Second glances

While breezing through Roger Ebert’s site this morning, I was surprised to see his three-star (good) rating of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing Distant (2003), a film he indirectly panned 1 last year in his disparaging remarks toward the Cannes Film Festival.

Occasionally at Filmjourney, I’ve critiqued Ebert’s populist dismissals of highly regarded art cinema in light of the fact that he continues to be one of the few mainstream critics who actually attends film festivals and writes about them and offers at least a modicum of sensitivity toward film history and analysis with his Great Films essays or Overlooked Festivals or DVD commentaries. He should know better.

Clicking on Ebert’s (brief) review, I was amused to read about his change of heart toward the film:

How is it that the same movie can seem tedious on first viewing and absorbing on the second? Why doesn’t it grow even more tedious? In the case of “Distant,” which I first saw at Cannes in 2003, perhaps it helped that I knew what the story offered and what it did not offer, and was able to see it again without expecting what would not come. . .

. . . The film, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is shot with a frequently motionless camera that regards the men as they, frequently, regard nothing in particular. It permits silences to grow. Perhaps in the hurry of Cannes, with four or five films a day, I could not slow down to occupy those silences, but seeing the film a second time, I understood they were crucial: There is little these men have to say to each other and — more to the point — no one else for them to talk with.

I find it hard to believe that any genuine art devotee would be surprised at how creative works can reveal greater depths and intricacies upon extended reflection or recurring engagement, but given Ebert’s journalistic function as a thumb-proclaimer and consumer guide, I suppose this fact shouldn’t surprise me. One of his role models, Pauline Kael, was famous for her impassioned, off-the-cuff responses to movies; she proudly proclaimed her general policy of watching any given film once, and once only. (And critics expected to view every single studio release in their neighborhood from week to week doubtless have the time or energy for extended reflections anyway.)

I’m glad Ebert gave Distant a second look and I’m glad he has the integrity to admit his previously inadequate response. So many of my favorite films are movies that initially bored or confused or even repelled me the first time I saw them. Without second glances or encountering other opinions, I would have dismissed them completely and subsequently never developed as a film viewer, or even perhaps as a human being. For those of us who consider our engagement of art a crucial aspect of our life journey–an opportunity to contextualize the world and establish new perspectives from those we cherished as adolescents–second glances are essential.

  1. Ebert railed against two filmmakers in particular, Abbas Kiarostami and Theo Angelopoulos–though his subsequent description was clearly indebted to Distant–“with their fashionably dead films in which shots last forever, and grim middle-aged men with mustaches sit and look and think and smoke and think and look and sit and smoke and shout and drive around and smoke until finally there is a closing shot that lasts forever and has no point.”

    Ebert’s vague mishmash of disdain can also be attributed to the fact that he has seen/reviewed so few movies by either of these filmmakers. Perhaps if he deigned to revisit some of their films as well, he would be pleasantly surprised if the subtleties and complexities of their work suddenly begin to blossom before his very eyes?