by Sam Juliano
Note: This is the sixth entry in an ongoing series that honors creative bloggers who have really made a difference, raising the bar for quality and productivity on the cultural front.
Renowned film critic Roger Ebert, in assessing “Ferdy on Films” declared “You put a lot of love into your blog,” while appreciative fellow blogger Daniel Getahun opined: “I feel like commenting here in the presence of greatness.” Indeed, both observations inform the attraction and worth of the long-running site, based in Chicago and founded by a mid-50′s freelance writer and editor named Marilyn Ferdinand (who happens to double as an impassioned cineaste and film preservation champion.) Ms. Ferdinand, who holds a B.A. from Lyola University of Chicago is a well-traveled culture maven, with a taste for vegan food preparation, classical music and gardening, but beyond these innocuous interests, she’s a tireless crusader for artistic purity and social justice. Whether she is discussing the rescue of a long-lost silent film, the sadness surrounding a death caused by prejudice, or the outrageous incarceration of an outspoken film director of a third-world country, Ms. Ferdinand is gloriously opinionated and guided by a strong underpinning of morality, human rights and the preservation of our national heritage. Hence, her film reviews invariably go much further than just evaluating a work’s elemental value, but actually project her uncompromising views on politics, philosophy and femisnism, while maintaining an equilibrium in expressing certain principles that underline her world-view and an abiding adherence to what she feels will ultimately reform failings in the system.
The Windy City native, who is married to Shane Truax, is at the height of her erudition and persuasiveness when discussing gender issues, but her extraordinary work as a film critic is arguably as imperative, and adorned with a marked talent for descriptive writing. Her spectacular review of Ken Russell’s The Devils, which was informed by a life-long infatuation with the director’s work, is matched by her soulful piece on Leo McCarey’s wrenching American masterpiece, Make Way For Tomorrow, where she emotionally admits in the essay’s comment section that “she was never moved as much by any film in her life” and by her incomparable coverage of festivals, where she regularly attends just about every feature offered, and subsequently of penning a high-quality review at her site within a few days or even hours afterwards. In 2010, her coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) was the envy of bloggers everywhere, as she got the jump on the latest features by masters such as Kiarostami and Weerasethakul, and some critically-praised documentaries like Lucy Walker’s Wasteland. Indeed, the documentary feature is as specialized a form for Ferdinand, as is her admirably chronic attention to the silent era. The documentary, in fact, often encompasses and constitutes for the erstwhile revisionist, a platform to segue in the ‘call for action” that is often the underlining motive for a number of filmmakers.
Sporting a name that harkens back to Bronte’s England, Heath, who is currently persuing a B.A. at the Australian University of New England, currently resides in the town of Lithgow in New South Wales, (which in the words of the writer “is on the opposite side of the Blue Mountains from the city of Sydney, but still connected to it by rail,”) is an astonishingly prolific writer, who at full-throttle provides a stream of essays for “Ferdy-on-Films,” while simultaneously stocking his two solo sites, “This Island Rod” and “English One-o-Worst” with commeasurable prowess. The latter archive reflects the author’s long afffinity for English literature, and like his film work, demonstrates a remarkable command of the subjects under scrutiny. While Heath’s online movie admirers are often seduced by his incomparable and equalitarian examination of the works from psychological, philosophical, sociological, political and purely aesthetic angles, others are open-mouthed at his uncanny ability to peel away the gauze with exeeding erudition and colloquial ornamentation that stands among the best writing anywhere, including that in the professional ranks. Either way, fifteen minutes spent with Roderick Heath provides a single-session university course with the film under analysis with a fair-minded and ever-enlightening discussion of it’s artistic worth and in occasional instances compelling evidence and opinion to warrant it’s dismissal. At the end of the day there are few, if any writers out there, who can visualize as film as vividly as Heath, nor can summarize it with such style nor illuminate it with such an arsenal of references and sustained perspicacity. Heath has authored eight novels, most of which he regards as “apprentice work,” but felt anything but during composition, and he categorizes Claudia, written when he was 25, as one fully deserving of a re-write. he is presently working on a series of supernatural-adventure novels with the over-arching title The Blue Magus.
