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Category Archives: Reminiscences

Roger Ebert R.I.P. (1942-2013)

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Roger Ebert made a big impression on my life, as he seemingly did with everyone who cared about movies over the past few decades. He was the person who first made me aware of what film criticism was. That would have been at some point in the early-to-mid-1980s when, as a kid, I started watching the popular At the Movies show he co-hosted with Gene Siskel. Later on, in the pre-internet days of the early-1990s, I read and wore out my copy of his “Video Companion.” While there were other critics who would end up exerting a stronger influence on me as a teacher and writer, I still always read and admired Ebert over the years. Just last semester I played the classic At the Movies episode entitled “Women in Danger” in its entirety in order to illustrate to a class what the “slasher movie” subgenre is.

I think Ebert’s greatest contribution to film criticism was the way he proved it could be both intelligent and popular at the same time. While many reviewers lamentably borrowed the basic “thumbs up/thumbs down” conceit — trademarked by Siskel and Ebert — in order to serve as mere “see this/don’t see that” consumer guides, Ebert’s reviews themselves were always insightful. And he commendably used his fame to champion film history — as in his “Great Movies” series — as well as little-known contemporary films that needed more exposure. For instance, he reviewed, in 2010, Chicago Heights, a locally shot/self-distributed indie made on a budget of $1,000 that played for just one week at the Siskel Center. In an age when movie reviews are being systematically replaced in the media with “celebrity news” (as Werner Herzog put it yesterday), it is doubtful that any film critic in the future will have the kind of wide-ranging impact that Ebert did.

The only contact I had with Roger Ebert came last year. We had been “facebook friends” for some time when I saw that he posted an article about the time he interviewed Charles Bukowski on the set of Barbet Schroeder’s Bukowski-penned movie Barfly in 1987. This reminded me of something I had been wondering about for years: in Bukowski’s highly entertaining 1989 novel Hollywood, a lightly fictionalized account of the making of Barfly, Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski describes being interviewed by an Ebert stand-in named “Rick Talbot.” Chinaski asks Talbot what he disliked the most about “Kirby Hudson” (read Gene Siskel), the co-host of his movie review show. Talbot’s response was: “His finger. It’s when he points his finger.” For some reason, I always thought this passage was uproariously funny. So I asked Ebert if “Talbot” had indeed said this about “Hudson” in real life, and he was kind enough to respond. His reply: “Michael: In a word, yes.”

Here’s Ebert in a cameo as himself in a 1995 episode of the animated series The Critic. The duet he sings with Siskel at the end is great:

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Postering

Like many cinephiles with a massive home video collection, I am also a collector of movie posters. Unfortunately, my “teacher’s salary” has not really allowed me to indulge the latter habit to the extent I would like. Nonetheless, I thought readers of this blog might be interested in seeing some of the movie posters in my home and reading about how, when and where I acquired them.

Germany Year Ninety Nine Zero (Godard, 1991)

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The English language title of Godard’s belated 1991 sequel to his popular 1965 film Alphaville doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. That’s because “Neuf” in French translates as either “nine” or “new.” A more accurate translation of the French title, Allemagne 90 neuf zéro (which riffs on the title of Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero while also alluding to 1990 — the year Godard made his film), might be something like 1990: Germany Year New Zero. Nonetheless, this is my favorite movie poster because of its rarity. I acquired this at Facets Cinematheque in the mid-Nineties when Godard’s film received an unlikely theatrical run in 35mm from an outfit named “Drift Releasing” (who, needless to say, went under long ago). They were selling these posters for ten dollars in the lobby. How rare is it? I’ve never even seen one available for sale online.

Charlie Chaplin ink drawing

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This was a gift from my lovely wife who purchased it on Etsy. Many were the times I gazed up at it while working on my forthcoming book Flickering Empire, in which Chaplin is prominently featured.

For any Chicagoans looking for recommendations on where to get their own posters framed, I recommend Lake View Art Supply — whose handiwork can be seen above. (Ask for Ethan!) For good, reasonably priced online framing, I recommend Wholesale Poster Frames (http://www.wholesaleposterframes.com/).

