplest reason to analyze a film would be to find out more about it because it’s appealing or intriguing.
I’ve written essays on Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de M. Hulot and Play Time, in both cases because I admired them and wanted to be able to understand and appreciate them better. I go on the simple assumption that we can only be entertained and moved by films to the degree that we notice things in them. Complex films can’t be thoroughly comprehended on a single viewing or even several viewings. Sometimes you may need to watch them more closely, not in a screening but on a machine, like a flatbed editor or a DVD player, that lets you pause and slow down the image.
2. One might analyze a film in order to answer a question, often to do with the nature of cinema in general.
My essay on “Duplicitous Narration and Stage Fright,” as the title suggests, arose more from my interest in a particular, unusual device, the “lying flashback,” than from a particular admiration for the film.
3. You might want to make a case that a film is significant and suggest why others should pay attention to it.
One example would be the rediscovery over the past few years of Alberto Capellani’s French and Hollywood silent films. On this blog site, I posted two entries, “Capellani ritrovato” and “Capellani trionfante,” analyzing some scenes to support the claim that Capellani was one of the most important stylists and innovators of the era from 1905 to 1914.
A very different case came with The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Peter Jackson. I had written a book, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (University of California Press, 2007), primarily on the marketing and merchandising surrounding the film and on its many influences. I would not claim Jackson’s film to be a masterpiece, but there was such a great backlash against it, mostly by literary scholars of Tolkien, that I thought it might be worth counterbalancing their opinions. I wanted to make a modest defense of the film as containing some excellent passages and effective decisions concerning the adaptation process. So I wrote two essays based on that argument. (See the codicil to this entry for references.)
4. Close analysis can be vital for writing about film history.
For example, David and I have studied films closely to determine the stylistic and narrative norms of specific times and places. We’re also interested in finding films that were innovative in relation to those norms. Rather than examining a single film closely, such an approach involves analyzing many films to find commonalities and divergences. For example, David has studied the norms and innovations of modern Hong Kong cinema (Planet Hong Kong, Harvard University Press, 2000; second edition available online at Observations on Film Art).
Another such project was my Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique (Harvard University Press, 1999). There had been many claims in academic and journalistic writings that the norms of Hollywood storytelling had declined after the end of the studio era and that we were now in a post-classical era. Such claims didn’t tally with what I was seeing in the best Hollywood films, the ones held up as models within the industry. I did case studies of ten such films, dating from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, going through each scene by scene. I showed how classical techniques like protagonists’ goals, dangling causes, dialogue hooks, redundant motivation, and other traditional norms were still pervasive in modern Hollywood. I chose the ten films because I liked them, but others would have made my point equally well.
Please tell us about something that couldn’t be understood without a frame-by-frame attention to detail.
I don’t think most close analysis goes to the minute detail of examining a film frame by frame. Sometimes it’s necessary, especially with French and Soviet films of the 1920s or with some experimental work. There can be lots of ways of looking closely at the parts of a film and relating them to other parts.
Take a simple example, in my essay on Late Spring, I reproduced eleven shots across the length of the film that include a sewing machine off to one side of the frame–or, in one case, the space where the machine had been. No two of these shots are the same, though they often are only small variations on each other, with the machine closer or further from the camera, sometimes on the left, sometimes the right, and so on. I even missed a couple, the second and third shots immediately below, so there are actually thirteen variants. (DVDs do have their advantages. It’s not so easy going back and forth across a film looking for such repetitions in a 35mm print.)
The series culminates late in the film, after the daughter has married and left her widowed father living alone. We see a similar framing along a corridor, and the space formerly occupied by the sewing machine is empty. (See below.)
The daughter doesn’t use this sewing machine in the course of the action, and no one mentions it. Many viewers probably vaguely notice that there is a sewing machine in the house. A few may notice its eventual absence late in the film. But even someone who watches the film over and over and at some point notices that there is a meaningful pattern of the sewing-machine shots would not be able to describe it. I suspected that the sewing-machine shots were small variations on each other, but were there some repetitions? How many were there? I was only able to get a good understanding of how the motif worked by photographing all the shots (or so I thought at the time) and comparing them side by side—and having the luxury to reproduce all eleven frame enlargements in my book.
What point is there in analyzing such a motif in detail? If we admire Claude Monet for taking infinite trouble to capture tiny changes of light on haystacks or lily-ponds, why not devote the same respect to one of the cinema’s greatest directors? To go back to my point at the beginning, we can only appreciate a film to the extent that we notice things about it. I take it that the critic’s job is to notice such things and point them out for the enrichment of others who don’t have the time or inclination to do close analysis.
