Every month, Wikio gives one of its blogs an exclusive chance to break the news of its top rankings for the month. This month, Ferdy on Films was chosen to publish the results, and we’re pleased as punch to have moved up to #11 in the rankings. I’d like to think that the Film Preservation Blogathon and our new look contributed to our higher profile. Rod and I will continue our striving for excellence, and we congratulate the other worthy bloggers who have made the top 20, including our good buddies Greg Ferrara and Ed Howard:
By Marilyn Ferdinand and Roderick Heath
You are about to read the 500th post on Ferdy on Films, etc. When this all started back in December 2005, I had no idea how long it would last or what directions it would take. I knew that I enjoyed writing film reviews: indeed, the first reviews on this blog were copied and pasted from a film discussion board I frequented, a place film congregants who bolted from the New York Times Film Forum in protest—including Rod and the hubby—met to discuss films, fight like a dysfunctional family, and express outlooks that became as doddering as the participants who voiced them forgetfully for the 15th time. I was no longer the film neophyte who came to them looking for information and guidance several years before. I had the moxie to think that I knew enough about movies to tell other people what I thought about them without fear of becoming a laughingstock. Looking back over the 500 mainly substantive posts that comprise Ferdy on Films, I can honestly say that there is little that seems hastily digested, little I would take back, and actually a few moments of grace—my review of The Quiet Man is my own personal favorite—that any writer or commentator is lucky to achieve.
If I had been the sole critic on this blog, my “offroad” approach to film reviewing (or as Rod calls it below, the “Oxfam approach to world cinema”) might have doomed the blog to the backwaters where I hunt for new kinds of films to view. It has been my great good fortune not only to have such a brilliant writer and analytical mind in Rod to bring some real scholarly heft to Ferdy, but also his enthusiasm for mainstream movies. Thanks, Rod, for going where no 50ish woman should ever have to and bringing back such enlightening tales from the front as The Dark Knight and a double-feature of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer/Transformers. Rod’s double-features are always well-considered, from his comparison of the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s imperfect, but ambitious remake to a pairing of two Gus Van Sant films, Paranoid Park and Milk, giving me an appreciation for changes in style over time as well as a more well-rounded look at directors who have and are continuing to make a mark on the cinematic landscape.
Rod’s ability to be comprehensive while still relatively compact astonishes me. His “Look Back: Influences and Major Figures of the British Free Cinema” is an article I still reference and recall when choosing British films from this period to watch. I also believe his tribute pieces are without peer. Was there a better overview of Roy Scheider’s career at his death than Rod’s? I’m convinced not. Rod’s lengthy series on the films of Martin Scorsese gave our current reigning king of American cinema an in-depth, career-long retrospective in a succinct, accessible way, though Rod’s refusal to gaze again on After Hours, Scorsese’s ’80s affectation, still has me chuckling.
Rod’s great enthusiasm is in horror. I don’t think there’s a style of horror out there, from the eerie classics like Val Lewton’s Isle of the Dead to the made-for-television cheese of Salem’s Lot and great European classics, such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, that Rod hasn’t covered. There are a lot of film blogs devoted to horror; there are few film critics who can burrow into such an irrational passion with such clear-eyed focus. Rod is never blinded by the light.
I don’t have a particular favorite among Rod’s works, but there are two reviews that have lingered in my mind. His appreciation of Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate really opened my eyes to the potential in this rising French director and the full-to-bursting creativity of its star, Asia Argento. The other, Happy Feet, was a rare personal review from Rod that is as close to a self-portrait as he’s ever likely to do here. Thanks, Rod, for all you’ve done for the blog, its readers, and for me personally. A better partnership I could never ask for.
A quick check proves that my first piece for Ferdy on Films was posted in January 2006, barely a month after Marilyn started her blog. My, how time flies. My first post is still one of my favourites, being as it is about one of my favourite films, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists. Being a film commentator, or anything, really, on the internet, has its challenges and traps. It is, in essence, the freedom to mouth off in any fashion you want, and it offers everyone else the same opportunity. Everything on the internet is both instantaneously old and yet can live on and on.
It’s perhaps a minor miracle that two people as opinionated, and of often such differing opinions, as Marilyn and I have managed to maintain a working partnership for so long, relatively free of blow-outs and blow-ups. Perhaps it’s the fact that we share a strong level of both enthusiasm and cynicism, distinctly catholic tastes (in the original sense of the word), and don’t mind a fight when it comes around. Gladly or not, we’ve both suffered a lot of fools over the years, but Marilyn’s industriousness gets things done, man! And, oh yeah, I really like reading Marilyn’s writing, when I agree with every word, and even when I disagree with her to the point when the vein on my forehead threatens to burst and my hyperactive salivary glands spew out white foam.
