Some people underestimate Roger Ebert because of the TV show, or because of Pauline Kael, or because in the old days the Siskel-Ebert debates seemed to to relate to brow height.

Ebert is, among his other virtues, a fine essayist, and his prose style is quiet and beautifully honed.

Linda sends a good illustration of the wealth of books: in our own time, we’ve experienced exactly this transition in film.

For the young Pauline Kael’s generation, an avid filmgoer’s world was whatever was showing in town. You’d see one or two double=features every week, and everyone who liked movies saw and talked about the same ones that week.

The Paulettes – Roger Ebert, say – inhabited a world where a really devoted critic could still see just about everything there was to see. But this wasn’t something you would, or could, do casually; you had to work at it all the time. And a serious film viewer – even a professional critic – needed to watch for opportunities: you’d think to yourself that “I really want to look at Battleship Potemkin in light of this new idea,” and then you’d need to look out for an opportunity. True enthusiasts would even buy films; Peter van de Kamp, a Swarthmore astronomer when I was an undergraduate, has a precious private collection of Chaplin.

The video generation, and even more the Netflix generation, inhabit a completely different world. If you need to review a scene from Potemkin, you can probably stream it or order a DVD.

At the Presidency University conference, Sue Thomas spoke of new media literacies. If you’d like to be well-read in film, Netflix and Amazon have wonderful libraries. But there’s a lot of reading you need to do. Just to cover the essentials, the very greatest movies, is a lot of work: Ebert has three volumes of Great Movies so far, and more are coming. That’s three or four years of watching a Great Movie Of The Week. Movies don’t take very long to watch, but they need to be thought about; just covering the essentials is bound to be tough.

And now we have serious serial forms, like Buffy and Babylon 5. Each runs to more than a hundred hours. Imagine teaching Buffy in a course on the coming-of-age story in the 20th century: it’s essential reading, it would fit nicely with Portrait and Mockingbird, Catcher and Portnoy, Nick Adams and Prep. But where are your students going to find a hundred hours in a 14-week semester in which they have three other courses?

Mar 12 6 2012


I finally got around to seeing Trust, which Ebert liked quite a bit. It’s the weakest movie I’ve seen lately (movie notes are in the left sidebar of this site’s main page). It’s pretty good.

(It’s also the only movie I recall where a scene spliced into the credits is absolutely essential to the screenplay.)

There’s a ton of good film, ready to stream at the touch of a button.

May 11 19 2011

True Grit

by Charles Portis

Ebert’s review observes that the excellent recent remake of the movie adheres closely to the novel, which Ebert clearly admires. Clive Sinclair, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, reminds us that Portis’ story of a 14-year-old girl’s vengeance is a Vietnam novel, a tale of 1968. The film makes an interesting double feature with Apocalypse Now, and the book is not out of place beside “Heart Of Darkness.” Conrad was interested in evil, and in the contrast between London businessman and the jungle; Portis accepts evil, like discomfort, as a bothersome burden that a sensible person should oppose when possible, just as one ought to dispatch a rattlesnake if you have a sharp hoe ready to hand.

Portis’ judgment of the war is sound and subtly argued: Rooster Cogburn has fought in wars before, and will go on to fight in wars again. He is a good man. He has true grit. And he has always, always, found himself fighting to the bitter end for the wrong army.

May 11 13 2011

Howards End

I recently revisited the film of Howards End (currently streaming on Netflix), reminded by Ebert’s glowing review.

It’s interesting how the reputations of Howards End and Galsworthy’s Forsyte trilogy have diverged. The first Forsyte volume, The Man Of Property, after all, is nearly the same date (Galsworthy 1906, Forster 1910), their underlying theme is not dissimilar, and both feature a pair of contrastingly strong women. The Man Of Property was, I think, once considered the better novel.

May 11 1 2011

Reading Notes

Roger Ebert thinks about what we read:

That's how I've done my reading: Haphazardly, by inclination. I consider myself well read, but there has been no plan. Reading Cynthia Ozick's article brought me up short: I realized I knew almost every writer she was referring to, and I realized they were no longer read. In deciding to begin this piece with the list of all the names in its second paragraph, I realized I would probably alienate many readers. I decided that was all right. This would only be of interest to those who knew a name or two.

He is responding to a Cynthia Ozick review in the New Republic in which the critic observes in passing that hardly anyone reads a parcel of writers whom everyone once read:

Consider: who at this hour (apart from some professorial specialist currying his “field”) is reading Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, John Berryman, Allan Bloom, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Anne Sexton, Alice Adams, Robert Lowell, Grace Paley, Owen Barfield, Stanley Elkin, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Leslie Fiedler, R.P. Blackmur, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, John Crowe Ransom, Stephen Spender, Daniel Fuchs, Hugh Kenner, Seymour Krim, J.F. Powers, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Rahv, Jack Richardson, John Auerbach, Harvey Swados—or Trilling himself?

The literary stockmarket is indeed an odd game. Right now, I’m ploughing through Jeremy Lewis’s massive and marvelous biography of Cyril Connolly. Not long ago, I enjoyed the Mitford-Waugh letters – like this biography, a Dirda recommendation – and since both of those writers poke so much fun in their letters at Smartiboots, their pet name for pal Connolly, I thought this might be fun. And it is fun, thought it’s many hundreds of ddense pages of fun, none of which advance anything I’m working on.

This whole crowd loved to cut each other with devastating jokes. They seem to have slept with each other without too much checking into the beloved’s gender, marital status, or age; how they avoided embarrassing diseases and inconvenient pregancies baffles me. They drank like fish, seldom had any money to speak of, but were forever borrowing a fiver to pop over to Cannes. They spent a lot of time thinking about Catholicism, but that interest never seems to have impinged on their extramural sex games.

Reading Notes
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The art world is even worse. Why was Mary Cassatt the American Impressionist who was invited to the party, while Henry Ossawa Tanner, Henry Strater, Edmund Tarbell and Childe Hassam are provincial footnotes? There may be good reasons, but I don’t think you will find the explanation on the walls of your art museum. If you do, let me know and I’ll come visit.

Art is even more problematic than literature because it’s easier to look at a painting than to read a book. Tinderbox tells me that I've read 599 books between today and the 2000 start of this blog (Stefan Kanfer, Groucho: the life and times of Julius Henry Marx). That’s a lot of books, but it’s also a lot of time. I could look at 600 pictures in a lot less time. I might not look at them quite as they ought to be seen, but then, who is the ideal reader?

Joanna Russ died last week. A @RoseFox tweet sent me back to her story, “When It Changed.” I mentioned it to Linda over dinner (grilled shrimp, brown butter orzo), and she thought for a moment.

“Katy drives like a maniac.”

She remembered. I don’t think she’s read the story in thirty years, but that’s it. And you know something? When I read that sentence yesterday, I didn’t even think it was the strange.

We must have been doing over 120 km/hr on those turns. She's good, though, extremely good, and I've seen her take the whole car apart and put it together again in a day. My birthplace on Whileaway was largely given to farm machinery and I refuse to wrestle with a five-gear shift at unholy speeds, not having been brought up to it, but even on those turns in the middle of the night, on a country road as bad as only our district can make them, Katy's driving didn't scare me. The funny thing about my wife, though: she will not handle guns. She has even gone hiking in the forests above the 48th parallel without firearms, for days at a time. And that does scare me.

A woman driving fast? Katy with a daughter named Yuriko? In 1973, you knew right away this wasn’t Kansas. In 2011, it absolutely could be Kansas.

Stories make a difference.

Ebert: You can draw

Not long after that I found myself in London, and bought a Daler sketchbook and a drawing pen. This would have been in the art supplies store across the street from the English National Opera. I settled down in a nearby pub and began to sketch a glass, which is no more than an arrangement of ovals and lines. I continued to draw throughout the 1990s. I loved the British tradition of watercolor paintings and had already started to collect Edward Lear. At the famous Agnew's gallery on Bond Street, I was befriended by a cheerful woman named Gabriel Naughton, who told me I should buy some watercolor paints and try them for myself: “That will help you appreciate how good these artists are, and what they're up against.” I did, and they did. I realized in a practical, first-hand sense, with my own fingers, how precise and unforgiving watercolors are. Oils and acrylics can be repaired. Although you can daub up some watercolor with a tissue, you are essentially painting in the moment, and trying to get it as right as you can.

Sometimes, “never apologize” really is the right answer.

BitchMedia published a list of 100 Young Adult Books For The Feminist Reader. Naturally, the list inspired discussion. That’s why sites publish these lists – they get lots of people talking, attract lots of inbound links, and so your advertisers sell lots of feminist sex toys and handmade winter bike hats.

Inevitably, some people thought some books on the list weren’t very good. Some felt strongly. Some wrote stern letters.

At this point, the wheels fell off: the editors read these comments, and found some of them convincing. So, they amended the list, dropping three books and replacing them.

