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Reading Roger Ebert: The Great Movies

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Roger Ebert would have turned 71 this month. His passing has left a hole in the film critic community, which doesn’t seem to have a central public figure anymore. There’s A.O. Scott of The New York Times, of course, but he doesn’t have the same pull or personality as Ebert. The same goes for Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune and Richard Roeper of The Chicago Sun-Times, two other critics who helped steer At the Movies in its various incarnations.

Ebert just had something that made him special, both as a public figure and as a writer. As a tribute, we wanted to look at some of his best writing on the movies, and a lot of his best writing about film came from his recurring feature “The Great Movies.” It just makes sense to start with the first collected volume of these columns.

[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.]

What’s interesting about reading the first volume of The Great Movies is reacquainting myself with these essays. Many of them I’d read online at one point or another a couple years ago, but reading them in a collection got me attuned to Ebert’s rhythms and hobby horses as a critic. There are a lot of calls for people to look, to notice, and to consider, which I think is key. For years he’s lectured on films shown one shot at a time, and I can imagine him saying during one of these lectures “Look at how this shot accomplishes x” or “Notice how this shot mirrors y” or “Consider this shot and what it says about z.” For me, reading Roger Ebert or watching him on TV was never about confirming my taste but rather understanding how another person might look at something differently.

I’d forgotten how Ebert pulls other critics into the larger conversation of a film. He draws a few comments from IMDb in these essays, but more notably he cites the work of Pauline Kael, Stanley Kaufmann, and other professional writers and critics. The Great Movies is dedicated to Ebert’s “Teachers,” which includes Kael, Kaufmann, Manny Farber, and Andrew Sarris. The invocation of other opinions is rarely for debate so much as for contrast and for flavor. One of those great contrasts between student and teacher: Pauline Kael claimed never to have rewatched a movie; Ebert loves it and notes its importance. “Movies do not change, but their viewers do,” he writes in his essay on La Dolce Vita.

Ebert’s film criticism rarely made the larger social, cultural, intellectual, or ideological leaps of critics like Greil Marcus or Molly Haskell, which isn’t an indictment but merely an observation — he was still good at acts of noticing, looking, and considering, and he was a fine writer who was capable of poetry when the movies moved him enough. Invoking Kael and the IMDb users might just be Ebert in a nutshell. Like Nathan Rabin noted back in April on The AV Club, Ebert became the figurehead for the popularization and democratization of film appreciation and film criticism. This is a larger conversation about things in culture, and all voices are welcome. And like Rabin also noted, this popularization and democratization is one of the reasons we’ll probably never see another Roger Ebert.

I remember Marcus once saying that criticism creates a space in which writers can let ideas take hold. Ebert expresses something similar in his essay of Wings of Desire: “For myself, the film is like music or a landscape: It clears a space in my mind, and in that space I can consider questions.” One of those questions, fittingly given the nature of large cultural conversations, changing opinions over time, and just the fact of mortality: “When did time begin and where does space end?”

There’ll be more observations about Ebert as this summer reading project continues. (We’ll be doing at least three more of Ebert’s books.) For now, here’s a lengthy breakdown of things I noticed while reading The Great Movies.

Reading The Great Movies by Roger Ebert

Top Directors in Volume 1

There are several directors with two films in this first volume (e.g., Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg). The directors who appear most frequently, however, are:

  • Billy Wilder – Four separate entries (The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Blvd.)
  • Luis Buñuel – Three separate entries (Belle de Jour, The Exterminating Angel, Un Chien Andalou)
  • Alfred Hitchcock – Three separate entries (Notorious, Psycho, Vertigo)

Note: If you want to get technical on multi-film essays, Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy is one essay for three movies, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue is one essay for 10 one-hour movies, and Michael Apted’s Up documentary series is one essay for (at the time) six movies.

Great Movies by Decade in Volume 1

The essays in this volume were originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times from 1996 to 2001.

  • 1910s – 1 film
  • 1920s – 8 films
  • 1930s – 11 films
  • 1940s – 15 films
  • 1950s – 19 films
  • 1960s – 21 films
  • 1970s – 16 films
  • 1980s – 7 films
  • 1990s – 9 films

Note: I separated out The Apu Trilogy as three entries in the 1950s and the Up documentaries by year. I kept The Decalogue as one big thing from the 1980s.

Most Surprising Inclusions

A Hard Day’s Night – Not that A Hard Day’s Night isn’t a great movie — it’s a blast — but I almost expected this to show up in a later volume rather than the first one. It was the fourth Great Movies essay that Ebert wrote, originally published on October 27, 1996.

Peeping Tom – Like A Hard Day’s Night, Peeping Tom is a great movie that I expected to appear in a later volume of the series. I expected The Red Shoes to be in this book, but that’s not until The Great Movies III.

