As I do most Sundays, I was perusing Roger Ebert's website yesterday morning and saw that the Great Movies section appears to be up and running again. Of course, this is great news. The column has been a staple in my online film reading for as long as I can remember. Running once every two weeks (with the Answer Man column appearing on alternate Sundays), the column features some of Ebert's best writing and film criticism as he reflects on cinematic treasures. His insights on individual films are unique, even subtle and are sufused with an extensive knowledge of film history and cinematic style. Unlike the lengthy analyses appearing in film journals or books, these columns can usually be read in less than 15 minutes and are smoothly written. This coupled with the aforementioned insights make the column an essential read, 26 Sundays a year. Another great aspect of the column is the unexpected nature of the selections. At first glance, it would seem that he adheres to your typical movie critic canon, with expected choices like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, It's a Wonderful Life, and others. But a closer look reveals that Ebert's tastes and sensibilities are very ecclectic, even brashly contrarian. On what other list will you find Saturday Night Fever just below Santa Sangre or Yojimbo right after Yellow Submarine?
This week's selection, Pan's Labyrinth is in some ways expected, due to his absence from reviewing when the film was releases last Winter. It might seem that the Great Movies column is appropriate for it because it would give him a chance to review the film (as he clearly loved it). But as with most of Ebert's criticism, there is more to this selection than might initially appear. Over the last month or two, Ebert has revisited some of bigger releases over the last year that he was not able to review during their release. These reviews, which include four-star reviews of The Departed, Zodiac, and Casino Royale, were not published in the great movies column, but instead ran alongside reviews for current films in release. While I have no inside information on this, I would guess that the choice to run the aforementioned reviews on the main page of rogerebert.com was to call readers' attention to the fact that Ebert has now officially reviewed several prominent movies of the last several months. Why not then go back and review dozens of late 2006 and early 2007 releases? Because it appears that Ebert is selectively choosing a couple of films that seem as though they will be "around for a while"; by this I mean that films like Casino Royale and The Departed are going to be analyzed and discussed for a long time to come and represent memorable artificats in mainstream American cinema while Ebert was gone. Of course, he can't go back and review them all, or even get to all of the similar memorable staples during his absense. But his reviews of these respective films represents an effort to record his own contribution to the dialogues about them.
So what does it mean to survery the collective interests in determining what will be discussed or deemed cinematically important, if not for quality but perhaps for influence? Difficult to say. It's more a guessing game that it seems. His initial three choices are rather safe (among them one best picture winner and an origin story for one of cinema's most influential characters), and I would expect that his reviewing such films does not continue for a whole lot longer, since he must commit the majority of his time on reviewing new films. Notably, Roger thought highly of all of the older films that he has reviewed, which I believe only includes The Departed, Casino Royale, and Zodiac (but I could be wrong), which is why it would seem appropriate that he would include his review of Pan's Labyrinth among this effort to survey "important" movies of the last year. Instead, his review of Guillermo Del Toro's film appears in the Great Movies column, which is typically grounds for established classics that have cemented themselves in his mind and that he has seen a number of times over the years. A curious choice, for sure, but one that I may understand.
Time plays a big role in cinema; both within it and outside it. I should note that I don't take the word "great" lightly. Like "classic" or "masterpiece", it's a term that suggests another level for a movie, one that can't really be determined based on a single (or even mutiple) viewing/s of a film, however much it may grab you or announce itself as great. Yes, these terms are broad and flimsy, and are rather empty without sufficient analysis and examination, but they wield great influence for both critics and readers, as the continued popularity of Top 100 movies lists suggests. As Edward Copeland notes in the regulations for his Non English-Language Films List, assessing cinema essentially requires the critic to really wrestle with the text before placing it among the pantheon of films that s/he has seen in many contexts and places in one's own life; these films show new colors each time, while unveiling new dimensions to old perspectives each time they are viewed. In that sense, time is required for any movie to be considered great or classic.
But in our experiences as critics, scholars, or film lovers, some movies ingrain themselves in our minds and souls, where they continue to live. Although once is never enough for any great movie, there are rare instances (which I find often depend upon the individual and her/his experiences with life and cinema) when we latch onto a movie when we first experience it. During these experiences, we can both be invovled in the immediate moment of the film's sensibilities, compositions, sights and sounds, while simultaneously recognizing that this movie's treasures --a few of which may be breached in that first viewing-- lay in store to be discovered in more detail on further viewings. It's a strange intuition, to know that a movie will stay with you and affect you so deeply in so many different ways, but it's one that I would guess every movie lover experiences every so often. For me, and I would guess Roger Ebert, Pan's Labyrinth is such a movie. In recognizing this, perhaps Ebert felt it necessary to place the film immediately among the many great films over the past 100-plus years.
I'm sure others would disagree, but my two viewings of the films suggest to me that Pan's Labyrinth deserves to stand among the best. Although I hope to someday examine the film from a variety of perspectives (I shared my initial thoughts here), I can now only observe those those intangible intuitions and feelings of how the experience of seeing that film (or any great film) can affect me so profoundly. Most great movies are in some form (albeit in very different ways) ruminations on the elusive human condition as manifest in visual narrative. In that sense, all great movies are reflexivse of some element of narrative or cinema, as narrative is one of the very few defining elements of humanity throughout all civilizations, right down to every individual. Narrative is apart of all of our lives, and, in the case of Pan's Labyrinth, we have narrative that is equally ethereal and brutally realistic. Some how, some way, Del Toro captures the fleeting feeling of that enraptured state that any person may find her/himself in while experiencing a narrative. The film juxtaposes two different worlds, the endless spectrum of imagination and the harsh reality of organized warfare and governmental control. The beauty of the film is not in how it separates these two worlds, but in how it brings them together, demonstrating their indelible influence upon one another.
