Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 44: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) is referenced in Life Itself: Because Ebert wrote the screenplay for the film himself in collaboration with sexploitation director Russ Meyer, the title is referenced several times throughout the book. On page 212 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls that “Although Meyer had been signed to a three-picture deal by Fox, I wonder whether he didn’t suspect that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls might be his only shot at employing the resources of a studio at the service of his pop universe of libinous, simplistic creatures. Meyer wanted everything in the screenplay except the kitchen sink. The movie, he explained, should be simultaneously a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick, and a moralistic expose of what the opening crawl called ‘the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business.'”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never officially “reviewed” the film, since he wrote it himself, but he did make the following observation in a piece written for Film Comment to commemorate its tenth anniversary in 1980 – “Remembered after 10 years, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls seems more and more like a movie that got made by accident when the lunatics took over the asylum. At the time Russ Meyer and I were working on BVD I didn’t really understand how unusual the project was. But in hindsight I can recognize that the conditions of its making were almost miraculous. An independent X-rated filmmaker and an inexperienced screenwriter were brought into a major studio and given carte blanche to turn out a satire of one of the studio’s own hits. And BVD was made at a time when the studio’s own fortunes were so low that the movie was seen almost fatalistically, as a gamble that none of the studio executives really wanted to think about, so that there was a minimum of supervision (or even cognizance) from the Front Office.”

I’ve already written extensive praise for the Roger Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, way back in our first year of blogging for this site. I even singled it out as my favorite film from legendary schlockteur Russ Meyer, a dirty old man whose bonkers version of smut is admittedly something I admire more than I should. Not much has changed in my opinion of the film in the four years since I first reviewed it; it’s still the exact type of go-for-broke, sex-crazed nonsense I crave when I’m searching for gems in the trash. Something has changed about the film itself, though: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is now a Disney-owned property, thanks to the company’s recent terrifying acquisition of 20th Century Fox. This is now Walt’s happening and it freaks me out. In an age where gigantic companies like Disney, Amazon, and Apple are gobbling up the entire market of film distribution, I can’t help but worry about the future of weirdo smut like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Along with fellow X-rated disasterpiece Myra Breckenridge, this is a film that only exists because of a fluke fad when 20th Century Fox attempted to crash in on the loose moral boundaries of The Sex Revolution, back when porn was threatening to go mainstream. A half-century later, we’ve somehow backslid into more protective, Puritanical attitudes toward sexual content, all in the name of being Family Friendly. Major blockbusters are being scrubbed of all overt sexuality so they can be broadly exported to all foreign markets; Apple has been hands-on in censoring sex & violence during production of televised content for its upcoming streaming platform Apple+; human trafficking laws like SESTRA have been used as a flimsy excuse to boot porn from social media sites like Tumblr (and sex workers from the internet entirely); and now the squeakiest of squeaky clean corporate conglomerates own the rights to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Of course, there’s a deliciously transgressive quality to Russ Meyer’s tongue-in-cheek exposé on “the oft-times nightmare world of Show Business” now being in the same canon as Family Friendly #content like Frozen & Moana. By Ebert’s description, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is “a camp exploitation action horror musical that ends in a quadruple murder & a triple wedding,” which might instantly qualify it as the most fascinating specimen in Disney’s collection. Written in a sweaty six-week rush, Ebert & Meyer’s vision of the Hollywood party scene is a nonstop hedonist orgy where “everybody’s a freak.” They pack the screen with every boundary-testing transgression they can muster: open homosexuality, rampant drug abuse, suicide, abortion, public sex, mocking spoofs of the still-recent Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate; etc. Its enigmatic antagonist is an intersex maniac who collects a coterie of horned-up acid freaks and announces things like, “You will drink the back sperm of my vengeance!” Unapologetically horny women recruit potential sex partners with come-ons like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d love to strap you on sometime.” Meyer described his approach in this full-on, shameless commitment to hedonistic excess as “a punishing rhythm, pummeling the audience,” but even in all of that sensory overload you can clearly make out Ebert & Meyer’s personal, shared fetishistic fixations: mainly gigantic breasts (like, comically large) & classic car grills. This film is everything Disney’s boardroom-directed Cinematic Properties aim to avoid: shameless, alienating smut with deeply problematic moral implications & intimate insights into the personal ids of its creators. That’s why it’s both fascinating and terrifying that it’s now under their control – a conundrum that I’m sure will only become more frequent as they gobble up more of the market.

Ebert gradually distanced himself from the delirious smut of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as he grew older & more tempered (and, not to mention, sober), but I doubt he or Meyer would have been happy with this film landing in Disney’s greedy, culture-crushing hands. One of the wildest indulgences of the film involves 20th Century’s Fox’s theme music scoring a violent beheading during the climactic pansexual orgy, and Ebert’s “Screenplay By” title card accompanies one of the sleaziest images in the film to follow: a sleeping woman forcibly fellating a gun. No matter how much he gradually cleaned up his act, I don’t believe that anti-corporate, pro-provocation rebelliousness ever left him, certainly not enough to support Disney’s flagrant disregard for anti-Trust laws. As thing are, Disney owns adult-oriented platforms like Hulu in addition to its planned “family friendly” Disney+ platform arriving later this year, so I don’t’ think they’ll be locking Beyond the Valley of the Dolls away in the dreaded Disney Vault anytime soon. It’s scary how much transgressive art they could lock away if they chose to do so, though, especially considering how far outside their usual parameters over-the-top smut like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls gleefully treads. At the very least, I doubt they’ll be greenlighting many feverishly over-sexed, direct-from-the-id visions like this in the foreseeable future, and the more screenspace they eat up around the globe the duller the world will be for trash-gobblers like us.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 43: Ikiru (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Ikiru (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 160 of the first edition hardback, Ebert remarks that “Home video is both the best and the worst thing that has happened on the movie beat since I’ve been a critic.” He appreciates home video’s increased access to older films and its economic incentive for film restoration & preservation, but he also believes it to be inferior to a proper theatrical experience, especially for film students. He explains, “Viewing via video has destroyed the campus film societies, which were like little shrines to cinema. If the film society were showing Kurosawa’s Ikiru for a dollar and there was nothing else playing except the new releases at first-run prices, you went to Ikiru and then it was forever inside of you, a great film. Today, students rent videos, stream them online, or watch them on TV, and even if they watch a great movie, they do it alone or with a few friends. There is no sense of audience, and yet an important factor in learning to be literate about movies is to be part of an audience that is sophisticated about them.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): I saw Ikiru first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and only cost a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story of Watanabe for 2 1/2 hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Socrates’ statement, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”‘ Over the years I have seen Ikiru every five times or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is most respected for the scale of his ambition. In the sprawling, large-cast samurai epics that typify his work, Kurosawa commands a calm, sure-headed confidence that makes full use of the scope & budget afforded him. What’s really impressive about the director to me so far, as someone who’s just getting acquainted with his work, is seeing how that confidence & control translated to more contained works. The twisty, 90-minute samurai thriller Rashomon is limited in cast & budget in a way Kurosawa’s more sprawling epics aren’t, but he explores a cyclical, experimentally subjective story structure through that small number of players to create an ambitious work so iconic it’s been parodied in every long-running TV sitcom you can name (not to mention the innovations cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa is allowed to play with in the film). Even more staggeringly, the philosophical drama Ikiru is on its surface a minor drama about an anonymous government bureaucrat’s struggles with a terminal cancer diagnosis, but Kurosawa uses that minor platform to attempt to answer, in all sincerity, what it truly means to be alive. Ikiru’s title even translates to “To Live” (or, in tandem with Ebert’s own writing, “Life Itself”), declaring upfront its intention to identify & define the very essence of existence. Its personal story of one man’s search for a sense of purpose & self-fulfillment in his final months as a government drone may not immediately seem to operate on the scale of a samurai epic that spans decades of narrative over a cast of hundreds, but Ikiru’s larger purpose of defining the nature & meaning of existence might just be the most ambitious goal of his entire career, which was defined by ambition. If nothing else, it’s a subject that covers the entire scope of Philosophy as a practice.

