Category Archives: Cineliteracy

In praise of controversy

When Roger Ebert died a couple weeks ago, movie fans around the world mourned. Most eulogies ranged from respectful overviews of his life and work to moving testimonials extolling his prose and insight. I may have been remiss in not commenting immediately on his passing, since his absence does indeed leave a large void in the profession of film criticism, but what I’ll miss most about Ebert has somewhat to do with his accomplishments, and somewhat to do with the particular role he played in pop culture. These two things are related, but not the same. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that when I’ve mentioned Ebert, it has not always been in a flattering way. Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say: I did appreciate his work, and he was a skilled critic. What we’ve lost, however, isn’t a good film critic but rather the only film critic in America (possibly the world) who mattered to the moviegoing public.

Lots of people read reviews. They visit Rotten Tomatoes or perhaps they follow their local paper’s resident critic; maybe there’s a blogger they particularly like, or maybe they just have that one Facebook friend who reliably gives the lowdown on everything s/he’s seen recently. There are still dozens — hundreds — of critics of Ebert’s caliber out there, and there are several that I frankly enjoy more than him. The thing about Ebert is that he came along at exactly the right moment in our culture to carve out a specific kind of persona. For a variety of reasons, not all of them having to do with his actual prose or personality, Ebert became the archetype of the Critic we all imagine when we think of those sitting in a darkened theater with pen and paper a week or two days before the release of a movie, ready to praise or savage it for their public. For the most part, Ebert was perceived as a benevolent sage, as opposed to an Addison de Witt, and this was an image he earned. However, his unique status as America’s preeminent film critic enabled him to attract a great deal of attention whenever he espoused views that weren’t always enlightened or ingratiating with the majority of his readership. Being the only film critic in the world who mattered to Joe Public meant that he was also virtually the only film critic in the world who could generate controversy simply by stating his opinion. (Sorry, Armond. Only haters and intrigued contrarians like me care what you think.)

Thinking back over the last twenty years or so, it’s difficult to think of many mainstream critics who have done anything that drew attention to the substance of their opinions by created anything resembling a controversy. Even if Ebert wasn’t the one to create the controversy, he usually benefitted from it. I recall when David Lynch’s Lost Highway came out, advertisements ran in the newspapers bragging that Siskel and Ebert had given it two thumbs down, which prompted a conversation about the relevance of critics and the way they resonated with various audiences. A popular YouTube video shows the pair debating with John Simon the merits of Return of the Jedi; the fact that this video is making the rounds thirty years after it was broadcast indicates that there’s a certain amount of stock in the fact that critics came to verbal blows over what is now a touchstone film in popular entertainment. Not just any critics; Siskel and Ebert.

There were similar mini-controversies from just the last decade. Remember the kerfuffle over Ebert’s four-star review of Knowing, which prompted not one but two further blog posts defending his opinion? Then there was the incident in which he reviewed a movie without having watched the entire thing, being forced to walk back his scathing review later. How about his not-entirely-unfair tweet about “Jackass” Ryan Dunn’s death? And, of course, there was his dismissal of video games as art. The point isn’t that Ebert was right or wrong in any of this stuff. The point is that when anybody but Ebert says or does stuff like this, the only people who care are probably hardcore cinephiles who thrive on manufacturing topics for debate. But when Ebert says it, it reaches a larger circumference of the public sphere. At least, it did. Now that Ebert is gone, there is nobody who occupies that particular place in American culture.

Much as I often lament the level of vitriol that passes for discourse these days, there is something to be said for having someone who stirs the pot productively — a provocateur who can bring attention to issues and generate actual debate, as opposed to name-calling and fiery denunciations of a truly Puritanical order. Public debate needs controversy to a certain extent. Not a culture war, per se, but issues framed in such a way as to amply demonstrate to the average citizen that s/he has a stake in whichever direction the issue is taken. Ebert did that for the movies. He knew that movies mattered, and he devoted his life to illustrating that as clearly as he was able. In that endeavor, I think his legacy was of success. But the degree to which that legacy remains immediate and relevant to the further evolution of motion pictures within our culture is anything but set in stone. With Ebert around, we always had a focal point around which to orient the larger discussion. With him gone, that responsibility falls to all of us with a vested interest in the subject, but none of us has the cachet he did. It is now incumbent upon the cineastes and cinephiles of the world to uphold Ebert’s legacy. As discourse wanes, so does the memory of his life’s work; let his death be commemorated by the continuing conversation. ☕


I don’t know anyone who voted for Pedro

I’m so rarely puzzled or let down by the great Andrew O’Hehir that it depresses me to say that his recent rumination on the question of “Is movie culture dead?” is probably the worst thing of his that I’ve read. In it, he bemoans the death of “film culture in the Susan Sontag sense.” Though he avers that movies are still relevant and talked about, he means film culture in that special way that the rest of us simply call “coastal elitism.” How else do you explain paragraphs like this? (And pay special attention to the last one. Emphasis mine.) Continue reading

Neo talks digital cinema

What’s going to happen to all the digital material that we create? How can it be stored? Because that question really hasn’t been answered. We talk about the democratization of film, the fact that these tools are becoming cheaper, faster and lighter. Anyone can do it now. And I think the filmmakers we talk to have mixed feelings about that: Who’s going to be the tastemaker? Does that mean there will be less good and more bad?

