The Austin Chronicle

New in Print

By Kimberley Jones, May 31, 2002, Screens


By Roger Ebert

Broadway Books, 511 pp., $27.50 In the universally accepted hierarchy of Big Baddies, film critics tend to be wedged somewhere between lawyers, dentists, and people who swing cats by their tails. Were we in a fightin' mood, we might argue that, when done right, criticism of art can be an art form in itself. That -- and let's be frank -- only rarely is contemporary film elevated to art, so consumed is it by bottom lines and box office receipts. That being a film critic in today's moviemaking climate is not unlike being a dentist stranded in some British burg, one rotten, malformed crown after another. That's if we felt like fighting.

But what people who hate film critics might not know is this: Film critics really just want to love. They want to sing, not slander, to praise, not pick apart. That's why the new collection from Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, The Great Movies, is not only a good read, but an olive branch in the long and often ugly arbitration between those who review movies and those who hate those who review movies. And what better poster boy than Ebert? He's got the name recognition, a broad but exacting knowledge of film history, and a populist appeal. On the topic of films that he loves, Ebert's a bear hug of a guy. (On the topic of films he hates, he morphs into something not unlike a rabid wolverine, baring his teeth whenever his new co-host voices dissent on their Chicago-based show, Ebert & That Sad Sack Who Thanklessly "Replaced" Gene Siskel ... at the Movies.)

A compendium of essays from Ebert's ongoing Sun-Times column of the same name, The Great Movies is like a rousing game of Red Rover, wooing all those critic-haters over to Ebert's side to unite in one common cause: the celebration of great movies. And the 80 films discussed here, from Gone With the Wind to Raging Bull and The Third Man, are indeed Great Movies. Nobody's really going to balk at any of the inclusions; Ebert's greats are obvious, but mostly inadmonishable, entries. But what the book lacks in vision, it compensates for in its public service, engagingly discussing some truly terrific films that may seem like the regurgitation of yesterday's AFI list, but just might have slipped under the radar of younger viewers or those less inclined to go the extra mile to the arthouse.

All this talk of public service makes it sound so dull, this sniffing at the absence of riskier, less celebrated films makes it so sound pedestrian, but The Great Movies is neither. Ebert does here what every critic wants to do, and that is to love. He loves these films, and that fervor feeds his book. Seen Casablanca so many times your head could spin? Then it's that much more satisfying to linger over the film with a like-minded soul. Ebert peppers each of the essays with a formidable film knowledge and intimate anecdotes that could only spring from a life dedicated to the criticism, education, and preservation of film. Museum of Modern Art Assistant Film Curator Mary Corliss has selected the accompanying film stills for each essay, and, just like Ebert's essays, they're gorgeous keepsakes, the pictures plus words loving reminders of why these films are so cherished. The balcony may be closed for now, but if The Great Movies -- accessible, honorable, impassioned -- and its call to arms works, looks like Ebert's going to have to share his arm rest with all the converts.

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