I have been meaning to write a post about Netflix and how it’s shaping (and possibly distorting) our perception of film history. But Matt singer essentially wrote it anyway, so I would just go read his piece instead. (Especially since he’s much more succinct than I would have been.)
I might have additional thoughts to add at some point. But no promises.
[Breaking Bad spoilers below]
“Ozymandius,” the most recent episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, continued the gut-wrenching, emotional turmoil that’s been the hallmark of nearly every episode this final half-season. The complete dissolution of Walter White’s hopes and dreams finds its ultimate manifestation in the collapse of his family, or at least the family unit as imagined by Walt. His brother-in-law is dead, his surrogate son hauled off to torture, and his wife and son allied against him and his “plans.” The impulsive, sickening decision for Walt to kidnap his daughter, however briefly, marks him as irrevocably out of the family structures that he has professed, since the start of the show, to be so important to him. Even his money his gone, taken from him by the demonic embodiment of all of Walt’s latent racist, patriarchal dreams in the form of Todd, Uncle Jack, and the neo-Nazis (a kind of Bizarro White family, stricken of scruples or conventional morality).
In an episode with maybe a half dozen signature moments – the death of Hank, Walt’s spiteful confession to Jesse about Jane, Flynn learning about his father’s drug business, that final phone call – the most terrifying to me was the knife fight between Walt, Skylar, and Flynn in their living room. Walt tries to force everyone to pack and quickly leave the house, but his powers of persuasion are depleted and his family can only respond to him with fear and mounting anger. (Skylar’s “Where’s Hank?” taking on the familiar anxiety and intensity of that famous scene in The Wire, while Flynn’s “What? Uncle Hank is dead?”, delivered quickly and off-camera, captures the shock and horror upon hearing the unexpected death of a loved one better than any other scene I can recall.) It all culminates with Skylar picking up a knife and attacking Walt. The struggle, which moves back and forth between Walt vs. Skylar and Walt vs. Flynn, ends with Skylar and Flynn allied against Walt and is finally halted with a quickly placed 9/11 call. (“He attacked my mom,” Flynn says to the operator, which is only untrue in the most literal sense.) The whole sequence is shot masterfully by Riann Johnson, with that knife seemingly slashing closer and closer to the camera.
Thinking over the episode today, it struck me that the entire sequence bore a great deal of resemblance to the climax of Bigger Than Life, Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film about dying schoolteacher Ed Avery, played by James Mason, who takes some experimental drugs and transforms into a domestic tyrant. With the exception of taking drugs versus making drugs, that plot description sounds, of course, remarkably like Breaking Bad. In both cases, the story examines a “typical suburban family,” and peels back the layers of patriarchal control that keeps the whole system running to reveal the angry, oppressive core beneath.
Francois Truffaut made the critical point about Bigger Than Life in 1957: “The cortisone [the drug he takes] wasn’t responsible for Avery’s megalomania; it simply revealed it,” and Jonathan Rosenbaum has written that, “The madness of Ed Avery…is the madness of America writ large.” The same has been said of Breaking Bad, despite the objections of fans who think Heisenberg is “badass” and can’t wait for Walt to “win.” Or, if not that stark, to at least “redeem” himself with some last minute heroics and perhaps a final sacrifice. There seems to be an inevitable draw to root for the male protagonist in these types of stories, even if they represent everything wrong about our culture’s social priorities. As Linda Holmes wrote today for NPR, that’s pretty much bullshit:
It’s the hypnotic magic of this show that anybody would sit around parsing the goodness or badness of Walt’s behavior in making that phone call in the same episode in which he sent Jesse off to be tortured and murdered. This, I believe, is the frame. Whether it began this way or not, the frame has become, in part, the what are we doing? of antihero stories. What are we doing? Why are we picking apart how bad, how wrong, how evil is a guy who has killed or caused to be killed all manner of people?
Likewise, when watching Bigger Than Life I become increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect that Avery will be cured of his madness and that the family will be reconciled. After all, if this is who he really is, why would you want to live with this man anymore? The film does end on a note of reconciliation but, like so many films from classical Hollywood that have pat happy endings, it doesn’t leave you feeling very reassured. Avery hugs his wife and son in the hospital room, but what happens when they have to go home again?
