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How It’s About It: A Tribute to Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” Column

Note: After posting my review of Holy Motors and Cosmopolis over the weekend, I tweeted: “Latest review is on HOLY MOTORS & COSMOPOLIS. But, writing it after news of his death, it’s sort of about Ebert, too.” I wrote most of it on Friday and Ebert’s death was weighing heavily, which explains that review’s somewhat melancholy tone, so I wanted to elaborate on those feelings a little. It’s become clear how important Ebert was to so many people who write about films, and this is my own modest recollection of one of Ebert’s more influential columns.

I was twelve-years old the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, on a rented VHS in my grandparents’ family room. After the closing image of the star child, as the credits began rolling over the sound of the “Blue Danube,” I was dumbstruck. What was that?, I thought. Where was the astronaut going? What’s the deal with the giant black tablet? Why were there monkeys in the beginning? How did the evil computer connect to all of it?

I stopped the tape and immediately rewound the last thirty minutes. I rewatched them carefully, looking for some detail, some clue I’d missed that would explain everything. But when I got to the end a second time, I was still confused.

I turned to my grandfather and said, “I have no idea what just happened.” He shrugged and tapped his feet to Strauss’s waltz.

I needed to find another source for an explanation. In the late 90s, there were already many film sites online, but only one that I could reliably turn to that wrote about older films with depth, authority, and insight. That, of course, was Roger Ebert’s website, which posted his weekly reviews of new releases along with his “Great Movies” column. Those were retrospective reviews that, beginning in 1997, allowed Ebert the opportunity to write about a wide variety of classic and canonized films.

As many people have testified in the days since his death, Ebert – both in his onscreen debates with Gene Siskel and in print – was a sharp and witty film critic, with a deep sense of film history and an endlessly optimistic outlook on film culture. He shaped a generation of film lovers and writers. For me personally, his “Great Movies” were his greatest gift. With over 15 years of reviews and three books, they acted as a proto-film school for an Internet-age cinephilia.

His review of 2001 was typical. Highly engaging and sensitive to the film’s central concerns, it startled me almost as much as the film itself. Offering only a rudimentary analysis of the plot, Ebert instead explained how the film’s story was far less important than its sounds and images. He described the film’s premiere in L.A., which he attended:

The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected. The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.

What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it — not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.

2001 was not the narrative adventure film I had expected. It was something else entirely. With that review, I learned that film could be more than simply “plots on screen,” and the rest of his “Great Movies” elaborated on that theme. It’s easy now to understand, for example, that “’Citizen Kane’’ knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means,” but that’s an invaluable insight when you’re is twelve and trying to wrap your mind around how a film can be “about” something without, in fact, actually being about it.

I became addicted to the “Great Movies” column. Ebert’s impressions became my impressions, my first way of learning and thinking about classic films. The reviews were never convention-busting contrarianism. They tended to take a fairly traditional approach to the movies reviewed, recalling their iconic moments and offering the emotional recreation of a cinematic experience that Ebert was famous for. The insights could be small, such as how Ebert recalled the way Marlon Brando played with Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront, or celebratory, such as his description of Donald O’Connor’s “Make it Laugh” number in Singin’ in the Rain.

When I could, after reading an Ebert review I would go to Blockbuster and rent it. My film options in suburban Philadelphia were limited, though back in the late 90s and early 00s, Blockbuster was still giving significant floor space to classic and foreign films. However, the selection was still spotty, and if a movie wasn’t there and wasn’t on cable it was usually years before I would finally get a chance to watch it.

For these unseen films, Ebert’s reviews only became more important and entrenched in my memory. I didn’t see Nashville or The 400 Blows until college, but Ebert wrote so evocatively about them I often felt like I had (Altman’s film is “a tender poem to the wounded and the sad”; in Truffaut’s movie, “Little is done in the film for pure effect. Everything adds to the impact of the final shot. “) And when I finally did, I wasn’t disappointed. Even when I would later read about the same films from other critics, Ebert’s impressions remained a kind of talisman, the gold standard of what the film was and what I could expect.

