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Roger Ebert and youth movies

Has anyone noticed that Roger Ebert’s blog is one of the most happenin’ place on the Net?  It’s quickly becoming a must-read for me. Here are two articles not about health care (but still profound and interesting). Article #1 and Article #2.

From comments on a Roger Ebert blog column about youth-oriented movies and the dumbing down of American tastes. I will not quote anything from Roger Ebert (although the article was great). :

One day a few years back I walked into a store that sells posters of all sorts and asked the clerk if she had any posters of Beethoven. She said “The dog?” I said “no, the composer. She yelled out to a co-worker “Do we have any Beethoven posters?” the co-worker yelled back “The dog?”

Coming out of Pan’s Labyrinth, I heard a 20-something male proclaim to his friends, with no sense of irony, “Man, I haven’t read that much since middle school!” Case in point.

You want to see how emotionally stunted the average moviegoer is? Just look at the Transformers and GI Joe movies. They’re aimed at the teenager and young adult crowd right? Well, am I crazy or are those franchises based on 80’s era CHILDRENS entertainment? What’s next? A “Jem and The Holograms” movie? What about the future summer blockbusters? Can “Teletubbies: The Movie” be far behind? Is this all that 18 year olds can handle?

I’m 19 years old and an occasional commenter on your wonderful blog. I have a few stories related to this subject, and I hope they don’t cause you to lose all faith in my generation. Of course, *I’m* dangerously close to losing faith in my generation, but that’s beside the point. I’m a summer intern in an office, so my coworkers are largely 40 and older with one exception; a female intern that is my age. After Transformers 2 opened, I saw it due to a perverse curiosity (“No film could be as bad as people are making it out to be!” I said!) and left the theater thoroughly depressed and agitated by the experience. On Monday, my fellow intern was raving about Transformers 2, calling Michael Bay “an amazing director”. I cringed a little. The night before I watched Tokyo Story followed by A Short Film About Killing in order to “wash my brain” of Transformers 2. Having experienced the incredible work of two of the most brilliant directors in the history film, hearing someone proclaim that Michael Bay was “an amazing director” filled me with sadness. While she and others in the office were raving about Transformers 2 I quietly, sadly sat in silence. I had to bite my tongue because I knew if I expressed my true feelings I would elicit strange looks and become alienated, I would be labeled “a snob”. Of course I feel the people who “loved” Transformers 2 had their opinions formed by the relentless advertising blitzes that occurred prior to the films release, but I don’t think I could ever tell any of them that. At my age, I can’t afford to be labeled a snob or a weirdo when it comes to film.

I also try to recommend films to friends and family, for example when discussing the last days of World War 2 I recommended the splendid film Downfall from 2005. I raved about the film because I believe it’s truly great. They were riveted by my description of the way the film attempts to humanize one of histories greatest monsters. They were incredibly enthusiastic, and they were already planning to put the film on their Netflix queues. At the last second I remembered to mention that the film was in German. Immediately all interest was lost and they said “Oh, never mind”. They collectively explained that they “didn’t do” subtitles. As one sibling said: “I don’t like to read while I’m watching.” That evening also left more disheartened than the day at work, because these were my family members! I expected better from my loved ones! I never realized that they limited their taste in such a way.

Roger, I worked for many years behind the counter of a video store, which was a great job for me because I love movies. But what wasn’t so great was the almost daily disappointment of customer interactions that reminded me just how poor the average movie watcher’s tastes are and how narrow-minded they can be. You can be sure that Anaconda was a top renter, but Groundhog Day (I was more than once informed) was “stupid” because, and I quote, “it’s just the same thing over and over and over.” Black and white movies sat on the shelves, collecting dust. Subtitled movies? Forgetaboutit. I received at least one negative customer review of Pulp Fiction dismissing the movie as unwatchable because of its non-linear storyline. An incensed lady one day phoned the store and proceeded to call down fire and brimstone upon me for renting her a “porno.” Since our store did not rent porn videos I was confused and suggested that she must be mistaken. After treating me to another goodly dose of righteous indignation she finally identified Boogie Nights as the offending film. My incredulous response and gentle explanation that though the movie is certainly concerned with the porn industry it is by no means a “porno” didn’t seem to douse her holy fire. To this day I wonder what the hell she thought she was getting when she rented the movie. Did she read the synopsis on the back of the box? Did she check the rating? And then perhaps my most forehead-smacking encounter involved an angry mother who had rented Starship Troopers (Rated R, as you know) for her 8 year old son. Can you guess what she was angry about? Actually, if you said the buckets of gore and ultra-violence — sorry but no cigar. She was horrified that her 8 year old son was exposed to a co-ed shower sequence that showed bare female breasts.

All that by way of saying — I agree with you Roger. And this “dumbing down” does seem to be getting worse. But man, it’s nothing new.

