Film Review: “Inception” ★★★★ (4/5)

Every once in a while a film comes along and stirs up, arouses and awakens my imagination. Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” came very close to pulling this off but never quite hit the mark. I longed for it to be an addition to my list of film experiences that reached that level of awe-inspiring intellectual harmony but never landed on satisfactory results. “2001:A Space Odyssey”, “Persona”, “The Exterminating Angel”, “Last Year at Marienbad”, “Synecdoche, New York” came to mind. Yet, the main reason I wasn’t blown away by this still very great thriller is because it reminded me of another film I loved, perhaps a bit too much. This brought back memories of when I first saw “The Matrix”. In the dinner party that followed I kept thinking of “Dark City”.

Like “The Matrix”, “Inception” reminded me of another underrated film. While it was “Dark City” for the former, the latter reminded me of Tarsem Singh’s visionary masterpiece, “The Cell”. Entering the mind of another to retrieve vital information, losing grip of reality and ending up stuck in a dream world, physical motion to be pulled back to reality, visiting memories of a painful past, should I go on? How about the similarity of some of the scripted lines? Here’s a line from “The Cell” that could’ve easily been said by a character in “Inception” –“Do you believe there is a part of yourself, deep inside in your mind, with things you don’t want other people to see? During a session when I’m inside, I get to see those things.” More? “My world (/dream), my rules!”  I can go on but this piece would only dwell away from being a review.

 The twisting of the originality of another film can be justified if the end product feels different or better yet improves upon the former film. I’m probably, heck I am in the minority here but I thought visuals of “The Cell” were staggering, memorable, haunting and inconceivable whereas the images in “Inception” were less ambitious and lost potential. In my opinion, it’s because Nolan presents dreams that feet real rather than surreal (most of the time). That doesn’t mean the cinematography wasn’t breathtaking. Compared to most films “Inception” is a rarity and it’s only fair to applaud the depth of Nolan’s grand visualization of dreams within dreams. “Inception” is best described as a treasure chest with less gold than silver.

The gold here is how Nolan presents the story. It’s been a while since I watched a film that challenged me to work hard in order to keep up with a cerebral storyline.

The best way to understand the story is to watch or experience it rather than read about it, which is why I’ll try and keep it short. Leonardo Dicaprio is Dom Cobb a specialist hired to “extract” information from sleeping subjects. When hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe), Cobb finds himself in the midst of a much more difficult task- to impose an idea rather than steal one. The task “has never been done before” and so he assembles a team of experts to help him. Ariadne (Ellen Page) is an architect, Eames (Tom Hardy) is an identity forger,  Youssef (Dileep Rao) is a pharmacist and Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is his partner. The target is Fischer (Cillain Murphy), the son of a buissiness tycoon.

While it is a thinker’s film, the more I think of it, the more I discover flaws. To discuss the flaws here is to spoil the movie and there’s no point in further describing the plot as it will only have you scratching your head. I find myself in a similar position writing the review of “Shutter Island” earlier this year, another film where DiCaprio deals with the loss of a loved one and the reality of his being- purely coincidence though. In my “Shutter Island” review I described the experience as follows:

‘You will start out a tiny fish swimming in a pond. As the plot thickens, you evolve into the angler who keeps an eye on the confused fish. By the end of the film, the viewer becomes the person standing on the rock studying the angler who himself is studying the fish.’

With “Inception”, it’s the other way around. You start out as the man on the rock, and go deeper jumping into the world of the angler, only this time you’re aware of the man on the rock and the fish underneath. There’s more than one world in this film and each time the viewer is exposed to a different environment, it becomes harder to grasp the scope of it all and that’s the fun of it and what I essentially mean by the gold in the treasure. “Inception” will be (already is) the subject of many debate, I wouldn’t want to miss any such conversation and neither should you. I highly recommend this film to everyone, if not for the cinematography than for the puzzling first-time experience.

Inception Trailer:

A Mind-Bending Scene from “The Cell” (2000):

Hitchcock’s Symphony: “PSYCHO” A Shot-by-Shot Commentary

It’s quite easy for someone to enjoy film. Loving film is completely different. For those who see film enjoy them, yet only those who can read film truly love it and understand it as an art form. Hitchcock is probably the most well known director of all time. There is no absolute answer to what his crowning achievement is. A lot of critics prefer “Vertigo”. Taste varies from one film lover to the other. “North by Northwest”, “Notorious”, “Vertigo”, “Rear Window”, “The Birds”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Strangers on a Train”, “Rebecca”, “Suspicion”, “The 39 Steps” and “Psycho” are among his most loved. The truth is there is no such thing as one ultimate Hitchcock masterpiece, there are only favorites.

Every month or so, I tend to invite a close group of film professors, directors, editors, writers, and critics to my living room. We watch some of the greatest films together. The screenings always end with insightful conversations, debates and arguments. We cite critics like Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, and Robin Wood to back up our claims but to what end? Cinephiles tend to be stubborn. It’s almost impossible to convince a real lover of film that this scene is better than that one or this director is more talented than the other, etc.  At the end, all you get is a fueled argument that does not lead to any absolute conclusion. I learn a great deal about film at these gatherings. During the past few weeks we watched about fifteen Hitchcock films. We studied them shot for shot. After the last screening, I asked the room full of film lovers about their favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. All of the above as well as others were mentioned and the room went into complete utter silence. “How strange” said a senior professor. “For the first time we’re not arguing with one another”.

Such is the case with the greatest of artists. We all have our favorite Shakespeare play or Mozart symphony. There is no need to argue for them and against the rest, for all are truly great in their own right. Hitchcock fans don’t dispute one another; they simply nod in respect, for unlike lesser directors, he doesn’t have one obvious masterpiece but an entire body of them.  My favorite Hitchcock is “Psycho”. However, I respect almost all of his films equally. To me watching “Psycho” is like listening to the best of Mozart or Beethoven. The way Hitchcock uses the conventions of films is beyond words. Don’t expect to feel that way from one viewing. The first time I saw “Psycho”, all I could see was a horror film with a great twist and wonderful performances. I watched it a second time in my first film class, another time in a different film class, and several times after that. Today, I lost count of how many times I watched it, and how many times I studied it (there’s a difference). As my understanding of film grew, so did my appreciation for the brilliance of Hitchcock’s groundbreaking 1960 masterpiece, “Psycho”. 

I mentioned at the beginning that it is one thing to see a film and another to have the ability to read a film. Many fans of film claim to love the movies but fail to understand this concept. One learns how to read film by learning about the medium and everything that constitutes the making of a great picture. It is only through the understanding of film that true love for movies sparks giving the ability to read films. Take for example, Mozart’s darkest opera “Don Giovanni”. It is one thing to listen to it and admire the flow of his music; it is another thing to listen to it knowing that his father died shortly before it was conducted. With that knowledge in combination with the music itself one can feel Mozart’s sorrow and grief. Through knowledge we open our hearts and emotions to the greatest works of literature, music, and film.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of “Psycho”. Therefore as a tribute, I’ll do my best to read this masterpiece and document it in written form. Hitchcock once said that he enjoys “playing the audience like a piano”. With “Psycho” he manipulates our expectations. Today about everyone knows what happens during the shower scene and the truth about Norman’s mother. (If you don’t stop reading and do yourself a favor, watch the film) Still, even with that knowledge, the joy is in observing how Hitchcock manipulates his audience. He often used diversions to misguide the audience. A simple example of this is placing a growling dog to block the stairway in “Strangers on a Train”. The dog is meant to distract the audience from guessing the surprise in the next scene. Hitchcock worked that way; he didn’t only control his cast and crew but his audience as well. With “Psycho”, the entire first act is a diversion.

I can only imagine the horror of sitting in a movie palace when “Psycho” first premiered. The audience must have felt excited having booked their tickets in advance and making it on time for the film. Hitchcock didn’t allow late entrances. So there they are sitting, excited about the next Hitchcock masterpiece. The lights dim, the black and white “A Paramount Release” logo appears on the big screen, and then total darkness as the logo fades to solid black. Suddenly, the first wave of Bernard Herrmann’s score fills the theater, the most horrifying music in film history. The black screen is split into stripes of grey during the opening credits. The audience doesn’t know it yet but this split bares significance.

  There’s a dark side to every human being. We’re not 100% good. Occasionally we slip into that dark side. If you’re lucky and smart you can save yourself from letting the darkness overcome you. Here lies the true horror of “Psycho”, the dark side of the psyche. Our main character is Marion. She’s a young everyday working woman. Unfortunately she acts foolishly and tries to steal a lot of money from one of her customers. However, before meeting her fate –getting stabbed while cleaning off her sins in a shower – the guilt she feels deep down in her stomach pulls her out of the dark and back to normality. The film takes a turn there as we’re introduced to a much worse case of – the split. Norman plunged into madness and embraced darkness long before Hitchcock introduces us to him. Hitchcock’s choice to film in black and white was clearly not only to give the film a darker theme or to escape the sharp scissors of the censors; the black and white fits the theme of the picture.

“I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.”_Alfred Hitchcock

The movie starts one afternoon, as the camera moves from the outside of a city through a window into an apartment. Note Hitchcock opens the film by panning through a large city (Phoenix Arizona), the choice is random, so is the date (Friday, December the Eleventh), as well as the time (Two Forty-Three P.M.) The camera then moves through a random window of one of the many buildings. Hitchcock strikes the first note on his piano. Through these random choices, Hitchcock subliminally tells the audience that this tale can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

We get our first glimpse of the main character. Or is he? She’s a blond, which is a Hitchcock trademark, so she must be – at that moment so it seems. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is wearing a white bra and cuddles with her secret lover. Hitchcock picked that white bra at the beginning to signify her innocence. Later on, after she steals the money, we see Marion in a black bra, signifying her darker side. At one point, her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin) suddenly releases the arms so passionately holding on to the love of his life. This is the exchange of words that follows:

Sam:  “I’m tired of sweating for people who aren’t there. I sweat to pay off my father’s debts, and he’s in his grave. I sweat to pay my ex-wife alimony, and she’s living on the other side of the world somewhere.”

Marion: “I pay, too. They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.”

Sam: “A couple of years and my debts will be paid off. If she remarries, the alimony stops.”

Marion: “I haven’t even been married once yet.”

Sam: “Yah, but when you do, you’ll swing.”

Marion: “Oh, Sam, let’s get married.”

Sam: “Yeah. And live with me in a storeroom behind a hardware store in Fairvale? We’ll have lots of laughs. I’ll tell you what. When I send my ex-wife her alimony, you can lick the stamps.”