With pride, Marilyn Ferdinand talks of her involvement with film preservation, and “For the Love of Film” which she asserts unequivocably is the “standout event” during the five-year tenure of “Ferdy-on-Films.” She rightly takes note of the fact that she helped save two films and received screen credit for it. Her association with Greg Ferrara and the Self-Styled Siren, Farren Smith, has morphed into lasting friendships. Ferdinand credits the latter with setting the seed for raising money, while of Ferrara she states affectionately: “Greg is a very creative person who makes short films, writes music, and creates blog banners that are always a lot of fun. He even created a moving, dancing banner for my dance blogothon, Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogothon.” But in the end it’s the around-the-world chemistry that unites Sydney with Chicago, combines trenchant realism with poetic lyricism and a generational diversity that has allowed for such an amazing compatibility and such impressive production. When asked what the secret was to the enduring association, Ferdinand points to a relationship nurtured by far more than internet cameraderie: “I’ve been to Australia to see him and his parents, and we spent some significant face time together one summer when he came to the U.S., so we’re not just internet-only buddies.” At a time when blogsites and some internet relationships are as fleeting as the theatrical duration of the latest multiplex hit, Marilyn Ferdinand and Roderick Heath have proven with remarkable staying power how both can achive full fruition through serious talent and affectionate regard.
The following on-line interview was conducted two weeks ago with Ms Ferdinand and Mr. Heath by e mail. Questions and responses are printed, with Ms. Ferdinand’s appearing first:
When did you launch Ferdy on Films?
I launched it in December 2005. We’ve been going for five years, which makes us one of the older film sites out there.
What motivated you to become involved with a website?
I had been part of film discussion board that had a thread for movie reviews. I wrote several reviews – in fact, the first reviews on FonF are copied and pasted from that board – but they generated very little comment, I couldn’t post them myself (the moderator had to), and I couldn’t include graphics. So, I thought I’d try my hand at a blog.
When did Roderick Heath come on board, and what motivated you to take him as a site partner apart from his fantastic writing skills?
Rod started posting on FonF a mere month after I launched the blog at my invitation. He was also a member of that film discussion board. He and I had developed a rapport on the board and were much more deeply engaged in looking at films closely than most of the other participants. Our tastes and approach are similar but also complementary, so we cover a lot more ground together than I could ever do alone.
What is your history in regards to film preservation, and as to your close friendship with Greg Ferrara?
I don’t have a specific “history” with regard to film preservation. I’ve loved silent films since I was a girl and became aware much later of our endangered heritage after seeing restored films at theatres and on DVD. I decided to ask people to donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation when my birthday was announced on Facebook instead of sending me little messages, and Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren, commented that she had always dreamed of raising money for film preservation. I’m the kind of person who hears a good idea and decides to do something about it. She and I cooked up “For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon” to raise money for NFPF, and we held it last February. We raised $30,000 in donations and matching funds and paid for the restoration and preservation of two short films from 1912, The Sergeant and The Better Man.
Greg is well known in the blogosphere from his Cinema Styles blog, which I started reading a while back, when he was still using his Jonathan Lapper pseudonym. We and a few of other bloggers became friendly via our exchanges on each other’s blogs and formed a loose “posse.” Greg is a very creative person who makes short films, writes music, and creates blog banners that are always a lot of fun. He even created a moving, dancing banner for my dance blogathon, “Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon.” I tapped him to create banners for “For the Love of Film,” and he’s done a great job. He created cool new banners for the second edition of the blogathon, to benefit the Film Noir Foundation. We finally met when I went to Washington DC at the beginning of December.
What specifically are your experiences with Roger Ebert, a fellow Chicago native?
Not as much as I’d like. I invited him to my birthday party this summer, but he had his 50th class reunion to go to. I see him at screenings and have attended his Ebertfest since its inception. I talk with him a bit by e-mail and when I see him at Ebertfest, but we aren’t really friends. The most important interaction I have with Roger is that I’ve been a fan from his earliest days in TV and in the Chicago Sun-Times. He’s been a model for what I do on my blog, and I’ve been grateful for his support of me, the blog, and the film preservation blogathon.
What more than anything else has inspired you to stay the course with Ferdy on Films?
It’s a wonderful creative outlet for me. I have met a lot of great people in the course of doing the blog, and the film preservation blogathon would not have been possible had I packed up and gone. I enjoy working with Rod, and of course, I love seeing films. I get a little tired sometimes—I have a full life and full-time job—but this is a special labor of love for me.
What have been your film festival experiences over the years?
I’ve attended the Chicago International Film Festival for many years, and have had press credentials to cover it since 2006. I’ve been to some smaller festivals in Chicago and while on vacation (Big Island Film Festival in Hawaii, the Italian Film Festival in Canberra, Australia). My trip to the Taos Talking Picture Festival resulted in bringing Mexican director Francisco Athié’s psychedelic death film Vera (2003) to Facets Multimedia in Chicago, where it got its only commercial run; Facets also released the film on DVD, so I’ve done my part for new cinema, too.