Here is a short excerpt from Ebert's review of the film (the first and last paragraph -- it's up to you to read the rest!):
"Pan's Labyrinth" is one of the greatest of all fantasy films, even though it is anchored so firmly in the reality of war. On first viewing, it is challenging to comprehend a movie that on the one hand provides fauns and fairies, and on the other hand creates an inhuman sadist in the uniform of Franco's fascists. The fauns and fantasies are seen only by the 11-year-old heroine, but that does not mean she's "only dreaming;" they are as real as the fascist captain who murders on the flimsiest excuse. The coexistence of these two worlds is one of the scariest elements of the film; they both impose sets of rules that can get an 11-year-old killed.
What makes Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" so powerful, I think, is that it brings together two kinds of material, obviously not compatible, and insists on playing true to both, right to the end. Because there is no compromise there is no escape route, and the dangers in each world are always present in the other. Del Toro talks of the "rule of three" in fables (three doors, three rules, three fairies, three thrones). I am not sure three viewings of this film would be enough, however."
I'll just make a few more notes about Roger Ebert and the Great Movies column to wrap my thoughts on this...
I generally consider Roger Ebert the Steven Spielberg of film criticism inasmuch that he is often dismissed by his peers for being to "mainstream" but routinely offers subtle insights into filmmaking and film watching throughout his varied work. Yes, he plays by many of the rules (as one must do to thrive in the mainstream), but within those broadly familiar frameworks of informal, seemingly simple weekly reviews, he slides in subtleties that go unnoticed by those who only allows themselves to see the more conventional elements. Not all of his work is brilliant or cutting edge (but whose is?), which is tough considering that he reviews hundreds of films a year. Like the films themselves, his critical insights are not all poetic, incendiary, or great, but he maintains a level of consistent interest and quality in his work that is unparalleled by many, and very often offers sound, subtle, even sublime movie criticism.
Perhaps the most important lesson I've learned from Roger Ebert through his criticism is that any movie can be great, whether its about dueling spaceships or existential voids. Ebert's passionate writing about a diverse field of movies not only expresses his broad taste for storytelling, but also communicates his philosophy that cinema is a medium for all stories and that critics should never be above certain kinds of movies. Blockbusters or indies, new or old, greatness can be found in all corners of the medium, in all types of stories. No piece says this more than what is perhaps my favorite article by Ebert, which is a retrospective of the First 100. This article spoke to me 10 years ago, and (much like a great movie) continues to speak to me today, only in new ways. Here is an excerpt:
"I like to sit in the dark and enjoy movies. I think of old films as a resource of treasures. Movies have been made for 100 years, in color and black and white, in sound and silence, in wide-screen and the classic frame, in English and every other language. To limit yourself to popular hits and recent years is like being Ferris Bueller but staying home all day.
I believe we are born with our minds open to wonderful experiences, and only slowly learn to limit ourselves to narrow tastes. We are taught to lose our curiosity by the bludgeon-blows of mass marketing, which brainwash us to see "hits," and discourage exploration.
I know that many people dislike subtitled films, and that few people reading this article will have ever seen a film from Iran, for example. And yet a few weeks ago at my Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois, the free kiddie matinee was "Children of Heaven," from Iran. It was a story about a boy who loses his sister's sneakers through no fault of his own, and is afraid to tell his parents. So he and his sister secretly share the same pair of shoes. Then he learns of a footrace where third prize is . . . a pair of sneakers.
"Anyone who can read at the third-grade level can read these subtitles," I told the audience of 1,000 kids and some parents. "If you can't, it's OK for your parents or older kids to read them aloud--just not too loudly."
The lights went down and the movie began. I expected a lot of reading aloud. There was none. Not all of the kids were old enough to read, but apparently they were picking up the story just by watching and using their intelligence. The audience was spellbound. No noise, restlessness, punching, kicking, running down the aisles. Just eyes lifted up to a fascinating story. Afterward, we asked kids up on the stage to ask questions or talk about the film. What they said indicated how involved they had become.
Kids. And yet most adults will not go to a movie from Iran, Japan, France or Brazil. They will, however, go to any movie that has been plugged with a $30 million ad campaign and sanctified as a "box-office winner." Yes, some of these big hits are good, and a few of them are great. But what happens between the time we are 8 and the time we are 20 that robs us of our curiosity? What turns movie lovers into consumers? What does it say about you if you only want to see what everybody else is seeing?"
Below is a short list of some of my favorite Great Movies reviews over the years.
E.T. -- The Extra-Terrestrial
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Saturday Night Fever
Strangers On a Train
It's worth noting that I agree with Ebert that each one of these movies is indeed great, which would lead some to deduce that my love of Ebert's criticism is tied to the fact that I love his reviews I agree with. As I've noted before, sometimes I couldn't be in greater contrast with Roger regarding some movies (ahem, War of the Worlds!). But engaging criticism is not about agreeing with the critic. It's about learning and challenging one's own interpretation of a movie or understanding of movies. Why then do I highlight these movies? Because they represent a diverse collection of his writing that is personal, knowledgeable, poetic, sometimes even profoundly moving work about films I personally hold closely. That love or appreciation of these films was enhance, stretch, even challenge after reading his reflections. I believe that all of Ebert's best writing and critical qualities are contained in these reviews to varying degrees. For me, they highlight his flexibility and out-and-out quality as a film critic. His writing continually shows me that writing about cinema is both incredibly important and very personal. Nothing better sums up Ebert's place in film criticism than Jim Emerson's observation in May: "He's so very much more than the sum of this thumbs."
Now that I've showed you my list of favorite Great Movies, let's see yours.