Duncan Shepherd filled this column for 38 years. I step in with gratitude (he asked) and with serene confidence that I will not be writing in 2048.
“Style,” said Susan Sontag, “is the principle of decision in an artist’s work.” For a critic, style is the written voice. Duncan’s voice has been as distinctive as those made famous by James Agee, Pauline Kael, and his mentor, Manny Farber. He covered films with deep dedication and knowledge, and many of his best reviews help to define some of his favorite directors (Alain Resnais, Terence Davies, Arturo Ripstein, the Coens, the Dardennes, Clint Eastwood). He was never prone to blurbs, his vocabulary did not rely on “awesome” and “sucks,” and his lucid, intricately woven style became eloquently melancholy in his final column last week.
He and I enjoyed a cordial competition during my 24 years at the city’s “paper of record.” I hope that devoted Duncanistas will give me and my new colleagues a chance. Those colleagues are Reader writer Matthew Lickona and teacher John Rubio, and they debut on December 2. We shall write in rotation: two weeks of me, one week of them. Harry Potter will appear here next week. Before two reviews, some Q&A foreplay:
What are your reviewing standards?
In Citizen Kane, Kane makes and soon breaks his Declaration of Principles. I agree with the late writer Frank Kermode, who said that critical writing “must give pleasure, like the other arts.” Despite the current state of films (not great), I offer a Declaration of Pleasure: I will share my pleasure in finding movies and in writing about them.
But isn’t a critic’s function to appraise art?
Novelist Larry McMurtry wrote that “any thinking based on the conviction that one [new] movie is art and another not is purely speculative. Only time will answer that question.” Critics help shape the question more than the answer, and the aim is not consensus but conversation. Being systematic is little help. I agree with Kael, who said that “while criticism can be an art, it will never be a science.”
Should critics pay attention to popular taste?
The only real taste is personal. Be aware of the hits, forget the numbers.
What are your qualifications?
This is my seventh run as a film reviewer, after working at a college paper, the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, USA Today, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and SDNN.com. It adds up.
What films define your taste?
Taste defies definition, and my multiplex has room for both Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and The Sorrow and the Pity, both Jackie Brown and A Taste of Cherry. Let me tout 12 “odd” movies I always enjoy: Box of Moonlight, Colma: The Musical, The Cruise, Fur, I Am Cuba, L’eclisse, The Long Goodbye, Mr. Arkadin, Mon oncle d’Amérique, The Music Room, Point Blank, and Russian Ark. My pet pleasures include the Westerns of Budd Boetticher and Buster Keaton’s comedies.
Do you have a favorite guilty pleasure?
No need for guilt. The Oscar (1966) is a dud divine and a joy forever. No other film has Elke Sommer building a house of cards on a Hollywood wet bar as she tells Tony Bennett, “Hymie, deep thinker, explain to me the ethical structure of the universe.”
Your choice as the greatest movie?
Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy is an astonishing achievement. You can’t beat Citizen Kane for creative excitement or The Rules of the Game for grace. For ensemble force, The Godfather. For violence, The Seven Samurai. For landscapes, The Searchers. For visual wit, Playtime. For beauty, 8½ in black and white, Vertigo in color, Olympia in bodies, 2001: A Space Odyssey in astral bodies.
How would you change our local scene?
I wish it could all have the spirit of the family-run Kensington Video. My pipe dream is that a wealthy angel restores the former Loma Theater for vintage movies. I get to usher. Right now my flashlight turns to:
James Franco (actor, writer, poet, painter, director, pin-up, perfume icon) is highly gifted, but his impish charm gets squeezed hard by director Danny Boyle. As outdoor thrill addict Aron Ralston, Franco falls into a narrow Utah canyon where his right arm gets wedged tightly behind a large rock (this did happen, in 2003). He fills many closeups, including those shot by a little video cam that he perches on the rock. Even deft manipulations of his legs and left arm cannot revive Franco’s Spiderman powers, and we can guess the bloody outcome: self-inflicted surgery. If Saw fans and Civil War medical buffs are not upset by this, others will be (it’s raw, though tame next to a brilliant shocker such as In My Skin).
Stuck with Ralston and the rock, the film could become just a dull groan of claustrophobic pain. So Boyle, with the posturing vulgarity of his Slumdog Millionaire, festoons the story with tags and tangents: canyon views akin to art photos by Galen Rowell, saucy female hikers, feverish split screens, a torpedo zoom back to Aron’s vehicle, rock music (also Dinah Washington), Ralston joshing his predicament, poignant family memories, even Aron’s boyhood self hovering wistfully over the amputation.
The flashy opportunism oversells the very slight material and pins us under the rock of Boyle’s “art.” We feel for Aron, of course — yet he’s such a breezy, chipper survivalist, and there is little of the tension that made Touching the Void a sadomasochist’s marathon.
Vision — From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen
Religious films must be taken on faith, because spirituality resists depiction. Despite fine acting — such as Catherine Mouchet in Thérèse or Meg Tilly piously spellbound in Agnes of God — the inner light remains hazy, like 3D for which only God has the glasses. Films have often rooted the seeker in a credible process, such as Audrey Hepburn struggling with Catholic discipline in The Nun’s Story or Pierre Fresnay as Monsieur Vincent tirelessly comforting a brutal world. In Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision — From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, Barbara Sukowa is Hildegard, leading her little group of nuns through the maze of medieval male power. The abbot is a smug little Führer, though Hildegard so impresses Emperor Frederick Barbarossa that he teaches her chess.