Part of that unease comes from the immediately preceding scene, a horrific plunge into the depths of American anger and violence at mid-century. If Bigger Than Life has been described as “Leave It Beaver goes to hell,” this is why. Avery, increasingly frustrated that his son is not living up to his expectations, finally catches the boy attempting to steal his medicine (presumably to destroy it and restore his father to sanity). Avery, who is like Walter White a very smart man who uses his intelligence to twist others to his will, sends his son to his room and then reads his wife the story of Abraham and Isaac. He explains to her that God asked Abraham to murder Isaac, and that this display of justice in the face of presumed disobedience now needs to be re-enacted. The reasonining is totally illogical, but as delivered by Mason there is a seductive persuasiveness to it. Of course, his wife pleads by noting that God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, to which Avery responds, “God was wrong.”
And so the American patriarch becomes the Old Testament diety himself, doling out judgment based on his own whims and sense of indignation. Avery sticks his wife in the closet and rushes up the stairs to murder his son, but fortunately at the final moment their friend and neighbor Wally (Walter Matthau) bursts into the house, and he and Avery have an intense fight on the house’s central staircase, tearing it apart before finally ending with Avery defeated.
The knife fight scene in Breaking Bad and the staircase fight in Bigger Than Life have obvious differences: Walt is attempting to save his family, not destroy it, and the outcome of Breaking Bad‘s fight is the horrific moment when Walt kidnaps his younger daughter. This fight will not lead to Walt’s redemption or rehabiliation. Both scenes, however, use the space of the home as a central feature. In Bigger Than Life, the staircase is the home’s most important element, binding its rooms and the family itself together. Its destruction seems to mark an inevitable break at the very core of the family unit. Walt’s house does not have stairs, but the central hallway operates in a similar way, a location that both connects the family and helps to keep them separated into their private spaces. After all the secrets Walt has kept within that house for so long, it is appropriate that this struggle begins in the physical nexus of those lies. That the fight then spills into the living room (as Avery and Wally’s fight falls off the staircase and into the foyer) brings the conflict out into the open, where its consequences and repercussions will reverberate for another two episodes.
I have no idea whether Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, episode writer Moira Walley-Beckett, or director Riann Johnnson were thinking about Bigger Than Life at all during the production of this episode. I doubt they were, at least explicitly. But it’s still noteworthy how the home in both cases becomes the site of violence, and specifically a violence that exposes the very real patriarchal rage that the family unit is designed to both protect and keep under a semblance of control. What are Walter White and Ed Avery ultimately angry about, after all? In both cases, it’s that the world has not treated them the way they expect, and so they react by doubling down on a sense of aggrieved masculinity they’ve always carried with them anyway. Avery and his family, at least, are allowed the illusion of a return to normalcy. I very much doubt any such domestic fantasy awaits Walt.
Perhaps you are heading to the beach this Labor Day weekend? Perhaps you aren’t, because man was not meant to risk death and swim in Earth’s vast oceans? Either way, you might find yourself sitting around looking at your Netflix options and wondering what to watch. Never fear, for I have assembled a quick list of work-themed films available on Netflix (and other streaming services) that you can use to program your own private, Netflix mini-film festival. Because what better way to celebrate Labor Day than to watch movies about work?
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
A recent addition to Netflix’s catalogue, Zodiac is the story of the failed investigation into the Zodiac killings in San Francisco in the 1970s. “Failed” is the key word. This is a movie about procedure, often painstakingly detailing the work done by the police and journalists on the case. The characters swirl seemingly closer and closer to a solution but never quite get there. It remains David Fincher’s best film, a portrait of obsession and paranoia that marries form and content in a genius if maddening way.
Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)
Options for John Ford films on Netflix are very limited (an issue I plan to write about in the near future), though The Grapes of Wrath, which is also available, would seem like the obvious choice for this list. Nevertheless Young Mr. Lincoln, while not be about “work” in the same obvious way as Grapes of Wrath, is, like Zodiac, a film about process and investigation. If the crimes of Fincher’s film destroy the men who work on it, Lincoln’s defense of some innocent country folk in a murder trial does the opposite and builds the future president into the man he needs to be. Last year’s Lincoln, also about procedure and legacy, is a direct response to this one in many ways. (Spielberg seems to be going through a John Ford phase at the moment.) Henry Fonda as Lincoln deserves at least half of Day-Lewis’s Oscar.
Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2011)
I’ve written about this one before, but seriously, you need to watch it if you haven’t. It was the most fun film of last year, even if in some ways the most depressing. (Actually, I suppose that honor goes to Amour.) Work as life. Reality as performance. It’s an ode to cinema, too, but even more so it’s about the power of the imaginative to shape our selves, for good or ill.
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
Our third film about a crime. One of the classic noirs, and the pre-eminent example of a film where a man attempts to escape a hated job by using said job as part of a scam. In this case, that job is selling insurance, and the scam involves Fred MacMurray helping Barbara Stanwyck bump off her husband. It all falls apart, of course, but in glorious fashion thanks to Edward G. Robinson. You can’t con your way out of your job; your job will get you in the end.
Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
What is Labor Day without some good old-fashioned workers’ revolt? This story about a factory strike doesn’t match the formal brilliance and emotional crescendos of Eisenstein’s Potemkin, made later that year, but it still includes some great sequences, such as the factory riot and subsequent crackdown. (That poor baby.) A more obviously didactic film than Potemkin, it also includes a more honest ending: the workers slaughtered, literally, like cattle. Like Double Indemnity, probably not a film worth emulating in the office.
Barton Fink (The Coen Brothers, 1991)
The lesson of a number of these films seem to be: work will make you crazy. Perhaps there is no better example than Barton Fink, written by the Coen Brothers when they were stuck in an epic writers’ block while working on Miller’s Crossing. Part satire of Hollywood, part allegory of the Holocaust, and part dramatization of the egomania and neuroses brought on by the creative process, it remains one of the Coens’ weirder creations. It’s buoyed, however, by some fabulous performances, especially John Goodman as the friendly traveling salesman cum Satan. “I will show you the life of the mind.” Indeed. Back to work…
Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a 3-D film without having been shot in 3-D. Perceptions of visual depth and breadth are key to the film’s narrative and thematic progression, but it’s not just important how space in used in the film but how the characters and the audience interact and understand them. Sound acts as a particularly important resource for how this space is controlled. One is used to control the other, though ultimately it is mastery of visual space that allows the characters to resist the power wielded by speech. The film traces a power struggle between husband and wife not through psychology or emotion or even violence, but through the dominance and control the characters are able to exert over these two elements, the two foundational senses of the cinema.
The film links space and speech early on. Spica, the thief of the title, hardly stops talking the entire film. His endless prattle, complaining about and mocking nearly everything and everyone around him, is entrancing, even horrifying, and the audience is forced to account for his presence as much due to his speech as with his position in the frame. People listen to him (though often reluctantly) and allow him to run things seemingly because they can’t get a word in edgewise.*
* He does display acts of physical cruelty, including in the opening scene, though these acts of actual violence become much more necessary as the film goes on and his power begins to wane. For the first half, Spica’s power is almost all vocal.
Spica’s authority is reflected in the film’s shot compositions. At the restaurant, he appears like Christ in Leonardo’s The Last Supper (deliberately, of course, especially given Greenaway’s interest in Renaissance painting):
Note the red column behind him, as if Spica is holding up the restaurant with his head. As he talks, Spica is usually placed at the center of things, not just the focus of attention but in the seat of power.
But how much of his power is real, and how much of it is based on momentary control over the visual and auditory elements around him? The introduction of the restaurant itself begins to provide an answer, though it takes some time for its broader implications to become clear. The set appears laid out in a horizontal line, stretching from a loading dock behind the kitchen to the front dining room. The camera tracks with Spica and his entourage as they pass through, the sort of traditional establishing scene meant to make you feel that you have a good grasp of the location’s geography. The restaurant feels large and open, albeit with lots of human activity and an elaborate set design. It’s a busy set but easily navigable in two dimensions with very little three-dimensional depth. By the time the camera reaches Spica’s table, you’ve received a solid orientation of the place. You know how all the pieces of the restaurant fit together, and that we will be observing our characters in the sort of shot seen above, their relationships clear based on the shot’s composition.
