PostHeaderIcon When Movies Mattered

chi filmsWith the 47th edition of the Chicago Film Festival just ended, a new biography of legendary film critic, Pauline Kael, now in stores and the wave of holiday blockbusters about to break, it’s a good moment to write about movies.

As a location for movies production, Chicago has been a favored movie town since the mid-1980s. Many films, ranging from John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” and “The Untouchables” up to “Batman” and the recent “Transformers 3” used the city’s neighborhoods and landmarks as stunning visual backdrops.

For filmgoers who want to see serious films (made for adults rather than 14 year-olds), however, the situation is not as rosy. Compared  to New York and Los Angeles, the country’s two film capitals, Chicago remains an also-ran. The Chicago Film Festival in October and the Siskel Film Center’s European Film Festival each March are indispensable for staying in touch with new and established international filmmakers. The Music Box, Century Landmark and Facets Multimedia do a fine job screening the cream of the foreign and indie crop but many worthy films languish lacking distribution and never reach the Midwest.

Chicago excels, however, in its long roster of top-flight film critics; one, Roger Ebert, enjoys a reputation that spans the globe. Over the past year, The University of Chicago Press, in a gesture worthy of a publishing Oscar, has issued books honoring three of the finest—Ebert, Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

David Kehr's book

David Kehr's book

Kehr and Rosenbaum’s books collect a generous sample of past reviews and essays in hardcover, according them a well-deserved second life. These two critics revisit an era (roughly 1980 to 2005) radically different from the present, providing Chicago moviegoers, especially those born after 1980, with valuable historical insight on that period’s directors and cinematic high points.

My own awakening to film with foreign films by now-iconic directors occurred in the 1960s. That was a period many consider cinema’s “Golden Age.”  From the age of 17 to 35, I spent countless hours in the dark at Greenwich Village and Upper West Side movie houses in NY and at the American Film Institute theater in D.C. catching each new release by Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. This was also the period when a new generation of daring American filmmakers—Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Jonathan Demme—made groundbreaking films. Movies then seemed more important. We went to see them, argued over them and formed personal opinions about their worth, a rarer feat nowadays.

A Changed World

Kehr and Rosenbaum pick up the action one generation removed from that cinematic renaissance. Reading their books makes one aware how much film culture has changed in the interval since my youth. Both critics spill much ink analyzing movies from the director’s perspective (according to French auteur theory at the time, the director is a film’s most important player)

Today, the focus turns on the opening weekend’s box-office receipts. In place of once lengthy essays, many critics now dash off capsule reviews or cast thumbs in judgment. And the internet has produced what Rosenbaum says is not two versions (paper vs. online) of criticism but two separate enterprises.

During earlier times, critics at major papers and magazines enjoyed wide sway with readers and studio execs. Ebert began his career at the Sun-Times while the appearance of alternative weeklies (like The Reader) opened the process to newcomers like Kehr and Rosenbaum at The Village Voice in New York and abroad.

Kehr, the Reader’s first film critic from 1974 to 1986, enjoyed the luxury of editorial space, allowing him to write long-form essays, a practice Rosenbaum, his successor, carried on until 2008.

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Jonathan Rosenbaum

Only specialized film journals carry lengthy critiques today. Kehr laments that more than words have been lost. “When a format disappears, sometimes a way of thinking disappears with it.” Rosenbaum thinks that while cinema, meaning the viewing of films in movie houses, is dying, the current explosion of movies and criticism on the internet or in DVD form (“cinephilia”) can be a welcome development.

While the two critics wrote for The Reader, I often found their choice of films too esoteric and their writing too insider for my taste. Yet, as I read both Kehr and Rosenbaum decades later, I realized that the fault lay mainly with my less-advanced  knowledge of film figures and technique back then.

Some of the most satisfying moments came when I discovered my highly favorable opinion of the 1977 film, “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000” was shared by Kehr or my admiration for four prominent directors, Jean Renoir, Alain Tanner, Wim Wenders and Jonathan Demme was reinforced.

Rosenbaum’s writing is the more challenging writer. However, essays such as “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia”, “The American Cinema Revisited” and “Film Writing on the Web” contained many cogent observations. To be fair, I’ll let Ebert have the last word. He calls Rosenbaum “a great film critic and I’ve learned so much over the years from his wise writing.”

An Inspiring Cinephile

Roger Ebert_a_p

Roger Ebert

Ebert has long been recognized as one of America’s top film critics. Unfortunately, his health travails have dominated news in recent years. In his new anthology, “The Big Movies 3,” the qualities that earned him a Pulitzer Prize are on full display: a love for movies of every stripe, an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, an amazing ability for visual detail combined with articulate writing delivered in a conversational tone.

For this volume, as with the two earlier titles in the series, Ebert, every two weeks, sat at his table and crafted 100 new essays, all while undergoing chemotherapy treatments; a true profile in courage. I’m sure viewing the DVDs of these favorites a second or third time energized him.

These 100 are not the greatest films of all time, he claims, since he finds such lists “foolish.” Rather, they are movies to which he reacted passionately. He brings each film to life, casting his net as far back as the 1936 “My Man Godfrey” and up to the recent “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006).

The essays’ value lies not only in helping us relive our own memories but in supplying a handy Netflix list of memorable films we missed on the first go-round.

My shopping list contains Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole”, Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight”, Renoir’s “The River”, Kenzi Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” and Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and “Me and Orson Welles”.

While I intend to catch some holiday releases in the Cineplex over the next six weeks, staying home with a good bottle of wine or champagne watching those classics work their magic may be the better choice.

Check these out:

Roger Ebert—The Great Movies III

Dave Kehr—When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade

Jonathan Rosenbaum—Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition

All published by University of Chicago Press, www.press.UChicago.edu

Note: Readers can rent these titles from the publisher in e-book format for 30 days viewing for just $7.

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