How do digital technologies allow us to engage in “direct” criticism that bypasses traditional written criticism?
One obvious answer is that digital technologies allow anything that could be published in printed form to be offered online. Whether written for consumption via the internet or already published and then scanned to be posted, online criticism offers some obvious advantages. There is no lag in publication time and no need to hunt for a press. Of course there are disadvantages too: no real guarantee of long-term survival, often no academic reward for publishing through a non-refereed process. David and I have posted many entries involving close analysis on this blog. (I discuss the history and approach of Observations on Film Art in an essay for the first issue of the online journal, Frames Cinema Journal: “Not in Print: Two Film Scholars on the Internet.”)
Perhaps more interesting is the question of what critical tools digital technologies offer for analysis itself. In past decades, David and I had to rig up elaborate camera-and-bellows systems to photograph frames from prints of films—as well as to travel far and depend on the hospitality of archivists to gain access to those prints. Nowadays DVDs and Blu-rays bring hitherto rare films to the critic, and readily available players and apps allow for easy capture of frames for illustration purposes. If the essay or book based on close analysis using such tools is to go online, it also becomes practical to reproduce a great many more frames as illustrations than would be possible in a print publication. David’s e-book edition of Planet Hong Kong permitted him to publish most of the illustrations in color, an option that would have been prohibitive in a university press volume.
The possibility of using short clips as illustrations in an article or book is very promising, especially once electronic textbooks get past the trial stages. I made a modest contribution to the use of clips as examples for introductory students with “Elliptical Editing in Vagabond”; this was done with the cooperation of the Criterion Collection and posted by them on YouTube in 2012. Other extracts appear as proprietary supplements for Film Art: An Introduction. Since then, David has offered three online lectures analyzing editing, the history of film style, and the aesthetics of CinemaScope; see our Videos listing on the left.
Video essays analyzing films are still a new format but show great potential. Their usefulness will depend on how the issue of copyright plays out. At this point, I’m hopeful that showing clips as part of an analytical study will become established as fair use, as clearly it should be. Being able to use moving images complete with sound as well as still frames from films will be an extraordinarily useful tool.
I hope that critics using digital tools will take the trouble to create analyses as complex as one can achieve through description in printed prose. This would mean editing together stills and short segments from across a film, recording voiceover comments, adding graphics where useful, and so on. Close analysis of this type will always be a labor-intensive process.
The analyses mentioned in this article have been published in collections. “Boredom on the Beach: Triviality and Humor in Les vacances de M. Hulot,” ”Duplicitous Narration and Stage Fright,” “Play Time: Comedy on the Edge of Perception,” and “Late Spring and Ozu’s Unreasonable Style” appear in Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton University Press, 1988). “Stepping out of Blockbuster Mode: The Lighting of the Beacons in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003),” was published in Tom Brown and James Walters, eds., Film Moments (British Film Institute, 2010), and “Gollum Talks to Himself: Problems and Solutions in Peter Jackson’s Film Adaptation of The Lord of the Rings” appeared in Janice M. Bogstad and Philip E. Kaveny, eds. Picturing Tolkien: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy (McFarland, 2011).
Late Spring (1949).
Rear Window (1954); illuminated transparency used to create the lens reflection.
Note: This entry was nearly finished when Roger Ebert died on 4 April. I had intended to send it to him in advance. I think he would want me to post it as I’d planned–just before this year’s Ebertfest.
On 17 April, about 1500 people will gather at the Virginia Theatre in Urbana, Illinois, for a celebration of movie love known as Ebertfest. Among Ebertfest’s many guests will be C. O. “Doc” Erickson.
This genial man, who visits Ebertfest each year, is a Hollywood veteran. He was production manager for Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, John Huston, Anthony Mann, Roman Polanski, and Ridley Scott. In later years he was associate or executive producer on Chinatown, Urban Cowboy, Popeye, Blade Runner, Looking for Bobby Fischer, Groundhog Day, Kiss the Girls, Windtalkers, and many other projects.
In short, he was an eyewitness to film history. During our visits to Ebertfest Kristin and I have often talked with Doc about his career, and last year I interviewed him for an hour. I thought it was time we set down some of the things we’ve learned. I’ve supplemented Doc’s remarks to us with quotations from Douglas Bell’s 2006 detailed, book-length interview with him.
