Rob and Roger #2: Reviewing Ebert’s “The Great Movies”

The Great Movies

Film critic Roger Ebert‘s book “The Great Movies” collects his essays on one hundred movies. As Ebert says “they are not “the” 100 greatest films of all time, because all lists of great movies are a foolish attempt to codify works which must stand alone. But it’s fair to say: If you want to make a tour of the landmarks of the first century of cinema, start here.”

In addition to the book which collects a selection of one hundred essays, the complete and on-going series of essays can be found online at Ebert’s website (direct link).

Though this site is called “The Cinephile” I must admit I have yet to catch up with a number of these great movies. I plan to correct this and will regularly schedule a viewings of the movies until I have seen (or re-seen in some cases) all one hundred movies. I plan to view them in alphabetical order, as they are presented in the book, however there will be exceptions.

2001: A Space Odyssey

One of my high school physics teachers once surprised the class by leading us out of the classroom, down the hallway, and into a meeting room we had rarely been in. He wheeled out a large TV (one of those gigantic rear projector type TVs that seem to be on the verge of exploding at any moment), hit the power button, and produced a VHS cassette (kids, ask your parents). But this wasn’t an educational video, it was none other than the Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The teacher excitedly explained that this film brought science to life. The opening lead to a few guffaws but I have to say I enjoyed it and for perhaps the first time that school year I was a little disappointed when the end of class bell lead to the film being cut off.

Coming back to the film months (ok, years) later I found my old science had a point. It is science fiction in the best sense, creating drama and excitement from spectacular events while demonstrating an understanding of scientific realities.

A story created through the collaboration of Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick would always be unusual and potentially challenging. Kubrick was a successful and respected filmmaker by this point in his career. He was given significant artistic freedom by the studio. He wanted to make a “good” science fiction film; feeling previous efforts had been unsuccessful. Clarke was a collaborator who offered both scientific knowledge and demonstrable skill in fiction writing. Together they developed a story that incorporated many grand ideas of science fiction (human evolution, extra-terrestrial life, and artificial intelligence) writing while offering opportunities for the kind of unique imagery available through film.

Opening with three minutes of darkness and giving the audience only music to set the tone the first of series of bold film-making decisions that occur throughout the film. I’m not aware of another film with such an opening and I was starting to wonder if I had a failure of equipment. The novelty continues as the opening title states “The Dawn of Man” and instead of the sights we may usually expect from a science fiction film (the space ship of Star Wars or the cityscape’s of Blade Runner) we are shown largely desolate landscapes of earth before revealing the early ape-like man. These scenes taken together are an astonishing opening for a film.

The way this opening section ends and we skip time and space to the future has been regarded as a brilliant example of cutting ever since the film’s release. An ape-man, who has developed a new awareness from an unusual object, throws a bone into the air and in a remarkably smooth, single cut we are suddenly in space. The cut feels almost natural. I cannot imagine a more efficient way to move the story forward.

Given the ape-men of the opening scenes it is not surprising that there is no dialogue in these scenes. What is surprising is how little dialogue is used throughout the rest of the film. As Ebert says; “2001: A Space Odyssey” is in many respects a silent film. There are few conversations that could not be handled with title cards.”

Rather than driving a narrative with dialogue Kubrick combines classical music with his visuals. These works are matched so well with their scenes that they serve to heighten the awe of the visuals and lend majesty to the action. It is an aspect of the film that is now famous. Indeed one can hardly hear the “Blue Danube” without thinking of the film.

I think, however, that the scenes without music are equally as effective. Kubrick makes great use of sound effects to create atmosphere. I particularly think of the scenes in which the astronauts Dave and Frank must exit the space craft to perform maintenance. There is no musical accompaniment, just the eery sound of their breathing in the space suit. It helps the viewer feel the isolation of space and the slim oxygen supplies keeping the astronauts alive. When Frank is knocked into space his breathing suddenly cuts out and we’re left with silence as he hurtles out into space. It’s a shock created without with the sudden sting of strings that is used in so many horror films yet it is just as frightening.

This section of the film, the “Jupiter Mission” section, is probably the most easily enjoyable section of the film. It is the most driven by narrative and dramatic tension and introduces the films most interesting character, HAL. The representation of artificial intelligence presented here must surely have served as inspiration for the many filmmakers who have come since. The recent Moon cleverly plays with the conventions established here.

Ebert writes of his experience at the Los Angeles premiere where some audience members (Rock Hudson being one) walked out, irritated at the films pace and lack of clear narrative climax. I have to say some shots linger a little too long for my taste and the sequence in which Dave reaches Jupiter (the “stargate” sequence Ebert refers too) perhaps has one more psychedelic star field than I felt necessary.

Despite this slight excess it is clear that 2001 presents it’s intriguing ideas with exceptional visual and aural skill. It is deserving of it’s place amongst the Great Movies.

Further Reading:
Ebert’s Essay
The Kubrick Site

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