Monday, September 7, 2009

Dim the Lights, Part 1: Wherein Illusions are Dispelled in the Dark

Welcome to Man vs Ebert, a chronicle of one man’s quest to watch, absorb, and evaluate each one of the films on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list. Let's be honest: I'm not claiming to be any authority on film. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. 

True, I’ve gone out to see a lot of the interesting, “artier” new releases at my local moviehole as well as amassing a collection of classics to watch in my Netflix queue. I’ve brushed up on a smattering of (mostly American) film history and learned to appreciate black-and-white not only as a quaint anachronism but a valid stylistic choice. I’ve even been known to watch many a subtitled film with eagerness and aplomb. And when a movie comes to a close, do I require a happy ending? No, I can stomach a finale that isn’t tied up in a pink candy ribbon, marinated in unicorn sweat, and baked with love and sugar for 20 minutes. No puppies, rainbows, or lawn gnomes required for me, thanks. I can take it raw.

These anemic criteria, I mistakenly believed, earned me the title of film aficionado. I thought I had the goods. Here is where the lies begin to unravel, reality creeps in, and big, honkin’ caveats inevitably affix themselves to each of my vaunted points of pride. This, ladies and gentlemen, is my reckoning.


To start, the artier new releases I saw invariably contained some fantasy or science fiction element that served as a comfortable entry point and made the more challenging aspects of the films more palatable. Fantasy and science fiction don’t automatically negate a film’s value, but on the other hand, biases can be blinders. Sure, I could ponder the nature of identity when inside a time machine, grapple with the inevitably of death while sipping from the fountain of youth, or even gauge the worth of one man’s life as I’m peeling apart layers upon layers of ever-expanding meta-narratives.  But would I ever be as eager to embrace a film without these elements—say, one whose protagonist, a grief-stricken father inflicted with the worst type of schizophrenia (mind, not the happy-fun Tinseltown strain that results in a bunch of wacky personalities that make life and love such a crazy adventure, but a crippling mental illness) who just might be kidnapping a child? The claw marks running the length of hardwood floor between my bedroom and the home theater would tell us no.

Yes, I had many classic and subtitled films lined up in my Netflix queue, huddled like a gaggle of asthmatic children who long ago abandoned any hope of being chosen by the team captains over that hulking Bruce Wayne or the always game Son of Apatow. Worse yet, when something like The Aura or Pierrot Le Fou would actually make it to my doorstep, the sad red envelope would sit on the shelf unloved, its seal unbroken while Watch It Now coughed up yet another episode of Lost, only to be sent back, rejected, its potential untapped.

Film history? I do not have the slightest clue what the difference between Truffaut and Bresson is, something I’m loath to admit on the messageboards I frequent. Upon hearing the term “French New Wave” (and this may or may not be a true story), I thought the words might be in reference to the Francophone version of a Blondie song. Black-and-white? I’ve seen a few, but what about silent films, an equally immersive viewing experience? Again, I’d seen a few, but could I really in all honesty call any of them a favorite? Why not? And I stopped citing the subtitle thing in shame the day after I stopped Tokyo Story mid-viewing. I swear I could hear the faint echoes of a baby Ebert weeping the minute I set my remote down.


Saddest of all, I swore more than two decades ago during a particularly traumatic viewing of The Boy Who Could Fly (a story which will no doubt be recounted at a later date for the more patient among you) that I would not shy from the potential of an unhappy ending. I now find myself avoiding movies that by their very premise will clearly not end well for anyone on the screen. The divide between intention and practice is wide and gaping and full of failure. Dancer in the Dark what? Lars Von who, now?

But it can't all end in tears, no matter what some filmmakers would like to tell you. I have plotted out a corrective, a strict regime to give me the film education I was until this point lacking.

Enter: Ebert.


More to come on Friday.

(One more thing: this blog is in no way affiliated with The Chicago Sun-Times or the man himself. But then, you probably guessed that already.)


  1. Adam--
    What a great undertaking. I'm excited to see where your film expedition leads a huge classic film lover (I actually CAN say my 2 favorite films are in black and white) I'm eager to see what you think of some of them...

  2. Thanks, Heather. One of your two favorite black-and-white films wouldn't happen to be Casablanca, would it? If so, you might be in for a treat next week.


  4. I've never forgiven ebert for disrespecting Mallrats...

  5. Actually, no, Casablanca is not one of my two...One of them made the list, so I will divulge the title at a later date. I liked Casablanca for the most part, but it is not even in my top 10 black and white films (I know, that's almost sacrilege)

  6. Garrett--

    If I were his age when it came out, I can't imagine I'd like it much either. The charms of the film are generation-specific.


    Ooh, intrigue! Looking forward to the reveal.

  7. Adam,

    I think this is a great project! I've seen some of these films, but not since my Introduction to Film Studies class and German Cinema class in college.

    I'm really looking forward to your take on some of these, especially Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, as these were films from German Cinema that have definitely stuck with me since I first saw them.

  8. German Cinema class? Wow.

    I had Aguirre on my queue for a year, and this was the motivation I needed to make myself watch it.

    I watched Caligari last October. I have a feeling it will be even creepier knowing the twist in advance.


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