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November 17, 2008

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Running Off, Barking At Cats

Roger Ebert — yes, that Roger Ebert — is writing one of the best blogs around. Not just about movies either. I think blog-writing has made Ebert’s movie reviews better — more fun, more adventurous. His review of Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, NY is a delight, and his own summary is the best: “Fair warning: I begin with a parable, continue with vast generalizations, finally get around to an argument with Entertainment Weekly, and move on to Greek gods, ‘I Love Lucy’ and a house on fire.”

Consider his paean to the humble rice cooker, “The Pot and How to Use It”:

First, get the Pot. You need the simplest rice cooker made. It comes with two speeds: Cook, and Warm. Not expensive. Now you’re all set to cook meals for the rest of your life on two square feet of counter space, plus a chopping block. No, I am not putting you on the Rice Diet. Eat what you like. I am thinking of you, student in your dorm room. You, solitary writer, artist, musician, potter, plumber, builder, hermit. You, parents with kids. You, night watchman. You, obsessed computer programmer or weary web-worker. You, lovers who like to cook together but don’t want to put anything in the oven. You, in the witness protection program. You, nutritional wingnut. You, in a wheelchair.

And you, serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. You, person on a small budget who wants healthy food. You, shut-in. You, recovering campaign worker. You, movie critic at Sundance. You, sex worker waiting for the phone to ring. You, factory worker sick of frozen meals. You, people in Werner Herzog’s documentary about life at the South Pole. You, early riser skipping breakfast. You, teenager home alone. You, rabbi, pastor, priest,, nun, waitress, community organizer, monk, nurse, starving actor, taxi driver, long-haul driver. Yes, you, reader of the second-best best-written blog on the internet.

A month ago, there was a minor dust-up when Ebert gave a negative review to a movie he’d walked out on after eight minutes. Taken by itself, as it appeared in the newspaper, it’s either a brilliant stroke (Ebert gets more information out of those eight minutes than most of us would get out of five viewings) or a cheap joke. But in the blog, it becomes a kind of metaperformance, framed by Ebert’s acknowledgement that this is a risky practice (and one he ultimately recanted, at least in the way he did it). It’s both a self-examination and collective review of the original review.

Posted November 17, 2008 at 6:53 | Comments (7) | Permasnark
File under: Movies, Recommended


The thing I love about Ebert's reviews in general is that he approaches film from a critical perspective rather than simply trying to assign a grade... which is especially interesting considering that for much of his career he was reduced to one of two thumbs in the minds of many.

And what I love especially about his reviews from the last few years is that he's not afraid to use the writing as a vehicle to spin off on tangents that eventually find their way back to the movie at hand. Using the work as a starting point but not a limiting factor inspires the best kind of criticism.


I'll have to check out the Ebert blog more. I definitely like his reviews. I think they represent a sweet spot between a very shallow critique of just giving a movie 3 stars, for example, and the opposite extreme of the New Yorker reviews. Half the New Yorker reviews, I can't even tell if they liked the movie or hated it. "Tellingly, the director has cast a main character with brown hair who speaks with an American English accent. The film is shot in classic CinemaScope format (I know this because I am very smart)". Thanks a lot New Yorker.

Of course, nothing beats the review for Deuce Bigalo. I have it bookmarked so I can reread it periodically :).

Your Movie Sucks. So glad he held on to that for a book title.

I like The New Yorker's movie critics -- Denby more than Lane -- but they both sometimes seem to need to apologize for liking a movie or for not liking it. Everything is "clever," and it's never clear whether that's faint or middling praise. In Lane's review of Slumdog Millionaire and A Christmas Tale this week, you can tell that he doesn't want to like SM because he talks about whether or not it's likeable. With CT, he gets to the business of explaining it. Clearly that is the better film.

Honestly, if I were a movie reviewer, I would hardly evaluate the movie at all. Let Metacritic do that. Instead I would try to give a reader tools to enjoy the movie more, no matter its quality: context, insights, questions to ask yourself before or after, etc.

My favorite book reviews are the reviews that basically use the book as an excuse to muse about something profound & interesting. This works well b/c I will probably never read any of the books they are reviewing.

Movies are different, though; there's a better chance I'm actually going to see these things. So anything to make that experience more interesting -- (and maybe make me seem smarter when I go w/ my friends?) -- is a boon.

I guess that wouldn't be a movie review so much as a movie... primer?

And, by the way, I just actually read the Ebert piece, and it totally works as a Synecdoche primer. What a terrific piece of writing.

P.S. For years I pronounced synecdoche "SI-neck-dosh." Ouch.

I don't have a problem with not rating a movie per se. But the New Yorker reviews are too nuanced. There isn't enough context for me to understand what the point is of about half their commentary. And since they often don't communicate any holistic sense for whether they liked or disliked the movie, I have the additional problem of deciphering which comments are tongue in cheek, which I believe is the problem Tim has with their use of "clever".

If I come across an example I'll post it.

Let me try again. What I'm trying to say is that while I sympathize with the approach of assuming the reader is intelligent and can form his/her own opinions, there's a difference between assuming the reader is intelligent and assuming he/she can read your mind. And this is even more an issue if you are describing a motion picture in a written review.

For example, you can't just describe what happens in a scene and assume that the reader takes from your description the same critical insight that you got from watching the scene. A lot of things in a movie either work or they don't work, but hearing the scene described doesn't necessarily tell me which is the case, especially if I don't know the context of the scene in the rest of the movie. A lot of the time I feel like I need the scene description accompanied by some communication of "and that worked" or the contrary. This is equally true for character critiques, cinematography critiques, etc.

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