2021 Writing Exercise Series #89: Erasing Roger Ebert 25 "Oliver"

The 2021 Writing Series is a series of daily writing exercises for both prose writers and poets to keep their creative mind stretched and ready to go—fresh for your other writing endeavors. The writing prompts take the impetus—that initial crystal of creation—out of your hands (for the most part) and changes your writing creation into creative problem solving. Instead of being preoccupied with the question "What do I write" you are instead pondering "How do I make this work?" And in the process you are producing new writing.

This is not a standard writing session. This is pure production—to keep your brain thinking about using language to solve simple or complex problems. The worst thing you can do is sit there inactive. It's like taking a 5 minute breather in the middle of a spin class—the point is to push, to produce something, however imperfect. If you don't overthink it, you will be able to complete all of the exercises in under 30 minutes.

Erasing Roger Ebert 25 "Oliver"

For today's exercise we have split paths for fiction and poetry, though I highly recommend that even fiction writers try the poetry exercise, because erasures can be a blast!

Poetry: For poetry do an erasure or black-out poem from the following:  Roger Ebert's review of the 1968 film "Oliver" (four stars).

Roger Ebert has been the archetypal film critic for decades, and he's written thousands of reviews. Because of their nature, almost their own bit of ekphrastic art, this series of erasures will be lots of fun!

An Erasure/Blackout is really simple: you take the given text and remove many words to make it your own new piece. One way to go about the erasure that I like to do is to copy the text and paste it twice into your document before you start erasing or blacking out (in MS Word set the text background color to black), that way if you get further into the erasure and decide you want a somewhat different tone or direction, it's easy to go to the unaltered version and make the erasure/black-out piece smoother. Another tip is to look for recurring words, in this example 'bingo' occurs multiple times and could be a good touchstone for your piece.

Fiction or (poetry): If you insist on fiction (or just feel like writing a "Title Mania" piece), write a piece with one of these  titles taken from this section:

  1. Sweep and Zest
  2. It will stand the test of time, I guess
  3. A Marvelous Collection of Heroes and Villains
  4. The Movie Should Stop Right There
  5. The Quintessence of Artful Dodgerdom
  6. The Rowdy Life
  7. Cheap Effects

Erasure Selection:

Roger Ebert's review of "Oliver"

Sir Carol Reed's "Oliver!" is a treasure of a movie. It is very nearly universal entertainment, one of those rare films like "The Wizard of Oz" that appeals in many ways to all sorts of people. It will be immediately exciting to the children, I think, because of the story and the unforgettable Dickens characters. Adults will like it for the sweep and zest of its production. And as a work of popular art, it will stand the test of time, I guess. It is as well-made as a film can be.

Not for a moment, I suspect, did Reed imagine he had to talk down to the children in his audience. Not for a moment are the children in the cast treated as children. They're equal participants in the great adventure, and they have to fend for themselves or bloody well get out of the way. This isn't a watered-down lollypop. It's got bite and malice along with the romance and humor.

The basis of its success, perhaps, is that Reed took a long look at the character of Oliver Twist. The problem with Oliver is that he isn't really very interesting, is he? He's a young, noble, naive lad whose main duty in Dickens' novel is to stand about while a marvelous collection of heroes and villains struggle over his destiny.

The weakness in the stage musical "Oliver!," and even in David Lean's film "Oliver Twist" (1948), was that they made too much of Oliver and didn't quite know what to do with him. Reed does; he establishes Oliver as a bright attractive young boy: gives him some scenes so we get to care about him and admire his pluck; and then focuses his movie on the characters who are REALLY interesting: Fagin, Bill Sikes, the Artful Dodger and Nancy. The movie belongs so much to Fagin and the Dodger, in fact, that when we see them marching down the road in their last scene we think the movie should stop right there, instead of giving us a final look at Oliver. Still, Oliver is well acted by Mark Lester (who played the youngest boy in Jack Clayton's "Our Mother's House").

Reed gives us the seedy Underworld of London (with shadows as long and cobblestones as rough as the Vienna of his "The Third Man"). We get Bill Sikes and his mangy dog. We get the rowdy life of the alehouse under an embankment, and we get a Nancy who is, at last, as tough and harshly beautiful as Dickens must have imagined.

And we get Fagin! Ron Moody, who is hardly over 30, has somehow stepped into this character twice his age and made it his own. When he advises Oliver, "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two," and when he sings "I'm Reviewing the Situation" he creates a marvelous screen portrait.

The other really memorable characterization is by Jack Wild, the quintessence of Artful Dodgerdom. But the film is strong in casting, and we get a villainous Bill Sikes from Oliver Reed and an unctuous Bumble from Harry Secombe; and Shari Wallis, as Nancy, makes us believe in her difficult, complicated character.

The problem with the roadshow format, as I've observed before, is that the movie has to be longer and more expensive than usual: Those are the ground rules. Many a delightful movie has been ruined by being bloated up to roadshow "standards," and the challenge to a director in this genre is to spend his money wisely and pace his movie well.

"Oliver" succeeds at both. John Box, the designer, has created magnificent sets that reproduce Victorian England in perfect detail --and never to excess. John Green, musical director at M-G-M during its "golden age of musicals" in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was brought in to do the music and has hit the right balance.

"Oliver!" succeeds finally because of its taste. It never stoops for cheap effects and never insults our intelligence. And because we can trust it, we can let ourselves go with it, and we do. It is a splendid experience.


If you'd like some background music, try this video of Ojibwe Flute with ambient noise.