Some Great Observations

From the essay on – “A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank, because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes.”

From the essay on Citizen Kane – “…By flashing back through the eyes of many witnesses, Welles and Mankiewicz created an emotional chronology set free from time.”

From the essay on The Decalogue – “The settings are much the same: gray exteriors, in winter for the most part, small apartments, offices. The faces are where the life of the films resides.”

From the essay on Dr. Strangelove – “Dr. Strangelove‘s humor is generated by a basic comic principle: People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing.”

From the essay on Dracula – “Vampirism is like elegant, slow-motion rape, done politely by a creature who charms you into surrender.”

From the essay on L’Avventura – “It is possible to be rich and happy, of course, but for that you need a mind, and interests. It is impossible to be happy simply because one is ceaselessly entertained. L’Avventura becomes a place in our imagination — a melancholy moral desert.”

From the essay on Lawrence of Arabia – “What you realize watching Lawrence of Arabia is that the word ‘epic’ refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision. Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God didn’t cost as much as the catering in Pearl Harbor, but it is an epic and Pearl Harbor is not.”

From the essay on Nosferatu – “‘Nosferatu‘ is a better title anyway than ‘Dracula.’ Say ‘Dracula‘ and you smile. Say ‘Nosferatu‘ and you’ve bitten into a lemon.”

From the essay on The Shawshank Redemption – “The key to the film’s structure, I think, is that it’s not about its hero, but about our relationship with him — our curiosity, our pity, our admiration. If Andy had been the heroic center, bravely enduring, the film would have been conventional, and less mysterious.”

From the essay on Star Wars – “It located Hollywood’s center of gravity at the intellectual and emotional level of a bright teenager.”

From the essay on A Woman Under the Influence – “Movies are such a collaborative medium that we rarely get the sense of one person, but Cassavetes at least got it down to two: himself and Rowlands. The key to his work is to realize that it is always Rowlands, not the male lead, who is playing the Cassavetes role.”

Recurring Observations

Ebert mentions Howard Hawk’s definition of a good movie twice in this volume: “Three great scenes, no bad ones.”

Ebert raises the same pair of existential questions in two different essays published months apart (Wings of Desire and the Up documentaries): “Why am I me and why not you? Why am I here and why not there?”

The last line of Some Like It Hot gets mentioned in at least two other essays apart from its own.

Funniest Lines

From the essay on Double Indemnity – “Double Indemnity was [Bill Wilder’s] third film as a director. That early in his career, he was already cocky enough to begin a thriller with the lines, ‘I killed him for money — and for a woman. I didn’t get the money. And I didn’t get the woman.’ And end it with the hero saying ‘I love you, too’ to Edward G. Robinson.”

From the essay on Some Like it Hot (Tony Curtis had said kissing Marilyn Monroe was like kissing Hitler) – “She kisses him not erotically but tenderly, sweetly, as if offering a gift and healing a wound. You remember what Curtis said but when you watch that scene, all you can think is that Hitler must have been a terrific kisser.”

Inevitable Moments of “I Told You So”

Ebert mentions championing Bonnie and Clyde as the definitive film of the 1960s.

Ebert also mentions how he publicly declared The Wild Bunch a masterpiece during a press conference the morning after the film’s 1969 world premiere.

References That Date the Essays

Lots of lines about VHS pan-and-scan/full-frame presentations, though it’s most apparent in the essays on Lawrence of Arabia and Manhattan.

Also, Ebert hates on Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor at least twice in this book.

Great Argument for Rewatching Movies

The joys of rewatching movies are plentiful in the essays, but I think the one on Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is the most compelling case for it. Ebert takes a little time to explain what it’s like to watch a movie every 10 years or so since the 1960s.

Unexpected Reaction While Reading The Great Movies

Not going to lie, I almost cried reading the following essays:

  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • The Up Documentaries

If I wasn’t on the subway while reading the E.T. and It’s a Wonderful Life ones, I probably would have been teary-eyed.

Essays Noting the Imperfections of the Greats

  • Detour
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • Psycho
  • Red River

Great Sentences

From the essay on The Apartment – “On Christmas Eve, more than any other night of the year, the lonely person feels robbed of something that was there in childhood and isn’t there anymore.”

From the essay on Mr. Hulot’s Holiday – “Sight gags are set up with such patience that they seem to expose hidden functions in the clockwork of the universe.”

A Great Aphorism

From the essay on The Shawshank Redemption:

All good art is about something deeper than it admits.

A Great Closing Line

From the essay on The Seventh Seal describing a moment in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage:

The woman awakens with a nightmare, the man holds and comforts her, and in the middle of the night in a dark house, surrounded by hurt and fear, this comforting between two people is held up as mankind’s best weapon against despair.

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