Roger Ebert: Video games can never be art. USC’s Kellee Santiago: Oh, yes, they can—they already are!
It’s an interesting argument and has drawn thousands of comments over at the Ebert blog. I found the discussion fascinating, though I really don’t agree with either Ebert or Santiago. There are better ways to argue either side, especially Santiago’s, and much of that’s covered in the comments, if you have the time.
The crux of the problem is really how you define “art.” I have my own ideas, but that’ll have to wait for another time. I do find a certain pleasure in knowing that art is not easily defined, and the video gamers’ yearning to be taken seriously is revealing, though I don’t know if earning the label of “art” is really what most gamers are looking for.
As I had mentioned earlier this week, Preston Sturges doesn’t quite get the respect that I think he deserves. He’s fairly well-known among film fans but not as well-known as other directors of his generation. When the conversation is about auteurs and the “great” movies, Sturges and his films are often an afterthought if they’re given any thought at all.
Film critic extraordinaire Anthony Lane described the situation in his profile of Sturges (from Lane’s collection Nobody’s Perfect):
These works occupy a curious position in the pantheon of cinema, if there is such a place. To anyone who knows his movies, they are not just entertaining; they are so obviously entertaining that only some vast, subterranean conspiracy can have stopped them from becoming as undyingly popular as Some Like It Hot or Diner, or any of the other standbys that everyone has on video, and that are ideally watched on damp Sunday nights with a tub of Chunky Monkey. But the Sturges canon remains stubbornly half known; there are plenty of people who enjoy The Lady Eve without even realizing who made it.
Part of the problem is that Sturges made comedies, and the funny stuff never gets the respect it deserves. What Sturges pulls off is rarer than you’ll find in dozens of Best Picture winners, but since he’s makes people laugh, they feel free not to take him seriously.
The art of Sturges is the art of entertainment, and that poses a problem from some because “art” and “entertainment” are supposed to be two separate boxes and movies get put in one or the other but not often both.
There are legit reasons to critique Sturges. French director René Clair, by way of James Agee, believed Sturges was too quick for his own good; if he had slowed down he’d have been even greater. Agee himself makes other points. They may be right. There’s valid criticism for every filmmaker, even the greatest.
Yet I’d guess Sturges is not overlooked because because he’s found wanting by those who give him serious consideration, but more often because he’s not taken seriously to begin with. We suffer from a bad case of cultural amnesia, but I suspect that in time Sturges will be seen as one of those directors whose movies endure. They still seem especially vital to me. Much of what made audiences of the 1940s laugh seems very dated to us today, but Sturges and his films still do the trick.
There’s a new puzzle around here somewhere. It looks very much like the grid above—except it’s BIGGER so you don’t have to squint. It doesn’t have a theme, so there’s one less thing not to like about it. I hope. You be the judge.
Rumor has it you’ll find it at the MAD Puzzles page. (Scroll down for MAD Puzzle #6.)
Here are a few of her film credits:
* Academy Award nomination.
Film editing is a fascinating but largely unsung part of the filmmaking process. If you want a great inside look at what editing is all about, I’d recommend The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, from novelist Michael Ondaatje. Murch is one of the great editors himself. He and Ondaatje discuss Allen along with other women editors:
Murch: In fact, many of the editors of early films—back in the silent days—were women. It was a woman’s craft, seen as something like sewing. You knitted the pieces of film together. And editing has aspects of being a librarian, which used to be perceived as a woman’s job.
Ondaatje: And the man is the hunter-gatherer, coming back with stuff for her to cook!
Murch: The men could bring it home, but they didn’t know what to do with it. But there was a big shift when sound come along in 1927. Sound was somehow a “man” thing—it was electric. It was complicated in a different way, an engineering way. A lot of men started coming into editing at that point, and women left.
But if you made a list of the ten best editors ever, Ann Coates and Dede Allen would be in there. They’ve been an inspiration to a whole generation. Dede got her start in New York. I never ran into her there, because I had moved out here to the West Coast, but Richie Marks, Barry Malkin, Steve Butler, and many other New York editors my age grew up under her guidance.
A couple of other women that Murch cites among the top editors: Margaret Booth and Thelma Schoonmaker.
I get letters.
Dear Mr. MAD About Movies (or can I just call you Mr. MADAM for short?),
I used to be such a big fan of your website. I got real excited when I saw your theme this week. Every day I’d drop by to see what song you were playing and I kept waiting and hoping and—oh, well, I guess you’re just not that into amphibians. Even ones that sing songs that get nominated for Academy Awards. It’s not like that’s a big deal or anything.
