46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Look at any number of journalistic movie reviews, and more often than not the reviewer's discussion concerns the script, or "story," rather than the movie experience, or "discourse." If you as the reader have the feeling that the reviewer could just as well be describing a novel or play, more than likely he's not equipped to do the admittedly challenging job of evaluating cinema, perhaps the most complex, most realistic, and potentially the most powerful medium for "representing" reality, or a complex "living" world.
The majority of movies are "dumbed down" to reach the widest possible audience, thus guaranteeing its sponsors a profitable return on what is usually an investment running into many millions of dollars (even as far back as 1960, a film like "Cleopatra" cost its makers over 40 million). Each picture is a "formulaic" commodity produced by a mini-corporation (as we've become acutely conscious ever since the interminable lists of credits following movies lke "Star Wars")--an expensive operation, or company, that is compelled to follow predictable, codified patterns if only to satisfy shareholders' expectations (and insistence on a profit). First, there was Syd Field's ubiquitous manual with its gospel-like litany of rules governing any screen-play, from the number of climaxes to their precise positioning; next came the computer programs for writing screenplays, most using a "fill-in-the-blank approach following the same reductive pattern of the "hero's journey," as extrapolated from Joseph Campbell's "Man of a Thousand Faces." Thousands of screenplay hopefuls have been taught the same way--the scenes to begin with, the importance and placement of the indispensable 'plot points," the kind of closure guaranteed to send the audience out into of the theater more blinded by reality than ever but no less desirous of seeking another temporary escape. That's the business of the dream factory, and it would appear the reviewer's role has been reduced to little more than helping the reader decide if two dreams--the one that's been fabricated and the one that's awaiting illustration in the consumer's psyche--match up.
Ebert knows the tradition and forms of cinema, and he's fully aware of its great potential. He also appreciates the challenge, within such huge commercial enterprises, of ever achieving a result resembling genuine spontaneity, serendipity, life. Not that movies should be servile "imitations of life" (aka "reality TV"), but at their best they can be informed, insightful, life-affirming. Optimally, film is both "truth 24 frames per second" (Godard) and "a ribbon of dreams" (Orson Welles)--Hemingway's "lie that tells the truth," albeit on a grand, public scale. Ebert is able to show how films like "Citizen Kane" combine sophisticated technique and technology with individual imagination and creativity to produce images filling a space that is best seen as a "screen-mirror." It tantalizes with images offing vicarious experiences; it provokes with images of startling self-recognition. It is at once the most individualized and the most archetypal of expressions, and we are served best by those rare films that affect us equally and simultaneously on both levels.
What impresses me about Ebert is his ability to fully "get" the unique importance of "mavericks" like Robert Altman, and the sheer joy that any serious student of the cinema (and of life) must derive from viewing films as spontaneous and even extemporaneous yet imaginative and inspired as "Nashville" and "Prairie Home Companion." The images of these films remain indelibly imprinted on the viewer's "mindscreen" for many years, even decades, after they've left the celluloid screen. And therein lies the true brilliance and importance of film--not in cookie-cutter scripts, more formulas calculated to extract dollars from the masses, more and more special effects--but in playful and resourceful, informed and imaginative representations that simply refuse to be corrupted by the technology and business behind their making.
Ebert at heart is a maverick and a teacher. Don't let that thumbs up / thumbs down business fool you. He's capable of sniffing out virtually every phony frame in a film and directing your attention to what is most illuminating, most human, most worth your precious time.