In order to define what it means to live, Kurosawa (and writing partner Hideo Oguni) start with what existence isn’t. Here’s where the film becomes personally insulting to me and how I’ve been wasting my own life. An alarming portion of Ikiru is dedicated to satirizing the boring, ineffective, passionless lives of government bureaucrats as they waste away behind desks affecting no measurable change in the world. As a professional bureaucrat who is currently wasting away behind a desk stacked with paperwork as I write this, my instinct is to balk at the accusation, but I can’t deny that it’s true. Any truthful movie about my life would be too boring to sit though and this film indeed initially finds its bureaucrat protagonist too tedious to directly bother with. After declaring “He might as well be a corpse,” and explaining that his job keeps him “terribly busy but, in reality, doing nothing at all except protecting his position,” the film drifts away from its declared protagonist to detail the Kafkaesque innerworkings of his office. While “his only distinguishing feature is that he has none,” the larger government agency he serves is sketched out to be an exceedingly silly organism with a personality of its own, albeit an absurdly ineffective one. Predating bureaucratic satires like Office Space, Shin Godzilla, and Sorry to Bother You, Ikiru amuses itself following the circular path of a simple citizens’ request as it’s presented to a city government desk and subsequently spirals into a needlessly complex farce that accomplishes nothing. It isn’t until our central bureaucrat learns that he has approximately six months to live before he will die of stomach cancer (a diagnosis we’re introduced to in medical x-rays before we even see his face) that the film bothers being interested in his own personal story. Who could blame it? I can barely stand looking in the mirror for more than a moment without getting bored, so I can’t imagine watching a dutiful bureaucrat go about his business for the full 143min runtime of this satirical drama.

Curiously enough, Ikiru doesn’t define what it means to truly live as being the opposite of those bureaucratic doldrums either. Our cancer-doomed protagonist initially makes the mistake of assuming that in order to imbue his life with meaning he must flee to its exact polar opposite. He struggles to reveal his existential crisis to his greedy, unloving son, but he does find youthful companionship in strangers who help him remember the vitality & hedonism of the world outside his stuffy office. A drunken rake he meets at a bar (who shares a certain swagger with Richard E. Grant’s sidekick character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?) “helps” him spend his now useless retirement money on night clubs, strip joints, and other fleeting frivolities. A young coworker whose boundless amusement he envies also briefly takes him under her wing to help recontextualize a life he’s stubbornly come to see as pointless & drab, when it is actually full of possibilities to anyone who keeps an open mind. Our protagonist’s immediate instinct to find meaning in frivolous hedonism when confronted with the question “What would you do if you only had six months left to live?” is eventually shown to be just as foolish as his lifelong dedication to dutiful deskwork. His newfound rebellious spirit is only meaningful when he applies it to the life he was already living as his true bureaucratic self. When he returns to his city government desk to get creative with the tools offered him and to think outside the box on how to organize & facilitate active government projects, he affects a real-world change in his immediate surroundings – creating meaning in his own life instead of sleepwalking through it or running away from it. Essentially, I’m a boring coward for writing this movie blog on my work breaks while otherwise drifting through the paperwork that defines my schedule. Hopefully, a terminal illness diagnosis will shock me into action to do some good around this office before it’s too late and I die having lived a life without meaning. Grim!

Ikiru is not adorned with the samurai swordfights, expansive landscapes, or intense Toshiro Milfune performances that typify Kurosawa’s work, but the director does his best to blow this personal story of one man’s existential crisis up to the same epic scale he’s used to working on. The camera work is complex in its depth, framing, and movements despite the interior spaces it tends to occupy. The themes surrounding this personal crisis are similarly ambitious despite the cramped borders of their scope, using one man’s wasted life to define the meaning & purpose of all human life everywhere. Structurally, the movie also experiments with the boundaries of its medium – not only declaring disinterest in its own protagonist in the opening sequence, but also refusing to conclude once he is deceased. A Westernized version of this story would almost certainly conclude with the protagonist’s death, with maybe only a brief coda allowing his surviving friends & family to remark upon his last-minute turnaround. There’s a distinctly Eastern philosophy to how this film refuses to register death as the logical end of the story – stretching out his memorial to what feels like a full hour of acquaintances detailing his life’s continued impact. This is a masterful, impressively ambitious work from a legendary filmmaker known for delivering masterful, impressively ambitious works. I can’t even fault the flick for calling me out as a life-wasting bureaucrat and “a walking corpse.” It was a direct burn, but an accurate one.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating: (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 42: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where White Men Can’t Jump (1992) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in […] the first thirty minutes of White Men Can’t Jump

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “What the movie knows is how the game is played in the tough urban circles where these guys operate. The director, Ron Shelton, who also wrote the screenplay, knows how his characters talk and sound, and how they get into each other’s minds with nonstop taunting and boasting. The language is one of the great joys of this film, not just because of its energy and spirit (most of the characters are gifted verbal improvisers) but because of its originality. The usual four-letter words and their derivatives are upstaged by some of the most creative and bizarre insults I have ever heard in a movie.” -from his 1992 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

Legendary indie scene auteur Spike Lee is nominated for two major Oscar categories this year, Best Director & Bet Picture, which is a remarkable achievement for a film as formally bizarre & politically angry as BlacKkKlansman. It’s a hype cycle that’s stirred up a lot of memories of other times when Lee was a hot ticket in the industry, not least of all because his latest film’s nomination among Pete Farrelly’s disastrous feel-good race relations drama Green Book feels like a repeat of when Lee’s iconic work Do the Right Thing lost the Best Picture Oscar to Driving Miss Daisy in 1990. Spike Lee may be an established legend in the industry by now, making his road to Oscar accolades less of an uphill battle, but Hollywood’s relationship with his deliberately divisive, provocative work has always been oddly hot & cold. They’re willing to nominate him for Oscars, but only as a long-shot underdog against more palatable, bullshit-caked films like Driving Miss Daisy & Green Book. There was apparently even a time when Hollywood was willing to emulate Spike Lee’s aesthetic instead of, you know, funding his work directly. 1992’s basketball court gambling drama White Men Can’t Jump feels unmistakably like watching White Studio Execs attempt to reverse-engineer the wide-audience friendly version of a Spike Lee joint in a boardroom, borrowing his fashion & aesthetic, but ditching all of the pesky politics that get in the way of the fun. Usually, Hollywood settles for undervaluing Spike Lee’s work by awarding its more sanitized rivals like Green Book; with White Men Can’t Jump, the industry instead attempted to transform his work into Green Book, which at least takes more chutzpa.