Marion: “I’ll lick the stamps”

Through this dialogue we learn that they can’t get married for financial reason, but what Hitchcock is doing on a deeper level is somewhat justifying the heroine’s future actions. That way we don’t despise Marion for committing theft. Instead, we understand her troubles and feel for her. In other words, she has a reason for stealing the money.  Another example of Hitchcock trying to justify her theft is evident in the next scene. We meet Mr. Cassidy, a man who sprays his money everywhere to “buy happiness”. We don’t regard Marion as a villain because the man she steals from is portrayed as a very rich disgusting beast who doesn’t know how to hold his tongue. He speaks his mind with no manners whatsoever flirting with Marion and embarrassing the boss (“where’s that bottle you said was in your desk?”). After the theft, no real harm is done, at least not enough to make Marion a villain. We simply see her dark side. Again, this is expressed visually when we see her staring at the open envelope wearing her black bra. The $40,000 in the envelope serves as the ‘MacGuffin’ of the film. The term ‘MacGuffin’ refers to an object that bares much importance to the characters but to the audience it’s only a vehicle to drive the plot to the next level. A ‘MacGuffin’ is dropped once it serves its purpose.

Between the first justification scene and the second one, there’s the famous shot of Hitchcock’s trademark cameo. He stands outside a sidewalk, when the camera leaves the frame following the entrance of our main character. This is simply a visual signature. Hitchcock was well known at the time, not just by the name stamped on the previous “North by Northwest” posters but by introducing the episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” on television. The same crew that worked for the TV series worked with him to deliver his small budget project to the big screen. Anyway, his appearance is a visual signature and a reminder that things will turn ugly. It’s Hitchcock.

“Psycho” revolutionized cinema, both technically and in terms of content. A perfect film to study various uses of editing, the rhythm in “Psycho” can be observed in how Hitchcock handles the passage of time very efficiently. When Marion leaves the room, we realize that it’s still that same day. She goes to work, collects some money she’s supposed to put into the bank and goes back home. All that happens in one particular afternoon, and the time frame doesn’t change.  Janet Leigh’s performance shines in the next scenes. We return to her room. There is no need for dialogue; we know what she’s thinking when her desperate eyes land on the envelope. Like the greatest of silent performers, Leigh expresses more through facial reactions than words. Few actresses can pull this off, she does. After she decides to run away with the money, the editing becomes more and more interesting.

Hitchcock uses a medium shot of the main character, Marion Crane, as she drives away from her hometown. The shot shows her face, part of the steering wheel, and the background, which includes the sky. The shot then changes from that particular medium shot to what is regarded as an eye-line matching shot, in which we as the audience see the highway through her eyes. This is the second time Hitchcock uses this shot (the first being her staring at the envelope repeatedly). The minute she steps into her car, the narration starts.

The narration serves as the voice in her head.  At first, we hear what she suspects Sam will react like upon seeing her with the money. Hitchcock just slipped us into her shoes. He doesn’t only establish her as the main character, he confirms it. We see what she sees (eye-line matching shots), we feel what she feels (the urge to steal the open envelope full of cash), and now Hitchcock makes her share her thoughts with us. She bites her finger in a traffic light stop. After that we get the eye-line matching shot. People cross the street in a hurry. Their hurry is nothing compared to that of Marion, especially when her eyes meet those of her employer’s. We get a close up shot of her smiling at him. Her boss smiles back, then stops realizing she’s supposed to be sick at home or on her way to a bank. He looks back at her, only this time more suspiciously. Enter Herrmann’s score, the plot thickens.

 At first Marion’s expression suggests fear. Then we get a couple of night shots with bright lights striking our eyes. Her facial expression is more relaxed now. The following morning, Hitchcock is generous enough to provide a beautiful deep focus shot. On the lower left corner of the screen the trunk of Marion’s car, behind it, a police officer’s car, on the right, the long endless highway and in the background empty hills. It’s a feast to the eye. The officer walks up to the car, we see Marion sleeping in her. A few knocks on the window later, she wakes up in a hurry. We see the same look in her eyes as when she saw her employer crossing the street. The next shot serves as both an eye-line matching shot and a close-up of the expressionless police officer. By now, like Marion, the viewer suspects she’s been caught. It turns out, he’s just checking if something’s wrong. Marion acts “like something is wrong” and so he asks for her driver’s license. As soon as he leaves and Marion drives off, the horrifying orchestra starts again.

We get a few rear-view mirror shots as she tries to lose the officer till he takes a turn and leaves her alone. Shortly after, Marion trades her car for another one. Both the viewer and Marion see that the police officer is back. He studies her from across the street like a suspicious stalker. Hitchcock’s fear of cops tightens the tension. More importantly, we are introduced to the third suspicious character, the car salesman, the first being the boss, and the second, the police officer. Marion is doing a terrible job of getting away with crime. Afterall, she’s no professional, just an everyday woman.

We rarely get to see scenes like that in thrillers; scenes that serve little purpose to the story but are there to put us on the edge of our seats driving the plot forwards. These short scenes are a rarity and a treasure. Hitchcock is simply playing piano with the audiences’ nerves. By now the viewer is in the midst of a getaway thriller. Keep in mind that all these tiny scenes are a distraction of the bigger picture. After, the high-pressured car salesman scenes, we move forward to more medium shots of the steering wheel, Marion, and the fading city in the background. This time, she bites on her lower lip as we hear the narration or an imagination of a conversation between the suspicious police officer and the doubtful salesman. Hitchcock knew that people generally do most of their thinking when they’re alone. Like before we sleep or when we drive alone in an empty highway. These scenes are very psychological in that for the briefest of moments the viewer becomes Marion.

   Gradually, her facial expression changes from scared to confident. Scared when imagining the discovery of her crime in a narrated conversation between her boss and her co-worker (played by the excellent Patricia Hitchcock) and confident when we hear Mr. Cassidy cursing her. A creepy smirk curves her lips. Marion still wants to go through it. 

The viewer notices that the bright sky turn darker and darker, and eventually it starts to rain. Marion pulls over to sleep it off at some motel, the Bates motel. The first half of the movie takes place in two days, a continuous moment-to-moment spectrum of events. The pace and movement through time changes afterwards and is well defined through editing.  
Marion pulls up in the rain to the Bates motel and sees the moving silhouette of an old woman in the upstairs window of the mansion. Hitchcock often features familiar landmarks in his films. In “Psycho”, he creates one with the Bates mansion. The gothic mansion stands on top of a haunting hill like “it’s hiding from the world”. The Bates mansion is now one of the most famous film sets around the world, the presence of the mansion is so powerful, it’s like a main character.  Anyway, Marion honks the horn of her new car. Seconds later, Norman appears on the stairs in front of the haunting mansion up the hill. He then runs towards the motel to serve his only customer of the night. What follows are some of the most humorous Hitchcock moments of all time. (*Humorous only on repeated viewings of the film)

Norman Bates – cinema’s most famous villain. Anthony Perkins pulls it off right from the start. They check in and we are first introduced to Norman. Perkins plays the role in an oddly chilling loose and naturalistic manner. Marion signs as ‘Marie Samuels’. Again, the alias signature is pathetic as it’s proof of her not doing a good job of hiding her real identity. Marie is too close to her real name, Samuels is her boyfriend’s name. Norman asks her to write her home address as well. She looks at the newspaper that reads ‘Los Angeles Times’ and chooses that city rather than Arizona. “Los Angeles” she says. Meanwhile Norman chooses something else, a key to the room she’ll be spending the night in. Unlike the three suspicious men prior to that scene, Norman doesn’t suspect a thing. Why? – Because he’s hiding something himself. Norman picks room number one. “Cabin 1. It’s closer in case you want anything” Both character’s suspicious actions cancel each other out. A perfect scene as only the audience is aware of the humor in their interaction.

Consciously the first time viewer is not aware of it, but what Hitchcock is doing is something no filmmaker dared to pull off before. He’s slowly switching main characters through the only characteristic both Marion and Norman share. Hitchcock often referred to “Psycho” as pure film. The change of viewer’s attention and leading characters through the overlapping personality trait in a single scene is indeed an example of pure cinema. Of all my years as a film critic, I’ve never seen anything quite like this, except maybe in the scene that follows.

Norman shows Marion to her room. “Boy, it’s stuffy in here.”- A tongue-in-cheek remark. Norman goes on with a tour of the cabin. “Well, the mattress is soft and there’s hangers in the closet and stationery with Bates Motel printed on it in case you wanna make your friends back home feel envious. And the…” he switches the light of the bathroom on and struggles with the word. “Over there”.  Marion helps him out: “The bathroom.” The awkward moment between them suggests that we should pay attention to any scene that’ll take place in the..over there.

Norman insists that they have dinner together. “nothing special, just sandwiches and milk. But I’d like it very much if you’d come up to the house” Another diversion by Hitchcock. Norman offers his hospitality. Contrary to what the viewer knows at the moment, Norman has a stuffed body up there. The last thing he’d want is for it to be discovered. The young man leaves, Marion wraps the money in newspaper. “NO I TELL YOU NO!”,an angry old woman shouts from the mansion. Marion stops her unpacking to eavesdrop.

Angry Old Woman: “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds!”

Norman: “Mother, please!”

We now know the angry old lady is his mother.

Mother: “And then what, after supper? Music? Whispers?”

Norman: “Mother, she’s just a stranger. She’s hungry and it’s raining out.”

Mother: “Mother, she’s just a stranger. As if men don’t desire strangers. As if….(shuddering) I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me!”

 What follows is a dim and haunting wide-shot of the house in complete obscurity with creepy tree branches on both sides and dark clouds lingering in the sky. Like a house on a haunted hill, the cinematography is simply breathtaking and needs to be seen to be believed. Only one light shines, the window of the room where the shadow of an old woman roamed earlier.

Mother: “You understand, boy? Go on. Go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food or my son! Or do I have to tell her cause you don’t have the guts? Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?”

A radio actress by the name of Virginia Gregg perfected that spine-chilling voice of mother. In fact, it is done so well, there’s no way the audience would suspect she’s just Norman fulfilling his disorder. Not only that but the fact that mother offers to go tell the visitor herself only personifies her leaving the viewer with no hints to guess the twisted reality.

A few seconds later, my all time favorite two-shot arises. Holding a tray with the milk and sandwich, Norman stands to the left in front of a window. Marion is on the right in front of the door. Both are standing outside in front of the cabin. “I’ve caused you some trouble”, Marion says implying that she heard their conversation. To which he replies: “No…mother…my mother…what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.” Freeze the frame at that precise moment and observe the richness of the moment. Visually this shot speaks volumes of Hitchcock’s famous wit. In crisp clarity we see the reflection of Norman’s face on the outside window. Indeed “she isn’t quite herself today”, the answer is there visually. This may either be a coincidence or a stroke of genius. I like to think it’s the latter, for the blinds are half drawn providing the possibility of the reflection. It had to be intentional.

They move to the parlor because “eating in an office is just too officious”. Marion’s eyes study the furniture of the room. Stuffed birds make up most of the furniture. Hitchcock often used birds as symbols. Most famously in “The Birds” where at the beginning of the picture we witness birds trapped in their cages. By the end of the film it’s the other way around with humans trapped in a house and the birds outside. The purpose of stuffed birds in “Psycho” has been interpreted several times. Norman explains that stuffing birds is his hobby; we later learn that he stuffed his own mother. One of the birds is an owl waving her wings symbolizing the furious side of his split personality (or his mother side); the calm crow is his calmer side (Norman side), or maybe they’re just there to disturb the viewer and place them in an uncomfortable surrounding.