I was reminded of that old video store job when I rented The Orphanage last year. The kid behind the counter said, “You know this is in Spanish, right?” He sounded a bit gun-shy, like he’d already dealt with about a dozen angry, no-subtitle-reading Joe Publics and so had recently instituted a new preemptive policy of full disclosure in an effort to save himself some grief. I felt his pain. I just smiled and said, “Yep.” We probably could’ve stood there and swapped war stories, but I didn’t want to hold up the line. The gentleman behind me had a date with Michael Bay.

Roger,

I’m 19 years old and an occasional commenter on your wonderful blog. I have a few stories related to this subject, and I hope they don’t cause you to lose all faith in my generation. Of course, *I’m* dangerously close to losing faith in my generation, but that’s beside the point. I’m a summer intern in an office, so my coworkers are largely 40 and older with one exception; a female intern that is my age. After Transformers 2 opened, I saw it due to a perverse curiosity (“No film could be as bad as people are making it out to be!” I said!) and left the theater thoroughly depressed and agitated by the experience. On Monday, my fellow intern was raving about Transformers 2, calling Michael Bay “an amazing director”. I cringed a little. The night before I watched Tokyo Story followed by A Short Film About Killing in order to “wash my brain” of Transformers 2. Having experienced the incredible work of two of the most brilliant directors in the history film, hearing someone proclaim that Michael Bay was “an amazing director” filled me with sadness. While she and others in the office were raving about Transformers 2 I quietly, sadly sat in silence. I had to bite my tongue because I knew if I expressed my true feelings I would elicit strange looks and become alienated, I would be labeled “a snob”. Of course I feel the people who “loved” Transformers 2 had their opinions formed by the relentless advertising blitzes that occurred prior to the films release, but I don’t think I could ever tell any of them that. At my age, I can’t afford to be labeled a snob or a weirdo when it comes to film.

I also try to recommend films to friends and family, for example when discussing the last days of World War 2 I recommended the splendid film Downfall from 2005. I raved about the film because I believe it’s truly great. They were riveted by my description of the way the film attempts to humanize one of histories greatest monsters. They were incredibly enthusiastic, and they were already planning to put the film on their Netflix queues. At the last second I remembered to mention that the film was in German. Immediately all interest was lost and they said “Oh, never mind”. They collectively explained that they “didn’t do” subtitles. As one sibling said: “I don’t like to read while I’m watching.” That evening also left more disheartened than the day at work, because these were my family members! I expected better from my loved ones! I never realized that they limited their taste in such a way.

As I said I hope this post doesn’t cause you to lose all faith. I keep my faith because I know that there have to be people in my peer group with my taste, my level of critical thought, and my open mindedness. I hope, using that knowledge, you can maintain your faith as well.

Ebert: People who “don’t do subtitles” suffer from a form of deafness.

I just saw “Julie & Julia” (on a small screen with about five other people in the room) and loved it, although I can understand that it’s not a perfect film. What I find interesting is that my roommate (who is herself a published author) chose instead to see “GI Joe” with the masses on the other side of the wall, claiming she only wanted to be “entertained.” I groaned. I’m tired of hearing that word. I pointed out that homeless people peeing in public has been to known to entertain some folks I know, but I would hardly want to pay $10.50 to watch it happen in IMAX, fake or otherwise (the IMAX not the pee – what would be the point if it was fake?).

As I read your piece, Mr. Ebert, I thought of this experience: a few years ago I sat down to watch a movie with my then-girlfriend, a reasonably intelligent girl, but who only ever liked to watch “girly” movies, or the Disney movies she and her sisters watched as kids.

One night we were hanging out and I put on David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” I didn’t really know what it was about. I had gotten the DVD as part of a big box of used DVDs someone sold me.

Anyone who’s seen the movie knows how weird it is, how the “plot” disintegrates and folds back onto and into itself many times over. It’s like a queasy dream. I was enraptured! The movie still vibrates in my mind to this day. But my then-girlfriend? She got very angry and frustrated, not able to understand what was going on. (The point of the movie, of course, is to abandon any adherence to traditional plot.)

At about the point in the movie where the characters visit the performance hall and a strange singer gives a chilling solo performance, my then-girlfriend threw up her hands, got up off the couch, got her keys and headed for my apartment door.

“I can’t handle this. I’m going home.”

I didn’t argue. I wanted to see how this mindbender of a film ended. But I knew at precisely that moment that, eventually, inevitably, it just could not work out with this girl. And it didn’t.

Ebert: I’ve lost track of how many similar break-ups have been reported in this thread. As many as ten? That many bad marriages, prevented by good movies!

I was having lunch with my friends from the office I worked at, and there was a girl whose taste I had found suspect over the last few days. She had mentioned how much she loved NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which to me is an orgy of blood. On the way back to the office, I was talking about BICYCLE THIEVES, which she admitted to hating, saying it bored her and had no story and she found no reason to have any interest in Italian Neorealism. I think BICYCLE THIEVES is one of the five best movies in the whole world, and I couldn’t believe she would express that opinion. I was talking about it to a friend the next week, and he said to me, “Well, now you know the limitations of her emotions.” That’s what I think it all comes down to: my generation is emotionally limited. They don’t want to be forced to think larger thoughts or feel larger emotions.

