Monday, August 27, 2007

Roger Ebert and his Great Movies

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 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.

Dark City
E.T. -- The Extra-Terrestrial
Groundhog Day
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Saturday Night Fever
Star Wars
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.


Jonathan Lapper said...

I agree that Pan's Labyrinth is an excellent movie but I certainly would have preferred he reviewed it first on his main page and give it a couple of years before putting it in the Great Movies section. However, given the life-changing events of Roger's life last year, perhaps he feels more than ever the mortality of his being, and feels that if he thinks a movie is great it should go on the list immediately because tomorrow never knows.

Pan's Labyrinth was a film that like most excellent films invited heated debate and the inevitable backlash of all those much wiser and more clever than we scurrying dum-dum lemmings, who pointed out to us how "awful" it "really" was. I read one review that must have spent an entire paragraph going over how "dumb" it was for Ophelia to eat the grapes when there were pictures showing the pale man eating people and when she had been warned not to. Oh my. The reviewer clearly does not have children. Anyone who has children, or even better, ever chaperoned a grade school outing, knows that children can be told not to do something ten times to the power of infinity and guess what? First opportunity they get, they do it. Ophelia sees pictures and has a warning. But guess what? She's a kid and when she sees an immobile sleeping man she thinks, "I'm hungry. I'll have a grape or two." It's all beside the point anyway because the whole film is about her choices, right or wrong, which this scene only illuminates and elaborates on further.

That said I have many favorite Ebert reviews from his Great Movies section and have the first two Great Movies books. I'm a huge Powell fan so I love his Colonel Blimp review. I also like his reviews of The Last Picture Show, The Wild Bunch, and Stroszek.

I actually didn't like his review of E.T. that much. I felt writing it as if talking to his two children when watching the movie was a little too cutesy. It didn't allow for insight into the film which is the main reason most of us read someone like Ebert - to gain his insights.

But that's a small quibble. Like you, I highly recommend anyone who has not yet done so to read as many of his reviews of great movies as you can. It's like a miniature course in film history.

Austintation said...

Firstly, I don't think Pan's Labyrinth is an excellent film and happen to think that Ebert's style has become self-parodied in recent years. Nevertheless, I've always been a fan of Great Movies and would define it as the purest representation of Ebert's talent as both a competent journalist and an extensive humanity (which is sort of his downfall as well). My favorites would be 'Saturday Night Fever' (for sentimentality, obviously), 'Story of Floating Weeds', 'Hoop Dreams', and 'My Neighbor Totoro'.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

Can't say I'm a fan of Pan's, either. Nor have I read Master Ebert in some time. I will say that he helped show me who Godard was back in the day when I saw Pulp Fiction and wanted to know what all the "theft" hubbub was about. Also, he pointed me towards Dekalog, which is much appreciated. He is a giant for a reason and I applaud his commitment, and desire, but I, like austintation above me, worry about the level of his game as of late. What's weird is that he basically picked the Best Picture winners a bunch of the recent years with his Top Ten lists.

Jonathan Lapper said...

While I obviously like Pan's Labyrinth more than Austintation and Ryland I want to reiterate that no matter how much you like it one shouldn't go putting it on a Great Movies list immediately following a first viewing. I've never known Ebert to do this before and given how much our perception of movies change in time it feels a bit like jumping the gun.

Besides there are so many great movies that have been around anywhere from a few years to several decades that he hasn't covered yet. It feels more important to me to get to those first and deal with anything in the 2000's ten years from now.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the comments, guys!

Jonathan, it's important to note that Ebert has seen the movie at least one before. I'm not sure if it was at Cannes or at another film festival mid-2006, but he did see it before his health complications. It couldn't have been much more than a year ago (year and a half, tops), but I'm sure he has seen the movie two times at the very least, possibly more.

I noted in my post that time is very important when assessing a movie's greatness, but I think there are certain movies (as I point out) that just stand out in our minds from the moment we see it, as if we know it will be one of those movies we remember through the years.

I had this experience watching Pan's Labyrinth, as I'm sure Ebert did as well. But I don't think he'd add a film to his great movies list unless he's seen it a few times and at least some time has gone by. How much time is needed is difficult to say. Often, we must come up with an arbitrary number of months or years when we form our own lists; who can say what's really a sufficient amount of time though. Sometimes, it depends on the movie.