Pierrot le Fou (Godard, 1965)

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Godard again. This is not an original poster from 1965 but a reproduction from the 1970s. I purchased it in Paris in 1995 when I was a wee lad of 20-years-old. I can’t remember how much I paid for it but I know that it cost considerably more than the reproductions below but considerably less than the whopping $295 it’s currently going for on ebay.

The Searchers (Ford, 1956) and Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)

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Okay, these are reproductions I got in Paris at the same time I got the Pierrot le Fou poster. You can find these (and others similar to them for various “Golden Age” Hollywood films) online for cheap. However, I still really like the bright colors and the overall design. And the fact that the titles are written in Dutch.


Chris Marker R.I.P. (1921 – 2012)

The great French director Chris Marker passed away on his 91st birthday last Sunday. I was saddened to learn this news upon returning to Chicago from a weekend vacation I had taken to Springfield, Illinois (a Marker-esque voyage in time of my own). Coincidentally, I had been thinking a lot about Marker as of late because I had recently bought and eagerly consumed the contents of what will surely go down as one of the most substantial home video releases of the year, the Criterion Collection’s magnificent La Jetee / Sans Soleil blu-ray package.

I thought about how the first Marker film I ever saw, way back in the 1990s, had been 1963’s Le Joli Mai on a dubiously legal, poor quality VHS tape featuring notoriously difficult-to-read “white on white” subtitles. (Boy, the things a cinephile had to put up with in those days!) As budding young movie freaks and aspiring filmmakers, my best friend Rollo and I were interested in tracking down films by all of the directors associated with the French New Wave. In spite of the substandard image and sound quality of this particular tape, Rollo and I were mesmerized by the movie contained therein; Chris Marker, as an off-screen presence (he was notoriously camera shy), had spent the Spring of 1962 interviewing a diverse cross-section of the French public about the concept of “happiness.” (Incredibly, it was the first Spring of peace in France since 1939.) The resulting film’s epic running time – two hours and 45 minutes – allowed the director to deeply penetrate the hopes and fears of an entire society. I had never seen anything like it. Here was an amazing documentary that was alternately playful, mysterious and probing, a movie as humane as it was intellectually rigorous. From that point on, I made sure to track down as many Marker films as I could. This included not only his celebrated masterpieces like La Jetee and Sans Soleil but brilliant lesser known essay films like The Last Bolshevik (a tribute to the Russian director Alexander Medvedkin), One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsinovich (ditto for Andrei Tarkovsky) and even digital shorts like Pictures at an Exhibition (a movie so obscure that it’s not even listed on the Internet Movie Database).

I thought about a conversation I once had with Chicago’s terrific film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky back when he was working at Bucktown’s Odd Obsession video store. Somehow, Ignatiy and I got onto the subject of favorite filmmakers and he told me that he considered Marker one of the five greatest of all time. I absolutely balked at this assertion, honing in on Marker as the obvious weak link in Ignatiy’s personal top five, especially since there were no American directors among the other four. (I remember thinking at the time, “One day this kid will learn . . .”) But after watching La Jetee and Sans Soleil again on blu-ray, I think that, even if I still don’t agree with Ignatiy (and who knows, he may have changed his own mind since then), I no longer think that’s a controversial opinion. La Jetee is, after all, arguably the greatest science-fiction movie ever made, a “photo roman” in which form (a short film consisting entirely of a series of still images – with one crucial exception) is perfectly married to content (a time travel story that serves as a philosophical inquiry into the themes of time and memory). While watching Sans Soleil again, I had to admit that it too might well be the greatest documentary I’ve ever seen: a brilliant travelogue of Marker’s journeys to various countries around the world over a span of many years, poetically held together by the voice-over narration of an Englishwoman describing how the images constitute a diary made by her friend, a fictional filmmaker named “Sandor Krasna.” Among the astonishing sights and sounds: an African street parade featuring elaborate animal costumes, visits to a Japanese cat shrine and “monkey porn” museum (yes, you read that right), the electronic sounds of video games as a hypnotic, non-diegetic score, a witty side-trip to the San Francisco locations of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and many amazingly beautiful documentary images that have been treated with a video synthesizer and that give an idea of what might have happened had Tarkovsky taken up animation. Why not include Marker in one’s top five?