Sarah Wendell has a good overview of the ensuing furor. Once the editors changed their mind of these books, they were defenseless. They tried to defend themselves by saying, “we didn’t read every book,” but that’s obviously doomed – especially in a community of writers and librarians. They tried to explain that there were cogent political objections to each book. That’s doomed, too. These books aren’t party platforms, they’re books for kids. The editors say, the replacements are good, too, and we’re not actually censoring anyone, and the books we dropped are still in our library in Oregon. I don’t see any way such arguments can convince anyone.

Margo Lanagan argues convincingly (and with surprising tact) that the indictment of her Tender Morsels is misplaced.

De gustibus non disputandum. It’s one thing to draw up a list of 100 book that omits one’s own work; that’s disappointing, of course, but there are lots of books. Weaseling, on the other hand, suggests that this really is a political process, and that the only way to defend your favorite work is to apply pressure to the editors. This gets lots of comments and lots of twittering – three pages of comments about children’s library curation! – and probably makes the sponsors happy. But it’s bad for libraries, worse for librarians, and terribly dangerous for literature.

  • If you publish a list of favorites, stick to your guns. There’s no percentage in changing your mind.
  • If you publish a list of favorites, be prepared to defend each one.
  • Comments destroy weblogs.
  • If you must have comments, don’t read them unless you have enormous patience, infinite reserves of tolerance, and an impenetrably thick skin. (Roger Ebert can have comments; mere mortals should not.)
Jul 10 2 2010

Writing in Games

I've been toying with The War Of Eustrath HD, a clever little game for the iPad. It’s a plot-heavy tactical role-playing game, complete with manga characters and romantic subplots. The subplots are fairly good, and since the translator’s grasp of English is tenuous, it would be churlish to make fun of the many missteps in the writing.

The writers have an odd sense of grittiness; one manga girl scores points in a debate with another by calling her small-breasted. Is this precisely the insult a Japanese warrior might select before heading out to meet the invader in a nearly-hopeless battle?

I wonder if the original has a different insult? Perhaps this was an interpolation to appeal to gaijin tastes?

This lies, I think, at the heart of Ebert’s now-famous claim that games can’t be art. As Ebert now acknowledges, that was a silly way to pose the question. And let’s not roust up the whole game studies controversy about games and narrative, at least not today.

But, on the whole, if narrative — or character — were really central to games like these, I bet the writers would take more care.

Update: Mike Auxhiller explains that calling a rival “small-breasted!” is actually a common insult in Japanese entertainment. He thinks the issue arises from the developer’s workflow. My guess is that’s part of the story, but if the writing mattered to the developers as much as the nifty fashions the characters wear, they’d have arranged the workflow otherwise..

In McSweeney’s, Wajahat Ali has a fine article with a long title: "Could it be that the best chance to save a young family from foreclosure is a 28-year-old Pakistani American Playright-slash-Attorney who learned bankruptcy law on the Internet? Wells Fargo, you never knew what hit you.” Thanks, Roger Ebert.

(Editorial note to McSweeney’s: “playwright” usually has a ‘w’.)

In reality, "my law office" was actually my friend's office, which he'd lent to me so that I could meet these clients. The classy jacket had been purchased at a clearance sale in an outlet store at the Great Mall in Milpitas. The gel was the last remnant of a decaying and potentially expired bottle I'd probably had since college but never found the opportunity to use. The suitcase was a gift from my relatives in Pakistan—who, much like the rest of my family, were thoroughly shocked that I had passed the bar exam and become a licensed attorney. My business cards had been printed for free by Vistaprint, and despite having a professional front side featuring my name in bold letters and the words ATTORNEY AT LAW, the back side glared BUSINESS CARDS ARE FREE AT WWW.VISTAPRINT.COM!

Game over. I was doomed.

Chris Jones has a terrific profile of Roger Ebert in Esquire.

Aside: Esquire’s page design is awful. It reeks of low-budget ad-raddled porn. Yes, I too have a fondness for lots of sidebars, but this is simply too much – especially because in today’s world, a page that’ topped and tailed with banners, with a left sidebar and a dual right sidebar, reeks of link farming, of a shady enterprise trying to cash in by selling dozens of garbage ads. And this used to be a proud magazine.

Jan 10 24 2010

Taking stock

I saw 38 movies this year. (I know this because I keep notes in Tinderbox. You can see them in the left column of the main page, That’s better than the previous year, when I saw 33 movies. Some of these movies are long: I count a seasonal television show as one film. Still, this seems too low; I’d like, for example, to be reasonably conversant with most of Ebert’s Great Movies, and to even get started on them (there must be 140 by now) I've got to pick up the pace.

I read 44 books in 2009, down from 46 the previous year. Tinderbox again has the notes, and this time I let Tinderbox do the counting, too. I wrote that “I read ^ value($ChildCount(/Books 2009)) books”, where “Books 2009” is an agent that gathers each book note for the calendar year. My favorite book this year was Allegra Goodman’s Intuition. My favorite technical book was Javascript: The Good Parts. In nonfiction, Nick Hornby loved 1599, and so did I.

James Pope, writing for Interjunction, offers recommendations for digital interactive fiction based on a survey of 36 readers.

I observed, questionnaired and spoke with 36 readers about their experiences of ‘reading’ a selection of interactive — hypertext — fictions, and armed with my data I would argue that reading interactive fiction can be enjoyable in many ways.

It’s an interesting conceit. But Pope never describes who the 36 readers were, or how they were chosen, or under what conditions and constraints they were reading. Were these 36 fans of Stephen King, or 36 art historians, or 36 Labour MPs? Did they all like Truffaut and Goddard? What else had they read? What did they like? Without knowing, we can’t really know what their opinions mean.

Surveying 36 readers gives the enterprise a veneer of objectivity, a sort of anthropological flair, isolating the study from quirks of individual taste and interest. But this balance is a mirage. Joe likes Jules and Jim, Jill likes Star Wars, and Pat likes Battleship Potemkin. They all are right! What, exactly, do we learn by averaging the three of them in a statistical pool. It might be interesting to let each argue their separate case; that’s why we read lots of critics.

The desire to avoid judgment pervades the two-part essay:

But I also found clear evidence that the experience of non-linear narratives combined with user-unfriendly interfaces can break the significant balance of effort and reward, a relationship which has been identified by such researchers as Nell (1988) and Csikszentmihalyi (1975, 2002) as being essential to reading pleasure.

I’m as big a believer in citation as anyone — my little Hypertext 2009 paper “On Hypertext Narrative’ has 45 references, Aarseth to Zellweger, plus 21 additional footnotes — but do we need authorities to tell us that “the significant balance of effort and reward” is “essential to reading please?” Perhaps we do, if we want to justify “significant” and “essential”, as Carroll (1865) argues so cogently:

”Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Of course, some people hate Carroll and Lear. My father, on the other hand, brought Alice in his footlocker to the South Pacific, along with Notes From Underground and Archie and Mehitabel, making room by discarding some government property he considered less necessary to the war effort. That’s the second problem here: if you try to triangulate “reading pleasure” by surveying traverses from a bunch of literary landmarks, you’re bound to find yourself in the proverbial swamp. And if you do it 36 times and sum the results, your boots are going to be soggy. Menand makes the point nicely in his recent New Yorker piece, “Show or Tell: should creative writing be taught?"

What is usually said is that you can’t teach inspiration, but you can teach craft. What counted as craft for James, though, was very different from what counted as craft for Hemingway. What counts as craft for Ann Beattie (who teaches at the University of Virginia) must be different from what counts as craft for Jonathan Safran Foer (who teaches at N.Y.U.). There is no “craft of fiction” as such.

In the end, best-seller lists are a poor way to choose what to read, and a grab-bag of 36 random readers is not much better. We don’t want to know what 9 out of 10 doctors recommend; we want to know what this friend thinks, and what that friend believes. And part of the reason we listen to friends and favorite critics is that we know who they are, what they like, how they want to spend their time. It was nice to know that Siskel and Ebert both liked a movie, but it was interesting when Gene loved a movie and Roger hated it, and that’s where we really went to town.

Recommended: Arthur Krystal on Hazlitt, who might not in fact have been “the first modern man” but can arguably be the first modern critic.

Apr 09 7 2009

Ebert's Comments

Roger Ebert has a wonderful reminiscence of the newsroom in the best damn job in the whole damn world.

There were no cubicles. We worked at desks lined up next to each other row after row. Ann Landers (actually Eppie Lederer) had an office full of assistants somewhere in the building, but she insisted on sitting in the middle of this chaos, next to the TV-radio critic, Paul Molloy. Once Paul was talking on a telephone headset and pounding at a typewriter and tilted back in his chair and fell to the floor and kept on talking. Eppie regarded him, reached in a file drawer, and handed down her pamphlet, Drinking Problem? Take This Test of Twenty Questions.