Setting the scenes
Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Doc began working for Paramount Pictures in December 1944, a year after his graduation from the University of Illinois—Champaign-Urbana. This young man, not yet twenty-one, stepped into the studio that would harbor, across the next few years, The Lost Weekend, The Blue Dahlia, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Unconquered, I Walk Alone, A Foreign Affair, Sorry, Wrong Number, The Big Clock, The Heiress, The File on Thelma Jordan, The Furies, Sunset Boulevard, and several Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Martin and Lewis comedies.
Initially he worked on estimating the budgets for back-lot and set construction. Doc’s unit would try to give the director some leeway. “Ultimately, it wasn’t [a director’s] fault if the set went over budget. . . . We had to try to get enough money in there so that it wasn’t going to go over budget, because then we’d catch hell.” Then Doc and his colleagues would monitor the building of the set to make sure that the specifications were followed and the budget was adhered to.
Doc moved to stage management and supervision, which required him to plan how a production’s sets were arranged in a sound stage. Four or more sets would have to be fitted together, jigsaw-fashion. Doc would try out arrangements by shifting cutout sets on something like a bulletin board, marked with entrances, walls, and power sources. This was called “spotting the sets.” Spotting was much easier in the days of overhead lighting; lighting from the floor, which became more common as the decade went on, posed extra problems.
Once used, the sets might be dismantled, with different departments rescuing what they could use again. A whole set might be saved for another picture (“fold and hold”). B-pictures recycled sets from A pictures. At the other extreme, ornate interior sets might use units drawn from luxurious houses that had been dismantled. From New York mansions came pieces that were shipped to Hollywood and resassembled to create a salon or ballroom.
Paramount’s back lot included big standing sets, including a train station with some cars on the track. “Then, of course, you had pieces of the train in the scene dock, that could be dragged out and assembled on the stage.” A street at the south end of the lot was used for Westerns and featured a mountain that blocked the view of the adjacent RKO studio.
I’ve long been struck by the fact that articles from the classic period seldom talk about the look of sets for ordinary rooms. So I asked: What colors would be found on the sets in black-and-white movies? Doc smiled. “Black and white—or rather, shades of gray.” Sometimes a bit of green would be added. (I’ve read that sometimes snow was painted yellow to make it dazzle.) Pause and think about how hallucinatory it must have looked: actors moving through a three-dimensional black-and-white movie.
The crew was expected to average fifteen to twenty setups per day, at a period when shooting a top-line feature took anywhere from seven to twelve weeks, or even more. The Paramount policy was to press ahead and finish with a set quickly, even if not every shot was taken. Retakes were likely to be close views of the actors and could be picked up later without need for the full set. This flexibility was feasible because most productions were still shot inside the studio walls. Despite the trend toward location shooting in the late 40s, Doc says, “We weren’t off the lot very much.”
The 1940s saw the rise of the hyphenate filmmaker, and this trend was vigorous at Paramount. The studio roster boasted screenwriter-directors Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder and several director-producers, including Cecil B. DeMille, Mark Sandrich, Mitchell Leisen, and John Farrow. At Paramount, Doc recalls, “The director was king.” No wonder that one of the most kingly figures of the period wound up there for several years.
A step up
The Misfits (1961).
Doc had moved into the role of assistant unit production manager for Secret of the Incas (1954), directed by Jerry Hopper and starring Charlton Heston and Robert Young. His new job involved managing the day-to-day work of filming as a liaison between the production office and the shoot. A production manager works closely with the assistant director to keep the work on schedule and within budget.
When Hitchcock made his five-picture deal with Paramount and was preparing Rear Window, his assistant director, Herbert Coleman, found that all Paramount’s established production managers had been assigned. Coleman asked Doc to take the job, and Hitchcock approved. Doc’s experience with budget estimating and set supervision made him a natural choice for promotion.
Doc supported Hitchcock on several films, becoming a guest at the director’s home and traveling with him. After finishing Vertigo, Hitchcock shifted to studios that had their own personnel for production management. Hitch offered Doc a place on his television series, but Doc moved on to other Paramount pictures: “I wanted to remain in the feature film world.” He worked in Manhattan with Sidney Lumet on That Kind of Woman (1959). Doc admired Lumet’s meticulous planning of every shot, as well as his insistence on table readings of the whole film before shooting.
Doc then teamed up with John Huston. In 1959 Huston was trying to launch The Man Who Would Be King, and for location scouting he took Doc and other team members on a forty-day trip around the world, paid for by Universal. But that project was put on hold. Doc went on to manage production for The Misfits (1961), Freud (1962), and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). On the latter two films, Elizabeth Taylor lobbied for Montgomery Clift—winning on Freud, losing on Reflections. (Brando got the part.)