White Men Can’t Jump stars Wesley Snipes (who also starred in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever one year prior) as a low-level basketball hustler & Rosie Perez (who starred in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing three years prior) as an alcoholic trivia addict. Except that it doesn’t star either of those actors at all. Instead, our POV-centering protagonist is a compulsive gambler played by affable white man Woody Harrelson, who profits off the Southern California black community’s underestimation of white boy street cred. His main value as a basketball hustler is that his unsuspecting marks don’t know to fear his skill on the court because of his lily-white skin. He’s occasionally out-hustled himself and much of the drama derives from his crippling gambling addiction, but that does little to soften to blow of this being a film about how white people can be just as good at basketball as anybody else, so you shouldn’t be too prejudiced against their athleticism. Wesley Snipes plays a loud-mouthed schemer who works countless jobs & grifts to help realize his wife’s dream of moving to the safety of the suburbs. Perez plays an alcoholic trivia nerd who aspires to be the world’s foremost Jeopardy champion in what has to be her best, most outlandish character work outside the plane crash PTSD drama Fearless. Yet, we see the film through the eyes of an annoyingly bland white man anti-hero, one whose vocabulary includes such lovely phrases as “negro,” “faggot,” “reverse discrimination,” “Farrakhan disciple son of a bitch,” and the frequently-repeated refrain “Shut the fuck up,” usually directed at his lovely girlfriend. The movie even pauses dead-still for a minute so he can whitesplain Jimi Hendrix to his hustling partner, which 100% would have been a scene in Green Book if it were set ten years later. It’s very frustrating.

White Man Can’t Jump does have flashes of charm, even beyond the stellar character work from Rosie Perez. If nothing else, it’s an excellent 90s fashion lookbook, modeling an extensive line of Spike Lee-inspired athletic wear on the basketball courts of Venice Beach, CA. The film’s attempt to echo Lee’s focus on slang dialogue often leads to a solid one-liner in an insult comedy context, as this is just as much a trash-talking movie as it is a basketball movie. Besides Rosie Perez’s surreal Jeopardy quest, the best sequences of the film are the documentarian portraits of the buskers, hustlers, and weirdos of Venice Beach and the ceremonial trading of “Yo Mama” jokes between basketball sessions. Those are only incidental, mood-setting details in the greater purpose of tracking the ups & downs of one fish-out-of-water white man’s ego, however, a choice in protagonist that kneecaps the movie before it can even get itself running. Workman director Ron Shelton doesn’t even have the decency to rip off the exaggerated Ernest Dickerson flourishes of Spike Lee’s cinematography, settling instead for the same flat sports drama approach he took with Bull Durham, Blue Chips, and Tin Cup, as if it were a one-size-fits-all technique. I want to say White Men Can’t Jump is worthwhile for Rosie Perez’s character work and for the sartorial pleasures of its 90s fashion lookbook, but the film is ultimately too phony, too repetitive, and too politically awkward to enjoy for any five minute stretch without a vicious cringe interrupting your pleasure. And yet, this is the movie that was playing on TV when I was a kid, not Do the Right Thing. And still, Green Book has a much better chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar this weekend than BlacKkKlansman. Go figure.

Roger’s Rating: (3.5/4, 88%)

Brandon’s Rating: (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Ikiru (1952)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 41: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where My Dinner with Andre (1981) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in My Dinner with Andre.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The idea is astonishing in its audacity: a film of two friends talking, just simply talking—but with passion, wit, scandal, whimsy, vision, hope, and despair—for 110 minutes. It sounds at first like one of those underground films of the 1960s, in which great length and minimal content somehow interacted in the dope-addled brains of the audience to provide the impression of deep if somehow elusive profundity. My Dinner with Andre is not like that. It doesn’t use all of those words as a stunt. They are alive on the screen, breathing, pulsing, reminding us of endless, impassioned conversations we’ve had with those few friends worth talking with for hours and hours. Underneath all the other fascinating things in this film beats the tide of friendship, of two people with a genuine interest in one another.” -from his 1989 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What My Dinner With Andre exploits is the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told. Both Shawn and Gregory are born storytellers, and as they talk we see their faces, but we picture much more: Andre being buried alive, and a monk lifting himself by his fingertips, and fauns cavorting in a forest. And Wally trudging around to agents with his plays, and happily having dinner with Debbie, and, yes, enjoying Heston’s autobiography. We see all of these things so vividly that My Dinner With Andre never, ever, becomes a static series of two shots and closeups, but seems only precariously anchored to that restaurant, and in imminent danger of hurtling itself to the top of Everest (where, Wally stubbornly argues, it is simply not necessary to go to find the truth).” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I didn’t have regular access to cable television as a kid, but whenever I did manage to find myself alone with a remote control and more than several broadcast-network channels to choose from, I’d often park the dial on IFC. The Independent Film Channel was never as satisfying as an afternoon spent emptily staring at MTV or Comedy Central reruns, but I did enjoy watching it anyway. It gave me the self-satisfaction of an intellectual. Half-watching entry-level indies like Living in Oblivion, Trees Lounge, Kicking & Screaming, and short film programs on IFC made me feel much smarter than the teenage idiot I so obviously was, even though I wasn’t engaging with their individual selections as vigorously as I should have been. My Dinner with Andre might be the quintessential IFC half-watch movie of those lazy juvenile self-indulgences. I remember seeing the movie on television so many times in my younger days, but I can’t recall every actively watching it, absorbing its nuances. A movie mostly consisting of a real-time conversation between NYC playwrights at a hoity toity restraint, My Dinner with Andre was perfect background fodder for pretending I was a budding intellectual, a lie I never came close to living up to.