Just as wonderful – and twice as remarkable – are the comments. First, there’s a regular parade of experts: famous writers, columnists, descendants of newsroom legends. Second, even the idiots are terrific: when one pseudonymous poster complains that Ebert “used to be a loud mouth drunk, insulting everyone”, Ebert handles it brilliantly (and instructively) by recalling the Billy Goat Tavern.

Ebert: Thanks for that! It felt for a moment when I was back at the Goat’s.

The other newspaper drinking spot in Chicago was Ricardo’s. They made the best green pasta I’ve ever had.

Mar 09 23 2009


It’s been a metafictional weekend. Last night, Synecdoche, New York.

It will open to confused audiences and live indefinitely. -- Rgert Ebert

I understand why PeterMe wondered out loud what was taking me so long. Night before, Owning Mahoney. Night before that, the last Battlestar.

Fine films! (Some nice meals, too: last night's dinner was hanger steak, tariflette, a spinach salad with goat cheese, pecans, and pear vinaigrette.) But it’s getting to be about time for a ninety-minute romp with bright lights, fast girls, and plenty of ammunition.

It was amusing to watch the collective twitterings this morning at Not very much intelligent discussion, alas: people mostly confined themselves to expressing whether they liked the finale or not. Ebert calls this Himalaya Criticism: “loved him, hated her.”

What the frack WAS Kara Thrace

Best coverage, with extensive interviews, by Maureen Ryan in the Chicago Tribune. And she was the first to get into print, I think, the crucial key:

"I was perfectly at peace with the disappearance of Starbuck. I didn't know why until the day after the finale, when I was walking down Madison Avenue in New York City and it hit me like a thunderbolt.

The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

And why, after all this, do we suppose that it won’t simply happen again? Yet another cycle of war and destruction, as we once again begin to build robots?

Because this time, we know in our bones: we were slaves.

Jan 09 28 2009

Carried Away

Someone walked up to TechCrunch's Mike Arrington at a tech conference yesterday and spit in his face. It was the last straw; after verbal abuse, hate mail, and death threats, he's going to step back and think about whether this sort of tech journalism is really what he wants to do with his life.

But I can’t say my job is much fun any more. Startups that don’t get the coverage they want and competing journalists and bloggers tend to accuse us of the most ridiculous things. It hasn’t been worth our time to respond to these accusations; I always assumed that our work and integrity would speak for itself. But as we’ve grown and become more successful the attacks have also grown. On any given day, when I care to look, dozens of highly negative comments are made about me, TechCrunch or one of our employees in our comments, on Twitter, or on blogs or other sites. Some of these are appropriately critical comments on things we can be doing better. But the majority of comments are among the more horrible things I can imagine a human being say.

Roger Ebert has a nice essay on a Sundance contretemps between John Anderson, a film critic, and Jeff Dowd, an over-eager promoter known as “The Dude”. The promoter really, really wanted to get the critic to like Dirt. The critic, having written his piece, wanted to have a quiet breakfast.

Has this event influenced my opinion on "Dirt! the Movie?" How could it? I haven't seen it. It made the cut for Sundance, which is a good sign. Do I think John Anderson should have punched Jeff Dowd? No, I don't.

I think it was inexcusable, and considering the Dude wasn't fighting back, the fourth punch was just mean. You just can't go around doing things like that. In a way, he was threatening The Dude's livelihood. If The Dude had hit back and it got around that a publicist his size was capable of punching a film critic, he might become unemployable. If you are going to be a film critic and attend film festivals, you are going to have to deal with the Dude. That is a fact of life. Often you will enjoy it. He's better than some faceless intern stuffing your mailbox with press releases.

Update: people looking for the Big Break get carried away by the thrill of the inside game. Wiki pioneer and Freshbooks evangelist Sunir Shah describes a colleague who was prepared to spend a million dollars of her investor’s money if it would get her firm a Tech Crunch post, and arguyes that TechCrunch is not a marketing plan.

Roger Ebert: "Young people, heed this advice: Never marry someone who doesn't love the movies you love. Sooner or later, that person will not love you."

My year on screen:

  • 36 movies* (I'd seen five of these previously)
  • Best new movie: Let The Right One In
  • Also really good: In The Valley of Elah, In Bruges, Starting Out In The Evening, The Company, Kill Bill 2
  • Don’t miss: Two Days In Paris (terrific Julie Delpy), Prairie Home Companion (more seriously Altman that you might expect), Michael Clayton
  • Best TV: The Hustle, seasons 1-4; Battlestar Galactica

Notes*: I count a television season as one movie. These days, all my television comes on disc. I'm not making any distinction between new movies, old movies.

Roger Eberts sums up the way things are in Things Fall Apart. “Nothing,” he says, “cures wealth like illness.” He’s learned the hard way. The weather has gone crazy, the economy has gone mad, the Middle East is filled with nukes.

If you are a member of the U.S. Congress, you should not give a damn if you are a Democrat or a Republican. You should discard ideology and partisanship. You should be searching only for what works, or gives promise of working. You should be listening to the best counsel of the wisest people you can find. This is no time for playing to the crowd. That is all over with. This is the hour to seek what might lead us back from the brink.

“The economy is going to get worse,” he reminds us. “We may have no idea how much worse.” Tired of hearing old stories about The Great Depression, we may get to experience our own. In which case, when we're talking about feeding the wolf at the door, it might also be good to remember that goat cheese souflée is also pretty cheap to make.

Try not to miss “Let The Right One In” (Låt den rätte komma in), a brilliant Swedish vampire movie. (Movie site, IMDB, Ebert, RottenTomatoes). Two twelve-year-olds meet and become friends, in a story not meant for 12-year-olds (but which many 12-years old will totally get). Dense, allusive, tricky, and complex.

A fantastic movie. In Boston, it's at the Somerville.

Let The Right One In
Nov 08 7 2008

What a streak

Roger Ebert is back from a series of tough convalescences. He had salivary cancer, it came back, he had surgery, there were complications and complexities. Somewhere along the line, he broke a hip.

He’s all better now. Well, not quite entirely; some infirmities are to be expected. He can’t talk. And, apparently. he can’t eat. But he sure can write.

Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee...
Half way home, we'll be there by morning...
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea. — Steve Goodman

This is a lovely, polished parable about the arts, country music, singer-songwriters, Pullman porters, the Old South, and the Shrub. Quite possibly written overnight, since the topic is a recent, lamentable political appointment by lame duck George Bush. Literature on a deadline.

Roger Ebert:

America was a different place when I grew up under Truman, Eisenhower and, yes, even Nixon. On Tuesday that America remembered itself, and stood up to be counted.

No doubt, Roger Ebert is spending the day writing about the late Studs Terkel, who will be missed. Studs changed writing. He changed our vision of America. Next Tuesday will owe much to him.

But today, we can enjoy Ebert’s brilliant, hilarious lesson in cooking and criticism: the pot and how to use it. Ebert doesn’t merely discuss the Zojirushi rice cooker ("the pot"). He doesn't simply give recipes. He doesn’t tell you how wonderful the food tastes, because he’s left all that behind now: “I am not a French gourmet. I am a practical cook. An American, Urbana born, and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make a cookbook in my own way....To be sure, health problems now prevent me from eating. That has not discouraged my cooking. Now cooking is an exercise more pure, freed of biological compulsion.”

In the course of the essay, Ebert builds some wonderful characters, especially aunt Mary.

When she was in the kitchen, she was on automatic. She had two speeds: Cook, and Serve. She did not know how to measure salt. "Just throw in about enough, honey," she told me. I believe I have mentioned before her poetic wisdom about how to estimate the number of potatoes sufficient for a meal.

One potato

For every member of the family.

One potato for the pot.

And one last tater, honey,

For fear of company.

There’s a wonderfully gruff voice that runs through this. It’s not just Ebert, who is always cheerful and optimistic. It’s more Studs, or Sidney Harris, or perhaps Damon Runyon.

Add the ingredients in a mixture in the reverse order of how long you think they'll take to cook. For example, dried beans first. Even let them sit in water and Warm for awhile. If you're in a hurry, throw them in and boil them. The hell with them.

Weblogs are conversations.

Right now, the Gapers Block Book Club in Chicago is reading Sin In The Second City. They link to lots of Web discussion of this book, from Freakonimician Steve Leavitt to the Chicago Daily Defender. All the quotes they extract obey Ebert's rule to respect the reader's time, avoiding silly assertions (“you’ll love this!”) for actual observation.

Leslie Orchard (who has written a number of computer books — including his own take on Javascript Frameworks) takes me to task for complaining about silliness in the books like Dupont’s Practical Prototype and

Even amongst computer scientists there’s still a tradition of leaving room for jelly stains and other oddities. This seems to be the sort of thing Mark acknowledges with dismay. (”It’s not fair to blame Mr. DuPont for the general vice.”)

Is playfulness in literature just a computer science thing? I’m not a chemist; maybe chemists just don’t like being funny in writing, or maybe their jokes are more subtle.

