SCOTT SIMON, host:
One of the pleasures of reading Roger Ebert's "The Great Movies II" is to be reminded that Mr. Ebert is not just a man who sticks his thumbs up or down on television. He is one of the most prolific modern writers about film, between regular reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, books and appearances, reflecting on films with a lucid and graceful style. Mr. Ebert received the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. This second assortment of great movies is not any kind of ranking or list so much as an opportunity to share a few essential thoughts about what makes these movies important and interesting to him, from "Rashomon" to "The Producers," from Ingmar Bergman's "Cries and Whispers" to "Goldfinger" with Bond, James Bond.
Roger Ebert joins us from our studios in Chicago.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. ROGER EBERT (Film Critic): Hi, Scott. Nice to be with you.
SIMON: And as we said, it's not a list, but what got a film included in this company?
Mr. EBERT: A long time ago, about eight, nine years ago, I went to my editor at the Sun-Times, and I said I'd become aware that moviegoers were increasingly living in the present. They were not aware of older films. So I thought, `Well, I'll go back and I'll just re-review or even review for the first time movies from the first century. It will be good for me and it will be helpful for people looking for movies to look at.' And so I did it in a random way.
SIMON: Without any further explanation, let's begin with a film that--aside from "Citizen Kane," this used to be called perhaps the greatest American film of all time, and that's John Ford's 1956 film "The Searchers." John Wayne is a man obsessed with finding his niece, who'd been kidnapped by the Comanches.
(Soundbite of "The Searchers")
Unidentified Actor #1: I found 'em! They're camped about a half mile over.
Unidentified Actor #2: Did you see Debbie?
Unidentified Actor #1: No, but I saw Lucy, all right. She was wearing that blue dress and she was...
Mr. JOHN WAYNE: (As Ethan Edwards) What you saw wasn't Lucy.
Unidentified Actor #1: Oh, but it was, I tell ya.
Mr. WAYNE: What you saw was a buck wearing Lucy's dress. I found Lucy back in the canyon. Buried her with my own hands.
SIMON: What makes "The Searchers" a great film?
Mr. EBERT: Its single-mindedness, I think, the fact that John Wayne wants to get Natalie Wood, his niece, back from the Indians. There's a buried level of racism in the film in that he hates Indians, and to some degree it's suggested that he might want to get her back in order to kill her because she may have slept with an Indian brave, although that's not how the film finally resolves itself.
SIMON: Was John Ford trying to promote or expose those racial attitudes?
Mr. EBERT: I think that in "The Searchers" he more or less signs on, although as a man I think he had a great affection for Native Americans. But, you know, I don't believe that people in movies need to do only what would approve of. In fact, a movie can be very useful if it's about people who do things that we don't approve of because it helps us to understand who they were, what they did and why, helps us to get in touch with history. When you revise history, you lose it.
SIMON: Next one I want to ask you about, and the one foreign film that makes it into our Whitman's Sampler of your book here, is Fellini's "Amacord."
Mr. EBERT: Yeah.
SIMON: 1973 film--that wonderful scene where the snow begins to fall in the small Italian town, and you realize that the memories we have are actually the memories of the embellishments and re-tellings we make of memories over the years.
Mr. EBERT: Yes. "Amacord," which means `I remember,' is generated by Fellini's childhood in a town on the Adriatic coast. And the movie recreates a very funny family with lots of eccentric members, including a grandfather who hides up in a tree, and has that score by Nino Rota, the great composer whose sound is identified always with Fellini films.
(Soundbite of music from "Amacord")
Mr. EBERT: It's a film about nostalgia. It's a film about how things seem bigger and more beautiful when we have them in our memory.
SIMON: Another film that I think will surprise maybe some film snobs, but I think it absolutely belongs--John Hughes' 1987 film "Planes, Trains & Automobiles."
Mr. EBERT: Well, thank you for supporting that choice. Actually, when the film came out I gave it three stars in my print review, not four stars. And I found that we began to look at it every Thanksgiving. And then it grew on me and grew on me and it became, in a sense, a classic, the story of two lonely men on the road, Steve Martin and John Candy, one of them much lonelier than the other one realizes. There's a lot of laughter in the film, a lot of poignancy. And I just think that we go to movies for different reasons at different times, and that not all movies need to be very serious and intellectual art films in order to be great.
SIMON: I hope you wouldn't mind sitting still for a clip.
Mr. EBERT: Sure.
SIMON: It's not from the touching part of the film--well, it is touching, but in quite another sense...
Mr. EBERT: Oh, I bet I know what it's going to be.
SIMON: It's a classic scene. The two Chicago businessmen...
Mr. EBERT: Yep.
SIMON: ...waking up in a...
Mr. EBERT: Yep.
SIMON: ...small Kansas motel room one morning.
Mr. EBERT: That's it. That's the scene. Everybody remembers that scene, yeah.
(Soundbite of "Planes, Trains & Automobiles")
Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Actor): (Neal Page) Why are you holding my hand?
Mr. JOHN CANDY (Actor): (As Del Grifith): Where's your other hand?
Mr. MARTIN: Between two pillows.
Mr. CANDY: Those aren't pillows!
(Soundbite of screaming)
Mr. MARTIN: See that Bears game last week?
Mr. CANDY: Yeah.
Mr. MARTIN: Helluva game. Helluva game.
Mr. CANDY: Helluva game, yeah.
Mr. MARTIN: Bears got a great team this year.
Mr. CANDY: (Yawns)
Mr. MARTIN: They're going to go all the way.
Mr. EBERT: Yeah, what about da Bears?
Mr. EBERT: That's right. You've got to change the subject to sports to show that they're really men.
SIMON: Oh. Let me introduce this next film we're going to talk about with the clip--1937 film.
Mr. EBERT: OK.
(Soundbite of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs")
Unidentified Men: (Singing in unison as the Seven Dwarfs) Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go.
Mr. EBERT: So that's--What?--Sneezy, Sleepy, Doc, Dopey...
Mr. EBERT: "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." You know, Eisenstein, who made "Potemkin," called "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" the greatest motion picture of all time when he saw it. And certainly in 1937 it was just as revolutionary as a few years later "Citizen Kane" would be, because what Walt Disney did in full color, with hundreds of thousands of hand drawings and the way that he moved the camera within the frame even though he was moving it within drawn pictures, was astonishing, because before that, the animation camera tended to just look at a frame that was static and things moved within it. The way he created those characters, the way he found to animate the characters--Disney found out right away that if you made the center of balance low, around the butt, they looked funnier that way than if they stood more upright or seemed more human. And if you think now of all of the films that have come since by Disney and everyone else leading right down to the present day, it was given to one man to create this entire kind of motion picture, and he did it with a film that is still a masterpiece, still plays.
SIMON: I want to ask you about "War of the Worlds." Big film that...
Mr. EBERT: Yeah.
SIMON: ...has obviously opened. I'm assuming you've seen it.
Mr. EBERT: I have.
SIMON: What do you think of it?
Mr. EBERT: I was disappointed. In the paper I gave it two out of a possible four stars. But here's the thing, because I got in a big fight about this with Richard Roeper on the show that plays this weekend. He says, `Are you saying that this--people with $10 standing at the multiplex should not go to see this movie?' And I said, `Thumbs and stars are not absolute. They are relative to genre and to expectations and to context.' Now if "E.T.," "Close Encounters" and "Minority Report" are four-star movies from Steven Spielberg, then "War of the Worlds" is a two-star movie from Steven Spielberg. There's no particular points given for making films that only play in art houses. The idea is to fill the seats in the theaters.
Mr. EBERT: And he does that. He makes films that play all over the world for all kinds of people and reach them and touch them, and he has a gift for doing that.
SIMON: Well, Mr. Ebert, nice talking to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. EBERT: OK. Take care. Bye.
SIMON: Roger Ebert in Chicago. His new book is "The Great Movies II."
And to see scenes from "Amarcord" and other Roger Ebert favorites, you can come to our Web site, npr.org.
Thumbs up. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.