Of course, I have much greater patience & attention span in my thirties than I did two decades ago, so I had a much easier time engaging with the dialogue-heavy explorations of philosophy & art that play out over this film’s titular meal in my recent revisit. NYC playwrights Wallace Shawn (who I would have known only as The Nice Man form Clueless the last time I saw this picture) & Andre Gregory (an avant-garde theatrical producer who staged Shawn’s first play) share a philosophical back & forth over their meal about Nature vs. Comfort in the modern world, jumping form topic to disparate topic as the natural rhythms of their conversation dictate. At first, Shawn allows Gregory to ramble on unimpeded about his spiritualist journeys beyond the facade of societal & artistic norms, only asking questions to deflect interest in & attention to his own views. As Gregory’s long, troubling answers are increasingly upsetting to his sensibilities, Shawn finally becomes incensed enough to speak up, challenging Gregory’s complaints about how modern society is living in a foggy, zombie-like trance by rightfully countering that Gregory’s spiritualist solutions to that false crisis are impractical to everyday people with normal means. Before that conversational shift, My Dinner with Andre feels exactly like the stuffy, intellectualist nonsense I had casually grouped it in with without giving it too much thought. Once Shawn starts speaking up, however, it becomes a much more vital, useful debate about life, art, and the merits of the modern world

Director Louis Malle (who we’ve covered here before in discussions of Black Moon & Pretty Baby) does his best to make this stage play material feel cinematic, recalling similar Friedkin adaptations like The Birthday Party & The Boys in the Band. Although the conversation is staged in the public space of a restaurant, it’s constrained to the intimate setting of a corner booth. The audience feels like we’re listening in from a table over, invading the players’ privacy. Malle also clues the audience in on Shawn‘s more practical, populist mindset over this dining partner’s by paying attention to the physical language he shares with the waitstaff, whereas Gregory acts as if they’re the only two souls in the room. There’s only so much a director can do with the dialogue-focused material, however, so the most auteurial style Malle allows himself is in depictions of Shawn’s travel to & from the titular meal, riding the subway cars & taxi cabs of late-night NYC. In these moments you can really feel the film’s microbudget, experimental theater means, which only feel a step above its No Wave cinema contemporaries because of the academic nature of the dialogue. There’s even something oddly punk about watching Wallace Shawn travel by subway in cold weather, apparently fighting off a nasal drip & looking mildly displeased by life itself. That’s never something I expected to think about The Nice Man form Clueless.

I could claim that the dense philosophical discussion of art, Nature, and comfort is what endeared me to My Dinner with Andre, but even in this recent, adult rewatch that would be a self-serving lie. I mostly appreciated My Dinner with Andre for the opportunity to spend two hours looking at and listening to Wallace Shawn. In too many roles, Shawn appears only briefly as the bills-paying comic relief, so it was wonderful to hear him speak his own written dialogue for extensive stretches of time while gazing at his Muppetish visage. Before he even speaks up against Gregory’s noxious pontificating he’s already the clear hero to his dinner guest’s villain, making lovably incredulous faces at each absurd, prolonged statement about What’s Wrong with The Modern World. Maybe my fixation on Shawn’s facial expressions and my total opposition to Gregory’s POV are both directly tied to my unintellectual approach to cinema (and life at large). Two decades may have passed since the last time I watched this independent film standard, but affording it a matured, attentive viewing only made me feel like more of an intellectual imposter upon revisit. Thankfully Wallace Shawn was there for me this time to call bullshit on any & all potential pomposity. He really is the best

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 40: A Night at the Opera (1935)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where A Night at the Opera (1935) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I am not one of those purists who believes the talkies were perfect and sound ruined everything. To believe that, I would have to be willing to do without Marilyn Monroe signing ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and Groucho Marx saying, ‘This bill is outrageous! I wouldn’t pay it if I were you!'”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he did reference it in his Great Movies series review of Duck Soup. He wrote, “A Night at the Opera (1935) [the Marx Brothers’] first MGM film, contains some of their best work, yes, but in watching it I fast-forward over the sappy interludes involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In Duck Soup there are no sequences I can skip; the movie is funny from beginning to end.”

Like all great comedians, the Marx Brothers were social anarchists. Blatantly disinterested in the pomp & civility of the modern world, the legendary comedic team would only create stuffy, rules-obsessed backdrops for their intensely illogical, confrontationally flippant vaudeville routines to break them down into total chaos. It would be presumable, then, that the self-serious world of the opera would offer one of the most perfect targets for their antics imaginable. The wealth & propriety that surrounds the opera is an inspired choice for a stuffy backdrop for the Marx Brothers’ slobs vs. snobs brand of social anarchy. Unfortunately, A Night of the Opera arrived at a later, transitional period in the Marx Brothers’ cinematic path, just before they became burdened with studio bloat in A Day at the Races, so it never really had a chance to use its conceit to its full anarchic advantage the way they would have in an earlier, freer work like Duck Soup. Luckily Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx are some of the funniest people to have ever walked the planet (especially Harpo), so the movie is wildly funny anyway. A Night at the Opera is only vaguely disappointing because it’s very funny, as opposed to being the funniest movie of all time, something that very easily could have been achieved with its exact plot & cast under less studio control.

The first film marking the Marx Brothers’ transition from Paramount Pictures to MGM, A Night at the Opera is somewhat burdened by the limited imagination of its producers. In particular, MGM exec Irving Thalberg made a point to oversee & reshape the comedy troupe’s schtick to make it more palatable to a broader audience. He wanted to enhance the Marx Brothers brand’s appeal by strengthening their movies with more story structure and more sympathy for the three goofball leads. Thalberg aimed to achieve this sympathy by reserving their social terrorism only for “deserving” villains, as opposed to everyone in sight. It’s an impulse that fundamentally misunderstands what people love about the Marx Brothers in the first place, overloading their usual light touch of illogical transgressions with increasingly sprawling plots & runtimes. Every moment dedicated to giving the brothers a reason to drive their victims mad with slapstick & wordplay is wasted time that could just as easily have been replaced with more comedic gags. A Night at the Opera is a story about two opera singers who love each other, but struggle to connect because of the distance created by their disparate levels of success. Instead of tearing down the civility of the opera world, the Marx Brothers’ main function in the film is to bring the two lovers together, across the boundaries of class. That’s their function in the plot, anyway, which despite what Irving Thalberg believed, does not matter in a film like this. Not for a second.