  After learning more about Norman’s taxidermy hobby, the conversation takes us deeper into his personality. Taxidermy is supposed to “pass the time not fill it” I can imagine the work, stuffing birds, and his own mother over and over using expensive chemicals. Poor Norman. One of the most disturbing lines follows expressing the oddness of this disturbed character: “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.” Moments later, Norman asks Marion where she’s heading. “I didn’t mean to pry”, he utters apologetically. Another humorous line, for Norman does pry in the scene that follows, not verbally though; he does it physically through a peephole.

During the course of this scene, the viewer is exposed to Psycho’s finest moment, a priceless exchange of dialogue. Through their connection we slowly remove our feet from Marion’s shoes and step into Norman’s shoes. The focus now is on Norman and his mother. After, Norman expressing the courses of his daily life with no friends and him putting up with his mother, Marion suggests he send her to a madhouse. A medium shot of Norman changes to a close up, not through a cut but by him moving forward to face the lens. He snaps at her. “We all go a little mad sometimes.”

 At the end of the scene we learn that Marion changes her mind and decides to return the money the next morning. In other words, the getaway plot is no longer. The scene ends. Hitchcock just brought an end to his story; in the next scene he brings an end to his protagonist.

Norman takes a peak through the peephole and watches Marion undress. He then walks out of his office, up the stairs to the mansion. Once inside, he takes a step up the stairs and suddenly changes his mind and goes to the kitchen. As the audience, we know that Mrs. Bates is upstairs. It’s a simple scene the purpose of which is to distract the viewer from outguessing the master.

Meanwhile Marion calculates how much cash she’ll have to return out of her own pockets. ($700) After tearing the note to pieces she looks around and can’t find a bin and so she flushes it down the toilette. This was the first time the flushing of a toilette was seen on screen. The audience must have felt shocked at the sight. Yet it’s only a warm up to the major shock that follows. Hitchcock once said that the toilet shot is a “vital component to the plot”. My guess is it foreshadows the shower scene. After the brutal murder, we get a close-up of Marion’s blood flushing down the bathtub hole. 

In probably the most famous, and well edited scene in all of cinema, also known as the shower scene, Hitchcock uses editing and sound as cinematic manipulation to create a carefully thought out horrific murder scene. Perfection is the result. In less than one minute, we witness a combination of 78 shots, in relation to the sound of a knife slashing against skin. We never actually see the knife enter the woman’s flesh, yet we’re convince we do through the sight of stabbing (hand motion), sound effects, the musical score (horrible animalistic screeching), and of course the careful editing. Celluloid cuts replace flesh cuts. When Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that “Psycho” belongs to filmmakers, he wasn’t joking.

By exposing the audience to forty-five seconds of nonstop violence without actually showing any, Hitchcock leaves it up to our imagination. (Truffaut)  Imagination has no limits which is why the scene is timeless and just as shocking half a century later. The shock is not only the sudden bombardment of cuts but the fact that he killed off his leading lady. We looked through her eyes, listened to her thoughts and witnessed her actions only to see her naked body slashed to an ugly death. With more than an hour to go, anything is possible. The viewer waits for the sound of Hitchcock’s next note on his piano.  

Norman hurries in to clean up his “mother’s” mess. So not only do we witness the death of the leading lady, we watch Norman wipe the blood off the walls, the floor, the bathtub, and the sink after washing his bloody hands. After that, he wraps Marion’s dead body in the torn curtain. This mirrors the scene of Marion wrapping the newspaper around the $39,300 in cash. He then gathers her stuff puts it in the trunk of her car, along with the wrapped body and the wrapped “MacGuffin”.

The car slowly sinks into the darkness of the swamp. For a moment it stops. Here’s Hitchcock playing with his audience again. Even though we just witnessed our hero chopped and wrapped like a piece of meat, we somehow want the car to fully sink. It does. Fade to black.

Fade into the inside of a hardware store, Sam’s working place. One of the customers studies a can of poison “Let’s say see what they say about this one. They tell you what its ingredients are and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.” The viewer agrees. Afterall, the customer is always right. Enter Lila, Marion’s sister.

She’s worried and asks about the whereabouts of her sister. Sam is clueless. He tells his eavesdropping co-worker to go have his lunch. The co-worker leaves. Yet, the scene remains a three-shot with the entrance of a private investigator, Arbogast. All three ask questions, and eventually they’re all up to date. They realize that they’re all on the same side. Arbogast wants to find the missing money, Lila wants her sister, and Sam wants his girlfriend back. A new story unfolds.

As the story takes a different turn, so does the editing. The first half of the picture was edited to look like the events took place within two days. After, watching the story of the first half end, George Tomasini, the editor of the movie, speeds up the pace. In the scene that follows, Arbogast starts checking different hotels for any information on a missing Marion. The scene is a montage of a sequence of shots showing Arbogast in different hotels, which suggests the passage of time. Finally, Arbogast reaches the Bates motel.  

Arbogast investigates right away. He makes the purpose of his visit clear and shows Norman a picture of Marion. Naturally, Norman is scared and tries to end their conversation as soon as humanly possible. “Well, no one’s stopped here for a couple of weeks.” Arbogast insists he take a look at the picture before “committing” himself. This is acting at its best. At first, Norman is relaxed offering his candy. Gradually as the pressure build up, Perkins’s performance intensifies. Arbogast catches a lie when Norman mentions a couple visiting “last week” and asks to take a look at the register. Perkins chews faster and harder on the candy (the candy was his idea). Norman takes another look at the picture and admits she was here but he didn’t recognize the picture at first because her hair was all wet. The showering of questions heightens the pressure and Perkins drives his performance into iconic status. We get it all complete with facial tics and stuttering words.

Being the great private detective that he is, Arbogast gets a more complete story by cornering Norman with questions. Moments later he spots the shadowy old woman in the upstairs mansion window. More of Norman’s lies are fished out and Arbogast takes another direction. He pressures Norman with the “let’s assume” method. To which, Norman mistakenly slips the words “Let’s put it this way. She may have fooled me but she didn’t fool my mother.” Now, Arbogast wants to meet the mother. To Norman that’s crossing the line, and so he asks him to leave.

A phone call later, the private-eye returns to the motel to fulfill his satisfaction. The sequence leading up to his murder mirrors that of Marion since both enter Norman’s patrol prior to their deaths. We also get the stuffed birds shots, only for some reason Hitchcock reverses them with the crow shot first and the owl afterwards. Nevertheless, the viewer is put in the same uncomfortable mood.

Arbogast goes up to the mansion, and step by step climbs the stairway. Hitchcock manages to pull off another shocking scene with a sudden jump-out-of-your seat appearance of mother stabbing the detective once he reaches the top. Blood splatters on his face, and we follow the fall with the camera fixed on Arbogast’s face. The same use of screeching noise is set by Herrmann. Once he lands, Mrs. Bates continues the stabbing, the detective screams in horror and the scene fades to black.

The Arbogast scene is the second and last onscreen kill. Today, Hitchcock is often credited with creating the slasher sub-genre. Unfortunately, this triggered a chain of terrible motion pictures with the exception of the original “Halloween”. Most of the slasher pictures of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s overdo it with frequent kills every other scene instead of building up the murder scenes with character development. Therefore, we end up with a bunch of characters we don’t much care for getting chopped to pieces. In “Psycho” it was never about the violence, it was always about the tension leading up to the violence.

 Fade in, Sam and Lila sit worried in a smoky room “Sam he said an hour or less”. Sam: “Yeah, It’s been three.” As I said before the pace is much faster in the second half. Hitchcock directs this half like it’s a sequel requiring different editing methods. Likewise, time passes faster at Norman’s place. A medium shot of Norman standing in front of the clear black swamp. He’s already done cleaning the mess. Sam arrives and looks for “Arbogast”. He calls his name a few times with no luck. The medium shot becomes a close up, again not through a cut but by Sam walking up to the lens. He curves his hands around his mouth and gives it his all. The call for Arbogast echoes into the next and same shot of Norman in front of the swamp. We move closer to him. As his head turn to the right facing the camera, the camera pans to the left towards him. A very well executed shot is the result as we end with a close up on a chilling expression on Norman’s shadowy face. He’s looking at his motel.

A transition directs us to a deep shot of the storeroom. Lila is sitting at the center all the way in a lighted room in the back. The store itself is dark. She hears a car approaching stands up and runs through the dark store. We end up with a silhouette of her head in a close up. Without moving the camera, and with careful lighting, a simple scene becomes a memorable one. The movement is inside the frame as Lila breaks the depth of field of the shot. Previously Hitchcock created a close-up out of a medium shot, this time the task is difficult and much more impressive as he turns a deep focus shot into a close-up, without any cuts.

In a two-shot, the dark figures of Sam and Lila decide to see the deputy sheriff, Al Chambers. A transition leads to the deputy walking down the stairs. The camera slightly pans to the left and the camera is fixed on a four-shot (Sam, Lila, Mrs. Chambers, and Mr. Chamber). As Sam updates the sheriff with the story, we switch to a three-shot. Only this time they aren’t standing next to each other. The side of Al Chambers face is in the foreground and his wife, on the left, is in the background. When Sam mentions Norman’s mother the facial expression of Mrs. Chambers transforms to a look of panic and wonder.  This shot is used to show the emotional reaction between the sheriff and his wife. After that we switch to a three-shot of Sam in the foreground, Lila in the middle-ground, and Mrs. Chambers in the background. Finally after constant switching from the two-shot to the three shot and gradually to one-shots, we end up with a low-angle shot of the sheriff and the spine-chilling line: “Well, if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates, who’s that woman buried out in Green Lawn Cemetery?” Hitchcock is involving the audience, moving us closer, building to more intimacy between the viewer and the characters.  I like to call it the 4,3,2,1 scene.

The last line makes one question the existence of mother. Hitchcock is misguiding the audience. I bet a lot of the viewers were predicting a ghost story. The haunted mansion would fit that storyline, or maybe mother and Norman killed someone and made it look like mother died. The audience is in the dark.

Norman delicately walks up the stairway. He walks to mother’s room, and the camera slowly pans up closer to the door and eventually the long shot ends with an overhead view of Norman carrying his mother to the fruit cellar. This beautifully photographed shot meant to hide the face of Norman’s mother is an example of how Hitchcock uses cinematography to guide our eyes in whichever direction he pleases supporting the story. 

Next, Sam and Lila decide to search every inch of the motel. To do so, they split up. Sam is to distract and keep Norman occupied while Lila goes up the mansion to get to the old woman. Two things happening at once builds the tension as the relation between both incidents eventually merge into the famous Norman in his wig scene.

