The Great Movies IV is the fourth—and final—collection of Roger Ebert’s essays, comprising sixty-two reviews of films ranging from the silent era to the recent past. From films like The Cabinet of Caligari and Viridiana that have been considered canonical for decades to movies only recently recognized as masterpieces to Superman, The Big Lebowski, and Pink Floyd: The Wall, the pieces gathered here demonstrate the critical acumen seen in Ebert’s daily reviews and the more reflective and wide-ranging considerations that the longer format allowed him to offer. Ebert’s essays are joined here by an insightful foreword by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, the current editor-in-chief of the official Roger Ebert website, and a touching introduction by Chaz Ebert.
A fitting capstone to a truly remarkable career, The Great Movies IV will introduce newcomers to some of the most exceptional movies ever made, while revealing new insights to connoisseurs as well.
|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||740 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Great Movies IV
By Roger Ebert
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The Ebert Company, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.
Tomorrow morning, Monty Brogan is turning himself in to begin a prison term. His two best friends lean on a railing, look out over the river, and agree "it's over." They will never see Monty again. He may be alive in eight years, but he won't be the Monty they've known since they were kids. Monty Brogan also knows this. So do his girlfriend and his father. It will all end after tonight.
Monty's mind is very concentrated. There is a sense, in Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002), that he's experiencing his last day of freedom in a heightened state. Everything is more focused, more meaningful, sometimes dreamy. He has his ideas about how he got here and who may have been involved, but there is little he can do about that now. From the choices still open to him, he focuses now on the remaining important things: his woman, his father, his friends, and unsettled business.
Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) is on hold; supportive, loving, but feeling shut out. Jacob and Frank (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) are very sympathetic, but after all they are still free to live their lives. His father (Brian Cox) bitterly blames himself for drinking his way into such debt that he took "loans" from his son. Monty (Edward Norton) is intelligent. He sees his mistakes clearly. It was a mistake to get into drug dealing when he had the chance. It was a mistake to stay in it as long as he did. It was a mistake to think he could hide a lot of cash and cocaine, and a mistake to let anyone know where it was hidden.
This is another of Norton's exceptional performances. As usual, he doesn't act out a lot. He implodes. He keeps his own counsel. He is a realist, even in these drifting final hours. He thinks he knows who he can still trust, but what does he really know, and what can he really do?
Spike Lee, working with David Benioff's adaptation of his own novel, paints a portrait of a life in 24 hours. From a morning walk with his dog to a long drive the next morning with his father, Monty makes one last trip around the bases. He convinces Jacob to take care of the dog. He makes love with Naturelle but later seems distant to her. He goes to a nightclub with Jacob and Frank, and she joins them later. He does some final business and settles a last score.
The wonder of the rich screenplay is that it contains all of this material about Monty, and yet informs us so fully about the others. There could be a separate movie about Jacob, a pudgy and phlegmatic high school English teacher who is fascinated by a tattoo on the bare midriff of one of his students, and by the girl Mary (Anna Paquin) who wears it. But any move in that direction would be wrong, and he knows it.
Mary is charged with her own emerging sexuality and boldly flirts with him. Through chance they find themselves in the same club. He's had a martini and champagne and can't drink, and there's a moment when the two of them are alone that is one of the most perfect and complex that Lee has ever filmed. Frank, on the other hand, is a seasoned and careless ladies' man. His apartment literally overlooks the wreckage of 9/11, but he won't move because he can't get the right price. Thus 9/11 becomes an unspoken undercurrent in this 2002 film.
We know that all of these people may never be together again, no matter what their plans. But look at the strategies of style that Lee brings to their stories. The crucial moment between Jacob and Mary takes place up a flight of stairs. After it is over, after Jacob has returned to the booth, then Lee employs his trademark gliding shot, showing Jacob seemingly floating up the stairs without moving his feet. We understand Jacob is replaying the hypnotic compulsion that led him — drove him — up the stairs.
Consider too the extraordinary scene where Monty looks in the mirror of a sleazy restroom and loses his cool for the only time in the film, screaming f-yous at every ethnic, economic, sexual, and age group in the city and then arriving at the summation, directed at himself. When the movie was released, some said they didn't understand this scene. Haven't we all felt that way? When all of the f-yous are really about ourselves?
Lee uses a couple of subtle devices that can go unnoticed. He punches up a few moments by freeze-frames so brief they're like little stutters. We don't see them, but they work — like when someone is talking, and we particularly take note of an expression they use. He also plays with lighting. There's a shot when Norton and Hoffman are bathed in blue light, except for a little red in Norton's right eye. Think how hard Rodrigo Prieto, the cinematographer, worked to get that in there, and how hard he worked to keep us from "noticing" it.