That’s enough obligatory nitpicking from me. This movie is hilarious. Harpo Marx remains the funniest man who ever lived, transforming the art of slapstick humor into a deeply deranged subversion that’s since been unmatched (even appearing briefly in drag for an early gag here). Groucho & Chico are as impressive as ever in the circular logic of their conman wordplay, scamming the rest of the world and each other into a luxurious position just above the poverty line. One elaborate gag even recalls the total chaotic meltdown of a Duck Soup by piling every character possible into a single, cramped state room on an already crowded ship, a bit that comes so naturally to their comedic style that Harpo effectively sleepwalks through it. As always, the Marx Brothers’ quality in comedic craft remains unchanged; it’s just the vessel it’s packaged in that feels questionable. I really enjoy A Night at the Opera as a stately showcase of vaudevillian comedy, even if its focus on plot, romance, and musical interludes greatly distracted from what the Marx Brothers could have achieved in an operatic setting without MGM supervision guiding their work. I mean, even A Day at the Races was an easily lovable MGM-era Marx Brother comedy, and that film was saddled with a bloated, plot-driven runtime & a deeply disappointing blackface gag. Left to their own devices, the Marx Brothers could have made A Night at the Opera an anarchic masterpiece. Under Irving Thalberg’s supervision they made it a very funny, naturally endearing comedy instead, something to still be grateful for.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 39: Dogfight (1991)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Dogfight (1991) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I don’t care much for movies that get all serious about their love affairs, because I think the actors tend to take it too solemnly and end up silly. I like it better when love simply makes the characters very happy, as when […] Lili Taylor thinks River Phoenix really likes her in Dogfight.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “To fully appreciate Dogfight, it helps to see it as the record of a particular time. In November 1963, John Kennedy was still president, ‘Vietnam’ was not yet a familiar word, hair was short, and the counterculture was still idealistic and tentative – more concerned with realization than revolution. And also, more in 1963 than today, male bonding sometimes consisted of the real or imaginary humiliation of women.” -from his 1991 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

Reductively speaking, it’s always a little counterintuitive to praise a work of art for leaving me heartbroken or otherwise emotionally devastated. Why should I celebrate the accomplishment of a stranger making me feel like shit? There’s always something admirable about witnessing a job done well, though, which is exactly what Lili Taylor’s performance in Dogfight conveys: a wondrous display of craft. As the craft in question is destroying my emotional well-being, you’d think the instinct would be to cower from Taylor’s tragically vulnerable presence in Dogfight, but her work was too magnificent not drink in with every available moment. It helps that Dogfight’s brand of emotional havoc wasn’t akin to the sadism of a provocateur like Lars von Trier. Director Nancy Savoca handles the film with an unmistakable kindness, something that’s apparent as soon as Taylor is introduced sweetly playing folk music on an acoustic guitar in her frumpy diner waitress drag. She isn’t afforded the authorial command of a protagonist’s POV, but rather her kindness & delicate wit is observed from an emotional remove, softening the sadism she encounters in an increasingly hostile, unforgiving world. Sacova & Taylor break hearts in Dogfight, but not with deliberate maliciousness. They do it by contrasting the sadism of modern life with a vulnerable sweetness & optimism for change, a kind of personal resolve that makes you weep for the cruelty of the world surrounding it, threatening to grind it to dust.

The majority of Dogfight is set over the course of a single night in 1963, the day before JFK’s assassination. In their final night of freedom before shipping off to a tour of duty in Vietnam, a rowdy group of boneheaded Marines stage a competition to see who can woo the ugliest date into attending a private party in an underwater-themed tiki bar. The rules of the competition require the men to be polite, never cluing the women in on the fact that they’re being paraded & mocked for their supposed ugliness, but the cruelty of the “dogfight” remains painfully clear throughout. When Lili Taylor’s lonely diner waitress is first charmed by the invitation to party with River Phoenix’s handsome Marine, her pure joy is devastatingly tragic. In an especially telling dress-up montage, her initial bliss devolves into self-deprecating scrutiny as she tries on several unsatisfying outfits to a Woodie Guthrie tune in her bedroom mirror. Her mood drops even lower when she discovers the true, hideous nature of the tiki party, naturally, but she chooses not to recoil from Phoenix’s thoughtless brute entirely. The two embark on an unlikely Before Sunrise-style Linklater romance (years before that much more frequently-praised work), talking through their attractions & differences as they casually roam the late-night streets of 1960s San Francisco. As she pokes at & challenges the baffling displays of toxic, unbridled masculinity barking from her military-man date, her openness to seeing good in the world only becomes more heartbreaking in its optimism & vulnerability. She’s a heartbreaking figure not because anything especially tragic happens to her, but by the way she contrasts with a world that doesn’t deserve her.

There’s a sensual pleasure to Dogfight’s historical tour of San Franciscan nightlife. From the wholesome arcades & second-hand clothing shots to the all-night tattoo parlors & adult theaters running nudie cuties like The Immoral Mr. Teas, the movie covers a wide portion of a city that would later transform dramatically after the Vietnam War inspired the protest culture of the hippies. I even found myself immensely pleased with the tiki bar setting of the titular dogfight; although the circumstances were obviously cruel, it’s easy to mistake that underwater, neon-lit Ugly Women Dance Party for a kind of real world Shangri-La. The meandering, conversational rhythms of the plot allow for small bit players like Elizabeth Daily (“Dottie” from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) & Brendan Fraser (in his first big screen role!) to drift through these environments with lasting, even if narratively inconsequential impact. What truly outweighs any of these momentary concerns, however, the philosophical clash between the hopelessly infatuated couple of a brutish, impulsive jarhead with terrifying anger issues & a desperately lonely diner waitress with a delicate passion for political idealism. Because the actor died three years later, still in his early 20s, you’d think that River Phoenix’s performance would the heartbreaker of that pairing, but it’s Lili Taylor’s divinely empathetic presence that overwhelms the film’s pathos. Dogfight is an expertly crafted heartbreaker, but not in any flamboyant or cloying way. Its emotional devastation is as soft & delicate as Lil Taylor quietly playing folk songs on her acoustic guitar, glumly staring out the window. It’s a sadness that corrodes & lingers instead of hammering you with its intent, to the point where you hardly notice how much it hurts.

Roger’s Rating: (3/4, 75%)

Brandon’s Rating (4.5/5, 90%)

Next Lesson: A Night at the Opera (1935)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 38: Young at Heart (1954)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Young at Heart(1954) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I don’t care much for movies that get all serious about their love affairs, because I think the actors tend to take it too solemnly and end up silly. I like it better when love simply makes the characters very happy, as when Doris Day first falls for Frank Sinatra in Young at Heart.

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never properly reviewed the film, but when reminiscing about Frank Sinatra’s legendary career onscreen, he wrote, “The image that lingers is from Young at Heart, when he pushed back his hat, lit a cigarette, sat down at a piano and sang to Doris Day and broke her heart. He never had the looks to be a matinee idol, but he had a voice – the Voice – and he had a screen presence, and for a time in the 1950s, Frank Sinatra was one of the most interesting and successful actors in American movies.”