Inside the office, Sam shoots accusations at Norman. He’s not as smooth as Arbogast which leads to trouble. They say an animal is most dangerous when cornered. The second time Norman is put in that situation, he breaks loose by striking Sam’s head with a souvenir. Meanwhile Lila after touring the house looks through a window and sees Norman running towards her from the Bates Motel. Space is all that was needed to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Moments later, Lila is hiding in the cellar room. She sees mother facing the wall in her rocking chair. A tap in the back later, the truth surfaces- mother is a corpse. Lila screams and hits a hanging light-bulb. Shadows dance. Enter Norman smiling like a creep with a kitchen knife high up in the air. More importantly the screeching noise makes another visit; the two previous times the audience listened to that horrible noise they witnessed murder scenes. Subconsciously the audience thinks it’ll happen again, only Sam comes to the rescue. The wig falls off Norman’s head.

The final scene is the famous psychiatry explanation. Like Roger Ebert, this scene always bothered me, for like the opening narration in “Dark City”, the full explanation underestimates the intelligence of the viewer. In his Great Movie essay, Roger provides a perfect cut: “If I were bold enough to reedit Hitchcock’s film, I would include only the doctor’s first explanation of Norman’s dual personality: ‘Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half existed to begin with. And now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time.’ Then I would cut out everything else the psychiatrist says, and cut to the shots of Norman wrapped in the blanket while his mother’s voice speaks (‘It’s sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son…’). Those edits, I submit, would have made ‘Psycho’ very nearly perfect.” (Ebert)

Even though the scene is not necessary, it’s not that much of a burden and doesn’t ruin the entire picture like the spoiler filled opening of “Dark City”. In the first half, we became so intimate with Marion, Hitchcock let us into her thoughts. In the final scene Norman, now the main character, shares his thoughts with the audience. Only his thoughts are those of his mother confirming the schizophrenic split personality disorder. “They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even gonna swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly.’” A disturbing smile curves his face and a hint of mother’s skeleton appears as the transition escorts us the Marion’s car getting pulled out of the swamp. A perfect bloodcurdling last shot. The End.

Film Review: “Toy Story 3” ★★★★★ (5/5)

Toys. The definition of which always remains the same, however, the meaning changes over time. Children see them as characters, actors in their little adventures, but as we grow up, sooner or later the phrase “It’s just a toy” slips out. Even though toys may just be toys, pieces of plastic glued together or beans in a piece of cloth, they encapsulate childhood. Looking at a toy one used to play with is looking into childhood. Because toys generate this nostalgia, they’re much like pictures or home videos. Upon glancing at them, for the briefest of moments, we are transported through time.

“Toy Story 3” rounds up the trilogy with a conclusion. The first two animated films are right up there with the best of animated films. This equally great installment is spectacular to infinity and beyond. A joy for the entire family has been overused by critics, in saying so I will add that I mean it now more than ever. Kids will enjoy the cutting edge prison break storyline, for them it’s Buzz Lightyear and Woody in another great adventure.

Yes, “Toy Story 3” is about Buzzlightyear and Woody but on a much deeper level, it’s the story of every toy, hence the perfect and simple franchise title.  Kids become teenagers and long for being children again, middle aged men/women, look at the teens with envious eyes, grown-ups embark mid-life crisis; we long for the past instead of embracing the present. “Toy Story 3” is a reminder to enjoy life as it is, not as it was or will be. The message, there’s nothing wrong with moving on.

Right from the start, the magical musical theme of the greatest animated trilogy of all time, warms our hearts. There is no need to judge the quality of the animation, for the simple reason that it’s Pixar and they never let us down. The key is to focus on the story, which in this case is just as impressive. Andy is all grown up and already moving out for college. This causes panic among the toys as they’re not sure what fate this will bring them to. Due to unfortunate circumstances, they end up in a day care center. At first it seems like they landed on toy heaven but once they’re stationed at the two to three year olds section, all hell breaks loose.

 New toys rule the day care and provide no mercy upon new arrivals. They want to remain at the five to ten year old section and the only way to stay there is to keep the heroes of our story locked up. For the remainder of the film, the audience embark on a nonstop action prison break, or shall I say day-care break. We are introduced to new toys, some are very pleasant and nice (the telephone and of course the Totoro cameo), others are extremely creepy and villainous. To shine light on who the villain will only spoil the fun for you. Just keep in mind that it (it’s a toy) is pitch perfect. John Lasseter and Michael Arndt’s screenplay bursts with humorous moments and memorable lines. As for Lee Unkrich, the director who also penned “Toy Story 2”, “Monster Inc.”, and “Finding Nemo”, BRAVO!-he did it again!

Film History: The Motion Picture Patent Wars

Members of the Motion Picture Patents Company

               The Motion Picture Patents Company was the result of the patent wars that started when W.K.L. Dickson started his own company, the Biograph. Prior to that moment Edison and his company had nothing to worry about, for they were successful at dominating the motion picture field. When the Lumiere brothers came to the U.S. with their cinematograph, Edison found a way to lure them away. However, Dickson knowing the ways of Edison having previously worked for him creating the kinetograph, a 35mm camera, knew how to challenge the entrepreneur. He basically created an entirely different camera that shot 70mm films known as the mutoscope to avoid getting sued.

               With the demand exceeding the supply in the film industry, another competition emerged, J. Stauart Blackon and his vitagraph and by 1898 there were three major studios, Edison, Biograph and Vitagraph. Edison reacted to these challenges by filing over twenty lawsuits in a matter of years. While sometimes he would succeed, he would more often fail to bring an end to these new companies. Edison would file lawsuits especially on Biograph since Dickson was his former employer and a great threat to his company. Still with Biograph having a patent to its camera the matter seemed rather impossible.

1893- Edison Introduces the Dickson Kinetoscope

                Eventually smaller companies started to emerge including Selig, Essany, Lubin, Kleine, Kalem, Melie’s Star, and Pathe. Edison’s need to dominate did not end yet and his only hope was to introduce the MPPC and get top billing. After a few months of disagreements between Edison and Dickson, the MPPC was finally established in 1908 with Biograph earning the second most profits followed by the rest.

                With Edison and Dickson pleased with the result of a legal monopoly, they no longer had to fear competition. It was officially illegal to distribute or show any films without permission of the MPPC. They had the rights to every film and camera in the market and there for a while there was no one to stop them. Unfortunate for them, many parties were displeased with the total control over costs and prices, and with more demand than “the Trust” could provide, a second generation calling themselves Independents appeared. The Motion Picture Patents Company called them outlaws for they did not submit themselves to the monopoly. 

Homer Edison aka Thomas Simpson

               The independents movement stayed away from New York and Edison’s monopoly to avoid lawsuits. In 1909, the Independent Motion Picture Company formed and used illegal equipment to strengthen their underground market. When stars started signing contracts to IMP, the Motion Picture Patents Company started losing control of the business and reacted by creating the General Film Company to block the distribution of independents without a license. It was then that the MPPC had effectively regained its monopoly. The monopoly would not last and the MPPC would soon meet its end.

            William Fox, the owner of a film rental company didn’t want to sell his company to Edison who would constantly offer him deals, and Edison found himself facing another challenge. Soon the Fox Film Corporation started making movies and even after losing his license, he still defied the MPPC with a lawsuit that would lead to the decline of the Motion Picture Patents Company. The government was already not pleased with all the monopolies forming around the country and so Fox used this in his favor and it helped him win them over in a lawsuit that would bring an end to the patents trust formed by Edison and Dickson.    

Recommended Readings:

Recommended Video:

Film Review: “Iron Man 2” ★ ★ (2/5)

When “Iron Man” was released two years ago, I remember leaving the theater hungry for more. Now that Jon Favreau has come up with the sequel I can’t help but want less. By less I mean less of a lot of things. Less characters, that’s for sure. The film introduces so many new characters without taking the time to develop them, it becomes almost repetitive.

I constantly found myself saying “Oh, there’s Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow; Mickey Rourke looking badass as always. Wait a minute Don Cheadle replaced Terrence Howard? Sam Rockwell is in this too? Oh looky here, it’s Samuel L. Jackson in yet another below average superhero movie.”

Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against ensemble casts, as long as each character has purpose, is well-developed and supports the overall flow of the film.Unfortunately, this is not the case here. Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters did nothing for me. They were both unnecessary to the plot and quite frankly felt like characters from another movie who just happened to run into the set of “Iron Man 2”. I have no problem with Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard though, he stayed true to Howrard’s performance in the predecessor. While Rourke needed more character development, Rockwell was the surprise  showstealer.

Less storylines and more focus is another thing this film needed. Favreau should’ve focused on one basic storyline instead of losing grip of the direction of the plotline and wasting what could have been a great sequel. The film starts with Ivan Vanko also known as Whiplash (Rourke) witnessing the death of his father. We get that Tony Stark is somehow responsible for it and so in an attempt to avenge his father’s death, Ivan builds his own cheap electronic vest. Meanwhile Tony Stark is busy trying to prevent the US army from getting their desperate hands on his suit. We also learn that the arc reactor attached to his chest is both keeping him alive and killing him.

After completion of his vest, Rourke takes a shot against our hero during a Formula 1 race. Yes, a Formula 1 race. Why you ask? Well, apparently we need hundreds of people watching as Rourke stands up against Stark, in addition to that, there also has to be some explosive action like cars flipping into the air and crashing into one another. The location is a lame desperate excuse to make the standoff a fireworks show. The “he did it to show people Stark wasn’t invincible” is a stupid argument. Did everyone forget about Jeff Bridges using Iron Man as a metallic frisby?

Suddenly, the story switches focus from Whiplash to Stark’s main business competitor, Justin Hammer (Rockwell). Hammer is sick of living in Stark’s shadow and so teams up with, well you guessed it. The main villain becomes a minor one and then returns once again to the center of attention. In addition to all that you have subplots including a childish fight with his best friend, Col. Rhodes (Cheadle), Pepper Potts (Paltrow) getting promoted, Stark (Downey Jr.) coming to terms with some Daddy issues, and an introduction to the Avengers.

Another negative aspect in “Iron Man 2” is the over use of far-fetched technology. It was fun in the first film but they overdid it with the sequel. It was almost an in your face display of the bigger budget. Part of what made “Iron Man” so special was the relevant theme of terrorism, which is absent here. Also, in the first picture, there was something about that suit that made it unique and special. However, “Iron Man 2” introduces so many different armour suits with special attachments, our hero’s suit only becomes less impressive. In fact, we get so many suits in this film, I’m surprised they didn’t just title the film, “Iron Men”.

Now that I’m done discussing the negative aspect, I’ll point out that the action sequences were somewhat impressive in terms of editing. Thank God, this wasn’t filmed in 3-D because it would’ve resulted in me adding another paragraph to my negative review.

