Ebert’s Stormy Monday Review
If there’s one thing a video essay shouldn’t be, then it’s a mere illustration of a written text. Video essays that serve the same purpose as that picture next to a magazine article, only with motion added, belie the purpose and potential of the form. This video essay does just that. And it’s perfect.
When Roger Ebert wrote his review of Stormy Monday back in 1988, he pondered why critics tend to talk more about story than about visuals. “Maybe it’s because we work in words, and stories are told in words, and it’s harder to use words to paint pictures. But it might be worth a try.” Ebert then launched into a review that is a radical stylistic experiment. He tries to get at the heart of the picture by carefully describing its visual style. He tries to evoke the film’s soul by echoing its sounds and music. “Stormy Monday is about the way light falls on wet pavement stones, and about how a neon sign glows in a darkened doorway. (…) It is also about sounds. About the breathy, rich and yet uncertain tone of Melanie Griffith’s voice, which makes her sound as if she’s been around the track too many times and yet is still able to believe in love.” The result is not a review of the picture, but one by way of the picture.
Matt Zoller Seitz took this singular text as the departure point for this video essay. Kim Morgan narrates it, basically reading Ebert’s review over carefully and unhurriedly assembled scenes and sounds from Mike Figgis’ film. The success of this video essay lies in the fact that it is an interpretation of Ebert’s review, much in the same way Ebert was interpreting the film Stormy Monday. The visuals do much more than illustrate the words: they breathe life into them. Roger Ebert’s text isn’t read but revived, his sentences aren’t proclaimed but performed.
The video essay ends on the same note as does Ebert’s text. “So there’s your review.” And indeed it is. Through its presentational and nonjudgmental approach, it has truly become our review. We, the viewers, are bathed in the sights and sounds of the film, only slightly clued in by the voice over as to what makes Stormy Monday such a remarkable movie. This is the rare example of a review that helps us experience a movie, rather than evaluate it.