Stefan Tilkov, on the other hand, takes my side.

Leslie disagrees; I don't: I have had the same problem with many books, especially on the new and hip stuff such as Ruby and Rails. To me, too, Kernighan and Ritchie's C Programming Language is the perfect model for a book on a programming language, and most other technical topics, too. And I very much prefer The Ruby Programming Language to The Pickaxe for the same reason.

Orchard draws a distinction between web scientists (who pursue fundamentals) and web masons (who are busy with the next micro-site for their client). This sounds to me like the old distinction between researchers and practitioners. But I think professional practitioners today know (or should know) a bit of computer science — and part of that background is knowing a few computer languages and a bit about computer language theory. It makes sense to me that some books, at least, could allow for that kind of knowledge, the background that we’d expect from anyone who was a computer science major in the last decade or two.

Disclaimer: my last computer class was in 6th grade. I'm old enough that Swarthmore didn’t offer a computer science curriculum. It used to be common for researchers to migrate from other fields, to be pretty much self-taught: in the generation from von Neumann to van Dam, of course, you had no choice. I got in by the back door, so what do I know?

Oct 08 29 2008

Ebert’s Rules

Roger Ebert blogs Roger’s little rule book, a brilliant list of rules for critics.

  1. Advise the readers well
  2. Provide a sense of the experience
  3. Keep track of your praise
  4. Do the math
  5. Respect the reader’s time
  6. Do not make challenges you cannot back up
  7. Respect the reader’s money
  8. Beware of verbal parallelism
  9. Trailers: have nothing to do with them
  10. Be wary of freebies
  11. Accept no favors
  12. No commercial endorsements
  13. Be prudent with free DVDs
  14. No advertisements
  15. Be prepared to give a negative review
  16. No posing for photos
  17. Sit down, shut up, and pay attention

Read the whole thing.

The final rule would make a fine tag line for the weblog.

Roger Ebert skewers the new US postage stamp of Bette Davis, in which the artist has used a famous pose but removed the iconic cigarette.

The great Chicago photographer Victor Skrebneski took one of the most famous portraits of Davis. I showed him the stamp. His response: "I have been with Bette for years and I have never seen her without a cigarette! No cigarette! Who is this impostor?" I imagine Davis might not object to a portrait of her without a cigarette, because she posed for many. But to have a cigarette removed from one of her most famous poses! What she did to Joan Crawford in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane" wouldn't even compare to what ever would have happened to the artist Michael Deas.

This launches a wonderful discussion of the cigarette in movies.

Two of the most wonderful props in film noir were cigarettes and hats. They added interest to a close up or a two-shot. "Casablanca" without cigarettes would seem to be standing around looking for something to do. These days men don't smoke and don't wear hats. When they lower their heads, their eyes aren't shaded. Cinematographers have lost invaluable compositional tools. The coil of smoke rising around the face of a beautiful women added allure and mystery. Remember Marlene Dietrich. She was smoking when she said, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."

Jim Coyer discusses an the distinction between formatting information nicely and actual capture and analysis, using Tinderbox agents and my humble Roger Ebert notes as a fulcrum.

Coming back to it after a few months of trying to use ‘standard tools’, I see immediately what I’ve been missing. I’ve been spending 80% of my time doing the formatting and 20% getting the ideas down. Tinderbox inverts this; I spend 80% on the ideas and 20% on arranging and organizing them.

Roger Ebert discusses the challenge of reviewing Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's notorious masterpiece.

Whether it is truly great or only technically qualifies because of its importance is the question. As faithful readers will know, I have been avoiding this particular opportunity with dread. I felt it would involve grappling with the question of whether evil art can be great art. Since moral art can obviously be bad art, the answer to the flip side would seem to be clear enough, but it took me a fearsome struggle to thrash out 'Birth of a Nation,' even though many more excuses (of time, place and context) can be offered for Griffith than for Riefenstahl.

Meanwhile, we're getting ready for The New Knowledge Forge a one-day colloquium on wikis, links, and social software next Monday in Porto. J. Nathan Matias will be talking about “Ethical Explanations: Creative Approaches to Software Documentation”, asking how we ought to document the ethical and social questions of software.

George Landow will speak on Moving Beyond The Hammer of the knowledge forge. I'll be talking about my NeoVictorian program and especially about nobitic information gardening — the knowledge sickle. And Stewart Mader (WikiPatterns) will be there too. It’s open to the public — and surprisingly inexpensive. You can pop into Porto from all sorts of places — England, Ireland, France, Germany — for almost nothing. Join us!

Ebert ☙ Criticism ☙ Morality
Jun 08 16 2008


Roger Ebert sometimes talks about movies that rely on The Woman In Peril; when you need to ramp up the tension, do something frightening to the female lead. (I can't find the pertinent Movie Glossary entry. Fie!)

Juno is a screenwriter in peril movie. The witty script makes you identify with the writer, and the plotting is constantly skirting the edge of a precipice. Every major plot point turns on a scene that you know will be trite and predictable and much too long. And nearly every time, the scene unfolds along the lines you expected, but not quite that way — and it always veers away from the terribleness you expected.

Now available from Netflix, this indie film is all Julie Delpy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset). She wrote, directed, produced, composed, and sang. As Ebert says, "When a woman takes that many jobs, we slap her down for vanity. When a man does, we call him the new Orson Welles.”

May 08 25 2008

Ebert on Studs

Roger Ebert: How Studs [Terkel] Helps Me Lead My Life. Happy 96th birthday to Studs Terkel! Terkel was another of the prime movers of that wonderful generation of northside Chicago intellectuals that also included (among others) Saul Bellow, Sydney Harris, and Stuart Brent.

Roger Ebert recalls his early days as a sportswriter, covering Champaign-Urbana sports.

I would begin a story time and time again on an old Smith-Corona manual typewriter, ripping each Not Quite Great Lead from the machine and hurling it at the wastebasket. [Bill] Lyon watched this performance for a couple of weeks and gave me two of the most valuable pieces of writing advice I have ever received: (1) Once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it's going? (2) The Muse visits during creation, not before. Don't want for inspiration, just plunge in.

These rules have saved me half a career's worth of time, and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I'm not faster. I just spend less time not writing.

Aug 07 8 2007


In the aftermath of his failed third-party candidacy of 1912, a furious Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Amos Pinchot

When I spoke of the Progressive Party as having a lunatic fringe, I specifically had you in mind.

Roger Ebert might have been thinking of this letter himself when we wrote to refute Jonathan Rozenbaum's Scenes from an Overrated Career and to defend Ingmar Bergman.

I have long known and admired the Chicago Reader’s film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, but his New York Times op-ed attack on Ingmar Bergman (“Scenes from an Overrated Career,” 8/4/07) is a bizarre departure from his usual sanity.

Ebert is usually cheerful and unflappable, even when heaping scorn on bad movies. And I can see why: Rozenbaum's piece isn't an argument, it's a pile of mud and stones and snow splattered against the wall. Bergman must be bad because he isn't box-office. Then Bergman is bad because he's too accessible in his handling of actresses. He's too blonde and white. He's like George Cukor and John Ford. Or he's too obscure. Woody Allen liked Bergman, or vice versa. The constraints of an op ed are rigorous, but this seems entirely unfair to Bergman.

There's no point in urging Bergman to use fewer Swedish actors. Not now. What good can it do?

Jul 07 22 2007

Game Debate

Roger Ebert constructs an interesting debate (technically a Fisking, but constructed as dialog) with Clive Barker on whether games can aspire to art.

Ebert is deeply skeptical of any art form in which the narrative is malleable.

Barker: "I think that Roger Ebert's problem is that he thinks you can't have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written 'Romeo and Juliet' as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn't taken the damn poison. If only he'd have gotten there quicker."

Ebert: He is right again about me. I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would "Romeo and Juliet" have been better with a different ending? Rewritten versions of the play were actually produced with happy endings. "King Lear" was also subjected to rewrites; it's such a downer. At this point, taste comes into play. Which version of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's or Barker's, is superior, deeper, more moving, more "artistic"?

This is walking right up to the argument I call My Friend, Hamlet: if we let allow a sane, sensible reader a modicum of free will and agency in the tragic universe, everything collapses. Everyone knows what Romeo and Juliet need: someone needs to have an urgent, frank talk with their mothers. Everyone knows what Hamlet needs: he needs to get drunk, he needs to get laid, and he needs to go back to school. He's supposed to be in school, time is on his side, and it will all work out splendidly in a few years. Everyone knows this: no one can say it.

A cautionary note appears, however, when Ebert starts talking about alternative Shakespeare and different endings. It can be done, and it's not necessarily tasteless: Jakob Gordin's Konig Lir is an ornament of the early Yiddish theater and a play of immense influence, and it seems to me that for Arthur Miller and David Mamet and Tony Kushner, you're looking back more to Gordin than to Shakespeare.

