David Elliott’s Declaration of Pleasure

Duncan Shepherd filled this column for 38 years. I step in with gratitude (he asked) and with serene confidence that I will not be writing in 2048.

“Style,” said Susan Sontag, “is the principle of decision in an artist’s work.” For a critic, style is the written voice. Duncan’s voice has been as distinctive as those made famous by James Agee, Pauline Kael, and his mentor, Manny Farber. He covered films with deep dedication and knowledge, and many of his best reviews help to define some of his favorite directors (Alain Resnais, Terence Davies, Arturo Ripstein, the Coens, the Dardennes, Clint Eastwood). He was never prone to blurbs, his vocabulary did not rely on “awesome” and “sucks,” and his lucid, intricately woven style became eloquently melancholy in his final column last week.

He and I enjoyed a cordial competition during my 24 years at the city’s “paper of record.” I hope that devoted Duncanistas will give me and my new colleagues a chance. Those colleagues are Reader writer Matthew Lickona and teacher John Rubio, and they debut on December 2. We shall write in rotation: two weeks of me, one week of them. Harry Potter will appear here next week. Before two reviews, some Q&A foreplay:

What are your reviewing standards?

In Citizen Kane, Kane makes and soon breaks his Declaration of Principles. I agree with the late writer Frank Kermode, who said that critical writing “must give pleasure, like the other arts.” Despite the current state of films (not great), I offer a Declaration of Pleasure: I will share my pleasure in finding movies and in writing about them.

But isn’t a critic’s function to appraise art?

Novelist Larry McMurtry wrote that “any thinking based on the conviction that one [new] movie is art and another not is purely speculative. Only time will answer that question.” Critics help shape the question more than the answer, and the aim is not consensus but conversation. Being systematic is little help. I agree with Kael, who said that “while criticism can be an art, it will never be a science.”

Should critics pay attention to popular taste?

The only real taste is personal. Be aware of the hits, forget the numbers.

What are your qualifications?

This is my seventh run as a film reviewer, after working at a college paper, the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, USA Today, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and SDNN.com. It adds up.

What films define your taste?

Taste defies definition, and my multiplex has room for both Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and The Sorrow and the Pity, both Jackie Brown and A Taste of Cherry. Let me tout 12 “odd” movies I always enjoy: Box of Moonlight, Colma: The Musical, The Cruise, Fur, I Am Cuba, L’eclisse, The Long Goodbye, Mr. Arkadin, Mon oncle d’Amérique, The Music Room, Point Blank, and Russian Ark. My pet pleasures include the Westerns of Budd Boetticher and Buster Keaton’s comedies.

Do you have a favorite guilty pleasure?

No need for guilt. The Oscar (1966) is a dud divine and a joy forever. No other film has Elke Sommer building a house of cards on a Hollywood wet bar as she tells Tony Bennett, “Hymie, deep thinker, explain to me the ethical structure of the universe.”

Your choice as the greatest movie?

Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy is an astonishing achievement. You can’t beat Citizen Kane for creative excitement or The Rules of the Game for grace. For ensemble force, The Godfather. For violence, The Seven Samurai. For landscapes, The Searchers. For visual wit, Playtime. For beauty, in black and white, Vertigo in color, Olympia in bodies, 2001: A Space Odyssey in astral bodies.

How would you change our local scene?

I wish it could all have the spirit of the family-run Kensington Video. My pipe dream is that a wealthy angel restores the former Loma Theater for vintage movies. I get to usher. Right now my flashlight turns to:


127 Hours

James Franco (actor, writer, poet, painter, director, pin-up, perfume icon) is highly gifted, but his impish charm gets squeezed hard by director Danny Boyle. As outdoor thrill addict Aron Ralston, Franco falls into a narrow Utah canyon where his right arm gets wedged tightly behind a large rock (this did happen, in 2003). He fills many closeups, including those shot by a little video cam that he perches on the rock. Even deft manipulations of his legs and left arm cannot revive Franco’s Spiderman powers, and we can guess the bloody outcome: self-inflicted surgery. If Saw fans and Civil War medical buffs are not upset by this, others will be (it’s raw, though tame next to a brilliant shocker such as In My Skin).

Stuck with Ralston and the rock, the film could become just a dull groan of claustrophobic pain. So Boyle, with the posturing vulgarity of his Slumdog Millionaire, festoons the story with tags and tangents: canyon views akin to art photos by Galen Rowell, saucy female hikers, feverish split screens, a torpedo zoom back to Aron’s vehicle, rock music (also Dinah Washington), Ralston joshing his predicament, poignant family memories, even Aron’s boyhood self hovering wistfully over the amputation.

