4/5: FoolMoon and a Critic to Celebrate

Tonight, I’ll be heading down with my menfolks to watch FoolMoon, a luminary-lit walk that converges in downtown Ann Arbor. Candlelight is so magical, spring has been a ridiculously long time coming, and there’s something so tender about candlelight, especially outside. Pix later.

Meanwhile, farewell, Roger Ebert. I don’t particularly care for his film writing, which I’ve always found to be either gushy when he likes something (and completely overlooks some rather glaring issues; Exhibit A, his review of “Do the Right Thing”), snarky and overly dismissive when he doesn’t. Criticism should be incisive, not facile. Then again, watch this brief excerpt from one of his few produced screenplays, and all may become clear. Directed by Russ Meyer, truly a meeting of the minds.

I rest my case. And I’m sorry if that made you tired.

Who do I like? Otis Ferguson.

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His life tragically cut short by WWII—he was serving on a boat that got bombed—he was one of the smartest, most incisive, and just plain funny critics ever. He also wrote beautifully about jazz, but I’ll stick with movies today. A few excerpts:

On Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, full review here: “Politically, the story is eyewash. The machinery of the Senate and the machinery of how it may be used to advantage is shown better than it ever has been. But the main surviving idea is that one scout leader who knows the Gettysburg address by heart but wouldn’t possibly be hired to mow your lawn can throw passionate faith into the balance and by God we’ve got a fine free country to live in again.”

On The Wizard of Oz, full review here: “The Wizard of Oz was intended to hit the same audience as Snow White, and won’t fail for lack of trying. It has dwarfs, music, technicolor, freak characters and Judy Garland. It can’t be expected to have a sense of humor as well—and as for the light touch of fantasy, it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet. Children will not object to it, especially as it is a thing of many interesting gadgets; but it will be delightful for children mostly to their mothers, and any kid tall enough to reach up to a ticket window will be found at the Tarzan film down the street. The story of course has some lovely and wild ideas—men of straw and tin, a cowardly lion, a wizard who isn’t a very good wizard—but the picture doesn’t know what to do with them, except to be painfully literal and elaborate about everything—Cecil B. DeMille and the Seven Thousand Dwarfs by Actual Count.”

But unlike many sub-standard “critics” who are only good when they’re panning something, Ferguson knew his onions and called greatness when he saw it, as here, for The Grapes of Wrath (full review): “The word that comes in most handily for The Grapes of Wrath is magnificent. Movies will probably go on improving and broadening themselves; but in any event, The Grapes of Wrath is the most mature picture story that has ever been made, in feeling, in purpose, and in the use of the medium. You can drag out classics (it is often safer not to go back and see them) and you can roll off names in different tongues and times. But this is a best that has no very near comparison to date.”

When I discovered Ferguson by accident online, I fell in love. I checked out the book of his collected film criticism from the library, with a foreward by Andrew Sarris; Andrew was a favorite lunch date in my Criterion days, and I’m always happy to find an essay of his by serendipity. Tragically, the book ends with reviews in early 1943 or ’42 (can’t remember, but he died in ’43), after which Ferguson was deployed and quickly lost.

The role of the critic is, or used to be and still should be, to elevate the discourse, to say this is what a film should be, could be, as well as what it is. I don’t begrudge anyone their Ebert mourning. I just wish more people would recognize that, far from being the be-all and end-all of film criticism, he’s a starting point to exploration of what can be, in Ferguson’s hands, an art form, as well as a public service that can make everyone a little smarter.

And meanwhile, if you haven’t watched Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, watch it. Austin Powers fans in particular are in for an eye opener.

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