Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Tag: Roger Ebert

Better Living Through Criticism

better-livingI’ve been a fan of A.O. Scott since his too-short time co-hosting At the Movies with Michael Phillips, which was my favorite post-Ebert iteration of the show. Their tenure was a salve after the brief and forgettable stint of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. Phillips and Scott brought a benevolent wonkiness to the show I greatly enjoyed and mourned when it was axed.

So I was quite pleased to read A.O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, which is not as self-helpy as it sounds, mercifully. In fact, it’s nearly the opposite of self-help, a genre hell-bent on offering surefire prescriptions for every psychological impediment blocking our true greatness within. Scott is far less strident. He avoids making grand declarations about The Purpose of Criticism, much to the chagrin of grand declarers. All the better. To me, criticism is not about conquering artistic foes or achieving certainty, but about making sense of what goes on inside our heads and hearts when we encounter something beautiful, pleasurable, or truthful — or all (or none) of the above.

The book ambles towards answers to the pointed questions I’m sure Scott receives often: What are critics for? Are critics relevant anymore? One purpose for critics he lands on is to be people “whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” This is absolutely true, as is its inverse of steering others away. Many movies that I expected to be worthwhile ended up being duds, and the critical consensus that bubbled up before their opening weekends helped convince me to wait for the Redbox or to avoid them altogether.

Conversely, without Bilge Ebiri’s incessant cheerleading for The Lego Movie before it came out in early 2014, I would have assumed it was another cheap kids movie and not a hilarious and surprisingly profound meditation on creativity and identity. Ditto Brooklyn, which I expected to be another overwrought, Oscar-baity period drama but in fact nearly brought this non-crier-at-movies to tearsCritics matter, even when I disagree with them (cough Carol cough).

Scott also feels duty-bound as a critic “to redirect enthusiasm, to call attention to what might otherwise be ignored or undervalued. In either instance, though, whether we’re cheerleading or calling bullshit, our assessment has to proceed from a sincere and serious commitment.” The calling attention to is big: a recent example is last year’s Tangerine, a tiny indie I wouldn’t have given a chance without wide and persistent acclaim from the bevy of critics I admire and follow just so I can get scoops like that.

“Redirecting enthusiasm” might also be considered a challenge to “swim upstream”: to seek out the earlier, influential works that laid the groundwork for whatever we’re watching, listening to, reading now. American culture’s on-demand, presentist bias deprives us of decades of good art, whose only crime is not being made right this live-tweetable second. The critic who compares a new film to an older one, favorably or otherwise, provides context for readers but also a tacit clue that checking out that older film might be worthwhile. The upside of our appified age is that finding those forgotten gems has never been easier: getting upstream is as easy as visiting your local library, Amazon, or streaming service.

But what I consider the most compelling reason for the critic’s job might be their most self-interested one. Scott quotes the ever-quotable critic H.L. Mencken, who wrote the motive of the critic who is really worth reading is “no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world.”

The process of making an articulate noise about something is the point, I think. It’s where a writer lives most of the time, engaging in a back-and-forth with the work and with himself until he lands on something approximating the truth of his experience. To that end, Scott writes, the history of criticism is the history of struggle. This book embodies that struggle literally: Scott engages in four interstitial dialogues, wherein he banters with an unnamed interlocutor (or inner critic?) who could also stand in as the aggrieved audience, demanding that Scott justify his existence.

I know this combat comes with the job, but the hostility critics in general receive baffles me. There’s way too much out there to see, read, and hear for one person to sort through. “This state of wondering paralysis cries out for criticism,” he writes, “which promises to sort through the glut, to assist in the formation of choices, to act as gatekeeper to our beiseged sensoria.” Having professional curators with unique, informed, and enthusiastic taste is a good thing, not something to scoff at or claim is irrelevant in the age of Rotten Tomatoes.

But if you think a critic is wrong and want to tell him why, congratulations! You’re now a critic and are obligated to say more.

Anyway, good on Scott for driving this conversation, and for holding his ground against Samuel L. Jackson.

Boyhood

boyhood

With respect to the late, great Roger Ebert, I’m taking the name of his memoir and biographical documentary and giving it instead to Richard Linklater’s new epic novel of a film, for it is Life Itself.

Boyhood chronicles the young life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who at the film’s beginning is a six-year-old on his back, gazing up at a blue sky. He’s in trouble at school for shoving rocks into a classroom pencil sharpener — not because he wanted to destroy it, but because, he tells his mom after she leaves the principal’s office, he thought he could make arrowheads for his burgeoning collection. Such a small moment of innocent longing comes to typify Mason and his journey, which we get to witness throughout the rest of the film’s twelve-year time frame.

