EBERT'S BIGGER LITTLE MOVIE GLOSSARY
by Roger Ebert
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Clichés are fun. In 1996, Diana Wynne Jones turned her attention to the clichés which appear throughout fantasy novels with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. A year earlier, Roger Ebert published Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary, which had codified several humorous clichés which have appeared in the movies over the decades. While Jones’s book has made something of a deserved splash in the SF world, Ebert’s book did not remain on the shelves for very long. Nevertheless, it apparently did generate an active following of fans who sent in suggestions for updates. Ebert has now provided a new edition, called Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary, which contains all the classic clichés from the earlier book (“Harrison Doors”), as well as a large number of new entries, many, apparently sent in by fans of the earlier work.
The best descriptions are the ones which immediately call to mind a variety of films. Others, however, obviously are based on a single example. In a few instances, these clearly refer to a single film or actor, but often they are clichés which are seen again and again in films, both recent and classic.
Several different definitions are used throughout the book to describe essentially the same cliché. For example, “Hungry Harry Rule,” “Real Cut Up,” and “Keep it Refrigerated until Ready to Barf” all describe the use of food in morgues. It almost seems as if Ebert received these entries from his readers and didn’t bother to check to see if they had already been included. If it is simply a matter of using the various terms, he could simply have included all the different titles in the description.
The inclusion of clichés in films in no way denigrates the films or even demonstrates a lack of imagination on the filmmaker’s part. In fact, the use of clichés in new and surprising ways is one of the ways film-making can grow and be self-referential. While Ebert doesn't discuss the specific use of clichés in the book, the very fact of the book's existence causes the reader to ask why these clichés continue to be recycled.
The book is illustrated throughout by nineteenth-century-style line drawings, which seem out of place in a book about a medium which is primarily a twentieth-century phenomenon. The drawings never add anything to the text and frequently detract from them. If Ebert, or his publishers, felt the need to include illustrations, depictions of some of the films discussed would have been more appropriate if the rights could have been purchased.
A useful feature which was not included would have been a keyword index, which would have allowed the reader to quickly look up all the clichés which dealt with car chases. Even without such an index, the reader can quickly flip back and forth through the book to find the definition he is looking for, and probably a few other clever descriptions along the way.
Ebert ends the book with a few short columns from other sources. These indicate the proper way to read movie ads (by Doug Saunders), a rating system for movie monsters (by Greg Matty), the laws of cartoon motion (by Mark O’Donnell) and an anonymous listing of general clichés. A similar means of determining a films “Ebert Number,” based on the number of unintentional clichés which appear in a given film would have been a worthwhile addition.
Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary serves the dual purpose of allowing the reader to laugh at the things which consistently appear in films while thinking about the processes and tropes which are employed in making films. The book works so well because it is very clear that both Ebert and his contributors make fun of films because they love the medium and are not deconstructing them out of malice. The book can be enjoyed either as a straight read, or simply dipping into it to find the gems. The best way to read the book, however, is a loud, with a friend, while watching movies on videotape or television.
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