PW spoke with film critic Roger Ebert from his Hollywood hotel about his new book, The Great Movies.
PW: How did you come to write these pieces?
RE: Movie critics are trapped in the present. They're always reviewing the movies that are opening next Friday. About five years ago, I began writing a longer piece in the paper every week about a great movie of the past, and I always had a book in mind when I started this project.
PW: Why did you choose these particular films?
RE: If you'd like to survey the greatest films in the first century of film, this might be a good place to start. I'm not saying these are the greatest 100 films. They're just great films. Many of them are mainstream, famous movies; others are fairly obscure.
PW: Why have you just now gathered these essays into one volume?
RE: A lot of movie-goers are cut off from the great past of the cinema. When I was in college, a foreign film was shown every Sunday night in the auditorium, and the campus film society showed classic films. You went because it was a cheap date and was right on campus. The auditorium at the University of Illinois was where I first saw Ikiru by Kurosawa, The 400 Blows by Truffaut, Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—those are all in this book. I saw them for a quarter because there was a film society.
PW: And now?
RE: Film societies were more or less put out of business by the introduction of home video. But contemporary film viewers have not had an organized way to get in touch with the films of the past. Video stores always have big displays of movies that are only six months old. When I was in college, everybody could recite Bogart's and W.C. Fields's dialogue; they went to Godard and Fellini and Bergman movies. Today, there are only about 5% as many openings of foreign films annually as there used to be. There are no longer revival houses. When I talk to younger people, I often find that they don't have the knowledge of old films that people their age had before home video. So I thought a book like this might call attention to the fact that there are 100 years of films out there.
PW: Why should someone read The Great Movies?
RE: People love movies, and they want some kind of an organized way to fill in some of the gaps. These essays work as kind of an introduction or a companion to looking at great movies. I think it's important that people not only think about Casablanca but also about Ozu or Bresson. These are all different flavors of cinema.
PW: You're not a fan of making lists of "great movies."
RE: No, but I do have to every once in a while. If you're a movie critic, you must. Usually, I don't bother with lists—there's just no end to them. You can't really rank works of art. The movies exist independently. I'm just saying, "Here's how much I liked them." It doesn't have any importance outside of my own head.
PW: What sets this book apart from other film books?
RE: These essays are about my experience in looking at the movies. I talk about seeing City Lights for the first time in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, watching Chaplin coming out on the balcony; and seeing The Third Man in a little theater in Paris when I was a kid on vacation in Europe for the first time. Movies don't exist in a vacuum. They exist as a relationship between our mind and the screen. When we saw it, who we were and what was going is very important.
PW: What makes a great movie?
RE: You can see it many, many times. Like a piece of music, it doesn't grow old as it grows familiar. Citizen Kane. Casablanca. Singin' in the Rain. Hitchcock's Vertigo. Raging Bull by Scorsese. La Dolce Vita by Fellini. These are great movies.