There's plenty of range available for wonderful art in which some aspects of narrative and presentation are malleable. Malleability, after all, is what performance offers us. But the particular range of malleability that games offer us seems strangely limited.

A very interesting work in this vein which I haven't yet had time to see properly is the new hypervideo, HBO Voyeur.

Jun 07 21 2007

Top 100 Films

The only 21st century film in AFI's list of the top 100 films of all time is, curiously, The Fellowship of the Ring. But I can live with that.

Ebert is in top form with his commentary on the list. He doesn't think highly of lists, but having savaged the idea when the first list appeared in 1998, Ebert argues that perhaps the list will lead some people to watch better movies, and that would be a fine thing indeed. He writes:

During a Google search for "age of average moviegoer," I came across a column by critic T.C. Candler that opened with this quote:

"I have here a heartfelt message from a reader who urges me not to be so hard on stupid films, because they are 'plenty smart enough for the average moviegoer.' Yes, but one hopes being an average moviegoer is not the end of the road: that one starts as a below-average filmgoer, passes through average, and, guided by the labors of America's hardworking film critics, arrives in triumph at above-average."

Candler was quoting me, and I cannot agree more.

Feb 07 19 2007


Rating movies is silly but it's also good fun. I don’t write much about the movies I see (see left column of the main page), but it's nice to offer a quick opinion.

Weblogs need a different rating scale from that used by newspaper critics. The newspaper is going to review everything that gets released, and so the critic is going to watch a lot of obscure and idiotic movies you’ll never see. When planning your own viewing, you have time to be selective — and you’re not likely to watch nearly as many films as, say, Roger Ebert.

Here's my current thinking:

  • Great: one of the best movies ever made
    • Apocalypse Now, Some Like It Hot
  • One of the very best movies of its kind ever made, or a nearly great movie
    • Mullholland Drive, Tootsie
  • A fine movie, well worth seeing, or an essential movie for people who are interested in this kind of movie.
    • Run Silent, Run Deep; Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Blog categories fall apart because they’re incidental. A post doesn’t exist in order to be categorized.

In the heat of the moment, we forget to put some posts in the right category. We forget to put some posts in any category at all. We can't decide which categories to choose — and so everything ends up turning miscellaneous.

Or, we say, "I'll sort these out later.” We all know how that turns out!

The answer, I think, is simple:

  • let the blog do a lot of the categorizing for you
  • make it easy to remind yourself what you want to revisit
  • avoid premature commitment

Scott Johnson is doing something similar for photography at Ookles. Nobody is as thorough about labeling and tagging their snapshots as they ought to be. But Ookles can deploy some good state-of-the-art face recognition: it can tell that this is a picture of Suzy and that's a picture of Terrence. So, it goes ahead and tags things for you. (And, I'm sure, there will be some handy way to tell it that, 'No, that's not Suzy, it's her long lost twin sister Suw! Who knew?!')

Tinderbox 3.6 introduces sets, which make it really easy to let agents assign things to categories for you. Agents search for notes that meet some criteria, such as "notes that are inside my archives, published in the last three years, and that mention Roger Ebert, David Mamet, or Louis Menand". Now, we can let agents automatically add and remove tags:


Adornments and containers can add and remove tags, too. Put something there, and it automatically gets metadata. Your pile of finished tasks can automatically add Complete and remove ToDo from the note's tags.

All this extends Tinderbox's role as a spreadsheet of ideas, and makes it much easier to keep categories alive and reasonable consistent. There will always be edge cases: this post mentions Mamet but it's not really about the theater, just as Suw isn’t really Suzy but merely looks like her. But getting things roughly right is much better than giving up.

I expect this is especially important for high-volume pro bloggers. Good, focussed categories are good ad targets, so they should be good revenue enhancers. But you don't have a stable of tame indexers categorizing every bit of gossip of about The Valley or the next Apple gizmo! If an occasional post is indexed somewhat fancifully, the readers and advertisers will soon forgive you. But everyone has archives, and we all should use our archives to greater effect.

Roger Ebert's annotated list of Four Star Movies of 2006 is out.

  • Akeelah and the Bee
  • Army of Shadows
  • Bubble
  • The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
  • 49 Up
  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • L'Enfant
  • Man Push Cart
  • Marie Antonette
  • Overlord
  • A Prairie Home Companion
  • The Proposition
  • The Queen
  • Three Times
  • Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
  • Tsotsi
  • United 93
  • Volver

I've seen only one: Bubble. A few more are in my queue, and after reading Ebert I've added some more.

It's a problem, though. I work until 7 or 8 (that's 19:00 or 20:00 for those of you who are following along at home in Europe). Cooking dinner takes an hour or two. Weeknights, there's not much time for a movie.

So far this year (see left), I've seen 40 movies. That's not enough to keep in touch with all the great new art that is appearing, much less make inroads into the lists of films I ought to have seen. This will, I think, require a deliberate effort and some planning.

Ebert didn't much like The Sisters. I see his point. Even watching the film unfold in the setting of the contemporary faculty club, you feel chill wind of the steppes. These are Russians, transplanted to New York.

But never mind that: this is a wonderful workshop piece, a chance for a bunch of superb actors to their stuff. Lots of range, lots of depth, and tons of acting against the grain. It's like coming early to a ballgame to watch batting practice. Some wonderful readings, and fine writing.

Oct 06 5 2006

Before Sunset

What a wonderful dramatic experience! You've got to see Linklater's Before Sunset. But first, of course, you have to see Before Sunrise. And I think you've got to wait a while -- weeks, at least, perhaps a few years -- before you see Before Sunset.

Buffy and Babylon 5 naturally unfold over the course of years. Both get great power from the way the characters age, and even more power from the the gradual unfolding of narrative over a long span of time. But Linklater's doing something else here: resuming a discussion ten years later, a smart discussion among smart, interesting, and plausible people within a sentimental framework that they choose themselves while simultaneously refusing to indulge in sentiment.

Talking about Art with composer Michael Druzinsky a while ago, I was saying nice things about My Dinner with André and he pointed out that the flaw is simply André: it's a great film about a conversation, but the conversation in the film is really not everything you might wish. Julie Delpy's Celine is perfect, not only because she gets the character exactly right through long, long shots, but because she's talking about difficult, everyday things with realistic insight and intelligence.

Ebert: 'Before Sunset' is a remarkable achievement in several ways, most obviously in its technical skill. It is not easy to shoot a take that is six or seven minutes long, not easy for actors to walk through a real city while dealing with dialogue that has been scripted but must sound natural and spontaneous. Yet we accept, almost at once, that this conversation is really happening. There's no sense of contrivance or technical difficulty.

Roger Ebert writes:

In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to.
Apr 06 25 2006

Ebert on Altman

A compendium of Roger Ebert's writing on Robert Altman. Cool.

Ebert's colleague Jim Emerson offers a list of 101 102 films people really should see. Lists are pernicious, but the underlying idea of an informal canon or curriculum makes sense. And it's important to see, as well, that it's a big canon -- big enough that Emerson forgot Apocalypse Now! and had to expand the list. (People seem to be having fun with the 'how many have you seen' meme: my rough count is 77)

People who want to disparage weblogs like to say that they're full of dull trivia. "I ate a cheese sandwich."

Let's take a look at the craft of the weblog, by looking at the craft of that cheese sandwich. How can the cheese sandwich matter? How can it be interesting?

First, it might be an excellent cheese sandwich. I had a very fine bleu cheese the other night at AOC, a mild and creamy bleu from a small farmhouse cheese maker in Minnesota, served with a nicely fresh and crusty baguette. Food blogging has been immensely successful and influential. We're in the midst of a food writing revolution, a new way of thinking about food, and blogs and other forums are leading the way.

Second, eating a cheese sandwich might be a notable accomplishment. After a long convalescence from surgery, I actually ate a cheese sandwich. Or, the cheese sandwich might affirm or reject a longstanding habit or prejudice: though you all know that on moral grounds I have always despised all meat and dairy products, yesterday -- defying my physician, my ancestors, and sneering at hell's bells -- I ate a cheese sandwich.

The cheese sandwich may be the conventional occasion for an extraordinary event. Yesterday, I was eating my usual cheese sandwich and Roger Ebert came into the sandwich shop and sat across from me and we had a long talk about Pauline Kael.

The cheese sandwich may be a symbol or emblem, standing concretely for an abstraction. This need not be a grand or remote literary effect; indeed, much food writing is not precisely about food at all, but rather uses the food and our feelings about it to approach even deeper subjects in ways that, if addressed directly, might seem merely sentimental.

sad thoughts on the love that got away on the plate that time forgot -- Adam Gopnik

The cheese sandwich might identify a place and time, situating a story specifically in order to help us believe. The Sunday bagel and cream cheese in the Bronx, or the elaborately-garnished, thin slices of seven-grain organic bread and imported low-fat Havarti wolfed down at a desk in Hollywood, can matter beyond the bread and cheese.

