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Great, Really Good, and Important Lousy Movies
on August 17, 2010
As Roger Ebert makes clear in this volume, "great" doesn't always mean "enjoyable." Take Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda picture, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL: "It is a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong, and not even 'manipulative' because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer." Or Bruce Robinson's scabrous comedy, WITHNAIL & I: "Conveys the experience of being drunk so well that the only way I could improve upon it would be to stand behind you and hammer your head with two-pound bags of frozen peas."
Ebert's conversational prose style could almost fool one into thinking that writing film criticism is easy. Reading him is like listening to a learned and entertaining friend (who, perhaps, provides commentary tracks for DVDs), a thinker who long ago chose to avoid the snobbishness of an aesthete, the pseudoscientific language of a film theorist, and the aesthetic imbecility of a consumer guide. His designation of a film as "great" is a rhetorical tool used to nudge readers out of their cinematic comfort zones and into something new. This includes Ebert himself, who finally gets around to reviewing three of the canonical texts of American animation ("Duck Amuck," "What's Opera, Doc?" and "One Froggy Evening").
While he's written, in his review of Ingmar Bergman's WINTER LIGHT, a magnificently quotable line ("It is the portrait of a man who thought he was God, and failed himself"), his insights into a film tend to be less overtly poetic than that. He credits Nino Rota's music with provoking the image of THE GODFATHER PART II as a Mafioso CITIZEN KANE (but an inferior gangster picture to Brian DePalma's 1983 SCARFACE). FITZCARRALDO, the story of a madman's obsession brought to the screen by an obsessed director and a possibly mad actor, is both a visual spectacle (a real steamboat is slowly dragged uphill through a real jungle) and a case study in human folly, behind the camera as well as in front of it. THE SHINING is less a ghost story than a puzzle film about three unreliable observers who seem to descend into madness together; LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD with a fireaxe. There's plenty to disagree with in this book -- my examples will differ from yours -- but civilized disagreement is fun, educational, and often necessary.
What the book lacks, though they're icing rather than the cake, are the beautiful film stills, selected by archivist Mary Corliss, that illustrated THE GREAT MOVIES I and II. The Film Stills Archive of the Museum of Modern Art presumably remains in cold storage, and inaccessible, in Hamlin, Pennsylvania; the Photofest stock image agency seems not to've been an option this time around, either.