This is similar to the kinds of compositions favored by Wes Anderson, who also frames his subjects and locations in flat, often theatrical, spaces, often as part of similar-looking tracking shots. But where Anderson sets up visual space as a framework for investigating character, as if laying them out for examination, Greenaway investigates the space itself. For it becomes clear, not too far into the film, that the restaurant does, in fact, have three dimensions. Within it are many nooks and crannies, rooms and corridors and hideaways away from the straight, horizontal lines we’re initially presented with. Away from Spica’s gaze and speech.
The power of speech to offer a degree of independence becomes more pronounced as the characters weave through the film’s architecture, with Michael and Georgina gaining more lines and more autonomy as they find ways to get away from Spica’s dominance.
Since his speech cannot be directly opposed, it is only by finding and colonizing their own private space that Georgina and Michael can have their affair. These spaces are fragile, obviously, constantly under threat of being discovered by Spica. But away from him they are able to start speaking to one another, building their own reserve of strength, offering up some kind of resistance.
(Music is an important site of resistance, too, boiling underneath the action, building, and finally exploding at the film’s climax. The singing kitchen boy also provides a sonic counerpoint to Spina from the very start of the picture.)
Late in the film, they are able to escape from the restaurant entirely and hide out in Michael’s apartment, where for once Spica has absolutely no control. At about this time Spica’s grasp over his own authority begins to fade. Underlings begin to speak up, Spica’s balanced shot compositions are thrown off, and other characters begin to step into visual spaces where they are the ones in control.
Spica will reassert his control violently and ironically. When Michael is killed, Spica stuffs pages from his books down his throat, simultaneously silencing him and drowning him in words. But it won’t last. The damage is done: the power of sound and space are transferred from Spica to those he has abused. In the final scene Spica is completely stripped of visual and auditory dominance. He is isolated at the front of the dining room (which he enters though a door he had never used until then) and up against the full cast of wronged characters who have taken over the restaurant and its menu. He is also silenced, not through force but through a visual horror. He has lost control of sight and sound, and thus of the movie.
Cook, Thief is a great distillation of and metaphor for cinematic craft, using the audio/visual as the metric for and means by which stories, characters, plots, themes, etc. are measured and judged. t’s a highly stylized film, obviously, but that only helps to highlight the film’s symbolic project. Power in Cook, Thief lies in the hands of the ones who control the cinema.
…because hopefully blogging will soon be resuming. New fatherhood has unsurprisingly limited my time to everything except the basics of my own survival, though our family is now on something of a schedule (and we are returning to work) so it will actually be easier for me to find time to write.
(Unexpectedly, I have been able to watch a fairly healthy number of films the past few months, since it’s about the only thing to do when holding a baby at 2:00 in the morning, especially when that baby needs white noise to fall asleep. Some of these I’ve chronicled on Letterboxd, but hardly all. There are a few things I’ve seen that I’d like to talk about here in the coming weeks.)
Here’s some pieces, most half-finished or otherwise sitting in a draft folder, that you can expect to see soon:
- A short post on Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover, the most recent of the films I’d plan to write about as part of the Streaming Project
- A review of Glenn Frankel’s book about the pre-history and production of The Searchers
- Some thoughts on developing auteurist cinephilia through the use of streaming services
- An essay on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which I recently watched for the first time on Blu-ray
Obviously, some of these posts expand beyond the original mission statement of this blog, but as my time is fairly limited I’d rather write about things I’m currently thinking about than try to wait to come up with “on topic” posts.
Monkey Business could almost be a horror movie. A slightly different point-of-view and it’s virtually The Fly. (Yes, Cronenberg is still on my mind.) Instead of bodily disgust, however, the horror of the film is found in the loss of self, or rather at the loss of a mature self. The horror of youth is not that it’s an unknowable force threatening to overwhelm and destroy you (no clash of generations here); the horror of youth is that it is knowable, that we’ve been there, it was embarrassing, and we can’t remain functioning adults by returning to it.