Feb 06 11 2006


There are two trucks parked outside the hotel from a company that provides a mobile espresso bar for film, television, and commercial shooting.

Next time someone tells you that computer games are bigger than the movies, think about this. How many people make a living from catering to game designers?

(Another clue: you can probably name 50 or 100 people, off the top of your head, who live off movies. Try it. Lauren Bacall. Alyson Hannigan. Deborah Winger. Stephen Spielberg. Roger Ebert. Leonard Nimoy. Joss Whedon. I don't really know anything about movies; you can do this standing on your head. Now, name 100 people in computer games. Name ten. )

The summary of Ebert's review of Final Destination 3 - concludes that the film is

Relentless, formulaic, nihilistic, but the filmmakers have an affective visual style....

Odds are, this is just a blunder, but an "affective visual style" is not inconceivable and might be a clever and funny shorthand for what Ebert says in his review.

Robert McLachlan, do an especially good job of evoking a creepy sense of menace on a carnival midway. Has there ever been a carnival midway in a movie that didn't look like a sadomasochistic nightmare? The rides look fatal, the sideshows look like portals to hell...

This is probably just an editorial enormity but it might be a clever coup. It's hard to know.

Feb 06 10 2006

Hyperlink movie

Jason Kottke has an interesting metareview of Syriana, examining Roger Ebert's speculation that Syriana is a "hyperlink movie".

Today's instalment in Ebert's Great Movies is My Fair Lady, and he is in fine form.

It is unnecessary to summarize the plot or list the songs; if you are not familiar with both, you are culturally illiterate, although in six months I could pass you off as a critic at Cannes, or even a clerk in a good video store, which requires better taste.

And, deliciously,

That Hepburn did not do her own singing obscures her triumph, which is that she did her own acting.

My Netflix queue has 45 things in it; last year around this time, it had 49.

The queue is a great idea. I can add movies to the queue whenever I read about a movie and decide I want to see it. Often, I'll read about it before it's released on DVD; the queue will remember.

The problem is, simply, that it would take 18 months for me to exhaust the queue. In practice, movies show up in the mail of which I've never heard. Today, it was Tully. What's this? Ebert liked it; maybe that's how it wound up on the list. Beats me.

A better solution would be to make a note about why I'm adding the movie. "Ebert liked it", or "Jennifer Jason Leigh", or "early Altman". I could put the note in Netflix, if they added the feature. Or I could just write it in my Tinderbox daybook.

Does Netflix have an API? It might be handy if we could write a Tinderbox macro that would let you request a movie from Tinderbox.

Connecting to web services is one of the things we've been learning to do better as part of Flint -- the new Tinderbox weblog assistant. Flint is currently in thrill-seeker's release; one user just wrote to say that 'Flint is absolutely brilliant! I didn't actually get much sleep last night, as I was plugging away and experimenting with it 'til the sun came up.'

Has anyone mentioned that Me and You and Everyone We Know is perhaps the first feature film to be about the digital art world? (Ebert)

It's about a lot of things -- movies about art always are -- but you can read this complex (and fine) film as an extended discussion of digital media and its discontents. We've got a curator, of course, and a video artist. The video artist, Christine, is played by Miranda July, the film's writer and director. We've got chat rooms (done much better here than in Closer) where people describe what they want, although it turns out that the 7-year-old isn't the only participant in the chat who has no idea what he's talking about. We've got disintermediation, including hamburger wrappers in art installation. We've got re-mediation in spades, ranging from lewd suggestions pasted in the window to a framed bird portrait hidden in a tree to a portrait of me and you and everyone we know, executed in periods and semi-colons.

I find that Roger Ebert usually dashes straight to the crucial point of a film, but I think perhaps he's slightly astray with Pawel Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love. It's a very good movie -- I think everyone agrees with that. And Ebert is exactly right about the pacing:

The movie is sweet and languid when the girls are together... Pawel Pawlikowski, the director and co-writer (with Michael Wynne), wisely allows then time to seem to flow, instead of pushing it.

And he's right that, despite appearances, this is not about anyone's discovery of sexual identity.

The title of 'My Summer of Love' gives away two games at once: That she will fall in love, and that autumn will come.

This is not the story of two girls in love, and it's not Fucking Amål, and it seems incidental that the two girls are two girls.

But it's not: you couldn't remake it as boy meets girl, the way you could make a straight It Happened On Night, or a gay Some Like It Hot. This is a story that only works the way it's told; what seems incidental is unexpectedly essential.

Ebert's review sets up the expectation that it's all about the ending. It is, yes, and yet it isn't: there isn't a real twist. Not only has everything in the denoument has been established, it's been so well established that the surprise isn't surprising until the story over and you realize how that wasn't what you expected but it's what you should have expected.

My Summer Of Love
Nov 05 6 2005

On A Curve

Lazy managers (and the consultants who abet them) would like to believe that information overload creates a dire threat -- that too much information leads to bad decisions. Even in casual decision-making, abundant information leads to so much improvement that it's going to transform the way we all spend time and think about art.

When I started, almost five years ago, to jot down the movies I've seen in the margins of this page, I thought it might be nice to distinguish the movies I liked from those I didn't. At the time, I expected a simple scale would work:

worse....bad....good....even better...really good

A "really good" movie might be Apocalypse Now or Casablanca or Buffy Season 3 -- a movie that you're likely to want to see many times, a movie that obviously changes the way you look at movies. In some years, no new movie is "really good" -- but because we've got many years of backlog, it's still a useful category. A "good" movie would then be one of the best movies that appear in a year. A bad movie eats time; a movie that is worse is pernicious.

This scale worked then; it doesn't work now. I've seen seven consecutive "good" movies. How can this be?

In 2000, I patronized a pokey neighborhood rental store and asked the clerk with the purple hair what she liked. I browsed the shelves and read the ad copy. Friends sometimes mentioned a movie.

In 2005, I've got a Netflix list a mile long, I've got IMDB and Ebert on the Web, and I've got plenty of weblogs (and readers of this page) to advise me. I see roughly the same number of movies -- this is a down year, but that's just a side-effect of Tinderbox for Windows -- but I'm much less likely to see a movie that's going to be really bad. The result is that there's almost no useful information in the ratings.

The Guide Michelin started out as tech doc for motorists, including whether the food at various roadside places was worth a stop, or even worth going a little further down the road if you could spare the time. All the 'good' movies are worth an hour or two, and if I've got a lot of 'good' movies in a row, well, it makes the long Fall evenings a little warmer.

Does having Ebert on tap -- even though he writes in Chicago and I live in Boston -- make my decisions worse? Of course not. Does it hurt to have a complete run of The New Yorker film reviews on DVD? Nope. Does IMDB make me more, or less, likely to add a good movie to the list? Sure, I can waste time trying to choose a movie to watch; we can always find ways to complain about opportunities to waste time.

The managerial fantasy that hard work and thorough study are inferior to intuition and innate character is silly.

Oct 05 18 2005


Roger Ebert is right when we reports that the atmosphere and language of David Auburn's Proof is exactly right, that when a professor delivers a eulogy he speaks precisely as professors on such occasions do, and that when a theoretical physicist flirts at a mathematician's wake, he speaks and drinks the way theoretical physicists do.

What's odd, though, and what seems not to have been much discussed, is that Proof can't really be about the discovery of a great proof. The proof is obviously a stand-in for a play, or perhaps a novel: we're not talking about mathematicians here, but writers.

We know this because, in this play (and now in this very fine movie), people care deeply about who created the proof but aren't much exercised about the proof itself. They care about the trappings -- publications, conferences, interviews -- that the proof could bring, but nobody seems to mention that an important new proof must open new avenues for research, new horizons for investigation. Even if the conclusion has been anticipated, the novel methods used to achieve the proof must provide many new opportunities. We should, in short, be in a terrible rush to find out what the proof lets us do today that nobody could do before.

We also have a worrisome and false note when Catherine, who claims to have written the proof and might not be deluded, expects her new lover to accept her authorship because she asserts it -- to believe her, to have faith. They're both mathematicians and they're both grownups, and faith has nothing to do with it. What evidence can we adduce? How can we prove it? A subtext here, running against a tacked-on theme of the play, is that the beautiful, emotionally-fragile, lovable and very female Catherine is really not fit to be a real mathematician: women, after all, want to be believed for their own sake, and if this unfits them for the brutal world of math and science, vive la differénce.

That said, it's pitch-perfect and place-perfect, and the film is wonderfully acted.

Sep 05 6 2005

Great Movies II

by Roger Ebert

In the next few months, some of us may have some extra time on our hands, waiting to go home. There's lots of work to be done, but not everybody can work, and nobody can work all the time. No doubt, a lot of movies will be watched. (Are they showing movies in the Astrodome?)

Roger Ebert's second volume of great movies is a wonderful idea. This isn't a compendium of old reviews or a silly list of the best movies. Instead, we have a chance to sit with a great and experienced critic as he revisits another 100 fine movies.

