American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The long-awaited fourth installment of Roger Ebert's book series compiling his essays on great movies is now on sale. The Great Movies IV includes the final 62 "Great Movies" entries written by the Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic. The first three editions of the series, The Great Movies I, II and III, each contained 100 essays, and he had been working on IV prior to his death in 2013. It was suggested that other writers could add their own essays to the fourth edition, but Ebert's widow, Chaz, and the University of Chicago Press ultimately decided to keep the series pure by having it contain only Rogers words. Here is an excerpt from Chaz Ebert's touching introduction to the book.
What makes this fourth and final edition of The Great Movies so meaningful for me is the fact that it contains some of Roger's final essays. His work had remarkable depth to it from the very beginning of his journalism career, even before he was hired as the Chicago Sun-Times film critic. Roger could peel away the layers of an onion like few other writers, yet I truly believe that in his last years, Roger's writing achieved an even greater philosophical depth. He was dealing with much more than whether a film was great—he was grappling with the very nature of storytelling and the profound role that it plays in our lives. Illness may have robbed my husband of the ability to speak, but his voice resonated louder than ever before. As I used to tell him, his writing made me swoon.
The films featured in The Great Movies IV range from the silent era ("The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Man with a Movie Camera") to the recent past ("The Big Lebowski," "A.I. Artificial Intelligence"). To celebrate the momentous release of this book, we have compiled excerpts from some of Ebert's featured essays, including his review of Michel Gondry's 2004 sci-fi romance, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the film that earned screenwriter Charlie Kaufman an Oscar. According to Roger, Kaufman was "the most gifted screenwriter of the 2000s.
Some viewers have been confused by the film's movement through chronology and locations, but I think the paradoxes are explained if we realize that everything is happening in only one place, Joel's mind. The disconnects are explained by his fragmented memories of when that they were together before, during and after the erasure. The train station sequence at the beginning is closer to the end of the movie's timeline.
Not that we're required to piece it all together. Gondry and Kaufman use qualities of the cinema itself to allow it to make emotional sense when it's baffling any other way. We know our minds easily comprehend and accept flashbacks, hallucinations and conflicting realities. Even small children seeing a flashback for the first time understand what's being conveyed. As impossible events occur, we understand they're subjective--generated in the minds of the beholders. That explains the crumbling beach house in "Eternal Sunshine" and the constantly burning home in "Synecdoche." We know at the time they aren't "real," and afterwards we're missing the point if we ask for an "explanation." These films are made with insight into how the mind translates information.
"The Great Movies IV" also explores the work of such legendary filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman ("Smiles of a Summer Night"), Werner Herzog ("Heart of Glass"), John Ford ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"), Alfred Hitchcock ("Shadow of a Doubt"), Stanley Kubrick ("Barry Lyndon"), Spike Lee ("25th Hour"), Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away") and many others. With Halloween just weeks away, here is an excerpt from Ebert's essay on Herzog's chilling 1979 version of "Nosferatu the Vampyre."
There is a quality to the color photography in Werner Herzog's "Nosferatu the Vampyre" that seeps into your bones. It would be inadequate to call it "saturated." It is rich, heavy, deep. The earth looks cold and dirty. There isn't a lot of green, and it looks wet. Mountains look craggy, gray, sharp-edged. Interiors are filmed in bold reds and browns and whites -- whites, especially, for the faces, and above all for Count Dracula's. It is a film of remarkable beauty, but makes no effort to attract or visually coddle us. The spectacular journey by foot and coach to Dracula's remote Transylvanian castle is deliberately not made to seem scenic.
There is often something fearful and awesome in Herzog's depiction of nature. It is not uplifting so much as remorseless. Clouds fall low and drift like water. Peaks tower in intimidation. Shadows hint at horrors. The simple peasants that Jonathan Harker encounters on his journey are not colorful and friendly, but withdraw from him. Herzog takes his time before allowing us our first sight of Dracula; his stage has been set by words and the looks in eyes of people who cannot believe he is seeking the Count.
One of Ebert's favorite filmmakers was Terrence Malick, whose 2011 film, "The Tree of Life," he hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, and whose 2012 film, "To the Wonder," received the last review the critic ever filed. "The Great Movies IV" includes Ebert's essay on Malick's 1973 breakthrough feature, "Badlands."
“Badlands” was one of the great films of the flowering of American auteurs in the 1970s, a debut film chosen to close the New York Film Festival. It starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. He was 33 and had done much television acting but this was his first important feature. She was 24, and it was her second movie. Both looked younger than their years. Sheen, with carefully combed hair, blue jeans, checked shirts and Lucky Strikes, had the Dean look; after Charles Starkweather saw “Rebel Without a Cause” he deliberately patterned himself on the movie star. Spacek, red-haired, freckled, slight, seemed a girl, not a woman. Sex has little to do with Kit and Holly’s relationship, although we see some kissing; they seem to be children who are role-playing.
Their shallowness is in conflict with their deadliness. A friend of Kit’s, who seems to help them but then runs for a phone, is shot in the stomach and left to sit, dazed, dying and contemplative. He’d attempted to lure them into a field with a tale of treasure. That Kit believed him took childlike credulity. A family is killed for no other reason than that Kit and Holly come across their farmhouse. A rich man is spared for no reason at all, and Kit later observes how lucky he was. He uses the man’s Dictaphone to record a fatuous final statement: “Listen to your parents and teachers. They got a line on most things, so don’t treat ‘em like enemies. There’s always an outside chance you can learn something. Try to keep an open mind.” He thinks that because he’s famous, his words have meaning.
David Lynch loves movies, genres, archetypes and obligatory shots. "Mulholland Dr." employs the conventions of film noir in a pure form. One useful definition of noirs is that they're about characters who have committed a crime or a sin, are immersed with guilt, and fear they're getting what they deserve. Another is that they've done nothing wrong, but it nevertheless certainly appears as if they have.
The second describes Hitchcock's favorite plot, the Innocent Man Wrongly Accused. The first describes the central dilemma of "Mulholland Dr." Yet it floats in an uneasy psychic space, never defining who sinned. The film evokes the feeling of noir guilt while never attaching to anything specific. A neat trick. Pure cinema.
In closing, here is an excerpt from the book's insightful foreword by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, the current Editor At Large at RogerEbert.com.
A phrase from his review of Ingmar Bergman's 'Smiles of a Summer Night' could also double as a summary of this volume, a collection of criticism that is also a stealth memoir and a record of a mind that was always simultaneously scrutinizing cinema and life itself: 'There is an abundance of passion here, but none of it is reckless; the characters consider the moral weight of their actions, and while not reluctant to misbehave, feel a need to explain, if only to themselves.'The Great Movies IV is currently available for purchase in the U.S., and was published in the U.K. on Monday, October 10th. To order your own copy, click here or here.
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