Then there is the masterful conclusion of the film, as Monty's father, the old Irish saloon keeper, drives him upstate to the prison. They pass under the same freeway sign that opens the film. He suggests that they keep right on driving out west and find a small town and live under new names, and Monty can find the right girl and start a family and have the life his father's debts took from him. Lee pictures this life so convincingly that some viewers are seduced into wondering if it's really happening.
Who is the vision painted for? For Monty, or old James Brogan, to comfort himself that he did make the offer and it was sincere? Monty doesn't feel a "duty to pay his debt to society," but he's focused now on his destiny, and his trance of 24 hours will end only when he's in prison.
Everybody knows that Spike Lee is an important filmmaker, but do they realize how good he is with actors, and how innovative he is with style? We live in a period when many filmmakers use either a straightforward meat-and-potatoes style, or draw attention with meaningless over-editing, queasy cams, and showboat shots. With Lee, as with any classical director, the emphasis is on the story and the people. But he's always there, nudging us, being sure what we notice, moving his camera not merely with efficiency but with grace and innovation. Because he doesn't go out of his way to call attention, how many realize what a master stylist he is?
In this film he benefits from pitch-perfect performances from Norton and Hoffman of course; from Dawson, Cox, Pepper — and from Anna Paquin, that little girl from The Piano. How well she evokes her exact stage in life as she dances alone on the disco floor, or not alone, really, but with herself.
One more note about acting. I've seen a lot of people drinking in a lot of movies. I've seen them sobering up the morning after. But I don't remember anyone starting out sober, getting drunk, and then returning to sobriety quite like Hoffman does it here. We know exactly where he's at during these transitions, but we never see them happening.CHAPTER 2
A. I. Artificial Intelligence
Stanley Kubrick always referred to the story as "Pinocchio." It mirrored the tale of a puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy. And what, after all, is an android but a puppet with a computer program pulling its strings? The project that eventually became Steven Spielberg's A. I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) was abandoned by Kubrick because he wasn't satisfied with his approaches to its central character, David, an android who appears to be a real little boy. Believing special effects wouldn't be adequate and a human actor would seem too human, he turned the project over to his friend Spielberg. Legend has it he made that decision after being impressed by Spielberg's special effects in Jurassic Park, but perhaps E.T. was also an influence: If Spielberg could create an alien who evoked human emotions, could he do the same with an android?
He could. As David, he cast Haley Joel Osment, who had scored a great success in The Sixth Sense (1999). Osment's presence is a crucial element in the film; other androids, including Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), are made to look artificial with makeup and unmoving hair, but not David. He is the most advanced "mecha" of the Cybertronics Corporation — so human that he can perhaps take the place of a couple's sick child. Spielberg and Osment work together to create David with unblinking eyes and deep naïveté; he seems a real little boy but lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. This reality works both for and against the film, at first by making David seem human and later by making him seem a very slow study.
David has been programmed to love. Once he is activated with a code, he fixes on the activator, in this case his Mommy (Frances O'Connor). He exists to love her and be loved by her. Because he is a very sophisticated android indeed, there's a natural tendency for us to believe him on that level. In fact he does not love and does not feel love; he simply reflects his coding. All of the love contained in the film is possessed by humans, and I didn't properly reflect this in my original review of the film.
"We are expert at projecting human emotions into non-human subjects, from animals to clouds to computer games," I wrote in 2001, "but the emotions reside only in our minds. A. I. evades its responsibility to deal rigorously with this trait and goes for an ending that wants us to cry, but had me asking questions just when I should have been finding answers."
That is true enough on the principal level of the film, which tells David's story. Watching it again recently, I became aware of something more: A. I. is not about humans at all. It is about the dilemma of artificial intelligence. A thinking machine cannot think. All it can do is run programs that may be sophisticated enough for it to fool us by seeming to think. A computer that passes the Turing Test is not thinking. All it is doing is passing the Turing Test.
The first act of the film involves Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor). Henry brings David home to fill the gap left by their own sick little boy, Martin (Jake Thomas). Monica resists him, and then accepts him. But after Martin is awakened from suspended animation and cured, there is a family of four; Martin is fully aware that David is a product, but David doesn't understand everything that implies. Possibly his programming didn't prepare him to deal one-on-one in real time with real boys. He can't spend all of his time loving Mommy and being loved by her.
He imitates life. He doesn't sleep, but he observes bedtime. He doesn't eat, but so strong is his desire to be like Martin that he damages his wiring by shoving spinach into his mouth. He's treated with cruelty by other kids; when he reveals he doesn't pee, a kid grabs his pants and says, "Let's see what you don't pee with." After faithfully following his instructions in such a way that he nearly drowns Martin, he loses the trust of the Swintons and they decide to get rid of him, just as parents might get rid of a dangerous dog.
