Sense memory has long been a practice of method actors. But have you ever seen it put into action to review a film?

Roger Ebert pulled from his own sense memory to pull off this flight of fancy in 1988, with his stirring review of Mike Figgis’ Stormy Monday. The review eschews critics’ usual emphasis on story and instead shifts its attention to the film’s bounty of sensory pleasures, both aural and visual.

Ebert sets up his stream-of-consciousness reflection on Stormy Monday as follows: “‘Why is it,’ someone was asking the other day, ‘that you movie critics spend all of your time talking about the story and never talk about the visual qualities of a film, which are, after all, what make it a film?’ Good question. 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.”

In the video essay below, entitled “DEEP FOCUS: Mike Figgis’ Stormy Monday, as reviewed by Roger Ebert,” editor Matt Zoller Seitz and narrator Kim Morgan pay heartfelt tribute to how Ebert tries his hand at this kind of picture-painting prose. Playfully cutting moments of Figgis’ film as Morgan performs as an extension of Ebert’s voice, the video celebrates Ebert’s vivid evocations of:

  • “The way light falls on wet pavement stones”
  • “How a neon sign glows in a darkened doorway”
  • “The attitudes that men strike when they feel in control of a situation, and the way their shoulders slump when someone else takes power”
  • “The look on a man’s face when someone is about to deliberately break his arm, and he knows it”
  • “The look on a woman’s face when she is waiting for a man she thinks she loves, and he is late, and she fears it is because he is dead”
  • “Symbols of America: the flag, stretched large and bold behind a podium. Baton twirlers. A car—big, fast, and red”
  • “Standing in the window at night looking out into the street”
  • “Signaling for someone across a crowded nightclub floor”
  • “Saxophones, which are the instrument of the night”
  •  “The flat, masked expressions on the faces of bodyguards”
  • “The face of a man who is consumed by anger”
  • “The look in a woman’s eyes when she is about to kiss a man for the first time”
  •  “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 flat, angry voice of Tommy Lee Jones, who never seems to raise his voice, or need to”
  • “The innocence in the voice of Sean Bean, an earnest young man who only wants a job and gets trapped in a bloodbath”
  • “The voice of Sting, who looks Jones in the eye and talks as flat and angry as he does, until Jones’s shoulders slump”
  • “How a woman tells a man, ‘I get off work at midnight.’ And how she looks when she says that. And how he looks”

The review also revels in all of the comfortingly familiar tropes that abound romantic noir: “Smoking… cleavage… bourbon whiskey… Marlboros and cigars… lonely, furnished rooms… rain… high heels, and cleavage.” Ebert winks and nods to his readers, admitting: “I believe I already mentioned cleavage. Some images recur more naturally than others.”

A wholly unique merging of poetry, film criticism and audio-visual homage, Seitz and Morgan’s video immortalizes Figgis’ singular film and the spirit of the late, great Ebert. It’s also a love letter to moviemakers’ ability to transcend the specificity of their subject matter and to simply feel and be felt, to conjure moods that are shared with those audience members who are initiated into their film’s contained universe. MM