But, yeah, to answer your question — I mean, it’s not as groundbreaking as when film went from silents to talkies. Let’s say that. Or from black-and-white to color. This doesn’t have that feeling of sea change to it. But there are many implications that come out of it. Especially in the early days, there was the question of the quality of the product you’re looking at, the quality of the image. For certain artists whose vision is to make the best possible image, they felt digital wasn’t there.

The above quote is from an interview conducted by Andrew O’Hehir with Keanu Reeves, who has produced a new documentary that I’m quite pumped to see, called Side by Side. In it, Reeves chats with filmmakers about the practical, aesthetic, and philosophical considerations involved in the industry-wide transition from film to digital. The interview has only made me more excited to see the film, because rather than pontificate, Reeves poses question after question, even though the film has been finished. To me, that’s one of the strengths of documentary features: real life doesn’t necessarily conform to tidy narratives or clear answers to hypotheticals. It’s the one form of cinema in which you can get away with telling an ambiguous story with an ambiguous viewpoint, and not have the majority of the audience revolt. Even so, Reeves refers to the stories inherent in the films he likes to make, suggesting that if he does perceive a definite arc to this quest, it’s an arc whose trajectory he is still in the process of charting. Continue reading

Promoting cineliteracy through high school filmmaking

“I believe it takes the study of film to be a good filmmaker, but you also need to be a filmmaker to really understand film.”
-Karen Mitchell, high school teacher

You’d be surprised how many articles have already been written about cineliteracy.  (You thought I was the first?  I wish!)  As part of my ongoing cineliteracy project, I’ll discuss articles and resources from time to time.  Yesterday I highlighted a single line from Jim Emerson’s blog.  Today, I’d like to draw your attention to a trio of articles that appeared back in 2003 in Tech & Learning, an online education magazine.  All three were written by Lea Anne Bantsari.  They covered the efforts of two high school teachers to bring filmmaking into the art curriculum at West Linn High School in West Linn, Oregon.  The first article, “Visual Storytellers,” gave an overview of how and why TV and film classes were introduced.  “Clay and Animation Class,” you may have guessed, gives us the lowdown on teacher Lynn Pass and her course on clay and animation techniques.  The article that drew my attention, however — a.k.a. the one that turned up on my Google search — was “Cultivating Cineliteracy.”  Karen Mitchell was the originator of the TV and film course discussed in the article.  Both teachers were pioneers, developing the film curriculum by trial, error, and intuition.  The fact that both the animation and film studies classes are still being offered proves that there is an appetite for them, and that even educators without formal training in film studies can successfully integrate cineliteracy into an established curriculum. Continue reading

I concur, Mr. Emerson. Please elaborate.

In responding to a post on closing shots by David Bordwell, Scanners mastermind Jim Emerson opened a recent post with one of the most beautiful assertions I’ve seen made by a major critic:

They don’t teach cinematic grammar in elementary schools, though they ought to.

The downside is that the rest of his post has nothing to do with this assertion; the upside is that it’s a dynamite post about the cinematic language of opening shots, one of Emerson’s particular interests.  I just wanted to make sure I noted Emerson’s support, in theory, of mandatory cineliteracy education, since he’s a professional, and one of the sharpest around at that.  I would very much like to see him marshal his thoughts on how cineliteracy can be achieved and, ideally, what shape it should take. ☕

Cineliteracy: Who’s leading the charge?

“If anything I have said here sounds “elitist,” you might consider the vast movement we see occurring in this country’s politics, especially on the far right, where any learning at all is equated with elitism and any experience in public office is equated with being tainted. When our educational system is being systematically downgraded, expecting people to learn things is simple common sense.” – Kristin Thompson

The above quote is the final thought in a recent post at David Bordwell’s blog, in which Thompson muses over the fact that people who have little working knowledge of film — let alone expertise — try to engage her (and other film buffs and scholars) on the topic of movies, when the end result is almost always the same.  To wit, the film expert comes across as an elitist snob, and the average viewer awkwardly shifts to another bit of small talk.  It’s a common occurrence; I’ve experienced the same thing.  Over and over.  (And over again.)  I’m not even a proper expert, as Thompson or Jim Emerson (whose blog post inspired hers) is.  Thompson takes a few stabs at possible psychological motives, but it’s all anecdotal.  There’s no substantial body of research she cites one way or another.  What she says seems consistent, on the whole, with what I’ve observed in my own interactions with people who do not share a crazed enthusiasm for cinema. Continue reading

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