Other interesting facts about Marker:

– He was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve and took “Marker” as his pseudonym after the Magic Marker pen.

– He was a member of the underground resistance movement during the Nazi occupation of France.

– He studied philosophy under Jean-Paul Sartre.

– He sent his own personal documentary footage of Chile to director Patricio Guzman so that the latter could finish his landmark The Battle of Chile.

– He was an enthusiastic “inhabitant” of the virtual reality game Second Life, and granted one of his very few known interviews in 2008 under the condition that the interview occur on Second Life, complete with pseudonyms and avatars.

– He was a devoted cat lover (like all sensible people!) who responded to requests for photographs by sending pictures of his cat Guillaume-en-Egypt instead. In Agnes Varda’s film The Beaches of Agnes, Marker appears as an animated orange cat.

Chris Marker was one of the most important directors of the movement known as the French New Wave, which is one of the most important of all historical film movements. Now would be an appropriate time to visit or revisit the singular genius of his work. The cinema won’t see his like again.

Me looking through a fake camera at the real home of Abraham Lincoln on the day Chris Marker died. I feel Marker would have approved of this image.

Chris Marker’s death also marks the first time a director on my list of the “fifty best living film directors” has passed away. Rather than keep the list frozen in time the way it first appeared on February 21, 2011, I’ve decided to continually update it so that deceased filmmakers will be removed and replaced by other formidable living directors. (Abel Ferrara has now taken Marker’s place on the list.) Those who were once on the list but have since passed away will be moved to a special section at the bottom of the list. You can see the newly updated list here:

50 Best Living Directors


Wong’s Hong Kong (A Photo Tour)

This fall will see the return of a grand master when Wong Kar-Wai releases his new movie The Grandmasters. The world’s most romantic filmmaker directing what is promised to be a “real kung fu film” (with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai playing Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s teacher) is a mouth-watering prospect. The fact that it is Wong’s first movie in over seven years to be made in his native Hong Kong has raised anticipation and expectations even more. Although working slowly has since become his modus operandi, in the mid-1990s Wong was synonymous with the frenetic urban energy and unique East-meets-West flavor of Hong Kong after releasing Ashes of Time, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels within an astonishing span of just 13 months.

In 2006, I travelled to Hong Kong and visited many of the iconic locations featured in the delightful Chungking Express / Fallen Angels diptych. Here is my own personal photo tour of Wong Kar-Wai’s Hong Kong:

The central location of the first half of Chungking Express is Chungking Mansions, one of the oldest and most famous buildings on Hong Kong’s Kowloon side. (This is where Brigitte Lin’s character, the Woman in the Blonde Wig, recruits the Indian drug smugglers.) The first floor consists of dozens of retail shops, some of which are no larger than phone booths, with the upper floors containing hostels that cater to international travelers. (This is not an endorsement. It is reportedly an unsafe place to stay.) Watching Chungking Express is even more fascinating after having visited this location, as one can really appreciate the accuracy with which Wong captures the building’s singularly grungy poetic quality. Especially impressive is the way the film evokes what it feels like to wander around the first floor – with different ethnic music drifting out at anyone walking through the maze of myriad shops. This is also where Takeshi Kaneshiro’s mute character, He Zhiwu, lives with his father in Fallen Angels.

Outside of Chungking Mansions:

In a dilapidated corner of the building’s interior:

“The Woman in the Blonde Wig” inside of Chungking Mansions:

The central location of the second half of Chungking Express is the fast food restaurant Midnight Express. This is where Faye (Faye Wong) serves black coffee to heartbroken Cop 663 (Tony Leung) every night. The restaurant also makes a cameo in Fallen Angels when He Zhiwu briefly works there. By 2006 Midnight Express, located in Lan Kwai Fong (the nightlife district of Hong Kong Island), had closed and the space was being used as a tobacco shop. From what I understand it has since been converted again, this time into a 7-11.