Knowing my interests, Doc pointed out some of Huston’s directorial touches, including some striking uses of deep space. In the image above, Montgomery Clift’s quarrel with the rodeo judge is framed in the car window while Marilyn Monroe frets that he could have died in his fall from the bull. Doc also thinks that Huston showed adroit staging in the Reflections scene showing Brian Keith wiping lipstick off his mouth while Elizabeth Taylor, in the back seat, uses the rearview mirror to help her repaint her lips.
The movie industry was pushing toward ever more spectacular projects, and Doc sometimes went epic. After a production manager on 55 Days at Peking (1963) quit, the film’s editor, Robert Lawrence, suggested Doc. The film’s direction was credited to Nicholas Ray, but the bulk of the footage was shot by Andrew Marton. There followed Doc’s stint on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). He recalls Anthony Mann’s excellent eye for composition. The most tangled production was Cleopatra (1963), which had begun shooting in 1960 and was plagued with constant delays. Doc was there for the last eight months of shooting, up to August 1962. He worked under Lewis Merman, the Fox production manager (“one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever known”). Merman was also known as Doc, so the production had both a Big Doc and a Little Doc. It needed even more docs.
For my current research I asked Doc a lot about 1940s studio practices, but I couldn’t avoid touching on what everybody asks him about. How was working with Hitchcock? Hitchcock productions have been chronicled in detail by many writers, so I’ll just pick some bits that Doc brought out for me.
On Rear Window (1954), Doc’s expertise in squeezing sets into a sound stage came in handy. The script demanded that the camera be confined to Scottie’s apartment and that we see only what could be seen from that room. Remarkably, Doc recalls no matte shots being used on the production. The apartment, the courtyard outside, and the apartment building opposite were all installed on a single stage.
Doc was struck by the lighting limitations of this complex and confined set. The color film stock was quite slow, and so illumination levels were very high. He told Douglas Bell:
We had to pour so much light into those apartments, up where Raymond Burr was, it almost put him on fire. It was terrible. Or you would never be able to see him, from where we were shooting. . . . But today it would be nothing, it would be a cinch.
Lens length was also a problem because the camera couldn’t easily simulate the telephoto view of the apartment across the courtyard. Doc found a way to mount the camera outside the window to get a little closer to the opposite building and suggest the enlargement provided by Scottie’s long lens.
Hitchcock had claimed he would need only twenty-four days to shoot Rear Window, but it ran to thirty-six, and its cost was considerably beyond what he had estimated. So great was Hitchcock’s standing in the industry that Paramount didn’t object, knowing the result would be a major picture. Doc was on the set every day. Hitchcock would position the actors and frame the shot, but then return to his chair to watch.
Hitchcock liked Doc and picked him again for To Catch a Thief (1955). For this they left the studio and shot on the Riviera for several weeks—Doc’s first location shoot. After the on-site filming was finished, Hitchcock returned to Paramount for studio scenes and Doc stayed to oversee helicopter shots of the roadways with special-effects specialist Wallace Kelly. The team followed the famous Hitchcock lists and storyboards for such second-unit footage.
Without a break Hitchcock drafted Doc for The Trouble with Harry (1956). Originally to be set in England, the story was transposed to New England. Despite some location work, there were a surprising number of studio exteriors (as are quite obvious to our eyes today). Doc supervised the building of woods on Stage 14, but then scattered around leaves brought in from Vermont and New Hampshire.
Doc was involved in scouting locations in Marrakech and London for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), along with assisting Coleman and Hitchcock in the usual way. Hitchcock clashed with John Michael Hayes on the project, and according to Doc, Steven Derosa’s account of the contretemps in Writing with Hitchcock does justice to the complexity of the situation.
Doc’s memories of the master’s next production, Vertigo, are detailed, but they and other participants’ accounts are chronicled in Dan Auiler’s Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. What I found surprising were two of Doc’s responses to the project. Doc found that the production went very easily. He thinks that was because he had learned so much about location shooting with the overseas demands of To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much. My second surprise: “We had no sense that Vertigo was special.”
I’m out of step with the world’s critical consensus. I wouldn’t consider Vertigo the best film of all time, or even the best film by Hitchcock. (My votes would go to Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Rear Window, and Psycho. All seem to me perfect, endlessly exhilarating pictures.) To a great extent, I think that American Hitchcock never stopped being a 40s director, so I tend to see Vertigo as an uneven mix of plot elements and visual ideas from that wild era. Good as the film is, I think, the expository scenes are rather flatly filmed and lack the flair that Hitchcock brought to such scenes in his earlier films.
