2013 - %3, April

One More Reason to Miss Roger Ebert: His Love of Trash

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 7:15 PM EDT

Roger Ebert (center), with his wife Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert (left) and actress Nancy Kwan.

Chances are good that Roger Ebert, who died Thursday at age 70, was the first film critic you ever heard of. He was also the only one in recent memory to rate a eulogy from the White House: "For a generation of Americans—and especially Chicagoans—Roger was the movies," President Obama said in a statement released Thursday afternoon.

Ebert's decades as a critic in print and on television made him easily the most influential man in the business—and his ability to adapt in the rapidly changing landscape of news and media only made his dominance more evident. "A [Roger Ebert] tweet is worth as much traffic as a small Digg or YCombinator hit. Crazy. That's some distribution power," Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal observed last August.

Ebert passed away just days after announcing a "leave of presence" to deal with a recurrence of cancer. In 2006, Ebert had a near-death experience during surgery to remove cancerous tissue; following that operation, he lost his ability to speak and part of his lower jaw. He'd recently expressed a desire to devote more time to writing about his illness.

Beyond his career as a Pulitzer-winning movie critic, Ebert was an author (I recommend his excellent 2011 autobiography), a raging liberal (especially via social media), and a screenwriter (he wrote the 1978 Sex Pistols film Who Killed Bambi? that was junked after financing fell through). When a figure of this caliber leaves us, they inspire a deluge of praise, listicles, and remembrances; I will leave it up to you to choose the most comprehensive or definitive.

But what I will remember Ebert for is this: It is rare for a man of his influence and fame to so gleefully and unabashedly embrace (and I write this with the greatest enthusiasm) cinematic trash. No snobbery, no pretentiousness, and absolutely no shame in indulging in guilty pleasure—that's what impressed me the most about his criticism. His favorite films of all time were critically acclaimed gold mines like Werner Herzog's beautiful and notorious Aguirre, the Wrath of God or the 2011 Oscar-winning Iranian film A Separation. But he had a soft spot for popular garbage: Remember that ridiculous and disposable Vin Diesel action flick from 2002—the one so groggily titled XXX? If you don't remember, it's the Vin Diesel movie where Vin Diesel goes snowboarding in an avalanche. Here's an excerpt from Ebert's loving, nearly four-star review:

If Bond is a patriot, [Diesel's] Xander is a man who looks out only for No. 1, until Gibbons threatens him with prison unless he agrees to go to the Czech Republic and stop a madman with, yes, a plan to destroy and/or conquer the world. This villain, named Yorgi (Marton Csokas), apparently lives in the Prague Castle, which will come as a surprise to President Vaclav Havel. He's a renegade officer of the evil Czech Secret Service; the movie doesn't seem to know that the Cold War is over and Czechs are good guys these days, but never mind: The movie was shot on location in Prague, part of the current filmmaking boom in the republic, and the scenery is terrific.

[...]

Is "XXX" a threat to the Bond franchise? Not a threat so much as a salute. I don't want James Bond to turn crude and muscular on me; I like the suave style. But I like Xander, too, especially since he seems to have studied Bond so very carefully. Consider the movie's big set piece, totally in the 007 tradition, when Xander parachutes to a mountaintop, surveys the bad guys on ski-mobiles below, throws a grenade to start an avalanche, and then outraces the avalanche on a snowboard while the bad guys are wiped out. Not bad. Now all he has to work on is the kissing.

That's what did it for me: An earnest, glowing review of an inconsequential popcorn flick, and laced with political observation and a modest wit. Ebert's flair for this sort of thing lasted right up until the very end. And it's just one of the reasons why he is already sorely missed.

 

Front-page image credit: Jaimie Rodriguez/Globe Photos/ZUMA Press

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Film Review: Girl Model

| Wed Apr. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
girl models standing in a row

Girl Model

American Documentary/POV

78 minutes

In an industrial Siberian village, underwear-clad girls parade around a gymnasium as Ashley Arbaugh, a dead-behind-the-eyes model-turned-scout, recruits talent for a Japanese market ravenous for youth. One hot prospect is Nadya, a 13-year-old fawn of a girl who is uprooted to Tokyo and left to fend for herself. The unsettling film is made intimate in close-ups and confessionals by the obviously troubled Arbaugh, who lives in a nearly literal glass house and is frightened at night because anyone can peer in at her. Likewise, her models, lacking autonomy, never know where their pictures might end up, and just who might be looking at them.

