Watching Great Movies with Roger Ebert

Chicago University Press releases the final installment of The Great Movies series

Roger Ebert, The Great Movies IV (Chicago University Press, 2016)
Roger Ebert, The Great Movies IV (Chicago University Press, 2016)
Roger Ebert was more than just an opposable thumb. His television appearances with Gene Siskel and regular dispatches to the Chicago Sun-Times made him one of the most well-known and beloved movie critics in America. The fourth volume of Great Movies, recently published by Chicago University Press, showcases over sixty of Ebert’s reviews spanning the history of cinema. Together in one place, these brief essays offer fresh insights into established classics, and draw attention to noteworthy outliers that deserve a closer look.

Among other things, the collection includes discussions of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (released ‘after the Summer of Love but before Woodstock’), and Hiyao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (written after Ebert’s third viewing). Also included are reviews of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, and Spielberg’s deceptively simple science-fiction narrative, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence – a film that Kubrick gave to Spielberg when he felt he could not achieve the special-effects required.

“Roger Ebert was more than just an opposable thumb.”

Kubrick makes a couple more appearances through appraisals of The Killing, which the director considered ‘to be his first mature feature’, and Barry Lyndon, on which Ebert writes: ‘It is in every frame a Kubrick film: technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness’. The recently restored print of Barry Lyndon has prompted something of a critical revaluation, but it’s clear to see that Ebert has been a longstanding supporter, praising it as ‘one of the master’s best’, ‘aggressive in its cool detachment’.

Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen in Terrence Malick's debut feature, Badlands (1973)
Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen in Terrence Malick’s debut feature, Badlands (1973)
Ebert finds a ‘hint of Kubrick’ in Terrence Malick’s 1970s breakout feature, Badlands, ‘one of the great films of the flowering of American auteurs in the 1970s, a debut film chosen to close the New York Film Festival’. Badlands is loosely inspired by the crime spree committed by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in the late 1950s, but, as Ebert points out, ‘Malick finds no meaning in their crimes, no psychological explanation’. Instead, we observe other motivations: ‘Malick opens on the leafy streets of a small town, where Holly’s house on the corner resembles the house Malick used in The Tree of Life (2011). We sense his own memories at work. Then he moves into hiding with them in a series of breathtaking scenes, as they live in a forest and roam mindlessly across the empty Great Plains, the quarry of a national manhunt.’ Ebert brings the discussion to Malick’s great abiding theme, one that recurs through all of his work: ‘Nature is always deeply embedded in Malick’s films. It occupies the stage and then humans edge tentatively onto it, uncertain of their roles.’

eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind
Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry, 2004).
Ebert often brings his own experiences to bear when reflecting on cinema, which can sometimes prompt poignant reflections. For example, when revisiting Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ebert remembers visiting an old people’s home populated by advanced Alzheimer’s patients: ‘Knowing nothing of what was happening in their minds, I wondered if the anxious and angry ones had some notion of who they were and that something was wrong.’ When watching Michel Gondry’s film, Ebert writes ‘I was reminded of the passive ones’. He praises the film’s originator Charlie Kaufman as ‘the most gifted screenwriter of the 2000s’, and as someone who ‘is concerned above all about the processes of thought and memory’.

At other times, Ebert’s personal experiences reflect his long career as a film critic connected to the industry, yet observing from a distance. When reviewing Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation he mentions having encountered Bill Murray in social situations during his time at Chicago’s Second City. He goes on to say that Murray’s appearance offers ‘surely one of the most exquisitely controlled performances in recent movies’. (The presence of Lost in Translation highlights the scarcity of women directors included in Ebert’s book, but also in Hollywood more generally.)

jeff-bridges-the-big-lebowski-the-dude
Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1998)
In Ebert’s review of cult hit The Big Lebowski (‘The Big Lebowski is about an attitude, not a story’), he reveals knowing the freelance publicist on whom the Coen Brothers based their iconic character: ‘I have long known Jeff Dowd. I can easily see how he might have inspired the Dude. He is as tall, as shaggy, and sometimes as mood-altered as Jeff Lebowski, although much more motivated. He remembers names better than a politician, is crafty in his strategies, and burns with a fiery zeal on behalf of those films he consents to represent’. Not only are these moments in Great Movies IV enjoyable and revealing, but demonstrate a film critic who is often teetering on the brink of narrative. Ebert is a writer who has plenty of his own stories to tell.

