I’m reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. It’s reminding me of Russell Baker’s Good Times (and if you haven’t read Good Times and its prequel Growing Up, put them on your list. Both are witty and evocative of the 40s and 50s). Ebert and Baker have in common that understated wit and also an economical prose style. Mostly, though, its the newspaper lore that brought Baker to mind. With Ebert’s book I was expecting a tale of lifelong infatuation with movies, but it’s more about the life of a newspaper man. In fact, when first offered (or, more accurately, handed) the job of movie reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert had to give himself a crash course in movies. He’d always liked movies, but he didn’t have anything close to an encyclopedic appreciation for them. He says it was useful for him to hear that Dwight Macdonald (critic for Esquire) and Pauline Kael (for the New Yorker) did this: (quoting Kael) “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.” Well, that cuts through the pressure of having to bring the entire history of cinema into the screening room with you.
How can I apply that? Almost immediately I think of movies that have stuck in my head for reasons I can’t easily explain.
Last year, I watched Antonioni’s Monica Vitti trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse. I enjoyed the complicated and compelling characters, and the ballet of movement in some of the scenes. But particularly with the 2nd and 3rd films, I felt pressured to process everything I saw as an artistic statement. That made watching them more like homework than anything else. What happened to me after each one, though? Well, for a while, I chewed on the relationships, certainly. L’Avventura’s ending is both an affirmation of love and a realization that love inflicts wounds. Vitti’s character forgives Ferzetti’s character? Really? If it’s not forgiveness, is it resignation and a desire to forgive? In some ways, the ending is not a resolution as much as those two characters reaching a low point and having to figure out if they’re going to come out of it together or separately. They may not last, but separation at that particular point doesn’t seem in the cards. If they do last, it will be the result of significant maturation and self-understanding.
With La Notte, I thought about marriage. How could a viewer not? If courtship is one novel or one movie, marriage is a body of work. At the end of La Notte, the husband and wife are about as individualized as they can be–you wonder how they were ever a couple. Her blunt certainty that the marriage is over is both admirable and deeply depressing. I felt terrible for her having to try to convince him of the truth. And he seems to know it, too, but he won’t admit it. He can’t admit it. Their physical activity in the grass right then and there is the opposite of love-making. How can you see that and not say to yourself, “this is what the end of a marriage feels like”?
L’Eclisse still baffles me as a big picture–as plot. But none of the three movies in the trilogy can be described in terms of plot anyway. So what happened to me? I was fan-infatuated with Vitti for good. I loved the images of Alain Delon moving around the trading floor and interacting with his car. I wanted to reach a point of being able to cheer for Vitti and Delon as a couple. But they didn’t seem like they were getting anywhere. There was physical attraction and some comfortable patter. But they didn’t connect like movie stars in movies do. Relationships are hard! Plus there’s the documentary montage at the end that seems to want us to question our desire for these two characters to find a comfortable arrangement. The problems of two people don’t amount to a hill o’ beans in this crazy world.
Also, strictly as images, the three movies are beautiful to look at. Maybe that’s enough by itself.
Ebert also writes something interesting about the kind of movie he most enjoyed (he died just this past April): those about good people (whether or not those people do good things or meet happy ends). That’s just about the most accessible criterion I’ve ever heard. And he admits at one point that watching movies was for him partially a sort of avoidance of a real romantic relationship. Tough thing for a film critic to admit.
Thank you, Roger Ebert.