That doesn't mean 100 perfect movies: simply, 100 movies he'd hate not to see at least one more time. Ebert's got fascinating taste and broad interests, so we have a mix of eras and styles. He's willing to see a flawed movie (Birth of a Nation, West Side Story) and to enjoy its virtues without overlooking -- or having the experience ruined by -- the shortcomings. From Fellini to Saturday Night Fever (which was Gene Siskel's favorite movie -- who would have thought it?) to My Neighbor Totori, Ebert finds unexpected delights everywhere. He's interested in acting here, in direction there, in cinematography, in influence.

It's a wonderful mix.

Books like this are important, too, because they help us think about how we choose to spend our time. (A few years ago, Ebert came down with salivary cancer; perhaps these volumes, in part, are a response to the way that experience made him think about spending his own time) It's easy to say, "I really ought to see the 100 greatest movies." It's actually not too hard to do, now that movies are so easy to rent. But you've got to think about it, and you've got to set aside the time, and you've got to decide to do it.

Apr 05 11 2005

Sin City

Yes, it's visually wild. Yes, it's beautiful and violent and very, very strange. And yes, I agree with Ebert when he writes that Sin City "uses nudity as if the 1970s had survived."

He captions the opening shot, "There are a million stories in Sin City, and this is several of them." That's even better than it looks, because the opening and closing scenes don't obviously cohere with the rest of the (tangled, braided, convoluted) plot.

A very interesting aspect of this fine little movie is that it's inherently a film. It's hard to see it working in any other medium, but not for the usual reasons. (Ebert } Netflix)| rotten tomatoes)

When I Will Be Loved

It wouldn't be hard to stage: almost all the action takes place in Vera's (Neve Campbell) New York loft apartment. But, though the story is classic Mamet territory, the dialogue isn't where things happen here. Vera is wonderful but wonderfully opaque. She doesn't say much, and nobody knows what she's thinking. Campbell's performance needs closeups, and also needs James Toback's knack of composing a shot at greater distance than you'd normally expect, isolating the character in the environment. Plus, you need the Bach. You couldn't do this onstage.

Vera's sympathetic, lovable opacity would be hard to do in prose, too. Not impossible, perhaps, but very difficult. Nobody in this story has an interior life. Well, perhaps the 69-year-old Italian media mogul whose indecent proposal is the dramatic hinge has an interior life, but nobody wants to know about it, least of all him.

The IMDB page has lots of comments, almost all idiotic. The tendency of open, electronic media to make intelligent people sound like pretentious preteens is a phenomenon that demands serious study.

On Christmas, we go with friends to the movies. For three years, we saw Lord of the Rings. This year, we saw Sideways. It's a good little movie; don't let the reviews fool you into expecting a big movie.

This year, I've seen about 29 movies. I'll probably add two more on New Years Eve. Only three seem to have been in theaters; that surprises me.

Last year, I saw 32 movies, 6 of them in theaters. In 2002, I saw 37 -- about ten of them in theaters.

  • I'm going to the theater less. Partly, it's an effect of more live theater. Partly, it's probably a mix of more travel and Linda's coursework. Perhaps the kitchen renovation has something to do with it. Whatever the cause, though, if I didn't have the list, I wouldn't know I'd changed.
  • I'm probably not really seeing fewer movies. The mean for three years is about 33 movies a year; as a rule of thumb, you wouldn't be surprised to see a random fluctuation from year to year of sqrt(33)=5.75.
  • My Netflix Queue currently holds 49 movies. That's an 18 month backlog.

But the big question is: how many movies should I watch in a year?

On the one hand, I don't have to watch a lot of movies. I'm not a film critic, many industries affect new media at least as significantly as Hollywood. Watching film takes time.

On the other hand, there's lots of great film, and it's good to know what's going on in the world. Take Ebert's 100 Great Films: I bet I've seen fewer than half. And some of those I saw many years ago.

How many films did you see this year? How many should you want to see next year?

Response: Susan Mernit.

Today, I watched "I Capture The Castle" (Ebert), which is probably the worst movie I've seen in months.

It's a very good movie.

I think that's interesting. I was looking at my recent movie notes (bottom of the left column), and said to myself, "Mark, you're getting very generous!" But, when you come right down to it, these are good movies.

It seems I've seen about 24 movies this year -- I'm counting TV serial seasons as a single movie here. Some, I think, have been memorably great. Some have merely been very, very good. And when the worst movies you can point to all year are Auto Focus and Harry Potter, well, that's not so bad.

The impact of videos, of course, makes a big difference. Netflix, too, has mattered by reducing the impact of not having a good rental place. The Netflix queue is a valuable way to plan and prioritize your viewing intelligently; I watch fewer action-films-of-the-moment these days, because there are so many interesting films waiting in the queue.

At current rates, I've got over a year of film viewing already in my queue. Oh dear.

Sep 04 9 2004

E Puzzles

The first page of the Globe today has a story about a huge puzzle that Google posted in the Harvard Square subway station.

{first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits of e}.com

Also puzzling me yesterday was email, telling me that Netflix had just dispatched Laurel Canyon to me. "What," I wondered, "is Laurel Canyon? " I checked IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, and read Ebert's review, but I couldn't qujite fathom why I wanted to see it. Then, serendipitiously, I found the answer on Flickwerk.

What a sweet little movie by Lisa Cholodenko. It is a movie about living your life, not allowing yourself to be tied down by the rules of family-expectation, career-requirements, childhood-wrongs etc. etc.... Laurel Canyon is slow and heavy and giggly like a late summer afternoon spent smoking pot by the pool, listening to guitar-pop with semi-deep lyrics.

When I decide to act on a movie suggestion, I put the movie right onto my Netflix list. It's another case of write it down: get the idea and the intention in concrete form, immediately. But I also need to write down the reason and context, or I won't understand why I'm doing what I'm doing.

For example, someone told me to get Terry Pratchett's Mort during Hypertext '04, but David Millard insists it was someone else entirely.

Feb 04 25 2004

Passion Spam

I've received six or more spam or quasi-spam ads for Mel Gibson's Passion, or tie-ins trying to leverage it. Including ads from Amazon and PalmGear .

One reason I noticed is that it's so rare to see spam that has any chance of succeeding. Almost all spam seems to advertise offers that only a fool would accept; why wouldn't spammers occasionally advertise something that you might possibly want to buy?

That's one reason the Passion spam is surprising: I probably won't see Passion, but it's not as impossible as half the spam suggestions I receive. Passion sounds too violent for me. Ebert, who liked it, writes:

The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen.

The experience of watching this movie sounds so unpleasant that I don't think I shall -- even though I'd like to judge for myself on the subject of the film's anti-semitism.

Still, it's not inconceivable that I'd see this movie, so it's surprising to get spam about it. Conversely, it's quite possible that people will be offended to receive ads suggesting they see it, which makes one wonder what Palm and Amazon were thinking.

Jan 04 1 2004

Making a list

I watched about 33 movies last year. Most of them were pretty good. I know this because I have a little corner of my Tinderbox weblog where I jot down their titles. Why do I do this?

It's good to know what you're doing. Thirty-one movies sounds like a lot of movies. Especially when some are very long: Band of Brothers runs ten hours, a season of Buffy runs about 14 hours. But it's not. For example, I've been thinking that it would be good thing to have seen all of Ebert's 100 Great Films. But, if we figure that at least ten movies a year are must-see new releases, that project either requires a lot more movie time or a five year plan.

It's easy. All it takes is a moment to open the note named movies and add a line.

^do(movieGood,Finding Nemo)

It's good to look back, too. Adaptation and The Apartment and Picnic at Hanging Rock seem so long ago. It was only last January. Tempus fugit.

Oct 03 19 2003


(Revised) In his weblog, Gregg Easterbrook (a journalist who should know better) foolishly singled out greedy Jewish studio executives as responsible for a violent movie, Kill Bill, that Easterbrook disliked. (Lots of people liked the movie; Ebert thinks it's brilliant.)

His story is a distillation of the universe of martial arts movies, elevated to a trancelike mastery of the material. Tarantino is in the Zone.

Easterbrook's debacle illustrates one great hazard of the weblog: without an editor, you can publish stupid, hurtful, career-ending words before you realize you're making a terrible mistake. It can be good to Find Good Enemies, but it's never good to merely embarrass yourself.

Don Park, in his own weblog, suggests that "Semitism [sic] seems to have a very powerful forcefield that protects it". This, to sensitive ears, echoes the belief in a Global Jewish Conspiracy . Some of the comments are worse.

There's no need to invent a Jewish conspiracy to explain why ESPN would be eager to fire Easterbrook. Remember a former ESPN employee named Limbaugh?

Dave Winer offers a good perspective. So do Gillmor  and Hawkins. Joshua Micah Marshall offers a convincing and reasonably sympathetic appraisal of Easterbrook -- one I find convincing.

