By Kim Morgan and Matt Zoller Seitz
This video essay is not just about a certain film, but a certain review of a certain film: Roger Ebert’s appreciation of Stormy Monday, the 1988 debut feature by writer-director-musician Mike Figgis. It’s a modern noir, or neo-noir, set in Newcastle, about a couple of hardboiled innocents (Sean Bean and Melanie Griffith) who get caught up in the power struggle between a nightclub owner (Sting) and the Texas real estate tycoon (Tommy Lee Jones) who wants to run him out of business so that he can buy his property and complete a waterfront development deal.
But as Ebert points out in his review, that type of summary doesn’t really capture what Stormy Monday is about. In sound-and-image-driven, genuinely cinematic films — a category to which Figgis’ modest but stylish debut definitely belongs — what happens is less important than how it happens: the look and feel and flow of the images, the little details of voice and gesture that you notice in scenes where characters are flirting or hatching plans or making threats.
I was 19 when I first read Ebert’s Stormy Monday review. It made a huge impression on me because it was one of the first pieces of mainstream newspaper criticism I’d read in which form followed function. The review quickly dispenses with the standard, literary-oriented focus of newspaper reviewing and becomes a list of elements, images and sensations: the glistening of rain on pavement stones, the glow of a neon sign in a doorway, the distinctive timbres of actors’ voices. If Ebert’s review is less a parsing of Figgis’ film than a tribute to it, then I guess this video essay is a tribute to Ebert’s tribute, and maybe an attempt to circle Ebert’s written appreciation back around to the movie itself, and the elements that inspired Ebert in the first place.
My friend Kim Morgan, who has contributed to Ebert’s new TV series At the Movies and has collaborated with me on a video essay about Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, provides the voiceover, reading Ebert’s review in laid-back, smoky tones. The music is from the Stormy Monday soundtrack, composed and performed by Figgis.
Roger Ebert is the Chicago-Sun Times film critic and the creator of Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies. Kim Morgan is a film, music and culture writer who authors Sunset Gun and her tumblr blog Sunset Gunshots. Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder and publisher of Press Play.