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Reading Roger Ebert: The Great Movies II

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The field opens up a bit in Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies II. There’s more diversity to the picks and a wider (and welcome) definition of “great.” The field  will continue to open in The Great Movies III, which includes After Hours, Dark City, two Alejandro Jodorowsky movies, Groundhog Day, and so on. Great goes beyond the rigid concerns of the canon.

What struck me most about The Great Movies II was its increased sense of mortality and spiritual yearning. The essays in the book were published between 2001 and 2004. In 2002, Ebert was first diagnosed with cancer, and it marked the beginning of the downturn in his health that would eventually claim his jaw and his voice. Ebert writes more about the comforts and reassurances that movies can bring, and there’s something wizened about the writing, as if there’s an urgency to say something grander about what’s being watched and what it says about life.

In this installment of Reading Roger Ebert, I’m just going to hop straight into the text since there’s a lot of good writing to cover and I’m a bit behind with some other things. This’ll be made up for in August, which will have a double shot of Ebert writing and will address the fun of negative reviews as well as the joys of reading criticism.

[Reading Roger Ebert is Flixist’s summer reading project. Join us as we pay tribute to the late great film critic by looking at some of his best-known books on the movies.]

Reading The Great Movies II by Roger Ebert

Top Directors in Volume 2

There are again several directors with two films a piece in this volume (e.g., Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, John Houston, David Lean). The directors who appear most frequently, however, are:

  • Milos Foreman – Three separate entries (Amadeus, The Fireman’s Ball, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
  • Steven Spielberg – Three separate entries (The Color Purple, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Note: If you want to get technical on multi-film essays, the entry on Buster Keaton is a survey on five of his full-length features (other than The General, which had its own entry in Volume 1) and two of his shorts; Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy is one essay for three films.

Great Movies by Decade in Volume 2

The essays in this volume were originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times from 2001 to 2004.

  • 1910s – 1 film
  • 1920s – 9 films
  • 1930s – 5 films
  • 1940s – 9 films
  • 1950s – 21 films
  • 1960s – 15 films
  • 1970s – 20 films
  • 1980s – 17 films
  • 1990s – 9 films

Note: I separated out The Three Colors Trilogy as three entries in the 1990s; the Buster Keaton entry was broken into five films from the 1920s.

Most Surprising Inclusions

The joy of the later Greats is that there are more surprising inclusions. These films aren’t great in the lofty canonical sense but are great nonetheless in their own ways. (I actually think at least two of the movies below should be legitimately recognized as part of the canon.) The most notable surprises in Volume 2 are:

  • A Christmas Story
  • Moonstruck
  • Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
  • Saturday Night Fever
  • Say Anything
  • This Is Spinal Tap

Some Great Observations

From the essay on Amadeus – “This is not a vulgarization of Mozart, but a way of dramatizing that true geniuses rarely take their own work seriously, because it comes so easily for them. Great writers (Nabokov, Dickens, Wodehouse) make it look like play. Almost-great writers (Mann, Galsworthy, Wolfe) make it look like Herculean triumph. It is as true in every field; compare Shakespeare to Shaw, Jordan to Barkley, Picasso to Rothko, Kennedy to Nixon.”

From the essay on Amarcord – “Fellini was more in love with breasts than Russ Meyer, more wracked with guilt than Ingmar Bergman, more of a flamboyant showman than Busby Berkeley. He danced so instinctively to his inner rhythms that he didn’t even realize he was a stylistic original; did he ever devote a moment’s organized thought to the style that became known as ‘Felliniesque,’ or was he simply following the melody that always played when he was working?”

From the essay on Annie Hall – “Annie Hall is a movie about a man who is always looking for the loopholes in perfection. Who can turn everything into a joke, and wishes he couldn’t.”

From the essay on The Big Heat – “That’s the beauty of Lang’s moral ambidexterity. He tells the story of a heroic cop, while using it to mask another story, so much darker, beneath.”

From the essay on The Birth of a Nation – “All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”

From the essay on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – “Comedies are allowed to break the rules. Most of the films of Luis Buñuel are comedies in one way or another, but he doesn’t go for gags and punch lines; his comedy is more like a dig in the ribs, sly and painful.”

From the essay on The Fall of the House of Usher – “There are times when I think that of all the genres, the horror film most misses silence. The Western benefited from dialogue, and musicals and film noir are unthinkable without words. But in a classic horror film, almost anything you can say will be superfluous or ridiculous. Notice how carefully the Draculas of talkies have to choose their words to avoid bad laughs. The perfect horror situation is such that there is nothing you can say about it.”

From the essay on The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly – “In these opening frames, Sergio Leone established a rule that he follows throughout The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The rule is that the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame. At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see, and that gives Leone the freedom to surprise us with entrances that cannot be explained by the practical geography of his shots.”

From the essay on The Gospel According to Matthew – “If a hypothetical viewer came to The Passion with no previous knowledge of Jesus and wondered what all the furor was about, Pasolini’s film would argue: Jesus was a radical whose teachings, if taken seriously, would contradict the values of most human societies ever since.”