But thanks to the undeniable brilliance of many other scenes, along with the revolution of taste promoted by the Cahiers du cinéma critics and the long suppression of the film (making it a sought-after treasure), Vertigo has become a holy grail of obsessional cinema. Its plot premise has fed cinephiles’ fantasies. In the history of taste, a fairly creaky tale of murderous deception has become the ultimate vessel of filmic fascination. One hero’s delusion now epitomizes all movie-made illusion.
Give Doc the last word: “When we finished Vertigo, we never thought of it as being the film that everybody thinks it is today. It’s become bigger than life itself.”
Thanks to Doc Erickson for affable and informative conversations.
Being mostly interested in the Old Hollywood, Kristin and I didn’t question Doc about his work of more recent decades. Those activities are covered in Douglas Bell’s extensive interview, recorded in An Oral History with C. O. Erickson (Los Angeles: Academy of Motion Picture Arts, Margaret Herrick Library, 2006). I’ve drawn much information from this volume. I thank Jenny Romero, Special Collections Department Coordinator at the Herrick Library, for facilitating access to it, and to Kristin for examining it for me during her recent visits to Los Angeles.
For a detailed account of the division of labor on 55 Days at Peking, see Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, trans. Tom Milne (Faber, 1993), 378-389. Andrew Marton, who took over the shoot after Nicholas Ray was dismissed, estimated that sixty to sixty-five percent of the finished film was his work. See Andrew Marton Interviewed by Joanne D’Annunzio: A Directors Guild of America Oral History, 413-418.
Herbert Coleman’s book The Hollywood I Knew: A Memoir: 1916-1988, revisits his AD work with Hitchcock in considerable detail, and many of the anecdotes he recounts involve Doc Erickson. For more on the production of Hitchcock’s films, see Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light and Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock at Work.
Without any planning, the last six months or so have been this blog’s Hitchcock period. The entries include items on Dial M for Murder (screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last September), on David O. Selznick, on the first Man Who Knew Too Much, and on the rise of the suspense thriller during the 1940s. On Lumet, for whom Doc also worked, you can see this entry. The production photographs in today’s entry are taken from Arthur S. Gavin, “Rear Window,” American Cinematographer 35, 2 (February 1954), 76-78.
Kristin and Doc Erickson, Ebertfest 2009.
We owe Roger an enormous debt. Since we met in 1999 at the Arts Club of Chicago, Roger has been the most generous and eloquent supporter our work has had. In our visits to their festival, Roger and Chaz welcomed us into their community and introduced us to people who have become good friends. Roger came to our Wisconsin Film Festival twice, and his presence gave it a burst of energy. In Roger and Chaz we found a couple engaged passionately in the act of living in, and for, each other.
Our larger debt is to the lessons Roger taught us, and thousands of others: Writing about film can exemplify writing about life. Friendship and good humor must inform everything you do. Punishing health problems need not kill your appetite for experience, for fellowship, and for the life of the mind.
In Roger’s memory, each of us offers some personal reflections.
As with so many other people, my first acquaintance with Roger was through his and partner Gene Siskel’s television review shows. I’m not sure when David and I started watching. At first we were partly attracted by the fact that each review included a clip from the movie. TV reviewing was such a new form that the studios didn’t put together montages of shots to provide the reviewers. You got to see an actual scene as it appeared in the film, something that could give you a sense of whether or not you wanted to see the film. Later the edited-together shots from various parts of the film came to be more like a trailer than a sample. They don’t tell you much about the film. But Gene and Roger did, so we kept watching.
We noticed the fact that Gene and especially Roger would often promote films that were in release but not likely to be known to most of the show’s viewers. Small independent films and foreign films, which the pair urged people to try and see in theaters or, increasingly, on video. These were the same sorts of films that became the core of Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. Few reviewers writing for a mass audience have bothered regularly to call attention to worthy independent and art-cinema fare.
When we met Roger in the late 1990s, the first thing that struck me was that in person he seemed exactly the same on TV. On the air he didn’t put on a public persona or try to entertain us at the expense of giving us less information about the film in question. Those were the early days of the infotainment boom. As its name suggests, infotainment coverage means that the reporters and reviewers feel obliged to be as entertaining as the news (or pseudo-news) they present. I think of another reviewer in the early days, Gene Shalit, who started out presenting reasonably informative review segments on the Today Show. Increasingly, however, his eccentric appearance, with large, frizzy hair and an oversize mustache, combined with his breezy, pun-filled delivery to become a sort of comic interlude that barely qualified as a film review. In other words, the opposite of Roger.
