Tag Archives: Donald Clarke

On empathy, Ebert, and the movies

The late Roger Ebert. Someone I never knew.

The late Roger Ebert. Someone I never knew.

I have a scar on my left hand, a little below the knuckle of my index finger. It’s a small spot only noticeable for being paler than all the pale surrounding it. I have thoroughly no idea how I came to have it. What I do know is that, either by some damage to my nervous system or an associated sense memory with the now-forgotten cause of the scar, it has a tendency to flair up, as if being lightly stabbed, during moments of emotional anguish. What makes it really strange is that it never happens during moments of my emotional trauma (no matter how bad), but only when I hear about those of others. Tell me a story of real woe from your life, make me feel it, and it’ll sting like a knife being slowly drilled into my hand. Better yet, show me a tragic movie that hits me like the loss of a loved one and I’ll be crying with pain before I’m crying from upset.

I have for some time and with little poetry referred to it as my “empathy scar”. Actually it’s come in quite useful at times; there have been occasions when watching films that I’ve been so engrossed in them that I am only made aware of how deeply the film is affecting me when I feel a tingling in my joint. A recent (and shamefully first) viewing of E.T. gave me an unexpected jab. Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956) felt like a cigarette was being stubbed out on my hand. I should have a list of films that have triggered this reaction noted somewhere, but sadly, foolishly, I don’t.

I was left thinking about my empathy scar this evening after watching Life Itself, the Steve James documentary about the life and career of Roger Ebert. At the film’s start, Ebert is quoted: “…for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” It’s not something I’d ever contemplated before – the concept of the “empathy machine” – but I see it now as informing so much of my own passion for the cinema. Many of the films that have touched me the most deeply have communicated feelings I could understand but could never have voiced; whether they be subtle gestures or moments of screen-shaking pain.

Roger Ebert meant nothing to me. I did not grow up with his criticism; I watched British critics on the television and read Michael Dwyer and Donald Clarke in The Irish Times. My only familiarity with Ebert was a skit lampooning him in an episode of the cartoon series Animaniacs, which while not unfunny went for the veritable jugular in terms of jokes about his weight. When he became sick I was mostly unaware of it, and only later lightly followed his Twitter feed. The few times I attempted to engage him there were lost to the aether, although the only one I recall was my arguing against Say Anything…, a film he championed and I openly detest, so it is probably for the best we were never only acquainted over a disagreement. When he died I had little reaction of shock or upset beyond general disappointment that a film fan had died from the complications of a terrible illness. But I knew many people who cared a great deal for him and his writing, and it brought me no small deal of sadness seeing them so hurt.

I’ll steer clear of writing a full review of Life Itself. It’s problematic; bloated in segments and scattered in theme. But it’s deeply earnest, if not completely honest, and when it discusses the merits of film criticism and the competitive but symbiotic working relationship he had with Gene Siskel it taps into some very powerful ideas. Near the film’s close Ebert’s widow Chaz reflects on his death, and perhaps it is the length of time she (and we; the film is long) have had to prepare for and adjust to his passing, but she is in a stage of acceptance in the grieving process that, for want of any other term, is undramatic. It is not the emotional payload the film needs. That comes in the form of extracts from Ebert’s final blog entry, ‘A Leave of Presence’, one of the few works of his I remember reading when it came out. As the echoes of his final send off “I’ll see you at the movies” play over a montage of his life and the outpouring of grief that followed it, while my eyes were watching and studying a movie, a sparkling of discomfort in my had told me I was feeling a loss too, or at least deeply appreciating that of so many others. If it takes an affecting movie and a malfunctioning hand to remind me that I can feel, what of it? It’s surely better than feeling nothing at all.

If nothing else, Ebert made me want to write again after a long absence. There are few feelings better than that.

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I love the smell of free movie in the morning…

Smelled like… victory.

So a few weeks back, the Screen Cinema in town held a pub quiz to raise money for its rather run-down forecourt, and to give a nice polish to Mr Screen, the ever-so-creepy miniature usher statue that stands in the garden there. But it wasn’t just a pub quiz; it was a movie pub quiz.

Mr Screen, not so clean

Rarely one to miss a pub quiz, and never one to miss a movie quiz, I set about assembling a crack team to enter and win. None of that Oceans 11 nonsense mind, we’re talking full-on MASK here (except I texted them, no fancy watches). My crack team consisted of indie and ’50s specialist and fellow unpaid film critic Fergal, US arthouse and modern European cinema encyclopaedia Paul, collected all-rounder James and film studies master Pete. We thought we had it made…

So confident were we of winning that we decided to go for a team name that would, in theory, consign us to defeat. Now, it needs to be said that my pub quiz teams are known for their provocative titles. Some years ago our first film quiz name was the all too prophetic ‘Roman Polanski’s outstanding arrest warrant for statutory rape’. We came second. In a literature pub quiz shortly after, we kept the theme going with ‘Ayatollah Khomeini’s outstanding fatwā for Salman Rushdie’ – we won a sweeping victory. So the idea pitched for this quiz’s team name was to list off character traits in movies that would imply an early defeat (thus surprising everyone when we won). And that was how we came up with the team name ‘The corporate black guys wearing red shirts who have only one day to retirement’. Feeling this too long, we settled on the shorthand ‘Black guys in red shirts’, ensuring everyone at the quiz thought we were a pack of racists. You can’t win everything.