Marilyn has expressed amazement at my own desire to understand pop culture, where Marilyn’s fondness for little-known and diverse foreign films, which, in some of my grouchier moments I mumblingly refer to as her Oxfam approach to world cinema, is that of someone who likes to look beyond the ever-limiting prescriptions of distributors (I won’t use that now so vague and tired whipping post called “Hollywood”), studios, theaters, and mainstream critics, and look for the undiscovered and the little-appreciated, or the stuff worthy of reappreciation. The great boom in independent and international filmmaking, the huge resources of modern communication, a theoretical freedom of choice such as has never existed before, have ironically enabled the continual narrowing of alternatives by the utter cynicism of modern news and entertainment media, mercenary prerogative of corporatised culture, and a general cultural zeitgeist that’s often just fucking lazy. Such phenomena have both compressed and atomised opportunities for getting the news out on the original, the vigorous, and the interesting, not necessarily as opposed to, but surely in addition to, the colossal one-weekend monstrosities and the favoured few darlings of the fanboys.
Plus we just like yapping about movies, dammit!
One irony of this is that I often find myself having to avert my gaze from Marilyn’s commentaries on films that look interesting and will probably never turn up anywhere. I’d be lucky if I’ve seen half of the movies Marilyn has commented upon.
Still, I love that she turned me on to Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England, recognised the disguised Bette Davis movie that is Park Chen-wook’s Lady Vengeance, and so vigorously defends Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. I’ve been much amused by the difference of her opinion of Tom Collins’ Kings with my father’s—it’s a Celtic thing, he insists. I loved that she gave John Hillcoat’s The Proposition the trashing it so richly deserved, approached Ken Russell’s The Devils with such passion, and that she spares some time for some now-underrated oldies like The Nun’s Story and The Life of Emile Zola. Marilyn’s political and feminist button-pushing is always entertaining, and it hits the mark effectively, judging by some of her comments. I meditated for days on her commentary of A Question of Silence and I Spit on Your Grave, worth a dozen whining posts about mixed messages in Katherine Heigl films that passes for a lot of cultural commentary on the internet. And of course, her frontline posts from the film festivals she attends are a cornucopia of interest. I don’t go to film festivals. I can’t afford to.
If Marilyn’s a little bit more the activist, and myself more the self-styled philosopher of our blogship enterprise, well, at the very least Ferdy on Films is, I hope, a site that exhibits strong principles and considered opinion, and fulfils our mutual desire to exist on a mean between accessibility and erudition. With the 500th post on Ferdy on Films, I can’t help but see us at something of a crossroads. Perhaps that’s because we are, indeed, at a crossroads. Real life makes us acknowledge it even in the most pristinely remote corners of cyberspace. Both spirit and flesh can get a bit weak. But there’ll always be more movies to write about.
December 6, 2008, high noon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I’m not watching something on a screen, cooking, eating, or any of the other things I do in my off hours, you might find me out birding. Reports of a snowy owl had my birding buddy Eleanora ready to run out of the house last night. Owling normally is done at night, but knowing snowys are easy to spot during the day, I said, “Curb your enthusiasm.” This charming lady owl was waiting for us today when we got to a building near the corner of Sacramento Boulevard and (get this) Ferdinand Street. I’ve named her Ferdy. l
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Over the past few weeks, a few of my fellow movie bloggers have revealed parts of their home movie libraries. They weren’t big show-and-tells, but they provided a glimpse at the person behind the curtain, so to speak. Now, I’ve never hidden my identity or a lot of the details about my life, but I am a bit private when it comes to my home. Not that it’s some kind of sanctum sanctorum, mind you, though the computer room/den comes very close to being a staging area for macabre rituals thanks to the hubby’s delight in collecting gargoyles, mini-guillotines, pagan altar pieces, and other bizarreiana. But I’m ready to show you just what kind of a film geek I am.
As a collector, I’m as piddling as someone who never goes to the movies. I don’t have a lot of books or DVDs. I had a lot of videos, mostly recorded off my TV; it was hard to rent or buy them at a reasonable price for quite a while, so my VCR was once my best friend. I don’t have a lot of memorabilia other than ticket stubs, because I live in a condo without a lot of storage space and I really hate the feeling of clutter. So what you’ll see here represents the items I’ve deemed worthy of taking into my home, some rather randomly, some foisted upon me by others, but mostly because I feel better knowing they are giving off energy in the place I am most relaxed and inspired.