Over the next several years, David got to know Roger better than I did. He helped squire Roger around during his 2003 visit to the Wisconsin Film Festival and wrote introductions to his books. I was in the early years of working on an Egyptian archaeological expedition, and in 2003 I was struggling to get my big project on the Lord of the Rings franchise (published as The Frodo Franchise in 2007) off the ground.
During that time I managed to go with David to the Overlooked Film Festival and enjoyed it very much. There Roger’s zeal for introducing general audiences to relatively obscure films was boiled down to its essence. The enthusiasm of the loyal attendees was contagious, as was Roger’s joy in sharing his love for the films and giving the audience access to the stars and filmmakers who were his friends.
From 2003 to 2006, I was dashing around the world, interviewing people in New Zealand, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, London, Copenhagen, and elsewhere for my book. By the spring of 2006 I had talked with 75 people and acquired the knowledge I need to write most of my chapters. Game producers and designers filled me in on the video-game aspect of the franchise; festival-heads and distributors enlightened me on the impact of the trilogy on the international independent film market.
But there was a crucial piece of the puzzle missing. My fourth chapter was to be on the rise of modern infotainment journalism, covering such topics as press junkets, the replacement of paper press kits replaced with EPKs (electronic press kits), and the rise of making-of promo films on cable. I knew how press junkets work, with their endless strings of short interviews where the reporters ask the same questions over and over–and the fact that studio employees did the filming and editing of the interviews. I had talked to cast and crew members about the Lord of the Rings junkets. (Ian McKellen: “Someone will come forward and say, ‘I know you get asked all sorts of questions. I’m not going to ask you the questions everybody else asks you, so I’m going to say, “What is the question that you’re most asked?”‘”) But I didn’t know much about how such things got established historically or how they looked from the viewpoint of the journalist interviewer. Unfortunately, nobody had written a history of press junkets.
It occurred to me that Roger was an expert on such subjects. His career as a reviewer got going in the mid- to late 1960s, when the studios were increasingly using press junkets, and he had not only witnessed but participated in the expansion of film coverage from print into television. Roger happened to be slated to visit the Wisconsin Film Festival in the spring of 2006. I asked him if he would be willing to let me interview him on such topics. Despite a heavy schedule, he agreed. The only time he could fit me in was over breakfast on April 2. I went to his hotel and talked with him for about half an hour. (David came to pick us up and snapped the photo above; my recorder is under the list of questions I had concocted. Roger has toast and coffee, back in those happy days when he could still eat.)
The result was everything I could have hoped. With his razor-sharp memory, Roger gave me invaluable historical information and insights. For example, I asked why reporters ask questions to which they already know the answers:
Because the sessions are so short, and because the nature of television is that you have to get them to say it. They get pretty stupid questions. For example, I may well know who Hilary Swank plays in Million Dollar Baby, but it doesn’t work on television unless she says, “I play a woman who wants to be a boxer.” You have to have her saying it. So you say, “Well, tell me about this character you play.”
It was a delightful and fruitful interview, supplying that last piece of the puzzle. It also happened to be the last interview I did before finishing the book a few months later and sending the manuscript to the press.
That June, Roger had his disastrous health crisis, ending up in a coma until August. Of course, he lived on to give us a tremendous amount of insightful writing on film and his own life and his view of the world in general. But I was very grateful to have had that interview with him while he could still speak. As anyone who has done much live interviewing knows, it’s very different from interviewing by email. The conversation takes unexpected turns and generates questions that weren’t on the original list. I’m still thankful for that interview, not just for the selfish reason that it enhanced my book. I’m also glad that I got some of the valuable information that Roger had in his memory but had never included in his voluminous writings. He was a living document of modern film history, and inevitably much of what he knew never got written down. At least I captured a bit of it.
I think that interview gave Roger a better sense of me as a film scholar. We also happened to start this blog later that year, in late September. I doubt that Roger had time to read every entry, but he read many of them and helped get the blog established by linking to it. We didn’t like to pester such a busy man, but we notified him when we posted something that we thought related to his interests. (My skepticism about 3D matched his, for example.) Here’s the last time he linked to one of my entries, with his characteristic generosity and the occasional typos that resulted from the speed with which he poured out his thoughts on FaceBook and twitter:
I think he must also have realized that, despite the fact that our interview was on a recent blockbuster franchise, one of my specialties is silent cinema. I got invited to the 2007 Overlooked Film Festival to be one of the “expert group of colleagues” who were to help fill in for Roger during his recuperation. I introduced Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson and after the screening was on the panel that chatted with the three members of the Alloy Orchestra.