EBERTFEST: Wael vs. the Volcano Vol. 2- The Uplifting Sequel

By now most of you must have heard of my success of getting to Ebertfest. For those of you who don’t know here’s what happened. I had lost all hope and went to the airport in Doha to buy a ticket back to Egypt. I was standing in line to get that ticket when my father pointed to a TV screen. “London Heathrow airports are back in business. For the time being only those with cancelled flights will be served.” 

Before booking the ticket, I asked the guy behind the counter to find me a route to Champaign. It was my last attempt and also my last chance to at least attend one full day at Ebertfest. It took the guy about thirty minutes to find a route to my final destination. “That’ll cost you $8,200.”, he said. My father looked at me and asked how much my previous ticket cost. I told him that it cost me around a thousand. By chance, a representative from British Airways was passing by and overheard our conversation. He then turned to us, and told us that if our previous flight was cancelled due to the volcanic ash, BA would take care of the costs as long as I fly with either British Airways or American Airlines. The stars must have been aligned for me, because the route we found was all American Airlines. Anyway, so they gave me the ticket, but there was still a problem. I would go from Doha to Bahrain, from Bahrain to London, from London to Chicago, and from Chicago to Champaign. Two of these flights were still not confirmed, so they put me on standby for the flight the next day. 

That day, I told no one, except for Roger Ebert and Mary Susan, about my tiny chance of attending this one day at the festival. If everything went well, I would miss my panel discussion, but I’d attend the 24th and the last screening on the 25th. That was good enough for me. Besides it was either that, or back to Egypt.

We went back home at around 2 a.m. My father went to sleep right away. I stayed up all night; I just couldn’t sleep. Whenever I would close my eyes, I’d think of meeting the foreign correspondents, Roger and Chaz.  I thought of how happy I’d be if I got that seat, and of course, how sad it would be to get disappointed one last time. I couldn’t take that anymore.

I slept for an hour or two at around 8 a.m. When I woke up, I packed my last few items, and started heading to the airport. I waited and waited; people kept coming in and my little hope for that seat began to vanish. Finally, at the last moment around 8 p.m., the airline representative approached me, “You’re lucky. Someone didn’t show up.” I said my goodbyes to my father, and checked my bag in. I was still in disbelief, and didn’t think of it that much at the moment. I tried to contact Roger or Mary Susan, but the internet reception there was terrible.

The following 23 hours (16 hours of flight) felt like a week, as I stopped in Bahrain, London, and Chicago, rushing from one terminal to the next. The last thing I wanted was to miss my flight, and blame the failure of arriving to Ebertfest on myself instead of the volcano.

When I finally got to Chicago, I sent Omer Mozaffer a message:

 “Hi Omer. It’s your buddy Wael. Ezayak? (Arabic for How are you) I can’t reach Mary Susan or Roger. I just arrived in Chicago.”

Omer later told me that at that precise moment, he read the message and showed it to Roger. Roger read it and his eyes widened by the surprise arrival. Omer, aka the unofficial leader of the foreign correspondents, then replied to me and gave me directions to the hotel I was to stay in. I waited at the airport for 6 hours before my short flight to Champaign took off.

When I arrived there, it was Friday night, around 8 o’clock. Meanwhile, everyone was watching “Synecdoche, New York”, so I took a cab to the Illini Union Hotel and checked in. I was very tired but decided to attend the mid-fest party late that night. Grace Wang was kind enough to pick me up since I didn’t know where to go or anything. She turned out to be this wonderful person, much nicer than her already kind personality online. That’s when I first met Tom Dark. We clicked in an instant. On our way to the party, we talked about everything from the things I’ve missed in Ebertfest to my blog entries.

The party was very crowded. Grace spotted the rest of the foreign correspondents, grabbed me and lead me through the chatting crowd. Omar Moore, Omer Mozaffer, Seongyong Cho and Michael Mirasol were there. Each of them greeted me with a hug and several “You MADE IT!” celebrations. They were most welcoming. We chatted a bit and then I asked about Roger. He couldn’t make it to the party, since he felt tired and wanted to call it a night. They told me that I’d meet him at his place the following day where Chaz and Roger would be having a breakfast party for us bloggers. I was most excited. I was also interviewed by Sandra Kofler from the Wall Street Journal. She mentions me in her article about the festival here:

 I spotted Charlie Kaufman from across the room. He was very busy answering all kinds of questions about the recent screening of his masterpiece. A few minutes later my main man, Evan (an Ebertfest volunteer) walked me home. I needed some sleep if I wanted to wake up for that breakfast at Roger’s place.

The next day, I met up with Grace, Omer, the wonderful Gerardo Valero, his sweet wife and Tom. The group of 6 or 7 then split up into two cars. I went with Omer. We all knew that Roger had not seen me yet and Omer was particularly excited to see his reaction. Carol (Roger’s assistant) let us in after a few minutes of standing in front of the elevator. When Chaz saw me she gave the most welcoming hug. “I can’t believe you’re actually here.” she said. I kept smiling and told her how glad I am to finally make it. We then went inside and enjoyed the coffee, croissants and so on. I mingled with the crowd and met some wonderful people including the executive producer of Chaz and Ebert’s upcoming show, and an old lady from Canada who was just adorable. I hate myself for forgetting her name.  I asked her “If you could recommend just one Canadian film, what would it be?” “Shake Hands with the Devil”, she replied. Another film was added to the wish list.

Roger was still upstairs but after about ten minutes he came down. I looked at him, he looked at me. “Look who made it. Wael from Egypt.”, Omer said. We then hugged each other. “It’s an honor sir”, I whispered. Everyone was looking at us and I was at the happiest state of my life. My mentor was shaking my shoulder with joy. Gerardo took a few pictures of us smiling at each other. I hope he sends them soon. I’m smiling right now just writing about that moment.

The small party went on and I met some other interesting individuals. Everyone seemed to know who I am. Apparently, Roger and Chaz would update the audience every day about the progress of my trip. I must’ve gotten dozens of “We’re so glad you made it. Your trip was so dramatic. But YOU MADE IT!” I’d smile each time to the strangers. The then strangers are now friends.

At one point I spotted Roger sitting on his chair when nobody around him. He was all alone, so I jumped at the chance and sat next to him. We talked about my grandfather, my jetlag,  the updates of the festival, and how I’d go through everything again just to meet Roger, Chaz and the far-flung gang as I like to call them. He also signed the festival program for me. “To Wael, My Friend. Roger” I appreciate the autograph, but it’s the “My Friend” part that has me gazing at the cover every hour. I later purchased 6 of his books. Someone asked me, “Aren’t you going to get him to sign them for you?” I didn’t want him to sign. I didn’t want to feel like a fan (which I am) but a friend (which he is).

An hour or so later it was time for all of us to head to the festival. I waited outside with Grace and Omer. Charlie Kauffman came and joined. I told him who I was and where I’m from, we shook hands, and I told him how many times I had seen “Synecdoche, New York” (5). He was amazed that the film was even released in Egypt. I also told him that I admire the fact that he doesn’t explain his film in interviews and how he should never reveal more than what is displayed on screen. “It would ruin it. What I love most about your films is the fact that every time I re-watch them, I get something new out of the experience.”
He nodded and said something in the lines of “I really appreciate you saying that because I get a lot of shit about that.” He was leaving Ebertfest shortly after, so I shook his hand and said goodbye. I was glad to meet the greatest screenwriter alive before missing the chance.

Tom Dark, Grace, and I started heading to the Virginia Theater. We grabbed cups of coffee from a café on our way. When we finally got there, I realized that I had no pass. Grace told me about a gift-bag that contained the pass but my room didn’t have that. We tried explaining to the volunteers that I was a foreign correspondent but they only appointed us to someone else. They were doing their job. By luck at that moment Roger was entering the theater. He pointed at me, we shook hands again, and then he waved his hands into the entrance. This time nobody dared to stop me on my way in.

Once inside, I admired the Virginia Theater, studying every single detail of the beautifully preserved design of the place. The theater was pretty much full but I managed to find a seat upfront. I was then approached by another volunteer who asked for my pass. “You can’t sit there.”, he said. “Yes, he can” said a voice from behind me. It was Tom Dark, he had saved a seat for me all the way at the back, a few seats next to Roger. A few moments later Chaz came up on stage.

“I’m very happy to tell you some of the people have been blogging and tweeting and the News Gazette wrote an article about one of our foreign correspondents who couldn’t come. Wael Khairy, from Egypt, Wael is here. Wael stand.” _Chaz

A thunder of applause followed. I stood up put my hand on my heart. I kept smiling for the ten seconds of applause. The hundreds or a thousand of seated people turned around and looked at me as they continued to applaud. I couldn’t think straight. I was being introduced and put on the spotlight. I can write a long list of adjectives describing how I felt at that moment (proud, happy, thankful, happy, grateful, happy, touched, and very happy).

We then watched a nice British film called “I Capture the Castle”. It was my first time seeing the film, and I enjoyed it very much. I didn’t think it was a masterpiece but still, it was much better than most family films I can think of. At the Q & A, Grace Wang discussed how the film was about adolescence. Another panelist (the daughter of the costume designer) thought the film was essentially about love, a member of the audience said it was about the process and struggle to write. I thought it wasn’t about any of this and about all that too. Let me explain, the way I saw it, it was about the discovery of things, be it love and how it can be both beautiful yet painful at the same time, the discovery of an adolescences’ sexual frustration, the discovery of what it’s like to have a first kiss, and the discovery of that tiny spark that brings an end to a writer’s block. I wanted to raise my hand and say all that but by the time my thoughts had formed, they had picked the last question by the audience.

After the Q &A, I went to get more coffee to stay awake. I went outside to catch a breath of fresh air and saw Tom smoking one of his cigars. We talked about my censorship incident and went back in shortly. The same executive-producer from last time handed me an All-Screenings Pass, just in case anything happened. The next screening was “Vincent: A Life in Color”. I sat up front next to a film professor from Ohio. We talked a lot and he turned out to be quite a guy. Right behind me sat Gerardo and his wife. I greeted them once again and Gerardo told me “You know what Wael, they should do a statue of you.” What a compliment? “Huh? Why?” He told me that the day before, Roger, and Grace and himself were discussing the subtitle incident. I was touched by the fact that they thought of me while I was gone. He also told me that during their panel discussion, my far flung buddies shouted out at the camera that they miss me and that they wished I was here. Again, I was very touched. It seems like everyone was so welcome, nice and thoughtful. I just couldn’t help but keep smiling randomly throughout the day.

“Vincent: A Life in Color” was one of the most uplifiting feel good documentaries I had ever seen. I was surprised that it wasn’t as well known as it deserves to be. The choices Roger picks for his festival are truly unique and pitch perfect. I saw Vincent himself at the breakfast party but I didn’t know who he was. At one point he put his hand on my blazer and said “Ouuu feeling groovy?” After the documentary I appreciated that random moment even more. The entire audience was touched by his story, at parts everyone was smiling, at others the room was so quiet you could’ve heard a fly pass by. “Vincent: A Life in Color” is a bittersweet masterpiece of a documentary. I love the fact that it started out by displaying Vincent as this crazy guy dancing on a bridge wearing weird suits, and then it kept getting closer and closer to Vincent the man not Vincent the public image. Eventually, the wide shots got closer narrower up till a headshot interviewing the man at the end. I still don’t understand the motif of his actions but that’s exactly what I love about the man’s spirit.