Monica cannot bring herself to return David to Cybertronics. She pauses on the way and releases him into a forest, where he can join other free-range mechas. He will not die. He doesn't get cold, he doesn't get hungry, and apparently he has an indefinite supply of fuel. Monica's decision to release him instead of turning him in is based on her lingering identification with David; in activating him to love her, she activated herself to love him. His unconditional love must have been deeply appealing. We relate to pets in a similar way, especially to dogs, who seem to have been activated by evolution to love us.
The center act of the movie shows David wandering a world where mechas have no rights. He is accompanied by his mecha bear, Teddy, who is programmed to be a wise companion, and they are discovered by Gigolo Joe, a mecha programmed to be an expert lover. They visit two hallucinatory places designed by Spielberg on huge sound stages. One is a Flesh Fair, not unlike a WWF event, at which humans cheer as mechas are grotesquely destroyed. David, Joe, and Teddy escape, probably because of their survival programming, but is David dismayed by what he sees? How does he relate to the destruction of his kind?
Then there is Rouge City, sort of a psychedelic Universal City, where Joe takes him to consult a Wizard. Having been fascinated by the story of Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, David has reasoned that a Blue Fairy might be able to transform him into a human and allow Monica to love him and be loved. The Wizard gives him a clue. After Joe and David capture a flying machine, they visit New York, which like many coastal cities has been drowned by global warming. But on an upper floor of Rockefeller Center, he finds that Cybertronics still operates, and he meets the scientist who created him, Dr. Hobby (William Hurt). Hobby is Geppetto to David's Pinocchio.
Now again there are events which contradict David's conception of himself. In an eerie scene, he comes across a storeroom containing dozens of Davids who look just like him. Is he devastated? Does he thrash out at them? No, he remains possessed. He is still focused on his quest for the Blue Fairy, who can make him a real little boy. But why, we may ask, does he want to be real so very much? Is it because of envy, hurt, or jealousy? No, he doesn't seem to possess such emotions — or any emotions, save those he is programmed to counterfeit. I assume he wants to be a real boy for abstract reasons of computer logic. To fulfill his mission to love and be loved by Mommy, he concludes he should be like Martin, whom Mommy prefers. This involves no more emotion than Big Blue determining its next move in chess.
In the final act, events take David and Teddy in a submersible to the drowned Coney Island, where they find not only Geppetto's workshop but a Blue Fairy. A collapsing Ferris wheel pins the submarine, and there they remain, trapped and immobile, for 2,000 years, as above them an ice age descends and humans become extinct. David is finally rescued by a group of impossibly slender beings that might be aliens, but are apparently very advanced androids. For them, David is an incalculable treasure: "He is the last who knew humans." From his mind they download all of his memories, and they move him into an exact replica of his childhood home. This reminded me of the bedroom beyond Jupiter constructed for Dave by aliens in Kubrick's 2001. It has the same purpose, to provide a familiar environment in an incomprehensible world. It allows these beings, like the unseen beings in 2001, to observe and learn from behavior.
Watching the film again, I asked myself why I wrote that the final scenes are "problematical," go over the top, and raise questions they aren't prepared to answer. This time they worked for me and had a greater impact. I began with the assumption that the skeletal silver figures are indeed androids, of a much advanced generation from David's. They too must be programmed to know, love, and serve Man. Let's assume such instructions would be embedded in their programming DNA. They now find themselves in a position analogous to David in his search for his Mommy. They are missing an element crucial to their function.
After some pseudoscientific legerdemain involving a lock of Monica's hair, they are able to bring her back after 2,000 years of death — but only for 24 hours, which is all the space-time continuum permits. Do they do this to make David happy? No, because would they care? And is a computer happier when it performs its program than when it does not? No. It is either functioning or not functioning. It doesn't know how it feels.
Excerpted from The Great Movies IV by Roger Ebert. Copyright © 2016 The Ebert Company, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsContents Foreword by Matt Zoller Seitz Introduction by Chaz Ebert Selections from the Introductions to the Previous Volumes 25th Hour A. I. Artificial Intelligence An Autumn Afternoon Badlands The Ballad of Narayama Barry Lyndon The Big Lebowski The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Caché La Ceremonie The Circus La Collectionneuse Come and See Contact Day for Night Departures Diary of a Country Priest Diary of a Lost Girl Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind French Cancan The Grey Zone The Hairdresser’s Husband Harakiri Heart of Glass In a Lonely Place Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II The Killing Leon Morin, Priest Lost in Translation Make Way for Tomorrow A Man Escaped The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Man with a Movie Camera The Match Factory Girl Mon oncle d’Amerique Monsieur Hire Mulholland Dr. Mystery Train Night Moves Nosferatu the Vampyre The Only Son Pale Flower Pink Floyd: The Wall The Pledge Red Beard Richard III Rio Bravo Senso Seven Shadow of a Doubt Shoah Smiles of a Summer Night Souls for Sale The Spirit of the Beehive Spirited Away Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring Stagecoach Superman Tender Mercies Veronika Voss Viridiana Yellow Submarine