In 2008 the event changed its name to what most of us called it already, Ebertfest. I was now sort of the unofficial silent-film expert. I got to introduce a luminous print of von Sternberg’s Underworld, which I had never seen in 35mm, and to lead the post-screening discussion with the Alloy members. (My program notes for the event are here.) The same thing happened the following year with The Last Command. It’s a pity that the Alloy team never accompanied Docks of New York at Ebertfest, completing the survey of von Sternberg’s trio of silent masterpieces.
I missed the 2010 festival, needing to be at the site of Tell el-Amarna for my Egyptology work. But I returned in 2011 to introduce and discuss a screening of the nearly complete version of Metropolis, recently restored.
In 2012 I again needed to be in Egypt during Ebertfest, so the 2011 festival was the last time I saw Roger in person. But we kept in contact by email. That could be a delightful process,as David shows in the second half of this entry.
Werner Herzog, Roger Ebert, and Paul Cox, Ebertfest 2007.
From different perspectives, I’ve set forth my sense of Roger’s contribution to film culture. On this site we’ve covered Ebertfest over the years, and I reviewed Life Itself. In addition, the University of Chicago Press has generously made my introductions to Awake in the Dark and The Great Movies III available online (here and here). After Roger’s death last week, I wrote a brief tribute for the UW Antenna site. Still to come is a valedictory piece for Film Comment, to be available in print and online.
So today, when Roger is ceaselessly on our minds, I thought: Why would anyone want to listen to me when they could listen to him? You can hear (and watch) him in the vast video archive of Siskel & Ebert. But maybe I can bring you his voice in another way.
Combing through a decade’s worth of emails, I found some bits that seem worth sharing. A subject line “From Roger” always marked an email worth reading, and the inevitable sign-off, “Cheers, R.,” left you wanting more. I can hear him speaking these words, even in the years when he had no voice. Maybe you will too.
Apparently almost all G-rated animation will now be in 3-D! I hear IMAX will show nothing but 3-D (via digital). No more celluloid! Traditional IMAX process is dead. The vulgarians are at the gates. (2008)
Have you seen Chop Shop? I’m showing it at Ebertfest. Sort of an American indie neorealist picture. And in 70mm, a new print, Baraka. Best Blu-ray I’ve ever seen. Most critics liked Coraline even more than I did. (2009)
Just saw Ponyo. The opening undersea sequence is miraculous. Manohla Dargis was right about Perfect Getaway: A good B movie. (2009)
I hated Les Miz, of course. Falling dirges, rising dirges, ditties, boilerplate. (2013)
I am often guilty of getting carried away by films that will not stand the test of time, although I do think that The Dark Knight will continue to be interesting. (2009)
I always said I would not retire until I had a book about Scorsese. Now I do, and I can’t retire until I have one about Herzog! (2008)
I remember Scorsese saying he watched Black Narcissus at least once a day for a week. (2012)
[I wrote that Donald Richie was recovering his health:] So I hear! Walking around the room, likes the new place with English-speaking help, health on the mend. What a dear man. His film of The Inland Sea is wonderful but the book and his Journals are really special. So honest and matter of fact. (2010)
[On images in a blog entry on Andrew Sarris:] How moving it was to see the photos of old friends like Arthur Knight and Hollis Alpert. Remember when the Saturday Review was eagerly awaited? I met Arthur and Marianne in 1968, on the notorious Warner/Seven Arts week-long junket which flew planeloads of critics to the Bahamas. I was a kid. They immediately invited me to their home and through them I met many Hollywood figures.
God, Arthur loved his pipe, and his sacramental martini formula. I never drank a martini except at his house, and there nothing else. The way he made one approached the psychedelic. Marianne was a costume designer. . . . They bought a house on the beach at Malibu when such things could be had for less than millions. Their Saturday open houses were gatherings of interesting people, including some (like Blake Edwards’ doctor) later immortalized in films. (2012)
[In the midst of Ebertfest, Roger took time to write:] I’ll write more later….but be sure to buy the News-Gazette before you leave town. There’s a wonderful photo of Kristin, Richard [Leskovsky], and Nina [Paley] (2009).
