The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
Kathryn Cissney of Mill Valley, California; Marla P. Cooper of Charleston, Illinois; Chris De Lao of Wallkill, New York; Philip DeKane of Livonia, Michigan; Ed Golick of Detroit, Michigan; David Harms of Madison, Wisconsin; Mark Richard LaRocco of Lehi, Utah; Kim Olsen of Culver City, California; Zachary Payne of Chicago, Illinois; and Glenn J. Williams of Penacook, New Hampshire.
You ten have officially been selected as the winners of the recently published and last edition of Roger Ebert's Great Movies series, The Great Movies IV. This giveaway was announced last December, and was open to anyone who signed up for our free newsletter. The newsletter goes out with all of our new reviews every Friday, and a blog edition of the newsletter will be added shortly. The Great Movies IV contains Roger's acclaimed essay series exploring some of the greatest achievements in cinema. These are essays he wrote not because of duty, but because of his love of cinema, and his love of communicating with his readers about how movies affect us, whether entertaining us, or sometimes making us better people. I am so happy to be able to share this book with you and I hope you enjoy it. You should receive them in the mail this week. Please do write to tell us some of your favorite reviews.
For your reading pleasure, however, we are making Matt Zoller Seitz's foreword to The Great Movies IV available to you in this post. However, it is being reprinted with the permission of the University of Chicago press and is not to be duplicated without further permission. It highlights several of his favorite passages in the book, while providing his case for why he believes the complete collection of Great Movies essays are, in fact, Roger's masterpiece. Of course I am in total agreement with him.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ'S FOREWORD TO THE GREAT MOVIES IV
Roger Ebert casts a long shadow. I was hired by his widow, Chaz Ebert, to edit the website they founded in 2002, RogerEbert.com, shortly after his death in 2013. Every day I get an e-mail message, Tweet, Facebook query, or blog comment wondering what Roger would have thought about a current film. Would he have loved it, liked it, been indifferent to it, or hated, hated, hated, hated, hated it? The comments sections on RogerEbert.com are filled with people insisting Roger would have loathed a film that the assigned reviewer adored, or adored a film she loathed. This spectacle becomes poignantly amusing when you see contradictory comments beneath a single review: “I am so glad you liked this! Roger would have given it four stars, though.” “It’s a disgrace that you gave this film a positive review, Roger would have seen right through it.”
What everyone longs for is not just a body of opinion focused through Roger’s keen eye, but something more basic: Roger the man. Roger the life force. Good old Roger.
It is Roger’s personal touch that separates him from nearly all current film reviewers, even the good to great ones: the sense that there is a person behind the words, one who has interests beyond film, and opinions about the world at large, and wisdom gained through the experience of living 70 years, producing several dozen novels’ worth of prose and thousands of hours of TV with his onscreen partner Gene Siskel, visiting dozens of countries, and touching the lives of untold numbers of moviegoers.
Roger’s best writing evokes the most useful advice an editor gave me. I was having trouble writing a breaking news story on deadline and my editor said, “Why don’t you just come over here and sit in this chair and tell me what the story is about.” So I sat in the chair beside him and started talking. Suddenly the gist of the story became clear. I found myself regaling him with colorful details that weren’t in the current draft. The pressure was off. I was no longer writing a Big Important Piece for posterity, I was just talking to a friend who happened to be my editor. “See what you’re doing?” he said. “It’s like we’re having a cup of coffee and you’re telling me about a piece you already turned in. Just take all the stuff you just told me and put that in the story.”
Most of Roger’s best pieces feel like that—like he’s just talking to you about things he finds interesting or funny or exciting, or riffing on a film he finds slipshod or dumb, or evangelizing on behalf of a work that moves him or that he believes is important or special. When you read Roger’s work, you feel as if he’s on the phone with you, or sitting across from you at a restaurant, or writing you a personal e-mail. Sometimes he’s holding court, sometimes he’s ruminating, sometimes he’s on the warpath. But you always feel that there’s a person there—a man with a consistent set of concerns and values, expressed in plain language whose lyricism reveals itself when you read it aloud or quote it to others.
That personal touch is what makes Roger a great critic. A great teacher, too: the Midwestern directness becomes a linguistic Trojan horse that lulls the casual moviegoer into a comfort zone where Roger can ruminate on a movie’s place in film history, or explore why a particular scene works on the emotions, or dig into the sense of life expressed by the story, the characters, and the filmmaking.
All of this explains why I consider The Great Movies series to be Roger’s masterpiece. The books are expansive but judicious in laying out which films Roger considers great and essential. In their terse, lyrical sentences you will find every quality I’ve praised here. And if you read between the lines you’ll learn as much about Roger as you might watching the documentary "Life Itself" or poring over his archive of personal essays at RogerEbert.com.