The flashy opportunism oversells the very slight material and pins us under the rock of Boyle’s “art.” We feel for Aron, of course — yet he’s such a breezy, chipper survivalist, and there is little of the tension that made Touching the Void a sadomasochist’s marathon.



Vision — From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen

Religious films must be taken on faith, because spirituality resists depiction. Despite fine acting — such as Catherine Mouchet in Thérèse or Meg Tilly piously spellbound in Agnes of God — the inner light remains hazy, like 3D for which only God has the glasses. Films have often rooted the seeker in a credible process, such as Audrey Hepburn struggling with Catholic discipline in The Nun’s Story or Pierre Fresnay as Monsieur Vincent tirelessly comforting a brutal world. In Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision — From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, Barbara Sukowa is Hildegard, leading her little group of nuns through the maze of medieval male power. The abbot is a smug little Führer, though Hildegard so impresses Emperor Frederick Barbarossa that he teaches her chess.

Von Trotta’s fifth film with Sukowa opens with flagellant blood while avoiding the brutality that made The Passion of the Christ so crucifying. Hildegard doesn’t favor flagellation and is upset to find that her spiritual guide wore a barbed belt. She loves God, her nuns, and the natural order in a prematurely Franciscan way (“Listen to the birds”). Her stern, Teutonic face is one to put right near Luther, Holbein, and Wagner. Hildegard’s visions tax her health, yet her life force is great. She relishes old Greek tomes and Arabic medicine and is a gifted musician (the film has lovely singing). Despite formulaic close-ups and some ragged shifts of tone, Von Trotta achieves a fairly sensual grip on the past.

Hildegard’s restless brilliance echoes Assumpta Serna’s Sor Juana in I, the Worst of All and Rachel Weisz’s Alexandrian scholar Hypatia in last summer’s neglected Agora. She is a feminist 800 years ahead of schedule. As so often in religious stories, sex nags like an itch. Von Bingen is harsh with a pregnant nun but enjoys seriously sisterly kisses with another. Braced and resonated by Gothic architecture, the mix of German and Latin often sounds profound. The strong cast includes Heino Ferch as a touchingly sympathetic monk. Hildegard, who died at 81 in 1179, seems utterly of her time and yet well beyond it.

★ ★ ★



News on the March: The charming Cinema Under the Stars venue has extended the closure of its 2010 season by adding another weekend of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the irresistible New York entertainment starring Audrey Hepburn, enjoyably backed by George Peppard, Mickey Rooney, Martin Balsam, the late Patricia Neal, and the fabulous Villalonga. Showing at 8 p.m. tonight, Friday, and Saturday at 4040 Goldfinch, Mission Hills. 619-295-4221.

Reviewed in this week’s capsule listings: Leaving, Mademoiselle Chambon, The Milk of Sorrow, The Next Three Days, and Today’s Special.

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At least The Loma is a bookstore. I would be horrified if they turned in into a "Wings" like the OB theatre. Great debut!! Three stars and welcome! I also like that you "star" the movies on your web critique. I missed you when you "left" the UT. Nice to have you back.

I don't have to tell you what Bull Durham's Crash Davis had to say about Susan Sontag. He was right, you know, it was self-indulgent crap. Of course, so is the craft of reviewing film. Good luck, Mr. Elliott. The shoes you fill are apparently larger than life.

So one "star" for a movie getting 91% on rotten tomatoes, comparing it derisively to Slundog Millionaire, perhaps the best movie of that year. Then a review for a movie 12 people are going to see. Graet job Reader - you exchanged one useless reviewer for another.

I don't know about wine-time Matthew Lickona and that other guy, but David Elliott's reviews for the U-T were readable and, unlike the retirement of Jonathan Saville from writing about classical music, there IS a replacement, so I am churlish but grateful. I hated Duncan's reviews, but I read them and then discounted them. I will miss his distinctive voice.

Welcome to the movie set, David Elliott, Matthew Lickona and John Rubio. I was fearful there would be no replacement for Duncan Shepherd (not that anyone is quite like him) but it sounds as if we could be looking forward to some familiar and new voices. Thanks to unemployment and limited funds, I admit I don't see as many films as I used to, but I do love reading about them. I wish you all well and look forward to your reviews.

By my count, dude mentioned nearly 50 movies in this here introductory column. I've heard of 14 of them and have seen or likely ever will see 9.

What to make of those numbers?

