Life Itself – Roger Ebert and the art of writing on movies

life itselfCNN seems to have gotten into the business of making movies. I’m not sure if news alone isn’t cutting it anymore in their battle with Fox, but recently in addition to the daily dose of Anthony Bourdain travel shows, they started putting out documentaries. Last year it was a takedown of SeaWorld in Blackfish and just this weekend they unveiled a movie on the life of Roger Ebert. Which is a great thing for me, as Roger Ebert is the critic I’ve read above anyone else. And I’m kinda excited they’re making movies about movie critics these days.

For those of you who don’t know Roger Ebert, he was the movie critic for the Chicago Sun Times for the past half a century. That’s a long time. Here’s a man whose first review was of 1961’s La Dolce Vita (whose iconic blond bombshell – Anita Ekberg – incidentally passed away this weekend) and his last was the 2013 Terence Malick picture To the Wonder. He was the first movie critic to receive a Pulitzer prize and he became a well-known TV personality in the eighties and nineties when he hosted a weekly show with fellow critic Gene Siskel. Their trademark ‘two-thumbs-up’ for a time was the only thing that mattered to studios and could make or break you.

Of course I didn’t know any of this when I first started reading his reviews. I discovered him, as any reasonable modern person would do, through the internet. I think it was in the early 2000s – or aughts if you prefer – and the International Movie Database was my movie bible. This was before the horrific redesign, which got rid of the left-hand sidebar (because  who doesn’t like scrolling to the end of a page to find what you need), and there was still a link close to the top with a list of external reviews. More often than not, Ebert’s would be first.

So I read his reviews on any movie I was looking up. And as I got a liking for his style, I began to go straight to his corner on the Sun Times website every Friday morning to read up on the 3-5 new movies that had come out that week often months before they would hit Europe. And once I went there every week it was a short click to his blog on which he would discuss anything under the sun in an expansive free-philosophizing style.

So what was so great about his writing? Well, let me give a couple of my personal favorites:

“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.

 I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than “The Brown Bunny”

and of course his classic destruction of the by now utterly unknown North:

I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.

A still from The Fall

But entertaining as these were, it’s not why I liked him. Many reviewers can do great put-downs but only the rare view can inspire you to see or re-see a movie and that’s where he really shines. Ebert really loved movies and it showed in his writing on such relative unknowns as the Up Series or wondrously visual extravaganzas like The Fall.

Here he is on the latter:

Tarsem’s “The Fall” is a mad folly, an extravagant visual orgy, a free-fall from reality into uncharted realms. Surely it is one of the wildest indulgences a director has ever granted himself. Tarsem, for two decades a leading director of music videos and TV commercials, spent millions of his own money to finance “The Fall,” filmed it for four years in 28 countries and has made a movie that you might want to see for no other reason than because it exists. There will never be another like it.

Because of Ebert I have seen many movies I otherwise would not have and even though I often didn’t agree with his assessment (he always was a better writer than a critic) he judged a movie by what it was trying to do and not by what some critic thought it ought to do.

Life Itself tells the story of how he became a critic, how he was once an alcholic, waged endless petty wars with his fellow critics and in the final years of his life struggled through debilitating disease. Ironically it’s in the these latter years that I read most of his work and the setbacks he suffered never dulled the power of his writing. Life Itself is a fascinating portrait of a man who loved film, and a great introduction to one of the best writers on the subject.

life itself poster_

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