Ebert on How to Read a Movie

I’ve mentioned to many acquaintances my distaste for Roger Ebert’s binary thumb system of film reviewing, and I often tend to have a knee-jerk reaction against his overall film ratings. On the other hand, his criticism (rather than his reviewing) is highly sound, readable, and I wish he’d do more of it.

Just to be clear, reviewing is the week-to-week activity of watching and recommending (or not recommending) films, especially new releases, to audiences that haven’t yet seen the films. It’s intended to tell you whether or not you should go see a given film, whether a film is good or bad. Criticism is more indepth analysis of a film intended to help those who have already seen a film to better understand or appreciate it (or not). Criticism is not inherently negative; in fact, it’s often not evaluative at all. Rather, it’s analytical.

On his blog, Ebert recently posted an article entitled “How to Read a Movie”, in which he gives a few basics of visual composition, explaining how he goes through a film with his students shot by shot. This is criticism, and I’m always thankful when he writes something like this. It reminds me that there’s so much more to him than thumbs.

He talks about how we instinctively understand the way shots are laid out and blocked (people moving to the left feels negative, while people moving to the right seems positive – as I read this, I happened to be watching 12 Angry Men and noted that when the jurors leave the courtroom to deliver their “not guilty” verdict, they’re walking, yes, to the right), then gives an example from Hitchcock’s Notorious. This is right when spy Cary Grant learns that he’s basically condemned Ingrid Bergman to sleep with the enemy for the sake of gathering intelligence, and that she’s willing to do it.

In the Rio office of U.S. intelligence, Grant’s chief is positioned on the strong axis. Grant enters and talks to him, standing on the right (positive). Bergman enters, and begins to discuss her relationship with Rains [the enemy]. As she speaks, Grant walks to the left of the composition. She continues. He turns his back to us. We all instinctively read this as negative/rejecting/angry. Bergman goes into still more detail. Grant walks into the background. Wow. Now the picture has the intelligence chief as the stable presence on the strong axis, Bergman in the positive right foreground, Grant in the negative left background, and the “movement” from right front to left back, underlining the central emotional reality of the film, which will inform all of Grant’s behavior.

These are things that we as viewers subconsciously “get”, but having someone go through a scene like this and explain why we have the reactions we do (or at least, what within the shot triggers the reactions we have; I suppose it would take a psychologist to take the next step – a direction some film criticism has gone) is invaluable. In my experience with Ebert (to be honest, I rarely read his current reviews all the way through, in large part because I simply don’t like reviews as much as criticism), he tends to do this more in writing about older film, probably because of the seen/haven’t seen dilemma – it’s difficult to do quality criticism if you’re worried about spoiling the film for an audience that hasn’t seen it yet. His The Great Movies books are excellent, as are several of his articles about criticism collected in Alone in the Dark. I just wish his popular legacy could be those rather than his thumbs.

(Read the rest of the post and comments as well; I only quoted a bit, and it’ll make more sense in context. If the general topic is interesting, David Bordwell has written a number of good books on visual style and cinematic staging, and James Monaco’s How to Read a Film is a touchstone.)