Most Hollywood biopics take the “greatest hits” view of their subject’s life. They often glide over childhood to establish some running themes before skipping to adulthood to get to the “real” or familiar story: J. Edgar and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom are recent examples of this. But Linklater, he of the intimately expansive Before series, he’s a deep-cut kind of guy. Rather than, say, making a pit stop in childhood on the way to adulthood — where supposed Important Things happen and Life Lessons are learned — it’s as if he rented a place in town so he could stay as long as necessary to really understand where he was, akin to a documentarian or journalist. Linklater the director seems not like the guy at the party who enters with a bang and works the room all night with a procession of drinks in hand, but the one in the corner talking to one person all night about everything — mutual acquaintances, pop culture arcana, and the familiar tropes of life we often don’t know we share with others until we share them with others. He has an eye trained on the truth.

Boyhood unveils its truths deliberately and episodically, year after year adding new dispatches from the front lines of Mason’s life. These dispatches are often celebratory, sometimes jarring, but mostly they catalog life’s banalities, the tiny triumphs and tragedies that accumulate into something approaching a story. In an interview with The Dissolve, Linklater says Boyhood is “all about the little things that don’t have a place in a movie. … This is all the shit they cut out of [a] movie.” This isn’t Beatles 1, a compilation of greatest hits with all the very best the band offered; it’s the Anthology series, a deep dive into the band’s catalog that juxtaposes alternate cuts of the classics hits with obscure and ordinary songs that never get radio play.

The film zooms in to the granular level and stays there, preferring to consider some of the moments that won’t make the slideshow at high school graduation. He makes a virtue out of seeing the cosmic in the quotidian, not unlike, as Brett McCracken noted, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which considers similar connections between a Texas boyhood and the cosmos. Malick employs a much greater visual artistry than Linklater does in general, and with Boyhood specifically, but both filmmakers are concerned with the long game. They delight in capturing the beauty of detail and the rich story such details can tell.

Boyhood captures not just a person but a time and a place. The film is indeed the step-by-step story of a boy’s emerging from boyhood, but it is also a profile of a place. In the literal sense this place is Texas, where Mason — an often frustrated member of an itinerant family — lives in various homes and goes to various schools, haunting the backyards, basements, and back alleys that seem to draw boys in their restless wandering. In another sense the place of boyhood is psychological: it’s a confining, often confusing place where hyperactivity is stifled, where self-determination is chimerical, where the specter of sexuality haunts every interaction with girls and informs (poorly) the vulgar sex talks with other boys, where you’re constantly being told what to do, and where your well-being is almost always at the whim of adults who may or may not deserve such a vital power.

I’m very familiar with the place Boyhood lives in. Excepting a few key differences, I saw so many moments in Mason’s story, little and large, that harmonized with my own.

When as Mason’s mom drove him and his sister away to a new city he saw his neighborhood friend biking behind them as a last goodbye, I saw in my mind the dreadful day my childhood best friend from down the street moved away with his family, and the weekend before when we had one last sleepover and wore our Batman pajamas and wrestled with my dad.

When Mason aloofly played video games on an enormous Apple iMac G3, I saw my fifth-grade computer lab where I wrote a short story about mice playing games and found refuge from my teacher who assigned essays as punishment for peccadillos instead of for teaching us how to write better.

When Mason and his step-siblings were barred from drinking soda by an oppressive father yet in the next scene walked home from school with Cokes proudly in hand, I felt the exhilaration of sneaking to Walgreen’s one summer with my friend to buy candy forbidden by his mother and eating it all in a fury before returning home.

When Mason’s biological dad brought him to an Astros game against the Brewers, I reminisced about trips with my own dad to County Stadium (and then Miller Park) in Milwaukee to see those very Brewers and get autographs during batting practice in between stadium hot dogs.

When Mason entered middle school and hung with kids who clearly were bad influences on him yet offered friendship and camaraderie in the fight against the seeping oppression of puberty, I remembered my own struggles with peer pressure and in crafting an identity that fit in the nebulous space between family, friends, and myself.

When Mason’s high-school photography teacher lectured him condescendingly in the dark room about his aimlessness and impractically whimsical photos, I recalled clashing with a teacher freshman year who was as frustrated by my antagonistic apathy as I was by her overbearing personality.

When I saw Boyhood, I saw my life itself. I saw an hourglass full of sand that drains way too quickly. I saw how every little moment is another grain we can add to give us a little more time, but only if we take the time to appreciate them. “Love all of God’s creation,” exhorts The Tree of Life, “both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.”

Driving to college through the Texas desert, Mason stops at a gas station to fill up. He pulls out his camera and starts shooting the little things he sees around him: the architecture, the people, the sky… photography teacher be damned. Once again he’s the daydreaming kid considering the clouds, but now with the accumulated knowledge from a boyhood survived. He’ll soon be filing dispatches from new places — college, career, marriage, fatherhood — ever adding to the hourglass new grains of sand, each a story of life in itself.