The Hays Code had a peculiar way of obscuring intent in older Hollywood fare. Films that superficially appear to be wholesome & chaste can sometimes be subversively disguising much darker, less moralistic themes than what that infamous production code permitted. It’s also tempting to read too much into that subversion in attempting to parse out artists’ intent vs. what Major Studios of the one era would allow. The musical romance Young at Heart operates within this historical grey area, concluding a schmaltzy musical reverie with an absurdly handed tragic conclusion that’s incongruous with the film’s overall tone, then immediately reversed. The film either doesn’t have the heart to follow through on its own devastating implications or was obstructed by Studio heads’ demands for a happy conclusion to a generally happy story. Its ending can be read either way, both literally blissful or figuratively tragic, making it only increasingly, frustratingly bizarre the longer you sit with it.

A remake of a popular 1930s musical titled Four Daughters, Young at Heart functions on the surface as a well-behaved Technicolor romance. Doris Day stars as an eligible bachelorette at the center of a musical family mostly made up of daughters desperate to be married off. With an alarming focus on anxieties of weight loss & living single, the desperately lonely girls (adult women, really) are all awestruck by the arrival of a handsome, overconfident songwriter played by Gig Young. As he’s employed to write songs for the family, the girls all separately pine for his affection, something that’s awarded to Doris Day’s lead, to her sisters’ jealousy. Much of this early stretch of the film is dependent on the simple joy of watching Doris Day sing, a talent that’s dedicated to culturally toxic, marriage-obsessed diddies like “Til My Love Comes for Me,” “Ready, Willing, and Able,” “Hold Me in Your Arms,” and “Make it Soon.” Thankfully this nauseous love fest is disrupted by the arrival of Frank Sinatra as a troubled, dangerous piano player and friend to the songwriter beau. For her sisters’ sake and because she’s genuinely turned on by his talent, Doris Day’s protagonist leaves her dream man for this sad puppy dog of a romantic rival. This much-needed interjection of danger & sexuality opens the film up to an increasingly tense conflict of hurt feelings, romantic betrayals, and declining mental health. This all culminates in a climactic suicide that feels miles & miles away from the sunny, romantic (even if unhealthily marriage & weight obsessed) disposition of the film’s opening stretch.

Or does it? In an incredibly bizarre denouement, the tragic suicide that tears this family apart is undone with an idyllic Easter morning get-together, the attempted death being retconned as a failure. The 1930s version, Four Daughters, stuck to the implications of the suicide while Young at Heart tacks on a happy ending so artificially saccharine it can almost be read as dream of Heaven. As Four Daughter was also produced under the Hays Code, it’s unclear whether the suicide was not allowed by the studio for moral reasons, its actor‘s vanity, or a general preference for romantic musicals to end on a happy note. What’s even more unclear is what director Gordon Douglas (who helmed the horror classic Them! this same year) intended to convey in its ending. Is the final scene supposed to be taken as a literal happy conclusion to a dark chapter in these sisters’ lives or is it a subversive workaround that concludes the story on a more logical beat, subtly indicating that its image of peace & romantic calm is actually a vision of Heaven? I honestly have no idea what to make of it, thanks to more notorious Hays Code & Studio System shenanigans, which almost makes for a more intriguing conclusion than the straightforward approach of Four Daughters.

If you read Young at Heart as a straight, well-behaved Technicolor romance, it’s a kind of unremarkable, modest pleasure. Doris Day & Frank Sinatra are compelling performers, but most of the material is a cookie cutter approach to movie magic. The in-the-moment intensity & absurdly incongruous fallout of the film’s climactic suicide scene is what really makes it interesting as a Studio System relic. It’s impossible to know what Studio Notes or Hays Code adherence might have steered Young at Heart to such a bizarrely artificial conclusion., but it created an interesting tension in the process. Just as Sinatra’s arrival earlier in the film disrupted its chaste, serene romance, Gordon’s return to that chastity after such a tensely bleak suicide sequence feels like just as much of an intrusion, so much so that the scene can be comfortably read as a supernatural broadcast from Heaven above. The censorship of the Hays Code era encourages that kind of skeptical, overreaching reading of what movies are doing on the surface vs. what they’re getting away with beneath it, whether or not that kind of interpretation is warranted here specifically.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Dogfight (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 37: Equinox Flower (1958)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Equinox Flower (1958) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.” One of his examples includes the passage, “In Equinox Flower, a Japanese film by the old master Yasujirō Ozu, there is this sequence of shots: a room with a read teapot in the foreground. Another view of the room. The mother folding clothes. A shot down a corridor with the mother crossing it at an angle, and then a daughter crossing at the back. A reverse shot in a hallway as the arriving father is greeted by the mother and daughter. A shot as the father leaves the frame, then the mother, then the daughter. A shot as the mother and father enter the room, as in the background the daughter picks up the red teapot and leaves the frame. This sequence of timed movement and cutting is as perfect as any music any written, any dance, any poem.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he does mention it as evidence in his salute to Ozu as “A Master of the Cinema.” He writes, “To love movies without loving Ozu is an impossibility. When I see his films, I am struck by his presence behind every line, every gesture. Like Shakespeare, he breathes through his characters, and when you have seen several of his films you feel as if you must have known him. What is strange, considering that his films were once considered too Japanese to even be shown in the West, is that you also feel you have known his characters–some of them for all of your life.”

I am beginning to accept that, like Andrei Tarkovsky & Terence Mallick, Yasujirō Ozu is one of those incredibly talented filmmakers I’ll never emotionally connect with. I’m too impatient, too scatterbrained to work my way up to Ozu’s quietly reflective, well-mannered wavelength, no matter how much I admire his attention to craft. With long, pensive features stitched together through meticulously arranged static shots, consciously avoiding camera movement, Ozu’s catalog is diabolically designed to make me feel like an unappreciative dolt in well-versed, patient film nerd circles. The delicate dialogue and stoic architecture that fascinates the filmmaker leave me feeling stubbornly stuck in a slow-sinking mud, praying that I don’t give up and fall asleep. This is especially true in Equinox Flower, a film that’s explicitly about stubbornness and inaction. In Ozu’s more devastating dramas like Tokyo Story, there’s at least a heart-wrenching central conflict with an undeniable emotional hook (in that particular case, the way the elderly are left behind by uncaring, selfish youth). Equinox Flower is a much tougher vibe to engage with, as its own conflict is a pensive shift towards enlightenment & understanding, something that doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama.

Marking a shift in sympathies from valuing the elderly & tradition over the new-fangled youth to a more modern perspective, Ozu’s first color film wrings its hands for two full hours over the dissolution of the arranged marriage as a social institution. Our central character is a middle-aged father fretting over his conflicting feelings on modern marriage. He’s introduced giving a speech in favor of romantic marriage at a colleague’s daughter’s wedding, disparaging the result of the practical, arranged marriage he has with his own spouse. He then later advises a family friend to disobey her mother’s wishes and marry the man she loves. These expressions are explained to be hypocrisies as his own daughter is revealed to be planning marriage with a coworker, without seeking her parents’ counsel. The father apparently prefers the tradition of arranged marriage in his own household, finding it to be a more stable foundation for a partnership, whereas passion fades. He doubles down on his opposition to his daughter’s choice by essentially imprisoning her in their home, fighting off an encroaching modernity that looks increasingly inevitable. The audience knows this impulse to be toxic, and the movie tracks his stubborn drift towards empathy for his adult daughter’s autonomous decision.