From the essay on Great Expectations – “[David Lean] was an editor for seven years before directing his first film, and his career stands as an argument for the theory that editors make better directors than cinematographers do; the cinematographer is seduced by the look of a film, while the editor is faced with the task of making sense out of it as a story.”

From the essay on Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy – “Most films make the unspoken assumption that their characters are defined by and limited to their plots. But lives are not about stories. Stories are about lives. That is the difference between films for children and films for adults. Kieslowski celebrates intersecting timelines and lifelines, choices made and unmade. All his films ask why, since God gave us free will, movie directors go to such trouble to take it away.”

From the essay on Le Boucher – “If you bring enough empathy to her character, you can read the final scene more deeply. It is a sex scene. They don’t touch, but then they never did.”

From the essay on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – “Rarely does a film give us such a nuanced view of the whole span of a man’s life. It is said that the child is father to the man. Colonel Blimp makes poetry out of what the old know but the young do not guess: The man contains both the father and the child.”

From the essay on The Man Who Laughs – “By not alerting us with the logic of language, silent films can more easily slip us off into the shadows of fantasy.”

From the essay on Mean Streets – “If Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather fixed an image of the Mafia as a shadow government, Scorsese’s Mean Streets inspired the other main line in modern gangster movies, the film of everyday reality. The Godfather was about careers. Mean Streets was about jobs.”

From the essay on Mon Oncle – “Jean-Luc Godard once said, ‘The cinema is not the station. The cinema is the train.’ I never knew what that meant, until Monsieur Hulot showed me. The joy is in the journey, the sadness in the destination.”

From the essay on My Dinner with Andre – “Here are two friends who have each found a way to live successfully. Each is urging the other to wake up and smell the coffee. The difference is that, in Wally’s case, it’s real coffee.”

From the essay on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – “Is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest not a great film because it is manipulative, or is it great because it is so superbly manipulative?”

From the essay on Paris, Texas – “Wenders uses the materials of realism, but this is a fable, as much as his great Wings of Desire. It’s about archetypal longings, set in American myth.”

From the essay on Picnic of Hanging Rock – “My idea of Australia has been fashioned almost entirely from its films, and I picture it as a necklace of coastal cities, from which depend smaller inland towns, surrounding the vast and ancient Outback–where modern logic does not apply, and inexplicable things can happen.”

From the essay on Raiders of the Lost Ark – “In a scene where everything is happening at once, [Harrison Ford] knows that nothing unnecessary need be happening on his face, in his voice, or to his character. He is the fulcrum, not the lever.”

From the essay on Rashomon – “The genius of Rashomon is that all of the flashbacks are both true and false. True, in that they present an accurate portrait of what each witness thinks happened. False, because as Kurosawa observes in his autobiography, ‘Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.'”

From the essay on Romeo and Juliet – “Romeo and Juliet is always said to be the first romantic tragedy ever written, but it isn’t really a tragedy at all. It’s a tragic misunderstanding, scarcely fitting the ancient requirement of tragedy that the mighty fall through their own flaws.”

From the essay on Solaris – “The films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky are more like environments than entertainments. It’s often said they’re too long, but that’s missing the point: He uses length and depth to slow us down, to edge us out of the velocity of our lives, to enter a zone of reverie and meditation. When he allows a sequence to continue for what seems like an unreasonable length, we have a choice. We can be bored, or we can use the interlude as an opportunity to consolidate what has gone before, and process it in terms of our own reflections.”

From the essay on Stroszek – “The thing about most American movies is that the actors in them look like the kinds of people who might be hired for a movie. They don’t have to be handsome, but they have to be presentable–to fall within a certain range. If they are too strange, how can they find steady work?”

From the essay on Sunrise – “Listening to Bailey, it occurred to me that the best commentary tracks are often by experts who did not work on the film but love it and have given it a lot of thought. They’re more useful than those rambling tracks where directors (notoriously shy about explaining their techniques or purposes) reminisce about the weather on the set that day.”

From the essay on A Tale of Winter – “There is sadness in [Rohmer’s] work but not gloom. His characters are too smart to be surprised by disappointments, and too interested in life to indulge in depression. His films succeed not because large truths are discovered, but because small truths will do. To attend his films is to be for a time in the company of people we would like to know, and then to realize that in various ways they are ourselves.”

From the essay on Tokyo Story – “[Tokyo Story] ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections.”

From the essay on Touch of Evil – “The destinies of all of the main characters are tangled from beginning to end, and the photography makes that point by trapping them in the same shots, or tying them together through cuts that match and resonate. The story moves not in a straight line, but as a series of loops and coils.”

From the essay on Walkabout – “It is not that the girl cannot appreciate nature or that the boy cannot function outside his training. It is that all of us are the captives of environment and programming: That there is a wide range of experiment and experience that remains forever invisible to us, because it falls in a spectrum we simply cannot see.”

Recurring Observations

Ebert mentions the music that Fellini played on set at least twice in this volume.

Ebert also mentions the way silent films are enhanced by their lack of speech at least twice.