Faye and Cop 663 in Midnight Express:

Outside of the First In Tobacco Shop (formerly Midnight Express):

In Chungking Express, Cop 663 and Faye make a date to meet at the California Restaurant. Any Wong Kar-Wai fan visiting Hong Kong for the first time will probably be amazed to learn that it is on the same block as Midnight Express (but on the opposite side of the street) – a much closer spatial relationship than one would ever deduce from watching the movie.

I drank a beer inside of California Restaurant (I particularly like this shot because it looks like it could be from a WKW film):

But unlike Cop 663 I didn’t talk to any empty bottles:

Cop 223 eats a burger outside of a Tsim Tsha Tsui McDonald’s (Kowloon side) in Chungking Express. This is also where Leon Lai’s hitman meets Blondie (Karen Mok) in Fallen Angels:

Outside of the same McDonald’s 12 years later:

Next to Wong Kar-Wai’s star on Victoria Harbour’s Hong Kong “Walk of Fame”:

The above photos of me were taken by the great Mia Park

Update 01/14/12: Of all the old posts on this blog, this one has remained the most popular because of the number of people constantly looking for information about the locations where WKW shot his films. Someone even linked this post to the official Wikipedia entry for Chungking Express. Therefore, I’m going to provide more detailed information about the addresses of the locations discussed above.

Chunking Mansions is located at 36 – 44 Nathan Rd. in Kowloon.

California Restaurant is located at 32 – 34 D’aguilar St. in Central.

Midnight Express is now a 7-11 and is located at 3 Lan Kwai Fong, a very short walk from California Restaurant.

The basement McDonald’s that figures in both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels is located on Salisbury Rd. in Kowloon. I don’t know the exact address but it’s easy to find.


The Note in My Copy of Notes on the Cinematographer

Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer has to be one of the most interesting books ever written by a major film director. Modeled on the Pensees of his hero Blaise Pascal, the deceptively modest Notes compiles several decades worth of observations on the cinema and shows the same taste for minimalism, laconic wit and profundity that Bresson brings to his visual style as a filmmaker.

Bresson’s “notes” range from cryptic sentence fragments (“The ejaculatory force of the eye”) to commonsense aesthetic advice directed to himself (“Replace an image with a sound whenever possible”) to more eloquent ruminations on the nature of the medium (one of the lengthiest examples is: “My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water”).

Here is the story of how I came to receive an inscribed copy of this book by my favorite film director of all time:

Early in 1998, I read an issue of the British film magazine Sight & Sound in which the then-96 year old Bresson had responded to several questions in a survey they had sent out to various filmmakers, critics and historians. Although I knew Bresson was still alive, it had been 15 years since his last movie (the masterpiece L’argent, which he completed at the ripe old age of 81) and he had kept such a low profile in the years since that I naively assumed he was probably no longer in possession of his mental faculties. His responses to the survey however were sharp, humorous and unmistakably Bressonian. After coming across a mailing address for him in an encyclopedia, The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, I decided to write him a letter and tell him what his movies meant to me.

The letter was handwritten and I didn’t make a copy but I remember writing that I had been blown away by a screening of his film The Devil Probably that I had attended at Facets Cinematheque several years before and that I couldn’t believe a filmmaker working in the 1970s on the opposite side of the Atlantic had made a film that seemed to so accurately describe the world I was currently living in. I also wrote that of all the works of art I had encountered only the novels of Dostoevsky had had a comparable spiritually uplifting effect on me. Of course, I never expected to hear back from him; I thought it would just be a nice gesture to tell him I loved his movies.