Best For The Best: Nights of ‘The Animal Years’

Roger Ebert wrote a while back about responding to the question film critics inevitably get asked: “What’s the greatest movie of all time?” He usually responds with the perfunctory nod to Citizen Kane, which he jokes is the “official answer.” But this time, when asking himself not which film is greatest but which he would like to see right now, he says Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Why that one? Seeing it many times in his life at many different ages, he saw something different in each viewing – something his younger selfs didn’t or couldn’t have appreciated. “Movies do not change, but their viewers do,” Ebert writes. “The movie has meant different things to me at different stages in my life, but has always meant something, and because it clearly did for Fellini too, I think I will always want to see it again. It won’t grow stale, because I haven’t finished changing.”

I thought about that recently when I had my fourth annual Animal Years Night, wherein I listen to Josh Ritter’s 2006 album for the one and only time all year. See, I went to a concert years ago where the headliner’s lead singer talked about loving an album so much he only listened to it once a year so it would stay special.  I’ve written before about why I like to keep some life moments sacred, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to create a holy moment for myself. I’m pretty rigid about this, too: I won’t listen to any song from The Animal Years until That Night. It makes me cherish every verse, every chorus, because I know I won’t hear it again for another year.

This all started four years ago when I was on winter break from school, back at my parents’ house and totally at ease. I sat inside looking out at the fresh coat of pristine snow falling in the backyard, illuminated by the full moon, and I listened to The Animal Years. (If you haven’t listened to it yet, you need to.) It was exquisite. The memory of that picturesque scene and the inner warmth I felt stuck with me.

Sighing just a little bit / Smiling just a little bit. — Monster Ballads

The next winter, I was a year older and back in the school grind when one night the snow started falling oh so beautifully and I thought, “This is a Josh Ritter kind of night.” I threw on my boots and jacket, grabbed by iPod, and ambled through the serene, snow-laden suburbs with The Animal Years in my ears. In between songs I could hear my feet crunch the fresh coat on the sidewalks as I ebbed and flowed through the golden light from the street lamps. I was content where I was in life, happy at school and hopeful for life after commencement.

For those who ain’t done packing yet / My clothes are packed and I want to go. — Idaho

After a summer of transition and a fall living abroad, I came back to the States unsure of where I would go next, what I would do, and who I would become. Living with some friends and working a dead-end job, I set out on my Animal Years Night in an aimless and discontented mood, worried about the future and trying to right all of the Big Questions in my head. But I was once again put at ease by the hard grace of the snow falling all around me and Ritter’s mellifluous voice telling me it would be all right.

We saw your old flames / And some were burning yet / It made us smile to see / Just how well tended each was kept. — In The Dark

Now, this last winter, being in a great place in life with blessings anew and exciting possibilities ahead of me, I waited and waited for the perfect night when the snow was in a slow fall and the neighborhood was quiet to listen to The Animal Years once again and let it wash me clean. And once again it was a bewitching 50-minute spell that was mine and mine alone.

I’ve changed a lot throughout my last four Animal sessions. Each time I was a different man with new questions and new assurances, but the same album in my ear. It’s reassuring to know that you have something in this fickle and fluctuating world that will never, ever change and will walk with you through life. Whether it’s a favorite album, a work of art, or a treasured book, like DiCaprio’s totem in Inception that special thing grounds us when we’re adrift and tells us something new every time we ask. Next winter, I’ll be a different man from who I am now with new questions and new assurances, but The Animal Years will meet me in that moment, the same it’s always been, to tell me it’ll be all right.

And there’s so much where we ain’t been yet / So swing up on this little horse / The only thing we’ll hit is sunset. — Good Man

(photo)

What’s Going On?

Haven’t been on much—camp is keeping me busy. It is nice, though, to be able to unplug from the world for a while and not be able to check your email and keep up on the news even if you want to. Here’s a few thoughts on random stuff:

—The Dark Knight was just amazing. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

—In regards to the Favre-Packers debacle, the Packers organization I think has done right. Favre has lost all of the goodwill he earned throughout his career by continuing to flip-flop and run his mouth. I’ll always be a Favre fan, but I’m a Packers fan above all. He retired quite tearfully and emphatically. If he wants to come back he has to do it on the team’s terms.

—Ebert & Roeper at the Movies, Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper’s weekly movie review show will no longer be. Ebert and Disney could not come to an agreement about the show’s direction after Ebert’s departure and so both Ebert and Roeper will be leaving the show. I really, really hope they find a way to get back on the air on their own terms because the intelligent and entertaining film criticism it provides week to week is one of a kind.

—The two movies I was most looking forward to this summer—The Dark Knight and Wall-E—did not let me down. I’m not sure what else is coming out this summer that will be worth watching, but I’ll have lots of time after camp to check them out.

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