THE GREAT MOVIES II
By Roger Ebert
Broadway. 2005. $29.95.
I'm very happy to recommend a book I've never read. You can't go wrong, nevertheless. The book is "The Great Movies II," by Roger Ebert (Broadway, 2005, $29.95), and since Ebert wrote it, it's sure to be vivid, well crafted, scrupulously accurate and fair, as his work always is.
This is Ebert's second "Great Movies" collection, among the dozens of books he has authored, and even the table of contents shows the width, depth and courage of his criticism: He's no snob and can rhapsodize about "The Adventures of Robin Hood" as persuasively as he does "Cries and Whispers." Sometimes the alphabetical table of contents conjures up astonishing juxtapositions that indicate the same wondrous reach: "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia"!
So buy the book and learn; now I pass from the obligatory part of this assignment to the meaningful one. I chose that book merely as a pretext to do a little memory melody about Ebert, whom I don't know at all (I did meet him once, awkwardly, at Cannes, so long ago I can't remember the year) but whom in another sense I know very well.
He ate lunch with us regularly in the late '60s in a greasy university-affiliated warren in Evanston, Ill., called the Grill, where all the frat burnouts and wannabe Godards clustered. He argued with us, we argued with him, it went on and on and it was such great fun I almost never got to class and somehow came up with the idea I'd like to do it for the rest of my life. He, of course, was not physically present for these boisterous sessions, but his column was, in the Chicago Sun-Times, and it usually lay crumpled and smeared, having been hungrily read by all, in a corner of a booth. Needless to say, this was long before Ebert went on TV with Gene Siskel and became a national institution.
Then, he was my first film critic.
I don't mean technically. There were film critics before then, some of them awfully good: James Agee, Otis Ferguson, Dwight MacDonald, Arthur Knight. But they weren't mine. They weren't talking to me. They weren't young.
Most critics were old. Sometimes they even had phony names jiggered to pun on movie traditions -- for example, one was named "Mae Tinee," a play on "Matinee" ha ha ha -- and usually they were the publisher's wife's alcoholic cousin or the broken-down rewrite man with what was called "bad nerves" or somebody's something, and pretty much they served as conduits for the big studio publicity machines. "Say, the Warner Brothers have themselves a nifty little oater and a sure hit in 'Cattle Wars of Montana,' and the new star Dale Robertson reminds us of the young Bob Mitchum," that sort of thing.
Ebert was different. He saw that the movies were changing and that they were full of ideas, and he wrote brilliantly but never condescendingly. He wasn't a mandarin, a New York esthete slumming in the double features and issuing on-high epiphanies and bons mots with a snigger of aristocratic disdain, and he wasn't the unofficial hack publicist. No, he was a really smart guy who got that movies were hard-wired into the baby-boom generation cerebral cortex, that they were in some sense that generation's secret language, and that they bustled and seethed with anger, impatience, self-confidence and sometime insolence. He was there not merely to issue gratuitous opinion but to argue.
Yet at the same time he was something that so many forget is a part of the profession: He was also a hell of a newspaperman. This is a profession where it's not enough to be smart and talented. You've also got to be fast, accurate, sure and unbelievably energetic and endlessly consistent. You do it day after day, not once a month; you do it fast, in a sweat, sometimes without time to think but just time to go with your instincts. He wrote it all. He worked like a maniac, four, sometimes five pieces a week, Sunday essays and even, if I recall correctly, ran a kind of letters page where he responded to queries on such issues as, say, the meaning of the black monuments in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
And here's the best part: He did it all on a typewriter!
Stephen Hunter has been a film critic for almost two decades.