"What to make of those numbers?". What I make of those numbers, if you've really only heard of 14 of the 50 mentioned, is that you aren't much of a cinephile. By all means, get thee to Kensington video and see 'Olympia','Playtime', 'I, the Worst of All', 'Pee-wee’s Big Adventure', 'Monsieur Vincent', 'Jackie Brown', 'A Taste of Cherry', 'L’eclisse', and Apu Trilogy, if you're interested in the true power and majesty of the movies. While I have plenty of problems with this new regime, not least of all this week's straining to appeal to "Duncanistas" (a "word" I pray never to see again), I wish to bury any annoyances I've had with Mr. Elliott in the past (giving a lone star to 'Last Days of Disco', that dog!), and hope for him a successful run in these pages. And congratulations to John Rubio, who I'm very happy to see play a part in filling in some of this immense hole left in the movie culture of San Diego.

Thanks for your review on the Hildegard film! I'd have missed it for sure. Wrote a paper on her "cosmic egg" once upon a time. Fascinating woman.

I'll be scooting over to the Ken tomorrow to view it. :)

The Reader has the extraordinary good fortune to lose one unique film critic , armed with style, knowledge and sufficient wit, with another critic with equal, yet distinct attributes. Duncan Shepherd has made his mark , I am sorry to see him leave the paper, but I am glad that David Eliot will again have a venue from which to continue his fine history of movie critique. A smart choice.

Ugh. Depressing.

Duncan was the best thing about the Reader. A sad day for sure.

DEAR MR. ELLIOTT, IT'S WONDERFUL TO HAVE YOU BACK IN PRINT! I'VE MISSED YOUR INTELLIGENCE, HUMOR, ENTHUSIASM, AND DISCRIMINATING INFORMATION IN THIS AGE OF LIMITED SOUNDBITES. MY BRAIN CAN NOW GET A BIT OF A WORKOUT,WHICH AFFORDS ME ABSOLUTE PLEASURE. IN YOUR COLUMNS NOT ONLY DO I READ ABOUT CINEMATIC WORKS OF ART, BUT I READ ABOUT THEM WHILE ENJOYING YOUR ARTISTIC, DISCERNING STYLE OF WRITING. I ALSO LOOK FORWARD TO THE TEAM EFFORT YOU DESCRIBE, WHICH MAY PROVIDE A PLEASANT VARIETY WHILE SHARING A WEALTH OF INFO DURING THIS RECESSION. A BIG WELCOME BACK! BEST WISHES TO DUNCAN! -- A FAN

I HOPE DAVID ACTUALLY LIKES MOVIES. DUNCAN DID NOT. HE DIDN'T EVEN WRITE ABOUT A FILM HE REVIEWED. WE LEARNED NOTHING ABOUT THE PLOT OR WHETHER OR NOT WE'D LIKE IT.

Yes-it's true. Duncan will be missed but there is no denying his "reviews" were way over the top of most "Reader" reader's heads. That doesn't mean they weren't somewhat useful, erudite and well-written. But more so for a Film Criticism Seminar in the Visual Arts Dept. at UCSD rather than a mainstream general publication like the Reader.

However stuffy Duncan can sometimes be, he is the progeny and proverbial intellectual son of the great, departed Manny Farber-a man so intelligent, creative, and talented-that he puts mere mortals to shame. I hope than Duncan Shepard can now take the time to sit down at his desk-unencumbered by the pesky demands of a weekly Reader column and write the great ode to Manny Farber. Yes, Jean-Pierre Gorin can also collaborate on this tome to immaculate renaissance man Farber .

I bid a fond adieu to Duncan Shepard and thank him for all his oeuvre of film work over the years and may his restless cinematic spirit rest-in-peace, knowing that much of San Diego does actually respect him for the most part-however obtuse and incomprehensible his written film reviews have previously been.

Foo, I'm digging the '70s porn star 'stache.

Following in trace of Mr S, all any reader could ask is that you deliver nothing short of your 'best effort", which was clearly, his standard. Best wishes for success. S/F GWM

There is real meaning in the phrases "acquired taste" , and "learn to appreciate". Duncans reviews opened my eyes to all the wonders of film that I would have never seen otherwise.

I think what most people have a problem with when it comes to Duncan's reviews, is that they don't really learn or want to learn anything new, and are basically "stuck" in the tastes they acquired early on, probably in adolescence. These are the people BUYING the movies in the $5 box at walmart.

So the teeming masses vote some movie to 91%? They also trip over themselves to pack their credit cards with stuff the TV told them to get and buy houses they cant afford. The sad truth is most of humanity is pretty average and pretty boring, with not much to say, and knee-jerk, predictable reactions to pretty much everything. Who cares what they think?

In my opinion, Duncans reviews were NEVER incomprehensible, and were in fact a guiding light. You could read his review and then watch the movie (or vice versa) and see exactly what he was talking about.

Duncan WAS the best thing about the reader, and nobody can fill his shoes. It is indeed a sad day.

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