It’s a horror over our own fragile autonomy. But losing control over oneself can either be tragic or hilarious, and for Hawks this time it’s hilarious. Monkey Business is a comedy because, as is often the case with Hawks, the horror of the situation gives way to the saving power of the group, the community. In the case of Monkey Business, even though there is a larger community of scientists, secretaries, and bureaucrats, the real group at the heart of the story is that of a married couple, Barnaby and Edwina.
The exploration of that marriage – Cary Grant’s absent-minded but brilliant chemist and Ginger Rogers’ patient and level-headed wife – raises the film up to something special in Hawks’s oeuvre. Ranking Hawks’s comedies is difficult and ultimately not really useful, but in general I prefer those where the central relationship is pre-established to those where the relationship is brand new and developed over the course of the film. (I’d include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the former category, as the central relationship is between Dorothy and Lorelei, not between the girls and any of the men.) This is just a personal preference, and it certainly doesn’t make a film like Ball of Fire less great, but I’d rather a film explore a relationship than create one.
Romantic comedies, including many great ones, tend to rely on the “getting together” setup. After all, marriage (or some sense of permanent coupling) is an effective and time-tested way of ending a story. Even a film like His Girl Friday, which draws most of its comedy out on how well Hildy knows Walter and what she expects him to do, is able to end its plot this way by allowing its separated couple to reunite. (David Bordwell called this the “getting back together” plot, and was quite common in the 1940s.)
Monkey Business is thus somewhat unique in that Barnaby and Edwina start and end the film a happily married couple, and the plot does not create tension out of whether or not they’ll stay together. It’s perfectly clear to the audience, even when Edwina kicks Barnaby out of their hotel room in hysterics, that they’re a good fit and aren’t going to be splitting up.
So the whole conflict – the whole comedy – of this film is not in what will happen to Barnaby and Edwina’s relationship but how that relationship will respond the loss of control and autonomy of adulthood. What happens when a marriage – the most quintessential of adult relationships – becomes uncontrollably childish?
Like I said, it’s often quite horrifying: Barnaby and Edwina become rude, inconsiderate, spiteful, and sometimes downright cruel. And it’s not a Jekyll and Hyde transformation, either.* They aren’t becoming different people so much as less sophisticated versions of the same people. Thus, when Barnaby inquires as to whether Edwina really did kiss Hank Entwhistle (and begins to worry about her continued affections for him), his anxiety is not unfounded. He really does have some jealousy issues to work out. Likewise, Edwina truly feels that Barnaby may not fully respect her and may even look down on her. They may act irrational while using the formula but their feelings are still real.
The film doesn’t go in for a cheap ending, either, in which Barnaby and Edwina definitively resolve all of these problems. Drinking the formula is an enlightening experience but it doesn’t (indeed, it can’t) actually fix Barnaby and Edwina’s underlying issues. It can only make them aware of those problems; working them out is a long process which will never really be finished. That’s what Monkey Business gets right about marriage: it isn’t the “end” of a love story, as in so many films, but an ongoing one. Coming up against the limits of your own commitment just means that you can continue onward with each other wiser and better prepared, if still growing and evolving.
In the film’s final scene, Barnaby and Edwina are still married and in love, and they’re still basically the same couple we met in the film’s first scene. Their biggest change is that they are more aware of their own limits, as individuals and as a couple, and how maturity and shared experience is key to maintaining their own happiness and sense of self. The film’s general silliness, and the presence of an up-to-no-good animal, certainly makes Money Business feel like a cousin of sorts to Bringing Up Baby, but it’s a much more mature film, a romantic comedy that actually explores a living, evolving romance between adults.
*Actually, this is a cliche and not really fair to Stevenson’s original novella, in which it’s made quite clear that Hyde is not a different person than Jekyll but merely his own worst instincts freed from the constraints of upper class, Victorian gentility. Very much like Monkey Business.
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.