Embracing the King
Bespectacled, gray-haired and chubby, Roger Ebert is a pop icon and possessor of the world’s most famous thumb. For years he’s cut studio behemoths down to size and plucked independent masterworks from obscurity. So it’s with no surprise that his latest book, The Great Movies II, is both brilliant and troubling; the showcase for his thumb as de facto movie opinion for everyday people.
Including such classics as Breathless and The Rules of the Game along with crowd-pleasers like A Christmas Story and Goldfinger, Ebert writes the rhapsody of a longtime movie fan. Also the screenwriter of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and published author of books like I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, he knows the guts of the film industry. Whenever offered, his first-hand impressions of productions, movie stars and trends are insightful and peerless. For proof, read his account of a visit to Franco Zeffirelli’s set for Romeo and Juliet.
So goes the good. As for the bad, his essays aren’t always compelling or even well written, as in The Unforgiven. This much casual page filling is hard to swallow, especially in light of the thousands of titles he’s seen that were distilled into this list of favorites.
In his original collection, The Great Movies, Ebert focused on titles that have long-defined the cinema. Considering pictures like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, La Dolce Vita, Metropolis, and The Wizard of Oz, he affirmed the existing canon while advancing the brand, Roger Ebert.
Not that a marketing slant is necessarily bad. The real problem is Ebert’s capacity, like Oprah Winfrey through her book club, to name what’s valuable by sheer force of personality and mass media exposure. Deferred to at once, Ebert’s preferences become absolute and unerring, all the more so because he’s humble and articulate, so much so that his introduction includes this simple sentence: We go to different movies for different reasons, and greatness comes in many forms.
The Great Movies II therefore exhibits these conflicting tendencies of a famed writer trying to reveal an original passion through 100 essays, each accompanied by black-and-white photos uncovered by Mary Corliss, former Assistant Film Curator of the now defunct Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive. The result isn’t a must have book, although it does stretch the idea of greatness and makes a viable case for the likes of Don’t Look Now, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Say Anything, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, among other unusual choices.
It goes without saying, but this book will sell. With insider scoop and pictures, it’s packaged well enough to attract the general public and offer apocryphal stories about life in the limelight. For true cinephiles it will also increase the number of titles on any fantasy screenings list, which, for me, now includes Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Gospel According to Matthew.
Through it all, Ebert plainly offers movieland’s foremost consumer report, acting in equal parts instructor, evaluator and benevolent father figure. Thus, he defies strict categorization as a journalist because he so totally extends beyond the veneer of objectivity to ultimately wallow in opinion.
As the first person to win the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, Ebert has spent years in newspaper publishing and he’s toiled through various television incarnations, beginning with Coming Soon to a Theater Near You in the 1970s. He’s a decorated journalist, sought-after pundit and occasional object of comic send-up but he remains a movie industry enigma. Short, fat and an advocate for thoughtful movie appreciation, heedless of passing years or the ravages of thyroid cancer, which he’s survived, his efforts, however noble, have here resulted in a book ultimately victimized by his fame.
The Great Movies II doesn’t collect consistently high-quality criticism and must therefore rely on the Ebert brand to land sales. So the trademarked right thumb looms large, an icon of our times, existing beyond the man who entered the mature stages of his career as an earnest movie buff, critic and screenwriter, and became an international phenomenon.