Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sitting Around With His Thumb up His Butt

Roger Ebert, as you probably know, has lost the capacity to speak as part of his struggle with cancer of the salivary gland. The true loss to us the moviegoing public is not that thumb show, which had been pretty played out for some time now, but Ebert's DVD commentaries. I just listened to his track for Casablanca, and it's more or less like sitting down with the most knowledgeable movie fan you know and having him explain, in a friendly and accessible way, everything that's going on as part of the filmmaking process.

Ebert's commentary for Casablanca isn't even as good as his work on Citizen Kane. Ebert has seen and explicated Kane so many times that you get the feeling he just sat down, with no preparation at all, and just chatted his way through the technical and political machinations that produced the movie. He barely stops for breath, he is so overloaded with material.

Casablanca isn't at that level; there are a couple of points where he goes silent for a moment then launches into a discursion on something unrelated to what's happening onscreen, like the laughable notion that Casablanca is "a perfect movie," as if it were a geometric proof rather than a piece of artistry. These are the time when the commentary producer is feeding him questions. Since Michael Curtiz lends himself less to notions of camera placement and special effects and whatnot than Orson Welles, some of this stuff eventually becomes necessary. Ebert is quite good, though, at explaining why the performances of Humphrey Bogart and (especially) Ingrid Bergman are so effective (and why Paul Henreid is such a stiff).

Those are the only two Ebert commentaries I've listened to; the others on his dossier are Dark City (which is sooo not my kind of movie), Floating Weeds (by the Japanese director Ozu), Crumb (which I saw in the theater and enjoyed) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (for which Ebert wrote the screenplay). Since he won't be doing any more, I may have to track them down. Even Dark City.

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