My disconnect with Ozu might boil down to just how stubbornly well-behaved he is as a filmmaker and a persona. It’s how I imagine Scorsese & Bergman’s crises-of-Faith films appear to people who weren’t raised Christian. Ozu tells this story of young women leaving home to choose their own professions & lovers with great empathy for the old men who wish to control & stifle them. Arranged marriages are explained to be in opposition to passionate ones, but here “passion” is expressed through polite & mannered conversation, never physical desire. Much like how his protagonist fights the dissolution of arranged marriage traditions, Ozu fought the transition from silent film to talkies in the 1930s and the transition to color that started with Equinox Flower. In both cases he found that new-fangled way of doing things wasn’t so bad (he never returned to black & white filmmaking), despite his stubborn, teeth-grinding resistance. It’s clear he identified with the mental anguish this film’s patriarch goes through as he comes to terms with is adult daughter’s entitlement to romantic freedom. I never shared in that fretting for one minute, so the film mostly played like watching a stubborn bully gradually decide to not be such a rigidly traditionalist brute. It’s an admirable personality shift, but also one that doesn’t earn the long, self-reflective journey it’s afforded.

I do greatly appreciate the visual arrangements of Ozu’s framing. His biggest fans fawn over how his editing room cuts find a peculiar sense of movement within that beautiful stillness. Ebert gushed in particular about a sequence in Equinox Flower that establishes a poetic domesticity through these cuts, which he describes a being one of the most joyous sequences in all of cinema. I’ve been guilty of finding that same poetic joy in the artificial domesticity of a Douglas Sirk picture or two, but Sirk’s melodramas were informed by an emotional passion Ozu had no interest in exploring. It’s likely this feeling of a well-mannered, well-behaved emotional remove is a culturally-informed one, something I should strive to look past in my appreciation for the director’s formalist achievements. I can’t deny though, that I would have been much more enthusiastic about Equinox Flower if it paired its technical craft with genuinely passionate melodrama. It could have at least told its story through the daughter’s POV instead of her stubborn, traditionalist father’s. That might be the crux of where Ozu & I differ in sensibility & temperament.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Young at Heart (1954)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 36: True Grit (1969)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where True Grit (1969) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.” One of his examples includes “when John Wayne puts the reins in his teeth and gallops across the mountain meadow.” On page 226 he mentions having spotted John Wayne in costume for the film’s production during a studio lot interview with Lee Marvin. On page 250 he details a separate interview with Wayne himself, who shows off his prop rifle from the film.

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “One of the glories of True Grit is that it recognizes Wayne’s special presence. It was not directed by Ford (who in any event probably couldn’t have been objective enough about Wayne), but it was directed by another old Western hand, Hathaway, who has made the movie of his lifetime and given us a masterpiece. This is the sort of film you call a movie, instead of the kind of movie you call a film. It is one of the most delightful, joyous scary movies of all time […] It is not a work of art, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good if it were. Instead, it is the Western you should see if you only see one Western every three years (an act of denial I cannot quite comprehend in any case).” -from his 1969 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

In his original, gleefully enthusiastic review for the 1969 John Wayne Western True Grit, Ebert explains that the film “is not a work of art, but wouldn’t be nearly as good if it were.” This is just a few sentences after he dares to call it “a masterpiece.” I totally relate to the sentiment of those seemingly self-contradictory ideas, as it very much is at peace with how I watch & review movies myself. Ebert’s legacy as a film critic has always been one of subjectivity & populism, so it makes perfect sense to hear him declare a film to be genre-minded fluff in one breath and a stone-cold masterpiece in the next. Where I diverge with him on the topic at hand is in the specific genre he’s praising: Westerns. I’ve given many trashy horror & sci-fi pictures five-star raves over the three years we’ve been blogging here, but Westerns just really aren’t my genre. In fact, part of the reason the Roger Ebert Film School project has been on hold for the past six months (!!!!) is that I was dreading watching True Grit, which has a reputation for being on the best Westerns ever made. Adapted from a popular novel, inspiring a remake & a sequel, and earning John Wayne his sole Academy Award, it’s the kind of genre exercise that should appeal to even heretics like me, who’d rather watch the worst monster movie over the best cowboy thriller any day. Admittedly, True Grit did win me over despite my personal genre boundaries, but not necessarily by being a great movie first and a great Western second. It did so by side-stepping the roadblock I usually have with these Old West narratives: their traditionally macho POV.

If pressured to declare my favorite Western of all time, my answer would like likely be the recent Australian genre-bender The Dressmaker. Essentially reimagining the Western genre as a tonal mashup of Muriel’s Wedding and a 90s John Waters comedy, The Dressmaker is a classic guns-blazing revenge tale in which Kate Winslet takes out an entire town by sewing pretty dresses instead of firing a six-shooter. The Dressmaker is a genre standout to me because it’s an intoxicatingly feminine take on a traditionally masculine genre. To my surprise, despite ostensibly being a John Wayne picture, True Grit works in a similar way. Written for the screen by (McCarthy witch hunt victim) Marguerite Roberts, the film is largely about a bubbly teenage girl defiantly making her way through an intimidatingly macho world. Our plucky protagonist, Mattie (Kim Darby), has a Book of Henry-type preciousness in her willingness to steamroll adults’ wills and run the show. Her mission in the picture in an act of cold-blooded revenge, hiring two macho hard-asses (the drunkest & meanest of the pair being played by John Wayne, naturally) to kill the man who murdered her own father in an act of petty theft. She insists on accompanying the mission into Native territory herself, of course, and the movie builds a lot of tension out the danger she puts herself in by dangerously navigating “a man’s world.” Her presence isn’t nearly as aggressively femme as the energy of The Dressmaker (I likely would have been much more enthusiastic about the film at large if it were, to be honest), but it did help me adjust to the macho power fantasy of gruff Western lore instead of just mentally checking out completely, which is my usual experience with the genre.

