Roger Ebert Was Tuned in to the Average Reader’s Frequency

The Great Movies IV may be thinner than its predecessors, but it's just as essential for fans of the late critic.

In the world of film criticism, no shadow looms larger than Roger Ebert. Whether through written review or his televised sparring with At The Movies co-host Gene Siskel, Ebert elevated the profession. He developed a trust with readers over four decades at The Chicago-Sun Times, where the force or grace of his opinion could determine a film’s mainstream success. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, and the first to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005. As “the most powerful pundit in America”, Ebert didn’t just advise his readers what to watch, he explained how to watch it.

The Great Movies IV is a wondrous reminder of this legacy. It compiles 62 of Ebert’s lengthier reviews, covering films from the silent era up to his death in 2013. Some are original pieces, while others, noted in the forward by editor Matt Zoller Seitz, are revised versions of earlier write-ups — a tidbit that Seitz affectionally pegs as “old Roger refutting young Roger.” But regardless of the article’s age, Ebert’s skillset is on full display here, the fourth and final installment in his long-running book series (overseen by widow Chaz Ebert). Free of subpar films and focused solely on the appreciation of the artform, The Great Movies IV is film criticism at its most charming and plainspoken.

Ebert’s style never suggests a scholar attempting to show off. The way he words sentences, poses observations, and states his opinion without enforcing it are rare in the business; especially when compared to standard critic clichés. Where peers like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris gained a reputation for their dense prose and intellect, Ebert was tuned in to the average reader’s frequency. In nearly all of his reviews, he brings not a big cinematic thesaurus, but personal anecdotes and a tone of friendship to his audience. His analysis of Michael Haneke’s Caché (2006) opens with an admittance rarely ever made by a critic: blatantly missing a key moment. “Only on my third trip,” he writes in earnest, “did I consciously observe a shot which forced me to redefine the film.” There are no attempts at superiority, just a guy eager to provoke conversation and continue to learn more, as we do, about the movies he loved.

From Haneke’s French thriller to the silent dramedy Souls for Sale (1923), The Great Movies IV affords this honesty to a wildly eclectic list. Time periods, languages, and genres change every few pages, with only the book’s alphabetical ordering of film left to make heads or tails. Indeed, this may be the first (and only) time one sees reviews of Stagecoach (1939) and Superman (1978) in succession. The stitching that pulls it together? Ebert’s unbridled passion for each film. He manages to review a film like the former, which has been analyzed for decades, and make it feel fresh and wholly modern; while doing likewise for the latter, a superhero staple he commends for its self-awareness. “[Alexander] Salkind and [Richard] Donner realized they had to make a comedy,” he notes, “they knew the essential element of Superman was fun.”

It’s an element not dissimilar to Ebert’s own practice. Like the films themselves, these reviews find a balance between technical skill and crackling entertainment. Consider his writing on Barry Lyndon (1975), the Stanley Kubrick film that has divided viewers for decades due to its emotional indifference. The late critic goes on to admit its dullness in the commercial sense, but captures Kubrick’s vision with such eagerness that it’s akin to seeing the film for the first time: “We don’t simply see Kubrick’s movie, we see it in the frame of mind he insists on — unless we’re so closed to the notion of directorial styles that the whole thing just seems like a beautiful extravagance (which it is).” By essay’s end, even the most ardent of naysayers (this writer included) will be intrigued to give Barry Lyndon a second viewing.

In The Great Movies IV’s lesser known selections, Ebert offers both insight for cinephiles and primers for budding critics. There’s never recycled or cribbed opinions on these pages, but an angle that most have previously failed to inspect, let alone fixate on for an entire viewing. Even the most seasoned movie aficionados will find merit when Ebert breaks down the pictorial beauty of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979). On the other end, it’s difficult to write a review on films like Viridiana (1961) or Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) that also entices newcomers. The trick, as is so expertly shown here, is to crack the intimidation factor so that those who wish to approach may do so fully prepared. Similar standout entries include Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Night Moves (1975), Shoah (1985), and The Pledge (2001).

To read any one of these reviews is to read criticism at its best. Though a scholar, Ebert was always a movie fan first, and it showed in his approach: complex ideas expressed through simplicity. The Great Movies IV is not a book that needs to be read front-to-back in one sitting; it can be skimmed through for favorites or opened up at random. For in each line of every page, the personality and passion of Ebert shines through. The Great Movies IV may be thinner that it’s predecessors, but it’s just as essential.

RATING 8 / 10
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