Some of his insights have stuck so forcefully in my mind I think of them every time I watch a film. Take his review of City Lights, where Ebert described the final reunion between the tramp and the flower girl:

The last scene of “City Lights” is justly famous as one of the great emotional moments in the movies; the girl, whose sight has been restored by an operation paid for by the Tramp, now sees him as a bum–but smiles at him anyway, and gives him a rose and some money, and then, touching his hands, recognizes them. “You?” she asks on the title card. He nods, tries to smile, and asks, “You can see now?” “Yes,” she says, “I can see now.” She sees, and yet still smiles at him, and accepts him. The Tramp guessed correctly: She has a good heart, and is able to accept him as himself.

It’s a simple account of a powerful scene, a scene so iconic it should transcend any mere description. But as much as that scene belongs to Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill, for me it will always and irrevocably be Ebert’s scene, too

Or consider his criticism about the ending of Psycho. Ebert wrote that he wished he could re-edit it, so that he would,

…include only the doctor’s first explanation of Norman’s dual personality: “Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half existed to begin with. And now, the other half has taken over, probably for all time.” Then I would cut out everything else the psychiatrist says, and cut to the shots of Norman wrapped in the blanket while his mother’s voice speaks.

Ebert’s more succinct, less psychoanalytic ending is so much stronger, I can’t ever watch Psycho without mentally editing it that way myself.

Even when I disagreed with Ebert’s analysis of a Great Movie (which was fairly often), it was a productive disagreement that helped me understand those films better. In his review for The Searchers, for example, Ebert complained about what he saw as the film’s major flaw:

The film within this film involves the silly romantic subplot and characters hauled in for comic relief, including the Swedish neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen), who uses a vaudeville accent, and Mose Harper (Hank Worden), a half-wit treated like a mascot. There are even musical interludes. This second strand is without interest, and those who value ”The Searchers” filter it out, patiently waiting for a return to the main story line.

That’s wrong: those scenes are crucial to The Searchers. Comical, yes, but they must be as they focus on the society being built in Ethan and Martin’s absence. Indeed, sequences about the “community,” especially as they exist outside or apart from the main plot, are crucial to Ford’s filmography in general. The Searchers isn’t just about a man on a quest, but about the society he leaves behind, his separation from it, and ultimately, his inability to ever be a part of it.

But that’s an insight that, while central to understanding the film, probably would have taken me longer to articulate without Ebert’s own review to engage with. Indeed, the skill of looking past the plot in an effort to figure out a film’s real concerns and pleasures is classic Ebert. His reviews shaped my preconceptions, and it was useful to find those same preconceptions challenged by the films themselves.

His “Great Movie” columns weren’t full of generic, Oscar-approved, commercially-successful films, either. Yes, the majority of them were from Hollywood (though it was a diverse mix), but he always championed a large number of important foreign films, too. He covered most of the great mid-century European directors, filmmakers from Japan and China, Russian and German silents, animation, documentary, and more. I first heard about most of the important titans of world cinema through Ebert.

Even today, with a wealth of critical resources at my disposal, I still often check Ebert’s “Great Movies” after watching or re-watching a classic film. As recently as last week, I re-watched Mean Streets and immediately went to Ebert’s website afterwards to see what he had to say about it.

My reaction to Ebert’s “Great Movies” is partially a result of youth. Other cinephiles, encountering Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris or Manny Farber at an impressionable age might also be unable to separate certain films and film experiences from the voices of those critics. So it was that Ebert and his “Great Movies” played an outsized influence on the development of my cinephilia in my formative years. There’s a joke that all philosophy is just footnotes to Plato. Even though there were plenty of others before Ebert, for me and, I imagine, many other cinephiles my age, film criticism feels like a conversation he started.

At the end of his review of 2001, Ebert writes that:

 “2001: A Space Odyssey” is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.

This is how I feel about criticism, too. It’s far more than plots and characters and evaluation. It’s about trying to reach behind the surface of a film to talk about how a film works and why that should matter. Ebert’s gift was in quickly pushing through the surface and attacking those larger questions, and in his “Great Movies” he tackled them most eloquently. When he hit on something true – an image, a musical beat, a performance – it stayed with you.

My journey through cinema started with Ebert. He was my first guide and teacher, and I expect to be returning to his lessons for a long time.