Educational background from grammar school, to high school to college to graduate school?
Viola H. Nelson Elementary (Morton Grove, IL), East Maine Junior High (Niles, IL), Maine East High (Park Ridge, IL), Loyola University of Chicago (BA). Claims to fame: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Snodgrass attended my high school, and Bob Newhart attended my university.
Describe your work experience.
Ad sales, Chicago Tribune; writer and editor for the infamous World Book Encyclopedia; editor Journal of Healthcare Materiel Management; editor Healthcare Financial Management; editor at large for the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses and the Association of Pediatric Oncology Nurses; editor Our Children (National PTA); lots of freelance for feature magazines and newspapers, medical device manufacturers, and healthcare consultants.
What kinds of films (and/or directors) have impressed you the most?
My favorite directors are Stanley Kubrick, for his incredible visual sensibility and engagement with the macro questions of life, and Luis Buñuel, for his sense of humor and his engagement with the micro questions, particularly his relationship with dreams and the unconscious.
I champion films from underexplored regions of human experience—including the female experience as told by women—because I don’t think I or my culture “know it all” about life, and we certainly have plenty to learn. I’m a particular fan of Balkan cinema for a number of reasons, both visual and narrative, but mostly because this region of the world has undergone tremendous hardship over the centuries and has found a way through its cinema to comment on and come to terms with its tragic past, criticize its flawed moves toward progress, and find some optimism in the face of adversity that isn’t founded in denial.
What is your opinion of the Oscars, critics’ awards, and of making “lists” in general?
I don’t make lists. My lists would have films that virtually no one has seen and virtually no movies everyone has seen. The Oscars are boring to watch and good for advertising Hollywood and its stars; they rarely reward true excellence, though now and again they blunder into a good choice. Many critics’ awards suffer from the same Hollywood- centric myopia as the Oscars. I am part of an awarding critics organization (the Online Film Critics Society), and almost all the screeners I’m being sent are for mainstream Hollywood products or big-little indies. I don’t have any foreign-language films coming my way.
What are your proudest moments at Ferdy on Films?
Obviously, the standout event was “For the Love of Film.” How many bloggers can say they helped to save two films and got screen credit for it! But I also have found it gratifying to give some exposure to films that deserve it and could change things for some people. For example, I reviewed a little documentary called Windfall, which details the unadvertised dangers of wind power, and made it possible for a community in Wisconsin faced with a choice about installing wind turbines to get some of the facts by helping them get a copy of the film. I also like it when directors and other film industry people show up to comment. It’s happened fairly frequently, and I like that they know their films, or their parent’s films, have been noticed and commented upon.
What is the secret of the amazing chemistry you’ve maintained with Roderick Heath?
Distance? Joke, Rod, joke. I don’t know exactly. We’re longtime friends, and we share a burning interest in film and for not suffering fools gladly. I’ve been to Australia to see him and his parents, and we spent some significant face time together one summer when he came to the U.S., so we’re not just Internet-only buddies.
Travel? Favorite type of music? Opera or Classical exposure and affinity?
I used to travel a lot. I’ve been to the British Isles, various parts of Europe, South Africa, Australia, the British Virgin Islands, and all over the U.S. and Canada. My favorite spot to vacation is Hawaii, and I may retire there. I love swimming, the ocean, the flowers, etc. And I love Hawaiian music. I like all kinds of music, though you’ll catch me listening to our classical radio station more than anything else, and I particularly like Lauridsen, Mozart, Monteverdi, Bach, and Piazzola. I love most kinds of Latin music, and a local radio show called “Mambo Express” is a favorite. World roots music is my favorite nonclassical type of music, anything from Irish jigs to South African township jazz.
Other hobbies like gardening, and special skills?
I’m a birdwatcher, and I love to cook. My husband has a green thumb, so this year, we rented a plot in a community garden and grew our own tomatoes, leeks, kale, peppers, celery, and squash. We’re planning to expand our plantings next spring. I used to dance (so-so) and be pretty good at American Sign Language, and Greg Ferrara will attest that I can read near-illegible handwriting pretty well.
Family life if you wish to discuss it?
Shane Truax is my late-in-life love and the caretaker of our two tanks of fish. We both take turns spoiling our cat Fluffy, an old Silver Persian we adopted from his daughter. Shane also shares his three grandchildren with me.
Long-term goals for Ferdy on Films?
