Roger and Me: Or, why Roger Ebert knows more about why I love movies than I do

Roger Ebert loved movies. All of them. Even the bad ones. Photo by Art Shay, via Magnolia Pictures.
Roger Ebert loved movies. All of them. Even the bad ones. Photo by Art Shay, via Magnolia Pictures.
This month I am thrilled that Fresno Filmworks is presenting the documentary “Life Itself” on Aug. 8. It’s about one of my personal heroes, Roger Ebert. The populist film critic brought a grounded perspective to American critique. His style has been called plainspoken, but I think that’s too simple a term to express his dynamic point of view.

Ebert loved movies and he loved talking about them. Good movies, bad movies, in-between movies. He loved movies for what they are, what they aren’t, what they can be for two hours in a dark theater. He loved them so enthusiastically that he managed not to let the experience of having watched nearly every movie that came to theaters for 40 years jade him into hating them for not being different movies. I didn’t always agree with him, but his reviews usually gave me a pretty good idea of how much I might like a movie.

In short, Ebert spoke to why I love movies. All of them. Of every kind. He didn’t ask that movies be any one thing, only that they create a world engaging enough to lose yourself for a few hours during a matinee. And he understood that the rush of a good movie can come in ways you least expect.

In tribute to the great critic, here are three films that are pure enjoyment for me. They include an undisputed classic, one that might be a classic one day, and one that’s really only a classic to me. In all three, Ebert’s review contains a line or a phrase that so perfectly expresses why I love these films that all I can do is tip my hat to a master.

Unlike so many people born in the decades after Alfred Hitchcock changed cinema, I didn’t see “Psycho” on TV. Despite being a Hitchcock fan, I never rented “Psycho” either. I didn’t see it until I was 25, and I caught a big-screen showing at the historic Tower Theatre.

I was thoroughly spoiled as to all the secrets of the film. I knew who would die in the first half, the secret reveled in the last half, and most of what was going to happen in between. By the time I saw it, “Psycho” was so ingrained into American folklore it would have been nearly impossible not to know the entire plot. I went to see it more because of my unwritten policy to never turn down the chance to see Hitchcock in a theater than anything else. I wasn’t really expecting to be scared or even particularly startled. How could I be, when I knew what would be coming every step of the way?

An hour and a half later, I left the theater and found that I was scared to walk across a dark parking lot. It’s a scary movie–a very scary movie. What is it about this film that disturbs us to our core and leaves us shaken for days?

When Roger Ebert put together a list of his favorite classic films, he added “Psycho” for exactly this unnerving quality. He lays a great deal of this on the character of Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, and how much we actually want to like him.

Ebert wrote:
“Perkins does an uncanny job of establishing the complex character of Norman, in a performance that has become a landmark. Perkins shows us there is something fundamentally wrong with Norman, and yet he has a young man’s likability, jamming his hands into his jeans pockets, skipping onto the porch, grinning.”

And that performance is so frightening, I almost can’t think about it. The villain, the murderous psycho, is in many ways the most likeable, the most relatable person in the film. Hitchcock draws us in and slowly allows us to see the world through Norman’s eyes. We come within a hair’s breath of wanting him to win for the sake of all of our collective repressed fear and rage.

Ebert concluded:
“What makes ‘Psycho’ immortal, when so many films are already half-forgotten as we leave the theater, is that it connects directly with our fears: Our fears that we might impulsively commit a crime, our fears of the police, our fears of becoming the victim of a madman, and of course our fears of disappointing our mothers.”

“Psycho” is available from iTunes and the Fresno County Public Library.
Read Roger Ebert’s full review

“Marie Antoinette”
Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film about the life and death of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI’s doomed reign as the last of the Bourbon family to rule France was not exactly a critical slam dunk. Reviews were mixed, with some loving the dreamlike quality and others dismissing it as an offensive trifle about a painful and bloody chapter in history. Roger and I loved it!

I view “Marie Antoinette” as less of a movie and more of a poem about the dangers of too much money and power being given instead of earned. Coppola doesn’t modernize the story so much as try to imagine the bubble of Versailles through a lens of modern celebrity. She sets it in the now. Not in 2006 exactly, but in the right now as we experience it.

Here’s how Ebert put it:
“Coppola has been criticized in some circles for her use of a contemporary pop overlay — hit songs, incongruous dialogue, jarring intrusions of the Now upon the Then. But no one ever lives as Then; it is always Now. Many characters in historical films seem somehow aware that they are living in the past. Marie seems to think she is a teenager living in the present, which of course she is — and the contemporary pop references invite the audience to share her present with ours. Forman’s “Amadeus” had a little of that, with its purple wigs.”

I couldn’t have said it better. The Marie and Louis of this movie don’t know they’re doomed. They don’t know they’re about to become historical symbols of greed and excess. They don’t know how people will judge them in 200 years. They only know the world, day, minute they are living in. Coppola’s dedication to viewing this couple free of irony allows a narrative to unfold without the burden of hindsight.

“Marie Antoinette” is available from iTunes and the Fresno County Public Library.
Read Roger Ebert’s full review

“The Fast and the Furious”
It was really only a matter of time before I blogged about “The Fast and The Furious.” Yes, that movie. In a blog for Fresno Filmworks. Yup, we’re doing this!

I love this movie beyond reason, logic, or good taste. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always a good time to sit down for a re-watch. I don’t want to live a life where I am no longer inexpiably entertained by this tale of Los Angeles street racers and the undercover cop trying to take them down.

Not that I mean to mislead you into thinking this is some sort of undiscovered art film. It’s exactly what you think. A paper-thin plot stolen from “Point Break” (which probably stole it from someone else), cheesy dialog, actors of questionable talent, and lots of fast cars. Lots and lots of fast cars. And I don’t think I could love it more.

But why? It’s not really my type of film, and I wouldn’t know a diesel engine from the actor Vin Diesel. So why does this piece of teenage summer fluff have such a strong hold on my heart? Why do I want to stop writing this blog right now and go watch it again?

Let’s ask Roger Ebert:
“‘The Fast and the Furious’ remembers summer movies from the days when they were produced by American-International and played in drive-ins on double features. It’s slicker than films like “Grand Theft Auto,” but it has the same kind of pirate spirit — it wants to raid its betters and carry off the loot.”

Yes! Thank you, Roger! And thank you for appreciating good genera even when the genera involves car being driven really fast for no good reason. This film is the definition of a guilty pleasure. A movie that gives you every reason to walk out and only one reason to stay: to have a really good time. “The Fast and The Furious” may not be a “good movie” in an award-winning, important film sense — or maybe any sense — but I’ll be enjoying it long after I’ve forgotten many an Oscar winner.

“The Fast and the Furious” is available from iTunes and the Fresno County Public Library.
Read Roger Ebert’s full review

Finally, as a bonus, my last “family movie night” honorable mention recommendation for the summer is “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Gene Wilder. Roger Ebert’s full review trumps anything I could possibly say about this film.

Thanks for everything, Roger.

Fae Giffen studies at San Jose State in the School of Library and Information Science graduate program. She serves on the Filmworks board, working on marketing and development.