The day I corrected Roger Ebert

The great movie critic Roger Ebert died today after a lengthy battle with cancer. It’s not often I’m personally touched by the passing of a “celebrity,” but Roger Ebert was first and foremost a writer, and someone into whose orbit I was inexorably but briefly pulled one day back in March 2006.

Roger Ebert

A young Roger Ebert in 1970

Seven years ago, Roger Ebert posted a review of V for Vendetta, observing:

Britain is ruled by a man named Sutler, who gives orders to his underlings from a wall-sized TV screen and seems the personification of Big Brother.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of my favorite books, and the movie starring John Hurt is one of my favorite literary adaptations in cinema. So when I saw that John Hurt was playing Sutler, I thought Mr. Ebert had missed something. I hit the Send Feedback link and wrote a brief email:

Dear Roger,

Although you compared John Hurt’s character to Big Brother in your review of “V for Vendetta,” I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t note the irony inherent in the fact that Hurt played Winston Smith in “1984.” I think it was a brilliant piece of stunt casting.

Andrew Becraft
Seattle, WA

I never expected a reply. But a few minutes later, I got this amusing response from Roger Ebert himself:

Ohmigod. You;re right!

A few minutes later, he replied again:

I have now incorporated your insight into the review, for which I thank you.

I went back to the review, and Ebert had added:

And is: Sutler is played by John Hurt, who in fact played Winston Smith in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984).

I wrote Roger back:

Excellent! We all have our little obsessions, and “1984” is one of mine.

All the best,

-Andrew

Again Roger replied:

I love the whole of Orwell — all his novels, and those four thick volumes gathering his miscellaneous writings.

Best,
RE

I was so tempted to continue talking movies and literature with the world-famous Roger Ebert in more and more of these brief exchanges, but I didn’t want to seem obsessive — even though I was giddily forwarding these little emails to all my friends and doing little dances at the office.

Exactly three months later, Roger underwent the first surgery that removed his ability to speak. The ultimate writer (the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, back in 1975), he quickly turned to the web, embracing RogerEbert.com more than ever, along with the nascent social media boom. The written word became his voice, and his fan base grew and grew even as he mostly retired from public view.

I hear people today talking about how much he interacted with fans and engaged with them intellectually since his illness, but it’s obvious to me that Roger Ebert was doing exactly that long before Twitter or Facebook.

Roger Ebert loved what he did, and loved to share his passion with like-minded people — movie buffs, writers, and readers of great literature. For one afternoon seven years ago, I found myself sharing my love of George Orwell with the great and wonderful Roger Ebert.

The world of film will be a dimmer place without him.

Hashima / Gunkanjima – a perfect lair for a Bond villain

The latest James Bond film, Skyfall, features Javier Bardem as a classic Bond villain with an equally classic lair on an abandoned island. As I learned watching a recent episode of Top Gear about Bond cars, the crew prefers reality to effects whenever possible, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Silva’s lair is a real place — Hashima (also known as Gunkanjima), off the coast of Nagasaki in Japan.

Hashima or Gunkanjima ruins

Photo by Jordy Theiller

The island was a company town operated to mine coal starting in 1887, but abandoned in 1974. Reminiscent of Pripyat near Chernobyl, check out lots more photos on Haikyo.org and Gakuranman.

Via Boing Boing.

Chauvet in 3D – Cave of Forgotten Dreams

My sense of awe and wonder is most often sparked by a newfound understanding of my place in the universe, a feeling Michael Shermer calls “deep and sacred science.” I’ve felt it listening to “The Messiah” in Westminster Abbey next to Handel’s tomb, unearthing the hearth of a 3,200-year-old house, or climbing hundreds of steps through mist-soaked cedars to a neglected Shinto shrine.

For me, the sense is strongest when I feel a connection to my fellow humans, both those with whom I share the planet today and all those who came before. It’s one reason I’m so fascinated by archaeology — the deeper the past, the deeper my awe and wonder.

Lions painting, Chauvet Cave (museum replica)

The Chauvet cave in southeast France was discovered in 1994, and contains the world’s oldest examples of cave art. Artists painted and engraved horses, aurochs, rhinos, mammoths, lions, leopards, and many other Ice Age animals on the cave walls 32,000-30,000 years ago (in the Aurignacian) and again 27,000-26,000 years ago (Gravettian). Just as in Lascaux, the artists used the natural contours of the cave to accentuate their artwork — the jaw muscles of a horse, the humped shoulder of a bison.

You can’t see these shapes in photographs, and unlike Lascaux there is (as yet) no full-scale modern reproduction to satisfy those of us who won’t ever step through that locked door and enter this ancient cathedral.

This is where Werner Herzog‘s new documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” proves invaluable.

Herzog’s film captures the pristine cave art like no photograph or even 2D movie can. Herzog also includes touching moments of modern humanity, like the experimental archaeologist who plays “The Star Spangled Banner” on a reproduction Ice Age flute, his colleague who dreamed of lions after spending five days in the cave, and the master perfumer who crawls through the brush sniffing for the scent of undiscovered caves.

My only criticism is reserved for the last two minutes of the film, during which Herzog narrates a well-meaning “postscript” that attempts to connect modernity with antiquity via an analogy featuring albino alligators warmed by nuclear power plant effluvium. (No, I didn’t get it either.) After the final cave sequence, it would have been a postscript best left unread.

But when the filmmaker lets light, dark, the cave, and the artists themselves work their ancient magic, the experience is positively numinous.

15 movies

Back-dated and cross-posted from Facebook, this is my list of 15 movies that will “always stick with me.”

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Japanese poster

  • Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki)
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
  • Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)
  • Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (George Lucas)
  • Henry V (Kenneth Branagh)
  • 1984 (Michael Radford)
  • Dreams (Akira Kurosawa)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson)
  • Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón)
  • Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster)
  • Cloverfield (Matt Reeves / J.J. Abrams)
  • Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)
  • District 9 (Neill Blomkamp / Peter Jackson)
  • Where the Wild Things Are trailer (Spike Jonze)

What’s a trailer doing in an all-time list of favorite movies? Because it’s the single best one and a half minutes of movie-making I’ve ever seen. The actual movie can only be a disappointment…