The foreword by David Bordwell to
The Great Movies III
by Roger Ebert
ForewordRoger Ebert has won a readership paralleled by no other film critic in history. His devoted audience numbers in the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands. A visit to the Commentary section of his blog shows that he has attracted articulate, thoughtful readers of all ages. They find his writing—not only his film writing but also his essays on humor, science, and spirituality—little short of inspiring.
His endurance alone offers lessons in courage. Despite health problems that would lead most people to retirement, he has simply revved up. Apart from his usual reviewing, his attendance at film festivals and symposia, his coordination of an annual film festival, and globetrotting that would exhaust a youngster, he has managed to turn out another suite of essays on film classics—The Great Movies III.
Quantity isn’t all. You can argue that since his illness, Ebert’s writing has become even more relaxed, conversational, and brilliant. We are, I think it’s clear, watching a writer at the peak of his powers. But what accounts for his indelible appeal? I’d argue that he has become something unique: a “man of letters” whose voice comes from the world of cinema.
I apologize for the gender solecism, but “person of letters” sounds forced, and “littérateur” is too stiff. Traditionally, the man of letters was neither academic nor journalist. He was a deeply informed essayist, one who stepped back from the passions of the moment to understand, through his humane knowledge, the deeper impulses coursing through culture. Prototypically, this sort of intellectual came from the literary arts, as Hazlitt and De Quincy did, but Pater, Ruskin, and other critics furnish parallels in the visual arts, and of course we have Shaw on music and drama. In modern times, I’d add Dwight Macdonald and Lionel Trilling. The calling isn’t only masculine: we need think only of Susan Sontag and Angela Carter.
Ebert is the first “man of letters” I can think of whose insight is distilled not from book culture but from the most important art medium of the twentieth century. His ideas are steeped in cinema. Just as the traditional man of letters saw the world through the prism of book culture, Roger reflects on religion, history, and human relationships by means of what cinema has shown him of human life.
Not that Ebert disdains literary tradition; he is a voracious reader of fiction, history, and science (especially Darwinism), and he can deploy allusions with ease. But his frame of reference, I believe—so typical of the Movie Generation that emerged in the 1960s—is that of films and filmmakers. From this perspective, movies are more than entertainment, more even than exalting or disturbing works of art.
Taken in all their variety, films can shape our most fundamental feelings and guide us toward a deeper understanding of the world and our place in it. Movies constitute a shared culture, a kaleidoscopic filter through which life takes on fresh meanings. This is the sensibility that, in my opinion, forms the framework of the Great Movies collections.
Ebert would probably reply that he is centrally a journalist: tied to the moment, paced for deadlines, writing for people who want informed opinion about what’s playing this weekend. But he’d have to admit that he has also written extended essays that were more than ephemeral “think pieces.” The Great Movies anthologies go further, into the classic realm of the occasional essay, where the man of letters really gets to show his stuff.
The essays in all three volumes are belletristic in the best sense. A particular film is at once an artwork to be interpreted and an experience to be evoked on the page. Historical and personal background is smoothly integrated into a survey of key instants onscreen, and these are delineated with a crispness that can make your scalp prickle. This is appreciative, celebratory criticism at its best. Read one of these essays, and you want to see the film immediately, even if you’ve seen it many times before.
At the level of analytical commentary, Ebert can summon up a scene in a sentence. He has sharp eyes and ears. He notices details in the background of shots; he can specify a director’s compositional strategies. (The rest of us have to use frame stills.) He cuts to the heart of a movie by quoting a line. In Rebel Without a Cause, everybody remembers the moment when James Dean cries out to his bickering parents: “You’re tearing me apart!” But we remember it because it’s a cliché. Ebert reminds us of what follows, a more eccentric line that mirrors Jim’s adolescent confusion: “You say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again.” And this detail moves Ebert into considered reflection on how this scene and others like it open onto a malaise that goes deeper than 1950s suburban discontent, a glimpse of an existential doubt that life itself means anything.
This yawning uncertainty yields a movie that is compelling in its (probably unintentional) disjunctions. “Like its hero, Rebel Without a Cause desperately wants to say something and doesn’t know what it is. If it did, it would lose its fascination.” Ebert is alert to such tensions, finding them in The Big Red One, The Red Shoes, The Scarlet Empress, and other classics. Along with celebrating formal perfection, Ebert acknowledges that ambitious films often unleash impulses that they can’t contain. The discordances demand that we think through the implications of what we’re seeing.
Again and again, then, powerful ideas arise from Ebert’s exploration of the world offered onscreen. He assumes that a great film will, directly or tacitly, raise permanent concerns about love, trust, moral commitment, and death. Most obviously, there are the Bergman films, which always put ultimate issues at their center. These tease Ebert into some of his most eloquent writing. “The events in Fanny and Alexander may be seen through the prism of the children’s memories, so that half-understood and half-forgotten events have been reconstructed into a new fable that explains their lives.”
Likewise, Welles has never shirked a chance to explore issues of deep concern to human life. For Ebert, Chimes at Midnight is not only a supreme work of Welles’s late years; it’s also an autobiographical testament and a meditation on power and loyalty. For Ebert, Welles treats Shakespeare’s play as setting Falstaff’s unsparing vitality against the compromises of political responsibility.
But less solemn work stirs Ebert to thought as well. Groundhog Day, which seems to be admired by every person I sit beside on a plane, provokes Ebert to some unique observations. Bill Murray, he points out, not only makes the film wonderful: “He does a more difficult thing, which is to make it bearable.” Ebert goes on to describe the actor’s “detached melancholy”: “He is deeply suspicious of joy, he sees sincerity as a weapon that can be used against him . . . Hamlet in a sitcom world.” From this Ebert moves smoothly to contemplate the film as “a parable for our materialistic age,” an anti–New Age vision of a spirituality that doesn’t come easily. Instead of a happy ending, the film offers a hero who remains flawed: “He becomes a better Phil, not a different Phil.”
In the nineteenth century, literature offered itself as the central art for making sense of history, society, and personal relationships. Art, said Zola, was nature seen through a temperament. We learned to call a personal problem Jamesian in its intricacy, or to label a friend as straight out of Dickens or Jane Austen. Accordingly, the man of letters delicately traced the interface between modern life and the arts dedicated to interpreting it. But movies—and here’s another gospel of the Film Generation—furnish our culture’s touchstones. Now we recognize another person as Rupert Pupkin or Alvy Singer; a faculty meeting reminds us of the Marx Brothers or The Godfather. Once, at a committee meeting, I said of a project: “I have a bad feeling about this.” Immediately a colleague said: “That’s the first time I heard you quote Star Wars.” I had no idea I was doing it.
Ebert understands that movies have become our lingua franca, our window and rangefinder and microscope. By thinking hard about them, he shows us how the pleasures and challenges of cinema open us up to wisdom. The great movies both teach and please, and each anchors us so firmly in its coordinates that we see our ornery world, for the moment, transformed into something bright, sharp, and comprehensible.
Pervaded by the love of film and the love of ideas, Ebert’s Great Movies essays do what one variety of belletristic writing has always done. They trigger unexpected thought with a minimum of apparent effort. Chiseled aperçus lead to deeper enjoyment and greater reflection on how the world would look if the artwork’s premises were perfectly universal. This may be a lot to hang on a batch of film essays, but I think that their blend of incisiveness, lack of pretension, and open-hearted celebration fully warrant it. Roger Ebert demonstrates that film viewing, undertaken with zest, opens a path to understanding life.