That over-confidence was shattered on arrival at MacTurcaills, the venue for the evening, when we saw the quality of some of the other teams, including one made up of the assembled film critics of Dublin, led by The Irish TimesDonald Clarke, and friends from the Irish Independent and Hot Press magazine. *Gulp* we thought. And indeed some of us did – approaching drunkenness would be another spanner in the works of our otherwise well-oiled (and apparently racist) machine.

Do you know these men?

And yes, as a few rounds passed, we suddenly became aware that we were doing very well. The few we missed were close – the year the original Terminator was sent back from was 2029, not 2027. Then there were the lucky guesses – Nic Cage’s character Hi does in fact work at a Hudsucker plant in Raising Arizona, and somehow I remembered reading somewhere that The Wizard of Oz went through four different directors. And then there were the incredible moments – Fergal amazingly (and I might add ludicrously) naming all four Ghostbusters (first and last names); Paul delving into his brain to retrieve the name of Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson. But it was the themed rounds where we crucified. Quotes from films – 10/10. Matching actors to roles and roles to actors – 10/10. Naming foreign films based on their original titles – 10/10. That last one was a great round for me, if only because I always call Wild StrawberriesSmultronstället’; not out of pretension, the word just amuses me.

So yeah, we won. By a good margin, too. We triumphantly went up to claim our prize, with only one person coughing *racists* as we went. I’d rather be a racist than a loser. Though I’ll reiterate – not a racist.

Now, while in a way the real prize was beating the venerable Mr Clarke, whose own perplexing film quizzes have often ruined my Fridays, in another more accurate way, the real prize was the prize we received – a free screening of any film of our choice in the Screen. Win win.

There were complications of course: it had to be shown before the cinema opens at 2pm, so we’d need to start the film at 11am, limiting us to a 150min film. Also, only a Sunday would suit the five of us. More worrying, how do five people agree on the one film they want blown up on the big screen?  We each pitched five films, an odd mix of classics (The Adventures of Robin Hood, A Matter of Life and DeathÀ Bout de Souffle), blockbusters (Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and retro cult delights (Labyrinth, Repo Man, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) that might never see a cineplex ever again. Then we each vetoed one film, leaving us with 20. Some good films fell by the wayside there, such as Battle Royale, Road House, Bridge on the River Kwai. To make the final decision, we turned to the cornerstone of Western democracy – Eurovision!

We each voted for our 12 favourites, giving them from one to 12 points, and some interesting films came to the fore. In fifth place came the delightfully manic Crank – probably for the best, as we’d have been so over-energised that Sunday morning we’d have spent the rest of the day running around punching strangers in the face. In fourth place came The Lion King, a nostalgic necessity (though soon for re-release, rumouredly in vile 3D). In joint third came Repo Man and T2 – both worthy contenders, especially since we were all too young to have seen T2 when it was originally released. Second came a pitch of mine, and one of the entries in my pantheon of great movies – Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. But the clear winner (with an impressive 39 votes to Mononoke’s 33) was Apocalypse Now.

Mr Clean, not so... not riddled with bullets

Surely if there is a list of the films you must see on the big screen before you die, then Apocalypse Now is amongst them. The broad visuals, the alarming soundscape, the terrifying performances. It was indeed a perfect choice (albeit a touch heavy for a Sunday morning – the horror… the horror…). So we arrived at the Screen on Sunday morning with a few extra friends (the ones who weren’t hungover) in tow and enjoyed an audiovisual feast. It really did smell like victory. And coffee.

The whole experience was a delight. I had, admittedly, never seen the original, non-Redux cut of Apocalypse, and enjoyed the smoother flow of the story. Our slim audience, seen embarrassingly out of focus below, were for the most part hugely impressed. Many had never seen any version of the film, and none on the big screen, especially a private big screen.

Not a full house

On our way out, the girl who ran the quiz asked us how we’d enjoyed the film, and told us that the quiz had indeed raised enough money for a little polish for Mr Screen and a sprucing up of his cobblestone garden. On the off-chance there will be another quiz, she asked us what hypothetical rounds we might do poorly in to give other teams a chance. We weren’t sure, so suggested romcoms – nothing we can’t bone up on in the interim. “You know you beat Donald Clarke?” she asked, still surprised. Yes. Yes we did.

And as an extra bonus, Apocalypse Now had totally vindicated our team name – the two black guys died first.

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