Just keep on going until it feels like time to quit.
What do you feel are the best essays you have ever written at the site? What are Rod’s best writings, and what are his strengths?
I think my essay on gender attitudes in I Spit on Your Grave and A Question of Silence was good, but the comments it engendered were even better. I like my essay on The Quiet Man because I was able to really get into the deep Irishness of the film and rebut those who hate the sentimentality of the film. I also think my review of Tuesday, After Christmas was good because it helped me pull together my knowledge of Romanian cinema in a pretty satisfying way. My essay on Studs Terkel at his passing and the impeachment of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich were my favorites dealing with my home town.
Rod’s essays always blow me away because of the breadth of knowledge he brings to each of them. His grasp of cinema and the references, one film to another, are unbelievably assured, and he really brings a scholarly heft to his writing. His essay on the British Free Cinema is the one that has stuck with me the longest and been the most helpful. On the review front, his overview of Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre is a tour de force, and his recent review of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere did what all his best essays do—crystallize what a particular director or performer is about.
Why would you say you and Rod are arguably the finest one-two punch on the internet today among film writers?
Thanks for the compliment. I think others do a pretty good job at the one-two, even three-four-and-five with Wonders in the Dark. What Rod and I bring to the table is that I’m a middle-aged American woman, and he’s an in-his-prime Australian male. We have distinct perspectives and areas of interest, but we both love a good movie and want to tell others why.
Questions/Responses to and from Roderick Heath:
1. When did you begin your association with Ferdy-on-Films?
My association with Ferdy on Films began before there was a Ferdy on Films. Marilyn and I had long been friends, and our friendship was based initially in movies. We had conversed regularly on the New York Times’ old film forums. When she came for a holiday in Australia in 2002, my family put her up for a few days. The following year I visited the US and stayed at her place in Chicago for several months. During my visit, inevitably, movie-going was one of our regular pastimes. Marilyn was lucky enough to procure tickets for a charity preview screening of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, which we enjoyed tremendously, and more importantly, in what was a first for both of us, we had a scoop on our hands – the chance to write about a terrific film virtually no-one else had seen. We each penned a joint review which, with arrangement with the forum moderator, was then posted together on the Readers’ Opinions page of the New York Times – the first review of that film to appear in the newspaper. That was quite a coup for us and a fine capstone to some of the best months of my life.
After I returned to Australia, the NYT drove away most of its forum contributors with a newly restrictive regime of what we could and couldn’t talk about. Some members had already started their own film websites. Now a large number grouped together to start a new forum. But Marilyn and I were rarely happy in that closed-circuit environment. I had been writing essayistic pieces for some time for various forums, and had an expansive piece on The Leopard Man and Le Corbeau was published in the Bright Lights Film Journal in June 2005. Marilyn had been doing some film journalism too, and resolved to start a website where she could showcase the pieces she wrote on independent, classic, and international filmmaking, of which she’s long been a connoisseur, and asked me if I wanted to contribute. Marilyn’s initial posts for Ferdy on Films were of course her usual excellent stuff, but snappy and very much to the point. Imagine her reaction when I lumped her with my 3,436 word piece on Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, roughly as long as the six initial pieces she’d written for the site put together, and she insisted I hack it down. Once that was done, it appeared on the site which only a month old.
2. What to you attribute to the on-line chemistry with Marilyn Ferdinand?
Well, as I said once back when we wrote up our 500 Posts piece, I think it’s because although we often disagree about specific things, we share a similar worldview and a passion for art that’s demanding as well as infectious. We’re both very left of centre politically, if sometimes in a differing fashion, and share the sensibility that no matter how serious things are, there’s always time for a laugh, and conversely that everything frivolous contains something worthy of serious attention.
3. Educational background?
Peculiar. I was a plain old high school student until 1996, and then I set on a long self-education in screenwriting which culminated in my squeezing a small but prestigious grant out of the Australian Film Commission in 1999. I was accepted as a writing student into the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 2000, but finished up not attending, largely because by then I already knew how to write. I started studying for the Bachelor of Arts that I am currently pursuing in 2008 through the Australian University of New England.
4. How have you effected and sustprolific writing ained your trademark habit?
Not having better things to do is a very large part of it. I forced myself to learn the art of regular writing years ago, so the act of sitting down and writing is rarely too difficult for me. Learning to take a break, in fact, has been harder.