Flash-forward to a year and a half later: in May of 1999, a complete Robert Bresson retrospective was opening at the Film Center of the Art Institute of Chicago (before it moved to its current location and changed its name to the Gene Siskel Film Center): all of the master’s movies in new 35mm prints! I planned on attending all of the films at least once and I was especially excited to see, for the first time ever, long-unavailable, never-released-on-video titles like Au Hasard, Batlthazar and Four Nights of a Dreamer.

Incredibly, on the very first day that the retrospective began, when the letter I had written him seemed like a distant memory, I received a package in the mail from Monsieur Bresson. In it was a copy of Notes on the Cinematographer, which was inscribed:

“Avec mes remerciments pour votre gentille lettre et tous mes voeux
Bresson”
(“With my thanks for your nice letter and all my wishes
Bresson”)

Less than eight months after I received his package, Bresson died of natural causes at the age of 98. Each semester in my Intro to Film class, I typically show either Pickpocket or A Man Escaped and lecture on Bresson’s innovative use of sound design. I tell my students the story of receiving my personally inscribed copy of Notes on the Cinematographer and describe it as my most prized film-related possession. I’m fond of telling them I love the book so much that if my apartment were to ever catch fire, I would throw it out the window and let myself burn.


From the Minx Archives: Mia Park/Michael Smith Radio Interview on WLUW

Since the official website of my no-budget, straight-to-video feature The Minx is no longer online, I will periodically be posting text and media files relating to the movie here. Although there are aspects of the movie I find cringe-inducing today (all of which can be traced back to our impoverished budget and resources), the entire process of making The Minx and finding a distributor for it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

First up, a genuine blast from the not-so-distant past: lead actress Mia Park and I discuss making the The Minx on Loyola University’s fabulous WLUW radio station to promote the film’s 2007 DVD release. Check it:

The Minx Radio Interview on WLUW


David Lynch: Walk with Me

In August of 1992, shortly after my 17th birthday, I attended the first annual “Twin Peaks Fest” in Snoqualmie, Washington. Like many David Lynch aficionados, I was fairly devastated when Twin Peaks, the television show, had been cancelled the previous year and was likewise ecstatic when I learned that Lynch immediately planned to make a feature film prequel to the groundbreaking series.

The film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, received its U.S. premiere during that first Twin Peaks Fest and the above photograph is of me and Mr. Lynch strolling and chatting after I ran into him by chance outside of the hotel where we both happened to be staying. I told Lynch that I didn’t want to bother him but that I was glad he had decided to “bring Twin Peaks back” and that his movies had given me a lot of pleasure over the years. He thanked me and then said in his loud and very distinctive nasal voice, “Take care of yourself, man.”

This encounter took place at probably the lowest point in Lynch’s professional career. Although the first season of Twin Peaks had been a hit, the second season was ignominiously cancelled and Fire Walk with Me received the worst reviews of Lynch’s entire career. (Dune had been a critical disappointment too but that wasn’t really considered a “Lynch film.”)

I didn’t listen to the critics and managed to see the movie five more times in the theater during its brief run. I was and still am impressed by the simultaneously darker and goofier direction in which he took the movie. I loved the hilarious interactions between Chris Isaak’s FBI man and the local-yokel small town sheriff played by Gary Bullock. I loved the full-blown surrealism of the brief scene involving David Bowie. And most of all, I loved how personal it all felt; Lynch’s bitterness over the show’s cancellation was palpable and could be immediately felt in the opening image of an ax destroying a television set.

Upon returning home I wrote a letter to my local paper, the Charlotte Observer, offering to provide them photographs and anecdotes from the Fest in anticipation of the film’s local release. The Observer‘s film critic wrote me back to suggest I try a horror fanzine like Fangoria(!) instead.

18 years later, David Lynch is considered by many to be America’s greatest living filmmaker. His 2001 masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, recently topped many critics polls of the best films of the decade, including prestigious polls in France’s Cahiers du Cinema and Film Comment in the U.S. Fortunately, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, has also undergone a critical re-evaluation; it is now considered a cult classic and has been cited by none other than Greil Marcus as one of the best American films of the 1990s.


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