After the credits rolled, Vincent came up on the stage and did his little performance of twirling his suit. A standing ovation followed. After that the Q & A started. I was surprised that it was the director’s first film and that she paid for every cent. She was a waitress first, and suddenly got the idea of doing a documentary on the by now urban legend known as, well he’s known as a lot of things.

During the break, Chaz came up to me and introduced me to Melissa Merli from The News Gazette. I was interviewed by her outside. She was very nice and I thanked her personally after picking up several copies of the newspaper on Monday. I asked Roger to thank Chaz for me. It was mighty kind of her to get me that interview. You can read all about it here:

After the interview we went back in to watch “Trucker”. It exceeded my expectations and I now consider it one of the best films of 2008. The performances were what surprised me most. Michelle Monaghan delivered a once in a lifetime performance and I can see her career taking off the way Charlize Theron’s career took off after “Monster”. There’s one shot in that movie that I think is simply beautiful. It’s when Diane Ford and her son sit in the middle of nowhere facing the screen with a gap between them and an empty landscape of desert as the background. It takes place much earlier in the film which is when both characters are quite distant from each other, the emptiness of that shot with the vast space expressed so much about the characters at that stage of their lives. As the film progressed, the gap between them eventually vanished and they end up in each other’s arms. I was also struck by the realistic friendship between Diane and her best friend, Runner played excellently by Nathan Fillion. Especially since my best friend is girl (Amina). I understood many of the scenes of them together and how they were the only ones who truly understood each other. The theme of their relationship touched me more than any chemistry between two fictional friends in a long time.  

About an hour later, I was enjoying the company of Grace and Tom once again in the Green Room.  We talked about his work, her potential future as a writer, and how the book about Egyptian censorship and piracy that I’m working on will probably never see the light of any bookshelves till the Egyptian government changes for the better. Roger Ebert was also the subject of our conversation. We talked about his generosity and how interactive he is, being one of the few critics who have daily conversation with their readers. As soon as the vegetarian macaroni dishes were wiped by our appetite, we headed back to the festival for the final screening of the day, “Barfly”.

I knew about the film but never got the chance to actually seeing it. Now that I have, I can honestly consider it one of the greatest films of the 80’s. Mickey Rourke’s performance is one of the greatest male lead showcases in film history. I was shocked to find out later on that he wasn’t even nominated in 1987. Upon learning that I recalled the Academy’s other 80’s mistake of not nominating Robert De Niro in “The King of Comedy”. “Barfly” is so deep and layered with philosophical themes wrapped up in a hilarious yet dark screenplay. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. It’s the film I enjoyed most out of the five films I enjoyed there. The Q & A was one of a kind with the surprise appearance of Barbet Schroeder. He shared some interesting stories about the making of the film and the subject of his story, Charles Burkowski. At first I thought the film was ok, but now that it has grown on me, I think it’s a masterpiece that should be considered a modern classic in years to come.

As soon as the day came to an end, I had to get some sleep. The caffeine effect was no longer working and my eye-lids became more and more heavy. Instead of going to the party, I went to sleep and finally got some proper rest. Waking up the next morning, I met the wonderful Jim Emerson. I knew him from Roger’s blog and read his reviews for the past year. He’s probably the only film critic other than Ebert that I follow too. He told me how dramatic my arrival was and how he was so very glad that I made it. We talked about Egypt, and he showed me the tattoo on his arm of the Eye of Horus. I love that symbol which is why I got Grace a silver necklace of that same symbol from Egypt. The eye is represented as a figure with 6 parts. These 6 parts correspond to the six senses – Touch, Taste, Hearing, Thought, Sight, Smell. These are the 6 parts of the *eye*.  The eye is the receptor of *input*. It has these six doors, to receive data. It was also believed to be a protective symbol. Anyway, Jim was very kind, warm, welcoming and generous enough to mention me in his Ebertfest wrap-up article: I bought myself a few copies of this Chicago Sun-Times issue from the airport the following day.

The last screening of Ebertfest was the heartbreaking documentary, “Song Sung Blue” about Thunder & Lightning, their ups and downs. I couldn’t help but think of how emotionally similar the couple’s journey was to that of Roger and Chaz. It was a fitting end to greatest two days of my life. Thunder herself performed afterwards and the theater soon broke into a concert with audiences up on their feet dancing to her tunes. I couldn’t help but smile as Roger danced along. Everyone was so happy and I couldn’t wipe that smile off my face. I also noticed that Roger is one of the most humorous guys I’ve ever met. He waves and points with his hands at pitch perfect moments causing waves of laughter. I doubt he had that physical humor before his operation. It’s amazing how well he’s taking his rough journey, inspirational to say the least.

After the Q & A, and the fifth presentation of the golden thumb I had witnessed, Roger and Chaz wrapped up the show and everyone was on their way back home. It was a bittersweet end to a joyful experience. I have attended many festivals in Egypt, Rome, and London but never anything quite like this. I can’t recall any festival where the audience played such an important role. It was as close as you’d get to a group hug of film lovers.

By the time I exchanged emails with the all the new people I met in the festival, Roger had left the theater. He was nowhere to be found and I feared that I wouldn’t get the chance to thank him properly and say my goodbyes. When I returned to my room, Roger sent me an email to meet him at the Steak & Shake. I met up with Michael Mirasol then and went to the address provided by Roger. It wasn’t my first time there though. Michael had set up this Steak & Shake lunch for me earlier that day. Many of the foreign correspondents and Tom Dark attended the special meal. The burger was phenomenal. Anyway, when I got there, we sat at a long table and shortly after Roger and Chaz arrived. As soon as Roger came in, our eyes were fixed on each other. He knew I wanted to spend more time with him.

 It is there that I got to talk to Chaz a lot. She was surprised when she quizzed me and Omar Moore about what her favorite movie was. “I know!” I said. “It’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’”. She smiled, patted me on the back and thanked me for knowing this. We talked about Egypt more, my grandfather, our favorite films, the festival, her show, her job, how I got a job at C Mag, how she originally thought I was in my 60’s, and the Roger Ebert effect on my blog.

About half an hour later, Roger sat next to me and asked about my jetlag. I told him that I had just adjusted to the time zone. “In a way…because I was so tired yesterday making the day extra long for me, I kind of felt like I had spent three days in Urbana not one. In a good way of course”, I told him. He asked if I could go back to Chicago to spend more quality time but I couldn’t since my military permission has an expiry date. I saw the disappointment in his eyes and it broke my heart. I would do anything to spend more time with the man.I did promise to visit Chicago more often and told him that I’d tell him about my visits beforehand. We continued talking about Mary Susan and some other matters. At one humorous moment we observed as Seongyong Cho nodded.  Before I knew it, it was time for him to leave. We hugged it out and he waved goodbye to all of us.

I spent two days at Ebertfest and got to talk with Roger in two occasions, once each day, both the most memorable occasions of my stay there.  I wish I talked more with him there but we both knew that I made it to Ebertfest and got to spend some quality time with him and the foreign correspondents, that’s all that mattered. A viratual friendship materialized.

Later that night I had dinner with Michael, Grace and Jackson at some crappy Chinese restaurant but we made the most out of it. We laughed, joked, and talked about our home countries. After dinner we sat at the Illini Union reception and talked about our first encounters with Roger, and it progressed from there. We also talked about film criticism in general and our jobs back home. The night came to an end at Grace’s place where we chilled for hours talking about films, imitated 1-800 ads, and finally called it a night. The next morning was a sad one. I said my goodbyes and thought of how we bonded over the past two days. I also bonded with my uddy Evan that day. I spent the rest of the afternoon with the young aspiring filmmaker, soccer player, band member and comedian (talk about hard work and potential). He told me some very interesting tales about his love for the TV Show “Scrubs” and how he would wear scrubs to school in an attempt to save the show from cancellation. He took me to nice fast food restaurant that served one of the best butter burgers I’ve ever tasted. After buying some DVDs, it was time to head to the airport. We promised to keep contact.

I slept through most of the fights and time passed in a fast paste. When I got back home, the same friends who did their best to find me a plane ticket to Ebertfest greeted me. They asked questions and I answered them. I told about every single detail, and they were glad to see me so happy. So was it worth it? Gerardo was so very friendly as was his wife; Omer Mozaffer treated me like a relative; Grace spent so much time with me and we got to know each other so well, it feels like I knew her all my life; Michael became the one I could identify with most having similar backgrounds; Omar Moore always made sure I was laughing and captured so many magical moments with his camera; Seongyong Cho kept me busy with debates and film conversations; Tom Dark lectured me about writing; I enjoyed watching the charismatic Ali Arikan being all over the place; Chaz was so very kind and great to talk to; Carol is another one who kept me laughing whenever we’d meet up; and talking to Roger in person strengthened our friendship in an instant. It amazes me that in a matter of 48 hours, these people evolved from correspondents and people I admired, to friends I just can’t bear the thought of never seeing again. Looking back at how we all bonded, I can no longer think of them as friends but family, one big movie loving family.




EBERTFEST: Wael versus the Volcano- The Quest to Ebertfest

This blog post has nothing to do with the feel good motion picture “Joe versus the Volcano”. In fact, it’s far from a feel good story. This is my way of expressing my inner feelings about how the volcano in Iceland ruined my trip to Roger Ebert’s film festival, Ebertfest.  The purpose of it is not to put you down or make you feel bad or sorry for me. I’m a positive man, always was and always will be. I only hope this story makes every Ebertfest attendee grateful for attending such a wonderful film festival. If you live within walking distance from the festival, a few miles away, or got there via plane, enjoy it for less fortunate individuals like myself tried everything to beat the volcanic ash, and find ways around it, only to end up grounded in the Middle East.

Where to start? I could start when I first met Roger (through his Paul Newman Tribute blog entry), or when I was first appointed his foreign correspondent from Egypt, but it’s best to start on the New Year’s Eve. I was in London for reasons I will not discuss here. What is important is that I was in the most depressive state of my life. Nothing seemed to be going for me. Roger and I were exchanging mails on a daily basis. He was very supportive and even got me to buy his wonderful book “A Perfect London Walk”. I read the book and took the relaxing walk a few days later. Then on January the 1st, 2010, Roger sent me this email:

  Whilst wishing you a happy new year……here is something completely off your maps:

The very last clip will give you a good idea of what it looks like out a train window south from Chicago to my home town of Urbana-Champaign.