In their concision and complexity, the essays contained in the Great Movies books are remarkable. Many of them are original; others take portions of earlier reviews and expand on them, intensify them, revise them, question them. (You often find old Roger refuting young Roger.) They all speak to the reader as one might to a friend. They seem to be written by a critic secure in the knowledge that his audience knows who he is. The sense of familiarity emboldens Roger to cut to the chase, avoid anything resembling pretense, and speak from the heart when the spirit moves him, without fear that he will be ridiculed for freely admitting sadness, anger, or joy. The Great Movies essays function equally well as primers aimed at budding cinephiles, as insightful celebrations of works that have been picked over by generations of academics, and as lucid and insightful personal essays that are simultaneously about films, the world that films reflect, and the emotional interior of Roger.
This new volume represents the concluding installment of the Great Movies series. It compiles sixty-two reviews of films stretching from the recent past back through the silent era. There are pieces on films that have been acclaimed as canonical for decades or more: "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Diary of a Country Priest," "In a Lonely Place," "Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II," "Senso" and "Viridiana." And there are essays on films that have only recently begun to be considered masterpieces ("Mulholland Dr.," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,"
"Spirited Away," "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence") and movies that, while beloved by some, may not necessarily be works you’d instinctively call “great” ("Superman," "The Pledge," "Lost in Translation," "The Big Lebowski," "Pink Floyd: The Wall," "The Grey Zone," "Seven").
Roger the teacher is well-represented. Here he is writing about a Film History 101 touchstone, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," crystallizing its essence, tying form to function so gracefully that it takes a second to register that he’s compressed what might have been several pages of a lesser text into a few sentences.
Here’s a gem from Roger the teacher, about Luis Buñuel, writer and director of 1961’s "Viridiana": “Buñuel the satirist, Buñuel the anticlerical, Buñuel the fetishist. That’s the usual litany, but we should not exclude Buñuel the grandmaster of black comedy. None of his films is lacking a cheerfully sardonic view of human nature. His object is always dry humor. Even when he was working for Hollywood studios, recycling the sets and costumes of English-language pictures into Spanish versions of the same screenplays, or later simply dubbing them into Spanish, he slyly slipped in a few touches that were lacking in the sources. He is one of the great originals, creator of satirical delight, sometimes hilariously funny, and if you love great movies you sooner or later get to him.” This is Trojan horse observation, designed to lure viewers who have never seen a Buñuel film into watching this one: it emphasizes that Buñuel is funny, that you will laugh as you watch his movies, and that it’s OK to laugh. Buñuel is much more than funny, but you can see why he led with funny, because who doesn’t want to see a funny movie?
His piece on Alfred Hitchcock’s "Shadow of a Doubt" explains why the director’s films are still so effective at generating tension, but in terms that anyone can grasp: “Hitchcock was a master of the classical Hollywood compositional style. It is possible to recognize one of his films after a minute or so entirely because of the camera placement. He used well-known camera language just a little more elegantly. See here how he zooms slowly into faces to show dawning recognition or fear. Watch him use tilt shots to show us things that are not as they should be. He uses contrasting lighted and shadowed areas within the frame to make moral statements, sometimes in anticipation before they are indicated.”
Nearly every page contains a nugget like that. The tone never suggests that Roger is seeking to overrule or displace anyone else’s judgment, much less show off, only that he’s trying to connect with us—with you; he always seems to be speaking to one reader, not masses. It’s not easy to write about a film like "Viridiana" or "Caligari" in a way that invites newcomers into the fold while offering enough fresh insight and elegantly turned phrases to make cinephiles want to keep reading, rather than mutter, “I already know all this!” and close the book. But Roger is a master of that sort of writing. He never simply regurgitates facts or dates or film terms or bits of received wisdom. There’s always a sense that we’re seeing the film through a fresh set of eyes, from an angle that reveals aspects we might not have noticed, much less fixated on.
His review of Tim Blake Nelson’s 2001 Holocaust drama "The Grey Zone," about Jewish prisoners employed to do the menial daily work of extermination in a death camp, explores the imagery and sound and texture of the movie, and shows how it serves the story. The final paragraph jars readers out of any preconceived notion that a film set in the past is removed from present day concerns: “'The Grey Zone' ends with a narration observing that the bodies of the dead are turned into ashes of bones, gases and vapor, and a fine, invisible gray dust that settles everywhere and goes into lungs; they become so accustomed to it they lose the cough reflex. Thus do the living and the dead intermingle. I believe Tim Blake Nelson is suggesting that dust rises from many flames all over the world, and we breathe it today.”