“Not only are these moments in Great Movies IV enjoyable and revealing, but demonstrate a film critic who is often teetering on the brink of narrative. Ebert is a writer who has plenty of his own stories to tell.”

The collection includes a number of meditations on European cinema, including Robert Bresson, Michael Haneke, and Werner Herzog (‘Herzog fascinates me’). Of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Ebert writes that ‘his films live not in the moment but in their complete length, and for the last hour I was more spellbound that during a thriller. Bresson does nothing to make me “like” the priest, but my empathy was urgently involved’. He calls Michael Haneke ‘a masterful Austrian’, and ‘a meticulous filmmaker’ when reviewing his first major international success, Caché: ‘How is it possible to watch a thriller intently two times and completely miss a smoking gun that’s in full view? Yet I did.’

Ebert also writes about the treatment and representation of the Holocaust in modern and contemporary cinema, from the ‘straightforward realism’ of Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone (which, he adds, defies conventions of the genre by resisting the expectation of an upbeat ending). He describes Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentary Shoah as ‘one of the noblest films ever made’, and ‘an act of witness’. Ebert focusses on a number of scenes in Lanzmann’s film, and praises the filmmaker as a ‘patient interrogator’ who adopts ‘a poetic, mosaic approach’. Ebert captures what is profound and overwhelming about the film as a document of oral history: ‘They talk and talk. Shoah is a torrent of words, and yet the overwhelming impression, when it is over, is one of silence.’

One of the delights of the collection is the opportunity to see Ebert go back to films and to watch them in the broader context of a filmmaker’s career. He points out that the dark detective thriller Seven was made by David Fincher when he was just 29-years-old, an amazing feat. He praises Morgan Freeman’s depiction of the ageing detective as one of his ‘best performances’, citing ‘[t]he enigma of Somerset’s character […] at the heart of the film’. Ebert sees in the visual imagination of the young Fincher an affinity with the earliest works of cinema: ‘I remember a shot in Murnau’s Faust (1926) in which Satan wore a black cloak that enveloped a tiny village below. This is the sensation Fincher creates here.’

Naomi Watts and Laura Herring in Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch, 2001)
Naomi Watts and Laura Herring in Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch, 2001)
Roger Ebert is not afraid to voice an opinion about a film, nor is he afraid to admit when a film escapes or evades his grasp. When talking about David Lynch’s enigmatic classic Mulholland Drive, he reveals that he screened the film to a large group who helped dissect the film over four afternoons. He admits: ‘even my old friend who was forever finding everything to be a version of Homer’s Odyssey was uncertain this time’. Ebert goes on to say that it ‘was a tribute to Lynch that the movie remained compulsively watchable while refusing to yield to interpretation’. This, for Ebert, secures its status as a work of ‘pure cinema’.

“Roger Ebert is not afraid to voice an opinion about a film, nor is he afraid to admit when a film escapes or evades his grasp.”

The fourth volume of Great Movies is a book that not only celebrates the rich cultural history of moviemaking, but commemorates the memory of Ebert himself, who passed away back in 2013. It includes a moving introduction by his spouse, Chaz Ebert, and a forward by Matt Zoller Seitz, who oversees the official Roger Ebert website. Seitz notes that the life and work of ‘Roger Ebert casts a long shadow’, which is undoubtedly true. But, as this final instalment of the Great Movies series attests, Ebert’s enthusiasm for the films that he loved also casts a brilliant light.

The Great Movies IV is available from Chicago University Press.

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