5. Traditionally what is your favorite genre in film to write about?
For better or worse, I’ve put a lot of time and effort over the years into writing seriously about the cinefantastique, especially horror. But I don’t really think of these as favourite subjects, especially compared to the sprawl of horror film bloggers out there, whose omnivorous affection for the genre is far beyond mine. I do love watching many films in the horror, fantasy, and sci-fi genres, and that inevitably translates into a wealth of potential commentary, especially considering that such generic stuff doesn’t get written about with sufficient depth and engagement, even by those myriad blogs. And I think that’s perhaps what I like writing about with a particular zest: under-examined and under-appreciated movies.
6. Has your command and interest in English literature been lifelong?
Pretty much, yeah. Not just English literature either (although, yes, in English), for I’ve read quite a bit of American, Russian, French, Japanese, Australian, and German literature too over the years. I recall devoting a long chunk of my teenage years to reading War and Peace and was certainly the only student in my high school you could catch reading Nausea in the schoolyard. I often think of my life actually in terms of the different books I’ve read at different ages – 16? Crime and Punishment. 20? The Sun Also Rises. 22? The Magic Mountain. 25? The Charterhouse of Parma. 30? Wuthering Heights.
7. Who are your favorite film directors and/or film?
That’s one of those question I might have answered far more easily when I was eighteen than now. I don’t tend to have specific favourites, because many films offer such entirely different pleasures. Over the years I’ve watched the likes of The Duellists, Le Corbeau, Jaws, The Big Sleep, Operazione Paura, Levres de Sang, Kill Bill, and The Red Shoes so many times I can almost recite them in my sleep. I can, I guess, honestly state that my love for the likes of David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, John Ford, Sergio Leone, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles, Luchino Visconti, Powell and Pressburger and big bunch more have remained pretty well constant.
8. Who are your favorite authors?
Favourite authors might be a bit misleading in the sense that I’ve not always read a lot of books by writers whose work I nonetheless admire beyond measure and whose work I thumb through when trying to get the right key. Thomas Mann changed my outlook with The Magic Mountain and made me decide to pursue authorship as an ambition rather than filmmaking, but I’ve still never gotten around to reading another of his books; Joyce, likewise, after Ulysses, which had a very, very good effect on my brain and a very, very bad one on my writing. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook was a brilliantly riling read. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Another Country. Yasunari Kawabata. Stendhal. Hemingway, natch, Dostoievsky, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer’s been one of favourites for a long time, much more so than Saul Bellow, whose spongy books I always have trouble finishing. Lest that roster seem a bit too testosterone-y, Shirley Hazzard, Pat Barker, the Brontes, George Eliot, Anais Nin. Graeme Greene for good non-fuss prose. Alistair Maclean, funnily enough, for strong descriptive writing. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Eric Ambler are perennial loves, M. R. James and Sheridan LeFanu, Frank Herbert and H.G. Wells and Conan Doyle. I could go on; I won’t.
9. Please explain the advent of ‘This Island Rod’ and ‘English One-o-Worst.’
I started This Island Rod when I decided to put all of the short and thumbnail reviews I had written for various forums and websites over the years in one place, and also, as Ferdy On Films was becoming more popular, I wanted it to be a kind of annex full of quick notes on films I didn’t have time to write up in the lengthier fashion. It’s slowly evolved into a more ambitious site, but that’s still the basic brief. English One-O-Worst was started for a similar reason, so that some academic writing I had done might not be lost, although that site is much more an authentic labour of love.
10. Have you ever (or are you currently in fact) written or writing a novel?
I have written eight novels, most of which I would regard as apprentice work, although I will admit they didn’t feel like that at the time. The first one that I’d feel comfortable calling a real novel at this point is “Claudia”, which I wrote when I was 25, and probably ought to have rewritten. I am currently working on a series of supernatural-adventure novels with the over-arching title “The Blue Magus”; I’ve written the first three books in the series, and after underwhelming efforts to interest agents I’m completely retooling the first part.
11. Where specifically do you reside in Australia?
I live in the town of Lithgow, New South Wales, which is on the opposite side of the Blue Mountains from the city of Sydney but still connected to it by rail, which makes it, I suppose, a far-flung satellite. It’s a town of about 16,000 people and used to be a mining town, but that industry waned in the ‘80s and barely ever came back, so now it’s more an odd mixture of semi-rural gentility with many aspects of a working class slum.
12. What is your long-term aim?
Do I have to answer this? My neck’s sticking out far enough already.
13. Present or past employment and special skills aside from writing?
I’ve never had a standard job, really, although I’ve done a few odd things over the years. Fence painting, cleaning, handyman renovations, audio tape transcriptions…