Funniest Lines

From the essay on The Bank Dick – “Pauline Kael finds Chickadee ‘a classic among bad movies,’ observing that it never really gets off the ground, ‘but the ground is such an honest mixture of dirt, manure, and corn that at times it is fairly aromatic.'”

From the essay on A Christmas Story – “One of the details that A Christmas Story gets right is the threat of having your mouth washed out with Lifebouy soap. Not any soap. Lifebouy. Never Ivory or Palmolive. Lifebouy, which apparently contained an ingredient able to nullify bad language. The only other soap ever mentioned for this task was Lava, but that was the nuclear weapon of mouth-washing soaps, so powerful it was used for words we still didn’t even know.”

From the essay on King Kong – “…(it is rare to see a coconut brassiere in a non-comedy)…”

From the essay on The Producers – “I remember finding myself in an elevator with [Mel] Brooks and his wife, actress Anne Bancroft, in New York City a few months after The Producers was released. A woman got onto the elevator, recognized him and said, ‘I have to tell you, Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar.’ Brooks smiled benevolently. ‘Lady,’ he said, ‘it rose below vulgarity.'”

From the essay on Shane – “Shane is so quiet, so inward, so narcissistic in his silent withdrawing from ordinary exchanges, that he always seems to be playing a role. A role in which he withholds his violent abilities as long as he can, and then places himself in a situation where he is condemned to use them, after which he will ride on, lonely, to the next town. He has… [sic] issues.”

Inevitable Moment of “I Told You So”

Ebert mentions that he gave Sam Pekinpah’s much maligned Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia four stars when it was first released, hailing it as “some kind of bizarre masterpiece.”

Reference That Dates an Essay

Apart from the many mentions of a title being restored for DVD release, the reference that stood out most comes from the essay on Don’t Look Now, originally published October 13, 2002. Ebert mentions how Nicolas Roeg’s film evokes dread in the same way as the films of M. Night Shyamalan.

Shyamalan had released Signs just months prior to the essay’s publication. He was still at the promising beginning of his career when many hailed him as the next Spielberg by way of Hitchcock. Shyamalan has since become a pariah/punchline; he’s also turned into a thoroughly mediocre journeyman. His recent movies still evoke dread, but not in the good way.

Contentious Observations

In this newer volume of The Great Movies, Ebert makes greater leaps at aesthetic ideas. They don’t always seem to hit for me, but they’re also well-formed points for debate. Here are a few such observations.

From the essay on Being There – “The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier–a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more.”

From the essay on A Christmas Story – “How Farcus gets his comeuppance makes for a deeply satisfying scene, and notice the perfect tact with which Ralphie’s mom handles the situation. (Do you agree with me that Dad already knows the whole story when he sits down at the kitchen table?)”

From the essay on Goldfinger – “James Bond is the most durable of this century’s movie heroes, and the one most likely to last well into the next–although Sherlock Holmes of course is also immortal, and Tarzan is probably good for a retread. (The Star Wars and Star Trek movies are disqualified because they do not have a single hero or a continuous time frame.)”

From the essay on The Searchers – “In The Searchers I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide. The comic relief may be an unconscious attempt to soften the message.”

Unexpected Reaction While Reading The Great Movies

My eyes inexplicably welled up with tears while reading the essay on The Colors Trilogy since the writing was unexpectedly beautiful.

The first tremor came with this line: “[Krzysztof Kieslowski] is one of the filmmakers I would turn to for consolation if I learned I was dying, or to laugh with on finding I would live after all.” I can’t help but think this is a direct reference to Ebert’s own health situation at the time, which involved cancer surgery and radiation therapy. (The essay was originally published March 9, 2003.)

Also see the Colors Trilogy entry below in the Great Sentence portion. It’s dynamite and another great bit of beauty that’s informed by Ebert’s sense of mortality.

Great Sentences

From the essay on House of Games – “Mamet’s dialogue starts with the plain red bricks of reality, then mortars them into walls that are slightly askew.”

From the essay on Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy – “I connect strongly with Kieslowski because I sometimes seek a whiff of transcendence by revisiting places from earlier years. I am thinking now of a cafe in Venice, a low cliff overlooking the sea near Donegal, a bookstore in Cape Town, and Sir John Soane’s breakfast room in London. I am drawn to them in the spirit of pilgrimage. No one else can see the shadows of my former and future visits there, or know how they are the touchstones of my mortality, but if some day as I approach the cafe I see myself just getting up to leave, I will not be surprised to have missed myself by so little.”

From the essay on Rififi – “In these scenes Monmarte seems to cower beneath the damp skies of dawn.”

Great Closing Lines

From the essay on Cries and Whispers. (You’ll note that my favorite closing line in the previous volume was from Ebert’s essay on The Seventh Seal.)

Bergman has made it clear from his other films that he feels imperfect, sometimes cruel, a sinner. Anna’s faith is the faith of a child, perfect, without questions, and he envies it. It may be true, it may be futile, but it is better to feel it than to die in despair.

Here’s another great one from the essay on My Neighbor Totoro. I wonder if these lines were the inspiration for the title of Ebert’s memoir Life Itself (which we’ll get to eventually).

It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.