After enjoying his blog entry, and getting a glimpse of his home town, I thought to myself ‘I should visit Chicago and Urbana one day, so I replied to his email asking what the best time to visit Urbana is. The following day on January the 2nd, he responded with:

Wael, if you’re thinking of coming this way, can you come to Ebertfest, April 21-25?


We will of course give you a VIP pass, your meals in the private Green Room with the visiting actors and directors, your room at the Illini Union (student center in the middle of the University of Illinois campus), a minder to help you get around, and an invite to the closing night private party. Also, Chaz and I want to have a meet & greet for the visiting regulars from my blog, and such correspondents as Ali Arikan and Grace Wang who are coming. We will put you on a panel (‘Film Lovers in the Age of the Internet”), and try to arrange a meeting with the Egyptian Students’ Assn. on campus, if you want.

 Looks like we’re showing “Apocalypse Now” in a new restored version on the big screen (see theater below).


It is a long way to fly just for Ebertfest, but you pass through Chicago and can linger. It’s an hour’s flight down to Champaign-Urbana. Also, ot course, you fly over New York, are an hour from Toronto, and can make it sort of a tour. 

Among the other films we’ll show (still not announced) is “Julia,” with Tilda Swinton.


Late April is spring in Chicago although there are chilly days, but not “cold” ones. I think it is our most beautiful city. 


You can imagine the state I was in when he sent me this. A sudden mood changer if there ever was one. I went from depressed to excited, happy and smiling in a matter of seconds. Roger pulled me out of depression and made me the happiest guy in London. Roger Ebert, the critic I most looked up to, Roger Ebert, the guy who’s film writing made me appreciate the medium as an art form, Roger Ebert, the reason I chose to become a film critic in the first place was asking me, a film critic all the way from Egypt to attend his film festival and be part of a panel discussion. Naturally, I responded with the same level of enthusiasm.  

Roger, that would be great. I always wanted to attend Eberfest and actually doing so would be the highlight of my year. I will do my best to attend and visit this beautiful city. It would be an honor to attend and I can’t wait to watch “Apocalypse Now” on the big screen the way it was meant to be seen. I will make it my goal to be there but I have to take permission from the Egyptian army first. I’m not in the army but since I have 3 brothers, I have no excuse not to be by 2010 (since i’ve dodged their attempts two years already). They usually allow us to travel during holidays but since April 21 to 25 won’t be a holiday, I will have to look for an alternative way. I don’t think it’ll be a problem though since my grandfather promised to help so I’ll probably be there. I will go ask for permission once I’m back to Cairo and will update you with a confirmation soon. This made my day 🙂

Thank You (so much),
Wael Khairy

Roger didn’t stop there he made sure I kept smiling by retweeting my article “The Power of Sound and Editing (The Conversation and Psycho)” a few days later. I sent another thanking email to him on January 6:

Thank you Roger,
> Over the past few weeks I was watching the views on my blog gowing downhill on a daily basis. Each day I got fewer views than the previous one and then last night I check the stats and find out that over 500 people checked my ‘Editing’ article 🙂 I knew something unusual was going on hehe. Thank you for tweeting it. Is Twitter hard to use?
> The guest room, transportation and meals is too generous. Thank you for being so kind to me. I can’t wait to attend Ebertfest. It’ll be an experience I wouldn’t dare miss. I’m speechless regarding how helpful and generous you’ve been to me and the other foreign correspondents. Allow me to thank you on their behalf; you’re the first critic to put a spotlight on us foreign film fans. Thank you for that and for putting my blog back on its feet.
> Best Regards,
Your Friend,
> Wael Khairy

Roger retweeted many of my other articles some which reached over 5000 daily views. My articles were reaching a wider audience through Roger than they were through C Mag. I can honestly say there’s before Roger and after Roger. Back to the subject of this post. I returned to Cairo and got down to it. I went to get military permission. The general there was most annoying:

(All dialogue is translated from Arabic to English)

“Why do you need to leave the country?”

“Well, I’m going to attend a film festival and participate in a panel discussion.”

“Is it for educational purposes?”

“You can say so.”

“Show me proof from an educational institution.”

“I don’t have any.”

“Sorry then. I can’t give you a permit.”

“What? Why?”

“How do I know you’re not fleeing from the military?”

“I’m not. It’s only for a week.”

“People these days say they need a permit to go to hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) only to be caught in Italy.”

“What should I do then? I need to get there.”

“We only allow permits to students travelling for educational purposes, or anyone with an official
holiday be it national or days off work. We also give permits to those visiting their parents elsewhere.”

“My father lives in Qatar.”

“Then come another time with an invitation from him. From there you can go to whatever festival it is
you need to attend.”

I didn’t bother Roger with all this hassle because worse comes to worse, I’d tell my grandfather (former prime minister of Egypt) and he’d make his phone calls. I know I could’ve done that from the start but I don’t like bothering the old man with my troubles. Anyway, I got the guy an invitation from my father and he gave me the permit a few weeks later.

Now I had to obtain the American visa, so I went to the embassy. They were very helpful there being straightforward with all the necessary documents needed. One of which was an official invitation from any representative of Ebertfest. I contacted Roger who pointed me to Mary Susan Britt. She was very helpful and kind through all of this. She sent me the invitation to the film festival and a month later I ended up with the visa that expires in ten years.

After that, I booked my tickets. Naturally, I had to make a stop in Qatar. So my tickets were to be from Cairo to Doha, from Doha to London, from London to Chicago and from Chicago to Champaign. I called my travel agency and they booked all the flights for me and I provided the wonderful Mary Susan with all the flight numbers.

Meanwhile, Roger was writing some of his best work. Blog entry after blog entry, we got an insight into the man not the film critic. I already knew Roger was a film critic among film critics but through his blog posts and our virtual friendship I discovered a human among humans, a man among men.

He’s the one who drove me to twitter, the one to resurrect my blog and played the role of a matchmaker, matching my blog with my target audience, film lovers. If it weren’t for him and twitter I probably wouldn’t have met the foreign gang. Michael Mirasol, Omer Mozzafar, Grace Wang, Ali Arikan, Omar Moore, etc.

Roger guided me through a doorway, into an internet world I did not know existed. I have thanked him so many times. He probably got tired of my “thank you(s)” and I don’t care, they’ll keep coming towards his way. More than anything I wanted to shake his hand. I played this handshake a thousand times in my head. It became surreal. I often found myself thinking “Holy shit, Roger Ebert digs my blog and wants me to attend his film festival.” He became the subject of my discussions everywhere I went. My grandfather would ask me to read his articles to him, my friends showered me with questions about the film festival, and the regulars in cafes who only had a “El Salam alaykum” relationship with me would eavesdrop while smoking their shisha and as soon as they heard the name Roger Ebert, they’d turn to me and ask questions. I must’ve told the story of how we first met on his blog a thousand times, or how friendly he is with film lovers, and of how much he cares about his fans.  

My brothers would call me and his tweets were often the subject of our conversations. His reviews kept inspiring me to work harder, write more, and so on. By the end of March, everyone I saw, everyone I knew, everyone related to me knew about my going to Ebertfest. Most of them wanted to see me one last time before leaving to Qatar. They’d ask me about the panel discussion. “How can we watch it?” “Will it be streaming live?” “Will it be on TV?”,  “What are you going to say?” The answers to the first three questions I knew, but what am I going to say? I never thought of that till they asked me. All I knew was that the panel discussion was about “Global Film Lovers on the Web”.

I probably never asked myself what I was going to say because I already knew it. I’m an Egyptian film critic writing for Egypt’s first and only English language magazine devoted entirely to film. I also write about film more freely on this blog, all in English, my second or maybe third language. The panel discussion was perfect. It would allow me to express everything I have to say about my role on the internet.

You see in Egypt, 45% of the population is illiterate. Of the remaining 55%, only a small percentage can read English. People in Egypt depend on broadcast more than printed media, so the internet provides an open door way to reach a much wider audience. It’s not just that. My role as an Egyptian film critic on the web is one I’m very proud of. Let me explain. When it comes to mass communication, be it an article or a film review, the flow of information has always been from the West to the Middle East or Far East and so. My point is, it was always a one way flow.

The internet is the first type of mass communication that supports a two way flow in a borderless world. Still, if you think of the internet as this global media empire, you’ll find that it’s dominated by certain core nations (US,UK, etc.) and these core nations impose their culture on developing nations, so what Roger essentially did with this new foreign correspondents feature is more or less genius because now we’re no longer at the receiver’s end of the flow of information. This supports the concept of a balance of information flow.

I think Roger’s film website is the first of its kind and by that I mean it’s the first website to offer a global perspective on films. In other words Roger Ebert basically decentralized online film criticism.  I can only encourage more and more foreign film fans to represent their views on films throughout the internet. This is crucial especially in the Middle East. Everything from newspapers and magazines to broadcast news is becoming too pro-government in Egypt. We barely have any independent newspapers. All the major ones are government owned and function only as government mouthpieces. Only in the last few years have Egyptians given up their trust of the media and resorted to the internet for the truth. Yes, blogs are being monitored and so on but still I believe with technological advancements and more and more internet users, the internet will be the key to freedom of expression in the Arab world.

I just realized that I wandered too deep into the topic of the panel discussion. Damn it! I want to be there when that discussion starts! I’ll stop here and go back to where I left off. Yeah, so basically everyone I know knew about Ebertfest. They told their friends, etc. etc. It was news. My grandfather wanted to write an article about me going to Ebertfest in Al-Ahram (Egypt’s main Arabic newspaper). I convinced him not to do it because “I didn’t want to Jinx it”.

I asked all the foreign correspondents, Roger, and Mary Susan what they wanted from Egypt, nobody wanted anything. I expected that response and got them all Egyptian gifts anyway. All they wanted was for me “to be there”, or “my presence”. How ironic that I can’t even give them that. I read once that Roger’s house is filled with items of places he visited, (African chairs, etc.), so I wanted a piece of Egypt to be there. My grandfather also wanted me to give him a book he wrote in English, “Life in Ancient Egypt”. It’s a wonderful book. He wrote a note inside, signed and stamped the note and asked me to give it to him personally. It would break my heart if I had to give the book back to the 92 year old man.

The days pass, my excitement boosts, and I take my first step to Ebertfest, Qatar (Doha). My father picks me up and we head to his house. By then the volcano has already erupted but is not nearly the center of the media’s attention as it is now. I discover that flights are being cancelled on the 16th and 17th, but am in no worry since my flight to London is on the 19th and from London on the 20th. As the hours pass, I become more and more worried. More flights get cancelled; more people are grounded in airports all over the world. I was foolish enough to wait with hope that my flight wouldn’t be cancelled. The day finally came that my flight got cancelled. The arrival of the news triggered my heart to drop, it was as if warm water ran through my entire body. I didn’t know what to do, as I sat in front of the screen of my laptop. I reread the news about 5 times in hope that the words would somehow change. They didn’t.