"Try as I might to explain to myself how Easterbrook could have unwittingly walked into such an unfortunate formulation, I still find it a bit difficult. What was he thinking? I go back and forth. I’m not sure.

"Jews have some license to engage in intra-communal polemic along these lines, just as blacks do within their own community. Gentiles don't."

I think this is a textbook example, incidentally, of the danger of weblog comments. I'm now convinced that comments are the usenet of weblogs.

It's really very simple. All through Europe, you walk through neighborhoods and towns and farmlands where millions of Jewish children used to play. Those kids were killed, often by their neighbors, because their ancestors were Jews. Because their neighbors whispered at night that the Jews were rich, were powerful, that they controlled everything.

You can hear echoes of those neighbors today, in your neighbors' weblogs.

Roger Ebert denounces a scheme to reduce the number of independent films that get Academy Award nominations under the rubric of preventing piracy.

Jul 03 5 2003

Mystic Pizza

When Mystic Pizza came out in 1988, Roger Ebert gave is 3.5 stars and wrote

I have a feeling that "Mystic Pizza" may someday become known for the movie stars it showcased back before they became stars.

Good call, since the old-sister sidekick is Julia Roberts. Plus, 40 seconds of kid-brother from a kid who would grow up to be Matt Damon.

Apr 03 14 2003


Everyone remembers "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Ebert, interestingly, chooses Network among his 100 great movies. (I'm slowly and unsystematically revisiting these, but it's a daunting project)

One remarkable aspect of this 1976 Hollywood movie is that it is an allegory, its characters know that they are symbols, and in the end the allegory leaks into real life to drive the action. "You are television," Max tells Diana as he leaves her. "There's nothing left in you I can live with."

I'm reminded of the Doonesbury cartoons about the infant Vietnamese refugee being flown to her adoptive parents in the USA. "You'd better not hurt me", the infant thinks, "I'm a symbol!" Meanwhile, Norwegian 6-year-olds are playing Americans and Iraqis.

Jan 03 19 2003


Adaptation is strange, curious, improbable little film. It belongs in the all-time hypertext film festival. Interesting double-feature with Wonder Boys. Fascinating double-feature with Mullholland Drive. Ebert, like everyone else, loved it.

Dec 02 24 2002

Block Buster

Ebert reminds us the Blockbuster Video is not on the side of the angels.

It's my belief that no true movie lover has any business going into Blockbuster in the first place, since its policies have done so much harm to modern American cinema. By refusing to handle NC-17 movies, Blockbuster has all but destroyed the freedom of American directors to make studio pictures intended for adults. At the same time, by killing the safety valve of the "adult" rating, Blockbuster has contributed to the downward leakage of unsuitable material into the R and PG-13 categories. Thus it corrupts youth while appearing sanctimonious.

Half-jokingly, at Hypertext 02 I suggested a Hypertext Conference film festival. The movies I had in mind were:

  • Memento
  • Sliding Doors
  • Run Lola Run

Today, I saw two more that we could add to the list:

  • Mulholland, Drive
  • Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

All five are fine movies, all help explain hypertext aesthetics, and all are deeply interesting narratives.

Readers have sent in their own nominees. We could have quite a festival!

  • Timecode (Eric Scheid)
  • Rashomon
  • Courage Under Fire
  • Blind Chance (Liz Klastrup)
  • Last Year in Marienbad (Liz Klastrup
  • The Saragossa Manuscript (Christian Crumlish)
  • Waking Life (Christian Crumlish)
  • Possible Worlds (Jamie Blustein)

Hypertext fiction could learn something from these films, too.

Ebert makes a lovely, tangential point about Mulholland. "One of the scenes also contains the funniest example of pure logic in the history of sex scenes."

Apr 02 26 2002

On Criticism

Greco is angry because so much hypertext criticism is small-minded and inept. It's also unreadable. It doesn't have to be.

Let's look at Ebert, taking on a terrible challenge: reviewing a mediocre movie that readers expect to be mediocre. What can you say about The Scorpion King?

"Of all the special effects in the movie, the most impressive are the ones that keep the breasts of the many nubile maidens covered to within one centimeter of the PG-13 guidelines. Hu, a beautiful woman who looks as if she is trying to remember the good things her agent told her would happen if she took this role, has especially clever long, flowing hair, which cascades down over her breasts instead of up over her head, even when she is descending a waterfall.

Did I enjoy this movie? Yeah, I did, although not quite enough to recommend it...

This isn't showy, but he makes a point about craft, and another point about the limits of craft, and we have fun reading it. Compare this to Scott Rettberg in EBR:

A hypertext novel, with its simple links, might map metaphorically to a relatively simple instrument, such as a flute or a guitar, while a VRML MOO complete with programmed AI avatars might map to something more along the lines of a pipe organ. Symphonies will be written, but before they are realized both writers and readers will need to figure out how to work with the many new instruments at hand.

Rettberg is reaching higher, and his horn won't hit the note. Ebert shows humor and sympathy to an actress caught in an difficult place and awkward costume, Rettberg is busy fluting his metaphor. Whether "mapping" is an apt metaphor or not, it's hard to care as much about it as we care for Ebert's actress. Is a pipe organ a complex instrument, compared to a guitar? In terms of polyphonicity, or difficulty of performance, or subtlety of repertoire, or what? What's the obsolete VRML doing here? After all those conditional verbs, who knows?

Rettberg can do better than this; look at his fiction. But this is one of the better parts of the essay. Elsewhere, he stumbles (as writers do) and his editors at EBR don't take the trouble to save him. For extra credit, listen to this muddled nostalgia for the good old school days of his youth which (since Mr. Rettberg is still in school) must have been more recent than he wants you to think.

Back in the day when William Gillespie and I were enrolled in David Foster Wallace's M.A. fiction writing workshop at Illinois State University, which at the time was chock-full of eager young postmodernists striving to subvert the work of their forbears, our discussion often circled back to the ideas - not to familiar workshop dictums about showing vs. telling - but to the problem of "showing off," and in the process "telling off" the reader. When we youngsters utilized techniques such as nonlinear narrative, disruptive shifts of discourse style mid-story, radical deconstruction of givens of traditional storytelling such as plot, character, and setting etc., Wallace usually reacted in a surprisingly negative, surprisingly conservative way....

Ebert gets it exactly right when he says,

The would-be lovers in "Kissing Jessica Stein" are not having sex, exactly, because of Jessica's skittish approach to the subject, but if they did, it would be a leisure activity like going to the movies. If it really meant anything to either one of them--if it meant as much as it does to the mother--the comedy would be more difficult, or in a different key. We can laugh because nothing really counts for anything. That's all right. But if Jessica Stein ever really gets kissed, it'll be another story.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this likable little movie is how easily it leads us through things that recently would have been titanic. It really views sex as a choice: nobody here would think of calling it the love that dare not speak its name because nobody thinks it's a big deal. Jessica Stein, her family, her friends and colleagues -- everyone (except her lover) is Jewish -- the movie is filled with closely observed, nuanced, varied profiles of American Jews. Again, the film treats this as no big deal. We've come a long way from The Little Foxes and Annie Hall.

Mar 02 29 2002


Roger Ebert makes wonderful, thoughtful points about art and film, even when dismissing a bad movie his readers are unlikely to see. Look at this opening paragraph:

"Only enormously talented people could have made 'Death to Smoochy.' Those with lesser gifts would have lacked the nerve to make a film so bad, so miscalculated, so lacking any connection with any possible audience. To make a film this awful, you have to have enormous ambition and confidence, and dream big dreams." (full review...)

Oct 01 27 2001

Waking Life

A gorgeous, animated lesson in philosophy. The obvious comparison is My Dinner with André, but Linda's suggested double-feature is Heathers. Wonderful painting, some lovely poetic moments, and plenty to talk about. Ebert (****), Rotten Tomatoes (82%), movie site.

Sep 01 22 2001

Fear itself

Cameron Barrett in {Fray}: "At that moment I realized that the terrorist attacks weren't just an attack on America, they were an attack on the world.... I am an American, and I am not afraid to fly.

Dave Winer: "From the US, it's damned simple. We don't want our cities to get nuked. It's probably going to happen anyway. Then, what? If not now, when?

Rogert Ebert: Make it green. " If there is to be a memorial, let it not be of stone and steel. Fly no flag above it"

Sep 01 5 2001


Whatever you think about movies, Roger Ebert is a master of the short essay. His reviews and columns are lively, readable, and compelling -- even if you don't much care about the movie in question. Ebert meets art on its own terms, without not trying to fit into ideoology or theory, he always remembers what movies (and Drama) is for, and he always considers carefully what the work is trying to do. This lets him write about ideas, not just about the best way to spend $8.50.

For interesting comparisons, visit the wonderful movie review compednium site, Much reviewing is silly or dishonest -- not just in Hollywood, but in New Media and academe as well.