Quick Reads: "Odds Against Tomorrow" by Nathaniel Rich

| Tue Apr. 2, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
book cover

Odds Against Tomorrow

By Nathaniel Rich

FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX

Did Nathaniel Rich see Sandy coming? His protagonist did. Rich's second novel follows Mitchell Zuckor, a perpetually fearful Wall Street quant whose lucrative niche is calculating the odds of worst-case scenarios—fires, floods, power grid collapses, pandemic viruses—and helping corporate clients plan for the unthinkable. When a hurricane inundates New York City, Zuckor embarks on a post-apocalyptic adventure in an objet d'art canoe bought at a gallery for 29 grand. It's fiction, thank heaven, but fiction with an edge: Zuckor's job description and his paranoid calculations are well grounded in reality, and Odds Against Tomorrow underscores the tenuous line between order and chaos.

Watch: Alan Lomax's Treasures Land on Ebay

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

If you're a fan of American roots and blues music, you owe Alan Lomax a big thank you. Lomax spent a lifetime, beginning in the 1940s, traversing the American south—not to mention England, the Caribbean, and many other places—armed with a tape recorder. His quarry: Folk music that had never been recorded before. In the course of his research, he discovered some of our most important folk musicians: Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Son House, to name a few. In time, these pickers and singers would go on to inspire everyone from the Beatles to Kurt Cobain to Jack White.

For decades, Lomax worked out of a suite of offices tucked into an ugly blue warehouse behind New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal. When he died in 2002 at the age of 87, his office became the Alan Lomax Archive, home to his vast collection of recordings, records, correspondence, and equipment. Most of his field recordings now live at the Library of Congress, but the archive still holds his personal caches. Now, the building is being sold and the archive is being forced to move across town to a smaller space. Director Don Fleming is faced with the difficult and delicate task of deciding what to keep—and what to put up for sale.

Additional production by James West

Click here for more music coverage from Mother Jones.

The 6 Weirdest Theories About "The Shining"

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Danny Torrance: Mind blown.

Stanley Kubrick's classic has been terrifying, thrilling, and utterly confusing fans for over 30 years, leaving viewers groping for answers. What really possessed Jack Torrance? Why did pathological perfectionist Kubrick leave in obvious continuity errors? What's up with the man-bear-pig? Obsessive fans are still trying to figure out exactly what went down at the Overlook Hotel, zealously poring over the placement of every prop and examining every frame of the film.

Room 237, a new documentary by Rodney Ascher, examines a handful of Shining conspiracy theories posited by both academic cinephiles and tormented laymen. Ascher has his own take—he sees the film as a Faustian homage, pointing to Jack's deal with the devil for just one glass of beer—but says all of these readings carry weight. "A lot of the ideas can be pretty outrageous, but when you're talking about a symbolic interpretation of a Freudian horror movie, even things on the surface are pretty crazy," Ascher said. Here are six of the strangest, most chilling theories about the true meaning of the Kubrick classic:

1. It's about the massacre of the American Indians.

Calumet The Shining
Scatman Crothers as Dick Halloran and a can of Calumet The Shining/photo illustration Maggie Caldwell

Stuart Ullman, the hotel's manager, gives the Torrance family a tour of the grounds just before vacating the Overlook for the winter and leaving them to their fate. He casually tosses out that the hotel just happens to sit atop an Indian burial ground. (Not like that's ever been a problem before.) The film is loaded with Native American symbology, from the Navajo wall hangings in the great room to the pantry stockpile of Calumet baking soda cans, all bearing the brand's iconic logo: a Native man in warrior headdress. The word "calumet," notes one theorist, means "ceremonial pipe," and the cans appear several times when characters are communicating telepathically with each other or plotting with the dead. According to this theory, Danny's infamous visions of gushing red liquid streaming from the elevators actually represents the souls buried deep beneath the hotel, with the elevator cabin dropping down into the basement like a bucket in a well, delivering a bounty of blood upon its return to the surface. Gross.