Review: Roger Ebert – “The Great Movies

The Great MoviesThe Great Movies by Roger Ebert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I must admit, I’ve only read the reviews of films that I haven’t seen in here, which probably amounts to a third of the book in total.

Ebert has really, really seen these films. Most of them, according to himself, several times, and an additional time in order to write this book. A lot of them are classics, and a few of them – e.g. “The Wizard of Oz” – aren’t included in a lot of critics’ tomes.

He opens the book with an introduction where three paragraphs stood out to me:

The ability of an audience to enter into the narrative arc of a movie is being lost; do today’s audiences have the patience to wait for Harry Lime in The Third Man?

At Boulder and on other campuses, talking with the students, I found that certain names were no longer recognized. Even students majoring in film had never seen one by Buñuel, Bresson, or Ozu. They’d seen one or two titles by Ford and Wilder, knew a half-dozen Hitchcock classics, genuflected at Citizen Kane, knew the Star Wars pictures by heart, and sometimes uttered those words which marked them as irredeemably philistine: “I don’t like black and white.” Sixty of these films are in black and white, and three use b&w and color; you cannot know the history of the movies, or love them, unless you understand why b&w can give more, not less, than color.

Today even the most popular subtitled films are ignored by the national distribution oligarchy, mainstream movies are pitched at the teenage male demographic group, and the lines outside theaters are for Hollywood’s new specialty, B movies with A budgets.

While he may seem grumpy, there are obvious points to be made. Yes, most modern Hollywood flicks are crap, yes, the attention span of anybody today is Twitter and Reddit long (by which I mean that “too long, didn’t read” is more of an axiom to some than a joke), but then again – his claims would be nothing if he didn’t fess up and review with gusto, intelligence and terrific insight.

And that, my friend, he delivers.

From “The Big Sleep”:

Working from Chandler’s original words and adding spins of their own, the writers (William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett) wrote one of the most quotable of screenplays: It’s unusual to find yourself laughing in a movie not because something is funny, but because it’s so wickedly clever. (Marlowe on the “nymphy” kid sister: “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.”) Unlike modern crime movies which are loaded with action, The Big Sleep is heavy with dialogue. The characters talk and talk, just like in the Chandler novels; it’s as if there’s a competition to see who has the most verbal style.

On “Ikiru”:

It is not so bad that he must die. What is worse is that he has never lived. “I just can’t die—I don’t know what I’ve been living for all these years,” he says to the stranger in the bar. He never drinks, but now he is drinking: “This expensive saki is a protest against my life up to now.”

[...]

I saw Ikiru first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and cost only a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story of Watanabe for two and a half hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Plato’s statement “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

On “JFK”, which indeed questions how films should be “truthful”:

Shortly after the film was released, I ran into Walter Cronkite and received a tongue-lashing, aimed at myself and my colleagues who had praised JFK. There was not, he said, a shred of truth in it. It was a mishmash of fabrications and paranoid fantasies. It did not reflect the most elementary principles of good journalism. We should all be ashamed of ourselves. I have no doubt Cronkite was correct, from his point of view. But I am a film critic and my assignment is different than his. He wants facts. I want moods, tones, fears, imaginings, whims, speculations, nightmares. As a general principle, I believe films are the wrong medium for fact. Fact belongs in print. Films are about emotions. My notion is that JFK is no more or less factual than Stone’s Nixon—or Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Amistad, Out of Africa, My Dog Skip, or any other movie based on “real life.” All we can reasonably ask is that it be skillfully made, and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.

Reviewing a film that is old could pose several problems, but if it’s been remade a million times since, is harder; Ebert pulls this off with “Nosferatu”:

To watch F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself. Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in clichés, jokes, TV skits, cartoons, and more than thirty other films. The film is in awe of its material. It seems to really believe in vampires. Max Schreck, who plays the vampire, avoids most of the theatrical touches that would distract from all the later performances, from Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee to Frank Langella to Gary Oldman. The vampire should come across not like a flamboyant actor, but like a man suffering from a dread curse. Schreck plays the count more like an animal than like a human being; the art direction by Murnau’s collaborator, Albin Grau, gives him bat ears, clawlike nails, and fangs that are in the middle of his mouth like a rodent’s, instead of on the sides like a Halloween mask.

Check out the insight on “Raging Bull”, one of the best films ever made according to myself:

Raging Bull is not a film about boxing, but about a man with paralyzing jealousy and sexual insecurity, for whom being punished in the ring serves as confession, penance, and absolution. It is no accident that the screenplay never concerns itself with fight strategy. For Jake LaMotta, what happens during a fight is controlled not by tactics, but by his fears and drives.

Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film was voted in three polls as the greatest film of the decade, but when he was making it, he seriously wondered if it would ever be released: “We felt like we were making it for ourselves.” Scorsese and Robert De Niro had been reading the autobiography of Jake LaMotta, the middleweight champion whose duels with Sugar Ray Robinson were a legend in the 1940s. They asked Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver (1976), to do a screenplay. The project languished while Scorsese and De Niro made the ambitious but unfocused musical New York, New York (1977) and then languished some more as Scorsese’s drug use led to a crisis. De Niro visited his friend in the hospital, threw the book on his bed, and said, “I think we should make this.” And the making of Raging Bull, with a screenplay further sculpted by Mardik Martin (Mean Streets [1973]), became therapy and rebirth for the filmmaker.

Raging Bull is the most painful and heart-rending portrait of jealousy in the cinema—an Othello for our times. It’s the best film I’ve seen about the low self-esteem, sexual inadequacy, and fear that lead some men to abuse women. Boxing is the arena, not the subject. LaMotta was famous for never being knocked down in the ring. There are scenes where he stands passively, his hands at his side, allowing himself to be hammered. We sense why he didn’t go down. He hurt too much to allow the pain to stop.

All in all: very insightful, almost a little too much for me, who’s not a film critic or someone who’s that deep into film. Still, Ebert a perfect juxtaposition to Anthony Lane’s brilliant collection of his own reviews, titled “Nobody’s Perfect”.

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