For an hour or so, I sat in the living room silent. I didn’t even tell my father. I just wanted to think about an alternative. When I finally broke with the news, Roger and my dear fellow correspondents sent me how sorry they felt, but I still had hope. My father drove me to nearly twenty travel agencies; all of them had no routes. I told my best friend in Egypt about the news, Amina El Shazly. I think she wanted me to go to Ebertfest more than anyone. As I went from one agency to another with less hope on every trip, she was doing the same back in Cairo. Soon all the people who knew about Ebertfest in Cairo were calling me with concern, everyone trying their best to get me to Chicago. As I stayed up all night trying to find a way around the volcano, they were hopping from one travel agency to another. My brothers called every airline they know of.

Today, even though I had officially announced that I wouldn’t attend Ebertfest. I still tried, this time through the web. My friends and family in Cairo sent me emails with links to possible sites that may help (, Thomas Cook, etc.). I no longer tried to exchange tickets; I just wanted to buy new ones. I didn’t care if I had to pay double the price; my urge to go to Ebertfest only grew. I even bought tickets from a website only to discover that they were tickets to a flight already cancelled. A refund was given in return. Finally a few hours ago I found a multi-ticket solution in some website. It would take me through Italy and from there to Chicago. I called those who were looking for tickets and told them to look no further. I then clicked on the tiny PROCEED TO PAYMENT box, when the website asked to refresh since I had spent too much time on the page. I refreshed and the ticket was sold in that instant to someone else.

I must’ve read more than 30 “No flights on that date.” notes from plenty different websites. The thing is, people all over the world were doing the same thing. How stupid of me to wait a second or two before buying the ticket. Most airports have shut down by now and I can’t find any tickets online or elsewhere. The only few I can find are going for tens of thousands of dollars and I can’t afford any of that. While most airports are losing millions, online travel agencies are taking advantage of the volcano incident and selling for ridiculous prices.

I’m writing all this to finally give up on my quest and come to terms with the conclusion. I’m tired and I’m sick of being disappointed over and over again. You can imagine how sad I am for not being able to attend. Still, the fact that the other foreign correspondents made it comforts me. I want them to enjoy it. I want everyone attending Ebertfest to enjoy every second there and be grateful for sitting in the seats of the festival. I will be following any blogs about the fest and will be watching the panels online. I advise you to do the same. I can’t think of a group of individuals more suited for the job than them foreign correspondents. I can only hope to be attending next year. It’s time to start my countdown to Ebertfest 2011.  

Film History: The Story of “Hollywood”

At first the iconic sign read “Hollywoodland” after that “land” was removed and it has been known as “Hollywood” ever since.

When one hears the word’ Hollywood’, the first thing that pops in mind is movies. There’s a reason why Los Angeles became the center of motion pictures. It all started with a few independent studios that ventured as far away as possible from “the trust”, mainly Thomas Edison and his lawsuits, and so they headed to L.A. to distribute, produce, and exhibit their movies. The fact that Los Angeles was far away from New York helped make it the home for independent film studios. Even though there was still a presence of the major film studios in Los Angeles, it was not till after independent film studios realization of the positive aspects about L.A.’s location that Hollywood was finally established. The four major positive aspects were basically the fact that L.A. was sunny all year long, the property was inexpensive, it was an open shop town, and of course the variety of locations and geography. These conditions made it perfect for any studio to shoot movies. Soon almost every studio be it major or independent wanted to settle there, making Hollywood full of film factories.

            Once Hollywood became the center of the film industry in the US, a system had to be established which introduces us to the studio system. The system was first and foremost designed to ensure the cost and quality of the movies being produced. Having a system made Hollywood a much more organized film industry than anywhere else in the world. There was a clear division of labor from the producer, to the screenwriter to the actors and director. All screenplays had to be approved by the producer and established a kind of guideline and draft of what the end product will be. Soon MGM, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, and Warner Bros. were leading the film industry in a well-defined system. Smaller studios like Universal Studios, United Artists, and Columbia Pictures were also rising to take their share of the evolving industry. The age of Edison was coming to an end, and a new entrepreneur with high expectation, Adolf Zukor, took control of Paramount Pictures and tried to lead the studio system.

Once in charge of Paramount he added a practice to the system known as block booking. The idea of block booking was to sell multiple films to theaters ahead of time in one quantity. This ensured that the studios would gain profits ahead of time and that theaters would have films to play all year long. As a result 90% of movies shown in the US were American movies and due to a large domestic audience being such a large country, profits were higher than anywhere else in the world. However, Hollywood with its studio system and great qualities for shooting movies wasn’t the capital of the film industry in the US alone. In fact, its success became worldwide.

            Having a broad based US culture, there was a sudden wide appeal and people all over the world became suddenly interested in Hollywood movies. As for European cinema, while they were still in competition, the effects of WWI destroyed the European film industries. It was mainly due to the conversion to propaganda films. Therefore, while Europe was suffering from the war trying to focus on propaganda instead of the film industry, Hollywood was growing with a strong system and eventually became the leading film industry of the world. European cinema tried to make a comeback but was never able to achieve the heights of the Hollywood system, and to this day, Europe has failed to recover from the effects of WWI on their film industries placing Hollywood ahead of their time.

Dialogue At Its Cinematic Best: “In Bruges”

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in "In Bruges"

When a movie deals with such heavy topics as atonement, redemption, the after life, death, guilt, honor, friendship, and suicide, it’s naturally becomes hard for a viewer to swallow such heavy subjects in an hour and a half, which is why the hilarious humor of the most original screenplay of 2008 makes it a piece of cake for the audience. Take this example of an exchange of dialogue: 

Ray: Why didn’t you wave hello to me today when I waved hello to you today?

Jimmy: I was on a very strong horse tranquilizer today; Wasn’t waving hello to anybody. Except… maybe to a horse.

: Huh? What are you talking about?

: Just horseshit.

: You from America?

: Yeah. Don’t hold it against me.

: Well, that’s for me to decide, isn’t it?

: [to Denise] You from America too?

: No, I’m from Amsterdam.

: Amsterdam! Amsterdam’s just a lot of bloody prostitutes, isn’t it?

: Yes, that’s why I came to Bruges. Been trying to get a better price for my pussy here.

: Huh?

: You two are weird. Would you like some cocaine?

If that didn’t do it for how about this scene which is possibly my favorite of this little gem:

Ken: And at the same time, at the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile that with the fact that with the fact that, yes, I have killed people. Not many people. And most of them were not very nice people. Apart from one person.

Ray: Who was that?

: This bloke Danny Aliband’s brother. He was just trying to protect his brother. Like you or I would. He was just a lollipop man. But he came at me with a bottle. What are you gonna do? I shot him down.

: Hmm. In my book, though, someone comes at you with a bottle, I’m sorry, that is a deadly weapon, he’s gotta take the consequences.

: I know that in my heart, but I also know he was trying to protect his brother, you know?

: I know, but a bottle, that can kill ya. That’s a case of “It’s you or him”. If he’d come at you with his bare hands, that’d be different. That wouldn’t have been fair.

: But technically, someone’s bare hands, they can kill you too. They can be deadly weapons too. What if he knew Karate, say?

: You said he was a lollipop man.

: He WAS a lollipopman.

: What a lollipop man doing, knowing fucking Karate?

: I’m just saying…

: How old was he?

: About fifty.

: What’s a fifty year old lollipop man doing, knowing fucking Karate? What was he, a Chinese lollipop man?

: Course not.

: Well then.

I consider “In Bruges”  the “Pulp Fiction” of the naughties. A film daring to mix the darkest of drama with the funniest of humor all in fucking Bruges.

Film History: From Vaudeville Houses to Deluxe Theaters

          Vaudeville houses existed long before nickelodeons and movie theaters. The main idea behind a vaudeville house was to display live acts, each lasting between five to ten minutes to an audience. While the upper class wouldn’t venture into these houses, by the late 1800’s they were the dominant form of mass entertainment. The acts often showed the unusual, or comedic acts, and various other entertaining acts such as magician performances. Their success was probably due to the very cheap admission price, between five to ten cents. There was also a weekly change of acts and this worked out perfectly because performers would travel from all over the country to perform their acts to different audiences in different states. That way there was always something new to the audience and the performers were constantly in employment. This method was called the interstate vaudeville circuit and was one of the main reasons why people were drawn to these houses week after week. 

          However, the significance of vaudeville houses to motion picture history can be traced back to when the Lumiere brothers arrived to the US. Once there, they would hook their cinematograph to the magic lantern and project their short films to a live audience in vaudeville houses. Edison naturally felt that they were a threat to his growing empire of film business since prior to their arrival people could only watch these short films individually through a kinetoscope. People were getting tired of these single film presentations and the idea of watching a short film with a large audience seemed a lot more appealing and therefore Edison imitated the Lumiere brothers and projected his short films in vaudeville houses across the nation as well. One can clearly see how vaudeville houses triggered the idea of a modern theater. The friendly atmosphere and crowded audience lead to nickelodeons. Nickelodeons would then coexist with vaudeville houses but primarily focused on short films instead of acts. Later on deluxe theaters were built and they became the go to place for film fans, yet it all started with these old fashioned vaudeville houses that introduced the simple idea of an audience sitting together to enjoy some sort of entertainment for a low admission price. This helped the film industry find its target audience, everyone.   

        The deluxe theater plays a very significant role in establishing the early development of film. The reason for that being is because prior to these theaters being built, nickelodeons and vaudeville houses would only play short films. One may very well claim that the rise of deluxe theaters lead to the decline to both vaudeville houses and nickelodeons. While nickelodeons and vaudeville houses co-existed often playing short films and acts with nickelodeons playing more fictional short films than having acts performed and vaudeville houses vice versa, both were the public’s main source of entertainment. However by 1915 and the success of feature films, everything changed. Deluxe theaters were newly constructed and built unlike nickelodeons which evolved from vaudeville houses. These theaters were not a conversion of any sort, for feature films could not play on nickelodeons and so they had to build deluxe theaters. 

          Now that the film industry was booming, the deluxe theater offered a lot more than the old fashion entertainment houses. Firstly, they were a lot larger having the ability to hold a capacity of up to 6000 seats. There was the casual weekly change of program and each week the decorative exterior would light up a new movie title in colorful light bulbs. They also offered a better service for a lot of labor was required to operate a deluxe theater from ticket sales to ushers walking customers to their assigned seats, etc. Naturally with better service and a cleaner environment, the prices went up. Instead of paying five or ten cents, tickets cost between one and two dollars. Therefore films were no longer for the lower class only, and eventually the middle and upper class would consider films as an appropriate form of entertainment. S.L. Rothafel can be credited with making deluxe theaters such a pleasant environment, for his motto was to treat the audience like kings and queens. He later added a cooling system and theaters were air conditioned for the first time in history. However with all these special services such as printed programs, and air conditioned theaters, the film industry never lost its audience for everyone could afford to attend these theaters every once in a while. In fact, these deluxe theaters only made motion pictures the dominant form of entertainment. 

The Virginia Theater in 1921