I admit I don’t have the prettiest voice around. It’s not exactly honey on the ears like B.J. Thomas with a sore throat. I understand. And I know I’m not half as funny as that Higgins fellow and his friend playing bullfighter in the parlor. That was comedy gold. (You know something, when they were singing, “¡Olé!” I thought I heard someone yell “Holy guacamole!”)
Thanks for all that entertainment, but I don’t think I’ll be coming back anymore. If you ever need me, just ask any muppet for “The Rainbow Connection.” That’s where I’ll be. The lovers, the dreamers, and me.
K. the F.
Oh, Kermit! I am sorry! I hope you will reconsider. I didn’t mean to slight you. I just had no idea. Now I see, of course, that I made a terrible mistake. It was my oversight. Yes, you deserved better. It’s not easy being green, is it? (I bet you hear that all the time.) Hey, if you have your banjo with you, I think a lot of people here would love to hear you sing. Yeah! I know I would. Could you do that? Just like in the movie. Oh, that would be great, Kermit. Thank you! You’re the best!
The Muppet Movie (1979)
“The Rainbow Connection”
Kermit the Frog
The Book Club
By David Gilmour
I opened things up with a brief introduction to Hitchcock, Jesse as always on the left side of the couch, a coffee in his hand. I said that Hitchcock was an English director, a bit of a prick with a mildly unhealthy thing for some of the blond actresses in his films. (I wanted to capture his attention.) I went on to say that he made a half-dozen masterpieces, adding, unnecessarily, that anyone who didn’t agree with that probably didn’t love movies. I asked him to look for a couple of things in the film. The staircase inside the villain’s house in Rio de Janeiro. How long was it? How long would it take to go down it? I didn’t tell him why.
That’s David Gilmour with his fifteen-year-old son, Jesse, sitting down to watch Hitchcock’s 1946 classic, Notorious, in one of the more memorable, and pleasurable, books I’ve read in recent years.
The Film Club tells the story of an unusual arrangement between the two Gilmours. Jesse is flunking high school and nothing the father or his ex-wife can do offers any help. David sees the pain and damage that his son is suffering, and he fears losing him for good. The father proposes a solution, one not likely to be high on the list of recommendations to parents of troubled teens. Jesse can drop out of school if he wants to, with no need to find a job or pay rent, under one condition: the father and son will sit down three times every week and watch a movie.
The father and son are the sole members of “the film club” of the title, and the book follows their relationship over the three years of the film club’s weekly lessons. The movies are a radical departure from Jesse’s education at school. He’s learning not just about movies, of course, but about life, often with films selected by the father that relate directly to the son’s concerns.
David Gilmour is hardly cavalier with his experiment, and he worries, in fact, that it may do more hard than good. He clearly has a deep affection for his son, who goes through many trials during those difficult years when a boy learns to become a man. One day he’s involved with a girl, the next day he’s not. So it is with jobs, and assorted troubles. His anchor, the film club and a movie with his father.
A novelist, David Gilmour has an observant eye and a keen talent for introspection, making the story a pleasure to read. The book is filled with sweetness and wisdom, and no easy answers.
Gilmour for many years was a film critic on Canadian television. He knows his movies, and he’s got plenty to say about them. You may wish you were there for the many meetings of the film club, but it’s a treat nonetheless to drop in on the conversations about film he has with his son.
Like this one following Notorious:
Jesse looked over at me a few times, smiling, nodding, getting it. We went onto the porch after; he wanted a cigarette. We watched the construction crew for a while.
“So, what do you think?” I asked in an offhand voice.
“Good.” Puff, puff. Hammer, hammer across the street.
“Did you happen to notice the stairway in the house?”
“Did you notice it at the end of the movie? When Cary Grant and Bergman are trying to leave the house and we don’t know if they’re going to get away or not?”
He looked caught out. “No, I didn’t.”
“They’re longer,” I said. “Hitchcock built a second set of stairs for that final scene. You know why he did that?”
“Because that way it would take longer to get down them. Do you know why he wanted to do that?”
“To make it more suspenseful?”
“Can you guess now what Hitchcock is famous for?”
I knew enough to stop right there. I thought, You taught him something today. Don’t kill it. I said, “That’s all for now; school’s out.”
The 1932 World Series, Game 3: the Cubs had tied it 4-4 with a run in the 4th, and the Yankees are up in the top of the 5th, one out, Babe Ruth at bat. On a 2-1 pitch, Charlie Root, the Cubs pitcher, gets a called strike. Babe Ruth then makes a gesture, and on the next pitch, a curveball, he hits a long home run to center field.
