(What? "The Great Movies"? Explanation here.)
I admire Roger Ebert a lot. He writes well, which means he can deliver an inspiring rave or a hilariously devastating pan, but he also thinks long and hard about movies and is capable of expressing his ideas well. And, he's fair to a movie. If it's just trying to get cheap laughs, he's not going to attack it for not mustering an rationalist critique of the mechanized zeitgeist. Or whatever.
But that doesn't mean that I always agree with his assessment. In The Great Movies, Ebert writes lovingly of both 8 1/2 and Duck Soup, presenting all sorts of reasons why they are the most wonderful things ever filmed. The reviews made me anxious to watch the movies, and rereading them now gives me some deeper appreciation for what I have watched. Unfortunately, the part in between -- the part where I actually had to sit there watching these dogs -- was pretty excruciating.
Federico Fellini, 1963
There might be a defense of 8 1/2 in that it was a product of its era, but hell -- the visual art, the architecture, the literature of the early 1960s was all sophisticated enough. In this movie, absurdist fantasy is approached with all the subtlety and restraint of the sophomore class play. Even the technical aspects of filmmaking are frankly bad, for instance with clumsy lip-synching of the dialogue.
The central character wanders in and out of a fantasy life that is considerably less interesting than his real life. Both are inhabited by characters who are supposed to be grotesquely overdrawn, but who come across as just badly overacted. You can tell that the film is exploring psychological themes, because every thirty seconds or so a priest walks by.
The Plot: A burnt-out film director juggles his failing marriage, his pathetic mistress, and the demands of the producer, cast, and crew of a science fiction movie he is supposed to be making. Unfortunately for him, it is the heyday of existentialism and he has lost interest in all of the above. Every thirty seconds or so, a priest walks by.
The Visuals: There are two good things about 8 1/2. One is an enormous, incomplete set for the science fiction movie-within-the-movie. It is a very cool looking thing. The second is a scene where the main character is at the train station to meet his mistress. When she doesn't get off the train, he decides it's for the best. Then, as the train pulls away, he sees that she simply got off on the opposite platform. It's a nice moment.
Otherwise, it's pretty standard stuff, with occasional little sprees and montages to pack in shots of hot young women, mother figures, odd little religious-ish vignettes, and of course the priest parade.
The Script: Eh.
Prognosis: Recommended for people who have to watch it because it has been assigned for a film class, or people who want to talk loudly about films, or people curious to see what the Emperor looks like naked.
Marx Brothers, 1933
Of all the genres, comedy is said to age the worst. I had plenty of time to meditate on this as I sat stone-faced through Duck Soup, although in fairness it has the virtue of being nice and short.
In more fairness, you can tell from this movie that Groucho Marx was an extraordinary comedian. Basically, the movie is just a clothesline on which to hang stand-up bits, and much of the material is pure gold. Seeing this stuff with an audience would help, since it is hard to laugh at stand-up by yourself. But even at that, a comedian needs an audience to respond to, and Groucho's delivery in Duck Soup often sounds like it is being recited off the script for the sixth or seventh take. It probably is. It's like an exhibit of stand-up comedy behind glass at the museum.
The less said about the other brothers, the better.
So, it's mostly a grueling slog mitigated by great one-liners. Plus, two great scenes. The famous "mirror" scene, where Groucho tries to expose his supposed reflection -- actually one of the brothers in Groucho drag -- is mesmerizing. A scene near the end where a call for help is met by a set of increasingly absurd stock footage, starting with soldiers on the march and degenerating through fire engines and parades towards elephants crashing through the jungle, is good lunatic fun. It is pretty satisfying in its sheer randomness.
The Plot: None.
The Visuals: On the cheap. Occasional genre parody.
The Script: I'd rather just listen to Groucho talk.
Prognosis: Recommended for those who were teens during the 30s, or unreconstructed Little Rascals fans, or film historians, or the very stoned.