These are really abstract concerns though. Nonetheless, this discussion raises many interesting points about time and film quality. I'd love for it to continue. The last time I had this experience with a movie (before Pan's was probably Lost in Translation, which is one of the most memorable theatrical experiences. To this day, I can remember where I was in my life when I saw the film, every emotion I was experiencing. The movie touched on some of these things, but I think it has more to do with becoming personally involved with a piece of cinema, and everything else around you seemingly disappearing for those hours, after which one feels illuminated.

Any films that hold that kind of significance for you, when it grabbed you from the start and has had a prominent place in your memory since?

Jonathan Lapper said...

Well, for me it's a lot of old movies so my list will be uninspiring. When I first saw many classic films I thought/knew they were great but maybe they didn't affect me deeply even as I recognized their brilliance. However, the first time I saw The Third Man I knew it was a film I would love and hold dear until the day I die. The zither music, the dutch angles, the shadows and that final, almost unendurable walk of Valli past Joseph Cotten in the films final shot took me to a level of movie loving heights that I have rarely had the pleasure of again.

Another film that felt much the same way to me was Touch of Evil, also finishing with a woman walking away after the death of a character played by Orson Welles.

Austintation said...

(apologies in a rush)

Firstly, I'll second 'Lost in Translation', however it was actually the later experiences with that film that had the greatest impact on me; it will probably be that one film that I'll always return to (you know?). Going back for 10 years:

07: --
06: Miami Vice
05: The New World
04: L'Intrus
03: Lost in Translation
02: --
01: Y Tu Mama Tambien
00: --
98: Eternity and a Day
97: Hana-Bi

Ryland Walker Knight said...

In regards to your question, much later, I submit this: I might write a book on INLAND EMPIRE.

Ted Pigeon said...

Jonathan: I felt the saame way about The Third Man. To this day, it's one of my very favorite films. As for Touch of Evil, may the cinema gods forgive me, but I only saw about the first half hour of the film. The greater crime: I own it! I need to see that as soon as possible. It'll have to wait a few weeks though since I'm trying to see as many non-English language films that I can for Edward Copeland's project. Today, I'll be viewing The Discreet Charme of the Bourgeousie. As you can probably tell, I have a lot of catching up to do.

Jeremy: As you well know, I am a huge advocate of Miami Vice. I'd say the experience of seeing that film in the theater was comparable to Lost in Translation. The images evoked so much in me; the combination of images and music in certain scenes (like the speed boat scene) enraptured me. The film is full of moments like that. The fact that I saw it by myself in a relatively empty theater may have also contributed to the full emotional spectrum of that experience.

Also, I have committed another crime against cinema... I have not seen a Terence Malick film. I am hoping to rectify that soon as well. I think I may start with The New World and work back. I am really looking forward to it though.

Ryland: I saw Inland Empire about a week and a half ago. I liked it in the immediate experience, but didn't love it. The first hour and a half, I was hooked by it, intoxicated by its seemingly random transitions and sumptuosly lit locales. But then as it neared the end, I was more perplexed by it than anything else. As I look back on it, I am more fond of it as a film and definitely want to see it again. So I would say in terms of the immediacy of seeing the film for the first time, only moments about it struck me in the way that the whole experience of say, Lost in Translation or Miami Vice did. But then again, maybe that's the whole point. I don't think it's going for what those films are with its narrative

Ryland Walker Knight said...

I saw it two days in a row when it played here in Berkeley. And I cried during the end credit dance party both times. It's messy, sure, but by what standard? My biggest issue right now is how we evaluate -- what's at stake in saying this is "good" or "great" or "terrible"? I mean, it's an odd impulse. I'm wary of all value judgments, to be honest, but for further honestly you need look no further than my reviews that I still subscribe to that practice.

Which is all to say INLAND EMPIRE is pure affect. No need to try to "make sense" of it.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

and, uh, yeah: malick = cinema.

Ted Pigeon said...

Perfectly stated, Ryland. By what standards are we measuring a movie when we slap it with a star rating or a "best picture" tag? What does all that mean anyway? Are we so influenced by their presence and structural framework that we can't think outside them? I think these questions are ones Lynch ponders in every composition of his cinema, no doubt. It's not just about cinema to him, but then again, I guess, it really is though.