And to prevent their hearts and minds for expanding, they see TRANSFORMERS.

Ebert: People who “don’t do subtitles” suffer from a form of deafness.

In my English class, Junior year of high school, I had a teacher who repeatedly insisted that we needed to read all of the material we were assigned and never watch the movies because they change things and they ruin the stories.

One day we read Macbeth. The teacher brought in a 105 minute version of Macbeth directed by Roman Polanski. She told us that in watching the film, we would see how Hollywood destroys literature. We started watching at the end of the day and watched only the first ten minutes before class was over. I asked the teacher if i could look at the box. Nobody thought anything of it as I was known as the movie fan. I saw something on the back of the box. The run time was 105 minutes and the film was rated PG. This was a classroom cut. I knew, from having been a Polanski fan, that this was not the full version of the film. The full version was 140 minutes and was rated X.

I went up to the teacher after class and asked “is it fair to bash Hollywood and say that they destroy literature if this isn’t the full version of the film? The director made a longer version and I bet that one is more accurate… isn’t it fair to give the film a chance?” She said she would look for the original version. I made no mention of the film’s rating change and I was expecting her to come in the next day and say “Scott, we can’t watch the original version of the film, it’s rated X”. She didn’t say that. She came in with a new tape and apologized to the class and said that she may have been unfair to Hollywood and that we would continue watching the movie from the original cut of the film.

The teacher had not screened the film and her desk was BEHIND the television so she could not see it. She put on Polanski’s 140 minute X rated Macbeth and people made “ewww” noises as naked witches and severed body parts were sprinkled throughout the film.

At the end of the day, she turned the movie off and said we’d be continuing it the next day. Nobody’s parents called in. The next day we saw more of the film including a scene where a guard rapes a woman in the background of the shot while Lady Macbeth talks to her husband in a doorway.

Anyone sheltered from sexuality and nudity certainly had a new found respect for the motion picture that day.

I felt like a champion.

In bringing up Detour, what I was shooting for was the question of ‘Quality’ and how one achieves it, and also the business of film cults and how they judge ‘Quality’. I look for some kind of standard, and I’m damned if I can find one. As I said in the earlier comment, Detour‘s reputation stems entirely from Edgar Ulmer having a cult following, unlike dozens of his contemporaries on Poverty Row. I’m serious here – for a control, check out any number of crime films from that same period, with similar low budgets and less celebrated directors (you’d be surprised at just how many of those cheapies are still out there, in the back DVD bins at the dollar stores; all hail Public Domain!). Ulmer and others like him, working with (and for) very little money, had to make chicken salad out of chicken fat (I cleaned that up out of deference to your spam filter); that they did so, under what little radar there was then, qualifies as a minor miracle.
In your Great Movies writeup of Detour you mention a scene where Tom Neal gets in a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side. This leads you rhapsodize on what Ulmer ‘meant’ by shooting it that way. How’s this: the lab flipped the negative, and PRC was too cheap to call the prints back. I can picture Mr. Ulmer in his later years, watching the Late Late Movie, seeing this slip-up and wincing at the obvious error, rather than congratulating himself for a ‘cinematic innovation’. I can imagine Ulmer complaining to his producer, Leon Fromkess, and being told something like “Relax, Ed, nobody’s gonna notice!” Fact: until I read your essay –I didn’t notice.

The whole business of film cults reminds me of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, in which the title character spends the whole picture trying (without any success) to convince an ever-expanding horde of slavish devotees that he’s not the Messiah. Whenever I read any of Alfred Hitchcock’s interviews with acolyte types like Truffaut, I always had the feeling that he was stringing them along, telling them what he thought they wanted to hear. It would fit in with Hitchcock’s humor to turn himself into their own McGuffin. The same holds for others like crusty John Ford, expansive Frank Capra, practical Howard Hawks – you still play to your audience, even if it’s just one guy writing or recording your words.
I also observe that a cult is more likely to sprout if its subject is unavailable to bring it down – not that any of them would. Recognition is wonderful at any time, but it’s always best if you’re there to enjoy it. If a guy spends his life making programmers for paychecks, he’d like acknowledgement just as much as a top-line Maker of Film Classique. If that acknowledgement includes praise for “innovations’ that were really unintentional, or “pieces of time” that were sheer luck, or a “vision” that owes more to seat-of-the-pants ingenuity – OK, tell me I’m a visionary and watch me nod in modest agreement. As Rod Serling often had his characters say,”I swear it’s to laugh.”

Neither of us wll likely live to see it, but many years down the road, there will be a Michael Bay cult. Some ‘film scholar’ will put together a weighty academic tome, rife with footnotes and backed up with bibliography, all about how the mighty Bay was msisunderstood by mossbacks like that reactionary Ebert. Bet on it.

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