His piece on Robert Bresson’s "Diary of a Country Priest" is startling because rather than fixating on the formal aspects of a drama beloved by formalists (good luck finding a consideration of Bresson that does not use the word “austere”), it instead zeroes in on the title character’s predicament, describing it in physical as well as visual terms. In the middle of the essay is a paragraph that subtly reminds us that the writer is a recovering alcoholic from a city of punishing winters who has written with honesty about his journey, and therefore understands on a human level what it means to subsist on a liquid diet and grapple with depression when it’s cold out: “It is a bleak winter. The landscape around his little church is barren. There is often no sign of life except for the distant, unfriendly barking of dogs. His church and the manor of the local count are closed off behind bars, as if gated against each other. Girls in catechism class play tricks on him. The locals gossip that he’s a drunk, because of his diet, but we never see him drunk. Bresson often fills the frame with his face, passive, and the stare of his unfocused eyes.”
Again and again, Roger’s human touch enlivens pieces that might otherwise have been content to be observant, amusing, and faintly scholarly. Formal analysis, literary appreciation, observations about acting and lighting and music and sound effects are always woven throughout, but these are fused to observations about the characters, the world view of the filmmaker, and the feelings and associations that the work evokes in Roger.
His "Rio Bravo" essay contains a rare description of John Wayne’s acting that speaks directly to his choices as an actor, rather than repeating grandiose summations of what he meant to cinema. “His Chance doesn’t feel it necessary to impose himself, apart from the formidable fact of his presence,” he writes, a sentence that could describe Roger’s writing. “He never sweet-talks Feathers (Angie Dickinson), indeed tends to be gruff toward her, but his eyes and body language speak for him. There is a moment when he is angered that she didn’t get on the stage out of town, stalks upstairs to her hotel room, barges through the door, and then—in the reverse shot—sees her and transforms his whole demeanor. Can you say a man ‘softens’ simply by the way he holds himself? With the most subtle of body movements, he unwinds into the faintest beginning of a courtly bow. You don’t see it. You feel it.”
This bit from his review of "Caché" does a better job of illuminating the film’s puzzle-box quality than any of the so-called thinkpieces that were written about it when it came out: “A stationary camera is objective. A moving camera implies a subjective viewer, whether that viewer is a character, the director, or the audience. Haneke uses the technique of making the camera ‘move’ in time, not space. His locked-down shots are objective. When they’re reversed on a VCR, they become subjective.”
Of "Shoah," a Holocaust documentary so monumental in both scope and length that many can’t even face watching it, Roger searches the filmmaking itself, not merely the content of the film, and describes the director Claude Lanzmann’s methods in ways that make the film accessible again, even intriguing, without ever seeming as though he’s hyping it, selling it, or misrepresenting it: “'Shoah' is a torrent of words, and yet the overwhelming impression, when it is over, is one of silence. Lanzmann intercuts two kinds of images. He shows the faces of his witnesses. And then he uses quiet pastoral scenes of the places where the deaths took place. Steam engines move massively through the Polish countryside, down the same tracks where trains took countless Jews, gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, and other so-called undesirables to their deaths. Cameras pan silently across pastures, while we learn that underneath the tranquility are mass graves.”
Roger the scholar, Roger the humanist, Roger the formalist, Roger the sneakily powerful prose stylist: all are Roger, and all are a pleasure to read. But none is more engaging than Roger the enthusiast, the guy who practically flings open the door of the coffee shop to tell you about a film that gobsmacked him and that you must must see, right now, come on, let’s go!
You can picture Roger’s eyes lighting up as he realizes why Jim Jarmusch’s "Mystery Train," despite all the images of deserted Memphis streets and trains passing people by, “isn’t an embrace of misery. It’s more an evocation of how the personal styles of the characters help them cope with life, or not.”
His take on "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" comes to a devastating conclusion about the film’s much-derided ending. It seems uncannily attuned to the alchemy of a film written by Stanley Kubrick, one of the most icy-cool filmmakers, and directed by Steven Spielberg, one of the warmest: “Why would one mecha care if another obtained satisfaction? What meaning is there in giving David 24 hours of bliss? If machines cannot feel, what does the closing sequence really mean? I believe it suggests the new mechas are trying to construct a mecha that they can love. They would play Mommy to their own Davids. And that mecha will love them. What does love mean in this context? No more, no less, than check, or mate, or π. That is the fate of Artificial Intelligence. No Mommy will ever, ever love them.”
His piece on "The Hairdresser’s Husband" contains a description of what it feels like to fall in love that could only have been written by a man who was still very much in love himself: “She smiles. She is radiant. She is kind, gentle, sexy. They are always in heat. While she is performing a shampoo, he kneels on the floor behind her and caresses her to ecstasy. They make love on the red leather bench. They’re in full view, but nobody ever seems to see them.”
A phrase from his review of Ingmar Bergman’s "Smiles of a Summer Night" could 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 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.”©2016 by The University of Chicago. Reprinted with permission.
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