“The Called Shot” was the last hit for Ruth in a World Series game. It’s never been resolved whether Ruth really “called” the shot. Even though some photographs and film recorded the legendary event, none of it is conclusive.
There are eyewitness accounts, however, and one of the more notable fans in the stands that day was young John Paul Stevens, who appears to be nearing the end of his illustrious career as a justice on the Supreme Court [UPDATE 4/9: Call me Nostradamus. This morning Stevens has made it official: he’s retiring.]:
On a wall in Stevens’s chambers that is mostly covered with autographed photographs of Chicago sports heroes, from Ernie Banks to Michael Jordan, there is a box score from Game Three of the 1932 World Series, between the Yankees and the Cubs. When Babe Ruth came to bat in the fifth inning, at Wrigley Field, according to a much disputed baseball legend, he pointed to the center-field stands and then proceeded to hit a home run right to that spot. The event is known as “the called shot.”
If you think that settles it, think again. For decades many have argued that Ruth never pointed to center field. That group includes Charlie Root’s wife (“Of course I didn’t see him point. Nobody else saw him point, because he didn’t. Charlie would have thrown it right at his head.”) to Keith Olbermann (“I’ve never thought it happened, and even Justice Stevens says that as a 12-year old, he would rule his own testimony irrelevant and unreliable”).
The legend of the called shot has been referenced in many movies about baseball, including a few covered in this week’s theme. No movie, however, has given the story as much play as the 1948 biopic The Babe Ruth Story. You think they might have settled it then, but something about that version seems a wee bit of a stretch.
Here’s a quiz question for you: What is the most unbelievable part of The Babe Ruth Story?
a. that the Babe had to remove a cabbage from home plate before his at bat
b. that Cubs fans at Wrigley were “cheering their heads off” after Ruth’s go-ahead home run
c. that William Bendix was supposed to be Babe Ruth
d. that Charlie Root didn’t throw one at Ruth’s head
e. that Babe Ruth really “called” the shot
The circumstances in which the art of criticism is practiced are always changing, but the state of the art is remarkably constant.
That’s A.O. Scott writing in today’s N.Y. Times. Scott remains one of the lead film critics at the Times, but his other gig, as co-host of the long-running television show At the Movies, was recently terminated. That announcement had come not long after news of the firing of two critics at Variety. Critics have been losing jobs for years, and the situation now looks increasingly dire. Not that any of this is breaking news. Google “film critic” and “endangered species” and you’ll get thousands of hits.
So the question comes up: Do critics matter? Well, that depends, doesn’t it?
Critics don’t matter to the film business. They don’t make or break films. Among the many factors that affect a film’s box office, the critical reaction has such a small influence you may as well round it off to zero. I doubt critics ever had much impact on business (even James Agee, Tony), but a film today is a hit, or not, regardless of what the critics say. Last year’s Transformers sequel got terrible reviews but raked in $400 million in domestic grosses, about double that worldwide. Opening the same weekend was The Hurt Locker; after all the critical acclaim—and a Best Picture Oscar later—the film has grossed $16 million here, about $36 million total. People don’t go to movies because critics like them, and they don’t stay home when critics don’t.
Critics do matter, though, to the art of movies. The first assessment of a film’s quality, typically, is the opening weekend reviews. Sometimes the assessment changes over time, sometimes not, but the leading arbiters of film art are the leading film critics—the ones working at top daily and weekly newspapers, a few other publications, and a few websites. (Others—book authors, scholars, etc.—get their say too, but later.)
What the critics say doesn’t matter to the business people. It doesn’t matter to the mass audience. But it does matter to some important groups. One, people (like me) who like to read about movies. Word gets around, and that word is often influenced by what critics say, since they have the first shot. Another group is filmmakers, at least the ones who care about what people are saying (yes, Kevin Smith appears to be one of them). I don’t doubt that some filmmakers hate critics, some don’t read critics, and some others appreciate critics—but that’s still a lot of filmmakers for whom critics matter. If you consider yourself working in the art of film, you may want to be careful what you read, but you would certainly have an interest in what’s being said.
I think the question Do critics matter? really comes down to this: Does art matter?
I know my answer to that question, and there’s much more to be said, but that’ll have to do for now.
I was working on some posts for next week, and I came across this. A brilliant piece from long ago to get you in the mood for the long season ahead. It works for me.
The Naughty Nineties (1945)
Bud Abbott & Lou Costello
“Who’s on First?”