I have a lot more artwork than I have room to hang it, but this piece will always have a place of honor in my home. The advertising cards are all from films I’ve seen, and none of them ever made a big splash, though most film buffs will recognize them and may have seen them. The card on the right in the second row is my version of historic preservation—the 2001 line-up of films from the late, lamented Shooting Gallery; two of the cards in the frame, The Low Down and The Day I Became a Woman, are from that series. I have the most awesome framer who I’ve been going to for decades, so I’m really pleased with how this looks.
On to the memorabilia. Above is one piece in a small collection of Rudolph Valentino items that includes a couple of vintage photos and a paper doll collection. I keep the bulk of the collection at work, but this cookie tin kept rolling off my desk, so I brought it home where the hubby has surrounded it with other vintage items from my mother and his.
Now the ticket stubs. Here’s what holds them:
I can’t show them all to you, so I’ve selected some that have some special interest for me. The first Ebertfest had some beautiful tickets. (They got grayer and more subdued over the years.) A three-piece band from Michigan called Concrete played their own score for Battleship Potemkin. Director Paul Cox did a Q&A about his wonderful A Woman’s Tale.
Here’s one from the Silent Summer Film Festival. Do you know that I forgot I saw Twinkletoes? Unbelievable. But going through all these ticket stubs, I saw a lot of film titles I didn’t recognize at all, including, believe it or not Bunuel’s The Milky Way, which I claimed not a week ago to never have seen and, in fact, to have avoided! However, the other two on this page, Lost in Translation (Did I really see that at the Siskel Center? How odd.) and Cloverfield, I remember well.
Here are a few from the defunct Taos Talking Picture Festival. Sorry I didn’t get a better picture. The significant ones for me are Vera and Whale Rider, which was unknown in the States when I saw it. It didn’t stay that way.
Below are some different styles of Chicago International Film Festival ticket stubs. I quite like the first ones, with elegant type for the festival name over a grayscale image of the festival logo—Theda Bara’s eyes. By 2004, the stubs were the usual Ticketmaster style they are now. No character. Oh well. The stub for The Exiles is not from the CIFF; it’s sort of my way of bragging that I discovered this film a long time before the hordes of cinephiles who now, thankfully, have easy access to it.
Finally, I’ve got a smattering of films I saw at the Siskel Center. The tickets not only tell what film was shown, but what series it was a part of; for example, Sound of the Mountain was part of an extensive Naruse retro. The Iberia ticket means a lot to me because Carlos Saura was there for the screening, where I got a chance to thank him for his unique dance films and get his autograph on a VHS tape of Carmen and a DVD of Blood Wedding.
I like to go to films when I’m on vacation. I had a few stubs from Hawaii, but the photo didn’t come out. I wish I had the stubs from my trip to Johannesburg, where I remember seeing Center Stage and the first X-Men movie. Then again, I wish I had all the stubs over the decades. “What we’ve missed, Lucia, what we’ve missed.”
On to the DVDs. This is pretty close to all of them; a couple of photos didn’t come out. Yeah, I know: “Is that all?” Hey, I’ve got a kickass library collection and Facets to rent from. The hubby is responsible primarily for the horror films and stuff like Mondo Bubba, Dogville, and Dogma. A number of the films have Chinese characters on them; those came from my Shanghai connection.
I was going to put up pictures of my books, but there are only about 35, and none of them is all that “important.” Nonetheless, I have a few favorites: Silent Star, Colleen Moore’s autobiography, Foster Hirsch’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, and Andrew Bergman’s We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films.
Whew, I’m glad that’s over! It’s not as easy as I thought it would be to put this out into the world. I don’t exactly know what you’ll make of all this. Let me know. l
The rites of spring are upon us, when a young man’s thoughts turn to love, a housewife’s thoughts turn to wardrobe rotation and offloading junk to the Salvation Army, and a birder’s thoughts turn to LBJs and warblers. I fall into the second two categories, but since house cleaning is repetitive and of no interest to anyone besides S. C. Johnson Wax, I prefer to talk about this interest I share with millions of people all over the world that, to a nonbirder, must seem terribly square.
Square it may be, but birders can be as serious about their sport as athletes are about theirs, maybe moreso. I’ll get to the dark side of birding later. First, I will explain about birding. I mentioned LBJs. That is shorthand for “little brown jobs,” usually sparrows that escape everyone’s notice, that is, except the avid birdwatchers alongside whom I frequently stand and hope to overhear an identification. I’m not the type to study my field guides for weeks in anticipation of the biannual irruption of small feathered creaures passing from one place to another thousands of miles away. I am often stumped by the simplest of birds, say, a golden-crowned kinglet, which is among the most delightful of animals drawing breath on this planet. How is it that I can look at this tiny, far-from-shy bird flitting close enough for naked-eye identification and still have to run to my Peterson’s guide, warped and stiff from the time my mother dropped it in some bogland during a thoroughly miserable day of birding—rather, failing to bird—in the rain.
