Film lovers at the University are a spoiled bunch. That fact becomes all too clear while flipping through Roger Ebert’s insightful and entertaining essay collection, “The Great Movies II.”
The first of two film critics to ever win the Pulitzer Prize, Ebert is the most important and influential of modern popular film commentators.
For even the casual movie fan, his work is endlessly interesting: part film appreciation, part film scholarship and part film history. He can write a review about a blockbuster such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” discussing Steven Spielberg, Saturday matinee serials and anti-Nazi symbology.
And then, 100 pages later, after a hilarious piece on “This is Spinal Tap,” he dives into Yasujiro Ozu’s heartbreaking “Tokyo Story,” exploring complicated human emotions, camera techniques, cultural disparities and questioning the fundamental purpose of cinema.
Yet, he does this with a stunning sense of clarity and humor. Unlike some critics, Ebert does not present himself as the scholar “teaching” the inferior reader, nor does he fall into the rut of plot summary and cliches so many others use as a crutch.
Rather, he is a passionate and obsessed movie fan who wants nothing more than to help others love, or hate, what he does. In both this collection and 2003’s “The Great Movies,” he has set out to catalog the most moving and memorable works he has seen.
These are films Ebert has watched as both a film critic and a committed cineaste who will choose any work from any era or culture to include in these collections.
As a writer, Ebert injects himself into his work, creating a liberating, conversational relationship with the reader. He is also consistently profound. Reading only the first or last paragraphs of his pieces here, most of which last four to five pages per film, is enjoyable in itself.
Consider these comments about “Tokyo Story”: “It ennobles the cinema. It says, yes, a movie can help us make small steps against our imperfections.”
Or these about Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors Trilogy”: “He is the one filmmaker I would turn to for consolation if I learned I was dying, or to laugh with on finding I would live after all.”
These are complicated thoughts about complicated films, but they are told in a way that makes them instantly understandable and entertaining.
To read this collection of film essays is to be given a detailed overview of the pinnacles and, more importantly, cornerstones of cinema.
It spans the gamut of pop hits such as “Alien” and “Goldfinger.” It then drifts to best-picture winners such as “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” It unearths elitist triumphs such as “My Dinner with Andre.” And finally, it hits the unexpected masterpieces such as the teen angst classic “Say Anything” and “The Passion of the Christ” alternative, “The Gospel According to Matthew.”
The difference between the first edition of “The Great Movies” and the second is that Ebert seems to finally understand the importance of this venture.
Going beyond simply 100 essays, he offers thoughts on the career of Buster Keaton and a lengthy examination of 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation,” the eminently important, and profoundly racist, first chapter in long-form cinema.
In his introduction, he writes, “If you care for the movies enough, you get to
Ozu and Bresson and Renoir and stand among the saints” – names some will only come to know thanks to his commitment to making them known.
People often ask for a list of the great movies. Here, Ebert offers part two of his epic “Great Movies” quest.
And thanks to the Oak Street Cinema, which completed an Ozu series only two weeks ago and started a Sunday series of Renoir during the weekend, everyone at the University can join him.