[When I posted this entry about the Jem movie theatre in Harmony, Minnesota, Roger commented on this picture.]
That photograph, seemingly so artless and matter-of-fact, speaks deeply to me. The color, the shadows, the girls in conversation. (2012)
Chaz and I are at Cannes, I having survived the trip in surprisingly good shape. Lots of big names, but as Frémaux says, “They have to prove themselves every time.” (2009)
In high school, I went to popular movies with dates and attended the Art Theater mostly alone. In college there was a period when I sort of stopped going to popular movies—more art films and film societies. (2011)
I have a lifelong policy of never making lists of anything except my annual Best 10. Can’t tell you how much time I saved by not compiling Halloween movie lists. (2011)
I am so happy the festival is approaching and Kristin and you and I can sit again in the same room with good movies. (2010)
[When I replied that Kristin couldn’t attend that year because she was needed for her archaeological dig in Egypt: ] And my Egyptian correspondent Wael Khairy will be in Urbana! So the balance of the earth won’t be altered. He is a very gifted film critic. . . . He has two more weeks to wait until the ban on his writing is lifted. It was imposed after he led a (successful) effort against the censors to remove the Arabic subtitles from the CENTER of the screen on Avatar. (2010)
[On the musicians in Woodstock:] I, like you, was not focused on rock in the 1960s. I had to ask Chaz who some of the performers were. These days, I know nobody. (2009)
Do you remember that nice Indian kid sitting next to you at Ebertfest? I met him through my blog when he was 15. He had been making films since he was 6. His father was going to accompany him…but unexpectedly died shortly before. His dad approved of the visit, so Krishna came with his lovely mother and sister. I love this kid. (2012)
You know where the Westerns have gone for an audience? Video games, that’s where…as long as you look for the right type of western. John Wayne. John Wayne. I think it was Montaigne who said: “Everyone needs a name like that.” (2009)
[I wrote him that watching movies is good, but maybe reading is better:] You know, I think I agree with you. I doubled my “reading” by adding audiotapes of books that don’t call out to be intensely read. I’ve listened to about 100. The single most spellbinding performance I’ve heard is Sean Barrett doing Perfume. (2008)
[I sent him a link in which David Brooks returns from an expedition into the Midwest, recalls his admiration for White Castle, and declares his new preference for Steak ‘n Shake]: Yeah, but he strays off the point pretty quickly. And I don’t know anyone who prefers White Castle to S ‘n S….although late boozy nights in my 20s often called for a bag of sliders. Californians are passionate that In ‘n Out makes better burgers than Steak ‘n Shake. I contend that the very names of the two chains dramatically contrast the styles of sexual intercourse in the two regions. (2012)
I have been honored out! Above all I need to focus on writing. Sounds harsh, but everything’s an effort these days…. (January 2013)
[The University of Chicago Press sent him my Foreword to Awake in the Dark and he replied]: I felt as if, after 38 years of plugging away, someone had understood just what I have been trying to do. I work for a newspaper, I get categorized as a newspaper reviewer. I am proud to be one. But I have also tried to stretch the limits of the form. I think of myself as being a teacher as much as a writer, and I like my forum because it gives me a lot of readers. . . .
That you mentioned Shaw took my breath away. I have been reading Shaw for 40 years, starting by reading every one of his Prefaces, from which I learned that it is quite all right to stray entirely from the subject, or approach it from an unexpected angle. In the last few months I’ve been reading his collected music criticism. I don’t know a thing about music, but that was an advantage, because I was able to focus on his language and strategy. His use of paradox and under- and overstatement is audacious, and I like the way he states even his most extreme positions as if they are simple common sense. (2005)
The last message I got, on 15 March 2013, referred to the 2013 Ebertfest schedule. It contained only one word.
On the block adjacent to the Virginia Theatre, off South State Street, Champaign, Illinois.
Roger Ebert at 4 Star Video Heaven, Madison, Wisconsin, 2003.
Kristin and David:
Roger died today. We can’t do him justice in such short compass, but we do want to acknowledge him and his life. He was an unstinting friend to us, and a great and good force in American film culture.
The Sun-Times obituary is here.
Later 4 April: Jim Emerson’s personal tribute is here.
5 April: Chaz Ebert’s statement is here.
6 April: Jim Emerson has gathered a constantly expanding collection of tributes here.
7 April: Rodney Powell of the University of Chicago Press offers recollections here.
Roger and Chaz Ebert, Ebertfest, Urbana, Illinois, 2010.