Yet I must say that after stalking the wild bird for more than 20 years, some of it seems finally to have sunk in. I can quickly spot at a distance a bird that just doesn’t look ordinary, and my best guesses of briefly glanced specimens seem to be right more often than not. For example, as I gazed out the window of the Skokie Swift train (named for the chimney swift, a lovely whiskered bird), I spied a bulbous bird with a white breast, a black cap, and naked legs perched in a tree. Clearly not a hawk, because of the legs. There was water around. Must be a black-crowned night heron. Not many novice birders would call that bird. They’d be too cautious and call it a red-tailed hawk despite the legs, or they’d pick out a rarity that, if correct, would have every birder within a four-state radius camping out looking at it or a bird that doesn’t occur in the area. I have made these errors many times, but not anymore.
I also know my habitats. Edge habitat, the place where one type of habitat collides with another, is the best place to spy migrant birds. I can just look at a crowd of bushes or a tangle of naked branches and know I’ll find something I don’t usually see. Rosehill Cemetery is one of my favorite spots because it has a wide variety of habitats all pouring over each other. The open, grassy areas where the grave markers stand are good places for thrushes, better known to most people as robins. Of course, robins aren’t the only type of thrush, and if you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the birds you think are robins aren’t red. More often than not they’re brown-speckled hermit thrushes, who boast a lovely song characteristic of their bird family.
I like to drive along a gravel road barely wider than a path to seek out the smaller birds that prefer its scrubby edges. That’s where I spotted this season’s first yellow-crowned kinglets, not considered much of a find by seasoned birders because of their larger numbers, and the less numerous, more coveted ruby-crowned kinglet. This tiny bird doesn’t seem like a bird at all. It looks more like a new potato with startled eyes and toothpick legs. But then, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of the patch of red on the top its head, which often is hidden from view. Much to my delight, my ruby-crowneds didn’t seem the least bit inclined to hide their glory from me.
When I reported to another birder who had shown up what I had seen, she said, “Those are good birds.” This kind of comment really gets on my nerves. Birders tend to dismiss the ordinary birds we see every day (robins, house sparrows, rock doves [pigeons], even the magnificent Northern cardinal) and more common migrants (yellow-rumped warblers, phoebes, juncos) as “not good birds” or not “important” birds. My friend Eleanora, who is a near-expert birder, and I had a good laugh when we pursued the identification of a sparrow near the lakefront bird sanctuary while some old male birders told us we were foolish not to have gone to North Pond first to see the “important” eared grebe that had been spotted there. I’m not that kind of a birder, I admit. I enjoy bird behavior more than being able to say I’ve seen a certain bird. I get a kick out of the mating dance of the common house sparrow, the most successful bird on the planet, while still coveting a chance to see sandhill cranes flying high in a V-formation over the south suburbs. I simply enjoy being out in the wind and the sun, away from human commerce, hearing bird songs and feeling leaves and earth pressed softly under my feet.
Not all birders feel as I do. Let me tell you just how serious, how all-consuming birding can be. There is an event called a Big Year that a handful of expert birders decide they will do when conditions seem right. Birders on a Big Year travel all over the United States (there are Big Years in other countries and state Big Years, too) in an attempt to see as many species of birds as they can in a single year. This effort requires them to have spotters all over the country who will call them when a bird they haven’t listed shows up. The Big Year birder then must hop on a plane or drive for several hours, whatever it takes, to get to the bird before it flies away. Mind you, this is a competition that is self-declared, that offers no prize money, that requires each contestant to spend many thousands of dollars, lose many nights of sleep, and brave savage weather in such places as Alaska, to win. All the winner gets is bragging rights. Now THAT’s dedication.
As much as I admire the skill of the Big Year birders, I can’t help but feel they are missing the point. A Big Year is more like bean counting than anything else. Show up, see the bird, add it to the list, await the next call. Me, I’d like to say I saw a bird pick up a twig or piece of lint and know it was going to be used to build its nest. I’d tell you about the house sparrows who always build a nest on my mother’s drain pipe, and how a chick always falls out and how I always pick it up and put it back in the nest. I’d tell you that I saw not one, not two, but THREE yellow-bellied sapsuckers hopping along the side of a tree ready to peck a hole to build a nest. Yes, I really did. l
For insight into the world of competitive birding, I highly recommend The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik.