Of all the relationships that have risen and fallen in the midst of the pandemic, one person I never expected to form a meaningful friendship with was a deceased film critic.
I work in the book industry, and one of my first acquisitions from Random House’s “free library” was The Great Movies (Volume 1) by Roger Ebert. A surefire way to get me to my favorite theater, Film Forum, was when they were playing an old “Ebert Movie”. There, I watched movies that I might not have looked for otherwise: sky days, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimpand Good hearts and crowns. When a film by Ebert was presented at the Film Forum, I made it a point to go see it, read the writing of the book and tick the title in the table of contents. Gradually, I came into possession of the four volumes, and I looked through the lists from time to time, crossing the theater lists.
But when everything closed in March 2020, the volumes of The great movies took on more importance. I wasn’t joining the sourdough movement, but what if I could watch all the movies in these books?
Suddenly I had a project.
I made myself some guidelines, but no hard and fast rules: I didn’t need to watch “in order” – Ebert never ranked the movies; they were just his favorites, listed in alphabetical order. If I’d seen a movie before, I didn’t need to watch it again (and I had already seen about 30-40 by the time I started watching it seriously). I wouldn’t check the movie until I also read Ebert’s article. To save money, I tried to avoid subscribing to other streaming services, but vowed to get creative. Ideally, I’d try to see all the movies in all four volumes by the time the pandemic “ends”… when that might be.
I wasn’t joining the sourdough movement, but what if I could watch all the movies in these books?
The first was Yojimbodirected by Akira Kurosawa — I tried to get comfortable with a director I knew fairly well (and who hadn’t seen Rashomon in an introductory course in cinema or literature?). Yojimbo is a Japanese Western; as I learned from Ebert’s writing, it is inspired by a Novel by Dashiell Hammettand later inspired A fist full of dollars. Already, I knew I was in depth. I wanted more.
My project made me discover films of all kinds: silent films like the original The Phantom of the Opera; a French film about an abused donkey called Random balthazar, after which I jokingly decided to only watch movies about donkeys in the future. I tried not to be intimidated by movies over three hours like Barry Lyndon and Fanny and Alexander. Ebert took me out of my comfort zone with WR: Mysteries of the organism—an avant-garde film blending documentary and other elements exploring the intersection of communist politics and sexuality, and Topo, an explicit Mexican Western that was “lost” until 2007 and is now a cult classic.
I really liked a film about a Buddhist monk who lives on an island in the middle of a lake called Spring, summer, fall, winter… and spring. I watched ten hours of the moving and heartbreaking Holocaust documentary Holocaust and discovered a film by Peter Sellers entitled Be therewhich was surprisingly poignant and relevant to the political times we were living in.
As all of our worlds shrank, I was able to expand mine by traveling through time and space with my friend Roger.
Although a relatively low-key project, it was not without his trials. Among them were some obscure movies to hunt down that weren’t streaming. everywhere, to rent from any library or via Netflix DVD (yes, you can still do that!). Reader I broke down and bought them on eBay including Decalogue, a ten-part Polish television series reinterpreting the Ten Commandments. I also didn’t like some of Ebert’s quirks: why, for example, did he include The Bergman Trilogy into three separate films and The Apu Trilogy as one? It was slightly infuriating to me that I couldn’t just watch Pather Panchali and tick – I had to commit to three movies for the price of one. And did I really need to watch Ivan the Terrible: Part II, Roger? I think I got the gist after First part.
Eventually, I began to see where my tastes overlapped with Roger’s and where they digressed. Sometimes, really, I wondered what he was thinking by including some “great” movies. Take a glass of wine into me and I’ll give you a few select words on a Kiefer Sutherland film titled dark city. But I liked the fact that Roger was a critic for people: he could elevate films like The great Lebowski and groundhog day at the same level as The Battle of Algiers, and do it in a stylish, smart, and fun way. (I won’t even talk about the other film critic with a compendium of 1,000 “must-see” movies, sullied by his obvious and massive crush on Nicole Kidman.)
On April 18, 2021, about a week before I received my second COVID-19 vaccine, I checked The Fall of House Usher—last on my list. I felt a twinge of sadness as my 14 month conversation with Roger was coming to an end. The stakes were incredibly low, I admit. I didn’t take any notes beyond my checkmarks, and even when I tap on it, I can’t tell the exact number of movies I’ve watched, even though it’s somewhere between 350 and 400 ( there is no consensus on how many “Super Movies” exist because of how Roger listed trilogies and series).
But as all of our worlds shrank, I was able to expand mine by traveling through time and space with my friend Roger. He helped me understand my own tastes in films, and through his guidance I got to know myself (I now consider Yasujirō Ozu among my favorite directors, alongside Rob Reiner and the Holy Grail Terrys, Jones and Gilliam). Ultimately, with Roger’s help, I discovered the kind of beauty I want to pursue in my life in the future.