Books

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.


The Great Movies IV

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press
Length: 251 pages
Author: Roger Ebert
Price: $24.41
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-09
Amazon

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 RogerEbert.com 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.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.

Music

Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."

Music

David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.

Music

On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.

Music

Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.

Music

Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

Music

Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."

Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.