I haven’t had many reasons or opportunities in my life to study the John Wayne Western as an artform, so it’s difficult for me to compare his Oscar-winning performance here with his more typical work. The couple times I’ve dealt with Wayne with any critical intent was in the cop thriller Brannigan (which was great) and the fire-fighting epic Hellfighters (which was terrible). But since Ebert is obviously a giddy fan of The Duke, I suspect that will drastically change soon. True Grit is likely as good of a crash course in John Wayne’s Western work as any I could have hoped for, if not only because the movie doesn’t take his heroics too seriously. A mean old US Marshall roped into a revenge mission while in a drunken stupor, you’d think Wayne’s antihero sidekick character would be all macho posturing & no levity. He’s wonderfully contrasted by Kim Darby’s authentic teenage femininity, though. The two butt heads immediately, him warning “I ought to paddle your rump!” and her spitting back that he’s “a sorry piece of trash.” The heart of True Grit is largely in watching the two partners soften to each other even more so than it is their shared revenge mission. The closing line of the film is Wayne shouting, “Come see a fat old man sometime!” jovially to Mattie, who has come to accept him as the drunk uncle she never had (when you might expect him to be closer to a replacement father figure). The drunk bastard even has a tender friendship onscreen with a house cat named General Sterling Pride, whom he snuggles with when he’s too tipsy to get out of bed. Wayne certainly plays the hardened gunfighter archetype he was famous for embodying in the film, one that’s even dangerously macho, but it somehow comes across as adorable instead of grotesque.

There’s plenty to True Grit I couldn’t identify with because of my arm’s distance relationship with the Western genre. The macho posturing, G-rated gun violence, and racist caricatures of any & all PoC that usually kill the mood for me (and, to be frank, bore me) in Westerns are all present & accounted for here. Although I could be tickled by the antiquated phrasing of “Hurry! I’m in a bad way!” when Mattie falls in a rattlesnake pit, the tension of that moment & other various gunfights never truly hit me, to the point where it’s utterly baffling that Ebert describes the film as “scary” in his review. Here’s what I’ll concede, though: if Westerns were my genre of choice, True Grit would likely be one of my favorites. It has a spark of the feminine subversion I loved so much in The Dressmaker, a glimpse into a less macho parallel universe where I wouldn’t generally find these pictures to be insufferably boring.  I suspect my experience with John Wayne Westerns can only go down from there, as Ebert’s love of the genre will probably lead me to far less hospitable territory for outsiders, but I can admit this one got past my typical defenses.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: Equinox Flower (1958)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 35: Royal Wedding (1951)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Royal Wedding (1951) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never officially reviewed Royal Wedding, but in a 1997 “Movie Answer Man” column he did address a series of Dirt Devil television commercials that appropriated imagery from the movie to sell vacuum cleaners. He complains, “Special effects were used to remove Astaire from Royal Wedding (1951), where he danced with a coat rack, and insert him in a TV commercial, where he danced with a Broom Vac. Rights to use Astaire’s image were sold by his estate. I was reminded that when the late Ginger Rogers was honored at the Kennedy Center, Astaire’s widow refused permission to use any clips of Astaire in the tribute. What would Astaire have thought about those two decisions? A man who could dance on the ceiling would have no difficulty spinning in his grave.”

It’s embarrassing to admit, but the earliest memory I have of watching Fred Astaire dance onscreen was in a series of television commercials from the 1990s, where his image was posthumously altered to advertise Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners. As a child, watching Old Hollywood footage of a man dancing on the ceiling was a potently memorable novelty even with the vacuum cleaner added in, but I assume that same novelty was horrifying for older folks. Evoking one of the world’s most beloved movie stars to peddle digitally-inserted, CGI vacuums was a boldly blasphemous choice from Dirt Devil’s advertising team that I’m sure earned the company at least a decade of cultural side eye. The ugly truth about this transgression, however, is that the ground they were trampling on was far from hallowed. I have since learn to respect Mr. Astaire tremendously for the “Fred & Ginger” musicals he churned out with Ginger Rogers in the 1930s, but, as it turns out, the time the legend danced on the ceiling was far from his creative pinnacle. The majority of Dirt Devil’s digitally-altered Fred Astaire footage pulled from the 1951 musical comedy Royal Wedding. Featuring a . . . seasoned Astaire, the film is at best an entertaining mediocrity, not at all a sacred cow to be protected from the dirty hands of 15-second Superbowl ads.

Fred Astaire & Jane Powell star as a sibling dance team who’re invited across the pond to perform for British royalty at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth & Prince Philip. Besides the complications of maintaining their various bachelor life romances in the pair’s travels to this historic event, Royal Wedding doesn’t have much of a plot beyond that basic premise. Loosely based on Astaire’s relationship with his real life dance partner (and real life sister) Adele Astaire, the film has a kind of rambling, anecdotal quality to it. The dramatic scenes connecting its dance numbers feel like a total waste of time outside providing Jane Powell an excuse to make 10,000 costume changes & proving to the audience that the siblings are not engaged in an incestuous romance. From scene one, it’s uncomfortable that the pair are so closely related, since their dance routines often require them to intimately woo each other with nonverbal body language. The opening dance number, for instance, features Astaire as an idle king ogling Powell as the maid, who tidies up his chamber while flirtatiously revealing her frilly underwear. They eventually dance together in a traditional romantic waltz, only for their sibling relationship to be revealed to the audience as soon as the number is through. To overcompensate for this awkward reveal, Royal Wedding immediately makes it apparent that the two dancers are fucking everyone in the world but each other and most of the movie concerns them juggling potential love interests between dance routines.

As lifeless & belabored as Royal Wedding feels as a 90min comedy, it functions fairly well as an excuse to feature Fred Astaire’s signature footwork. As sullied in the Dirt Devil ads, Astaire dances on the ceiling in one number, Jamiroquai style, as the room rotates but the camera remains fixed. In another sequence, a real life incident of a Fred & Adelle Astaire performance on a cruise ship is recreated with a tilting floor in turbulent waters– the dancers, audience, furniture, and loose objects sliding around the room during the routine as the ship tilts side to side. Astaire also proves he can entertain without those fancy movie magic shenanigans, wowing the audience by performing with a lifeless coat rack for a dance partner (later to be digitally replaced with a much more lively vacuum cleaner). My favorite routine in the film is a vaudeville throwback that “comically” features domestic abuse among impoverished scum. Titled “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?,” the song features the longest title in any MGM musical and has nothing to do with the plot, but does have a dangerous-feeling mean streak to its scrappiness that I found oddly endearing.

Any of Royal Wedding’s individual dance numbers could be worth seeking out in isolation, especially the ones that have Astaire perform metaphysical, gravity-defying wonders. However, their cumulative effect is only moderately pleasant. I’m not saying it’s right for giant companies to retroactively employ dead movie stars to shill for their products as if we were living in some real world bastardization of The Congress (spoiler: we are). I’m just glad that if Dirt Devil was going to tarnish the memory of a classic MGM musical, at least they picked one that’s so mediocre as an overall product. For every few seconds of Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, there’s endless minutes of his character rhythmically rubbing bodies with his sister & wasting time between gigs. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Royal Wedding‘s good name is more tarnished by its incestuous body language and total narrative lack of creative energy than it is by digitally-inserted vacuum cleaners. The only reason the movie is at all entertaining is because Astaire really is that great of a dancer.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: True Grit (1969)

-Brandon Ledet