My family is a movie family. One of the great moments in my family’s history was when my parents got a VCR in 1984. Every weekend we would go to the neighborhood video store. I, my younger sister, and my parents as a couple would each pick a title. There was one more stop to get a half gallon of ice cream where we would rotate the picker, I always chose Edy’s Lemon Ice Cream – someone bring this back please! Then we would head home and gather on the couch with our ice cream to watch all three movies in a row. There was no curfew on these nights. Movies were worth staying up past our bedtime.
While my choices were surely contemporary, I was only 12, my parents inevitably chose something from 40s, 50s or 60s. They were so excited to see something they had long ago accepted they would never see again. The VCR was just magic for them. And for me. On that couch I learned about those classic films and film stars. The discussion was mostly about whether or not we liked something but sometimes there was a nugget of a life lesson from mom and dad such as how far a parent will go for their child (Mildred Pierce), how love can be cruel (Blue Angel) or how women get wacky over men (How to Marry a Millionaire).
As movie night continued our choices became wider and more varied. Unlike other aspects of my life, my parents didn’t censor our film choices at all. And there were certainly heavy themes in those old films. I remember being actually shocked when I saw the ending of Suddenly Last Summer and Gaslight. But there wasn’t much context for me, just an introduction to the history of the movies and setting context for new movies. My parents actually rented Brian DePalma’s porny Body Double for us all to see because it was a remake of Rear Window with Tippi Hedren’s daughter, Melanie Griffith. I was 14!
My family was also a PBS family. We watched Sneak Previews, and later At the Movies. I believe Siskel & Ebert is where I was first exposed to any kind of criticism, film or otherwise, packaged in a weekly review tv show. In Chicago, you were either a Sun-Times or Chicago Tribune family. We were a Trib household. My parents continue to get the print edition to this day. I always read Siskel’s and later Michael Wilmington’s reviews. It wasn’t until later when I got a job at an office with both papers in the break room that I started reading Ebert in the Sun-Times. But I already knew that I liked Ebert better. And after seeing Life Itself I am reminded why.
Life Itself is a loving and uplifting tribute to Roger Ebert directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame and executive produced by screenwriter Steven Zaillian – Schindler’s List, Searching for Bobby Fischer – and Martin Scorsese, director of the under-appreciated The King of Comedy. The film opens with a beautiful quote from Ebert:
“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
This lovely sentiment captures what I love most about Ebert’s writing. He was a humanist and a populist. I share in this belief. Movies over film. People over the elite. Movies are a shared experience and you don’t need to read Film Comment or Cahiers du Cinema to appreciate them. Few experiences match a shared belly laugh or collective gasp in a dark room with a hundred strangers. Movies are fun and sometimes there’s a life lesson in the center. Movies are a shared experience with the people around us, in our lives and in our world.
Side note – I confess I was fooled and confused by the voiceover in the film was Ebert himself from some pre-surgery time. But the voice performer captures Ebert terrifically, if not eerily, well.
What I enjoy most about Ebert on tv, in print or in interviews is how his humanism and passion for movies comes through. I appreciated that on the show they would include small films before independent was a category, older films that deserved attention and foreign films. I often wrote down these titles to bring to the rental store. While he could certainly be cutting – search for Ebert’s one-star reviews on RogerEbert.com for exemplary withering writing – he was never a jerk. Even at the end of a scathing review for Sex and the City 2 he acknowledges the fans will love it for all the reasons he hates it. I believe this demonstrates that he was able to appreciate without judging. He hates Carrie and Samantha but go ahead and watch them if that’s what you like. He promoted a love of movies above all else. But if he could help you gain a deeper understanding and meaning, all the better. Entertainment, statement, pure art – they all deserved our attention and contributed to our collective understanding of ourselves.
Unlike Siskel, there was something in Ebert that was undeniably accessible and inclusive. Ebert was smart, educated and possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of film but he was never showy about it. Even as he became entrenched in the inner circles of Hollywood he never name dropped. He could comment about narrative, visual style and provide the context of film history without ever talking down to you. This isn’t just because he was an avid film fan, but a gifted writer.
I think most people know Ebert was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. I don’t know this for sure but I don’t think he lorded this over anyone except Gene Siskel. I love that. Anyone who doubted their bickering was an act only has to watch the outtakes from their show to know it was real. While they could both articulate the emotional merits of a movies, neither was a softie. But that’s old news. Life Itself goes back to the beginning with Ebert. From the neighborhood daily he wrote when he was in grade school to becoming editor of the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini, it is clear this man was born to write. There is a remarkable piece highlighted about the church bombing in Alabama that killed 4 children:
“The blood of these innocent children is on your hands,” Martin Luther King cried out to the governor of Alabama. But that was not entirely the truth. The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling. And it is not new blood. It is old, so very old, and as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away. It clings and waits and in its turn it kills again.
Holy moly that’s good writing. And he was still in college! Even then there is a beauty to his prose that is plain but powerful. I can’t believe he was only 21 when he wrote that. I also learned that this guy just loved to write. In addition to his many books about the movies he also wrote about rice cookers, walking in London and defragging your PC.
Anyone with a paper and now the internet can find out there was plenty of intelligent heft behind the thumb. Ebert was an insightful viewer. I get annoyed with many other critics’ blindspots. If he was disappointed because he wanted to like something he said so. I don’t think he ever gave anyone a full out pass. It was never a foregone conclusion that he would love something. He was a passionate film fan who never over-intellectualized. He could watch and explain the esoteric without ever becoming so himself. He loved all movies and understood at its root, movies are entertainment for an intended audience as demonstrated in a hilarious and famous spat with Siskel about Full Metal Jacket and Benji the Hunted. Go to 2:48 here.
On the show, both Siskel and Ebert were able to abridge their thoughts to justify their up or down decision. It’s a testament to their chemistry and on-screen charisma that no one was ever quite able to replace Siskel on the show. With a range of guest co-hosts ranging from the erudite A.O. Scott to everyman Richard Roeper, no one could engage Ebert as Siskel had. I noticed his written reviews seemed to soften around this time. Some attribute this to his friendships and links to Hollywood. I think that the loss of Siskel and later his own illness brought his humanism to the forefront. I think he knew just how hard it was to get a movie made, distributed, audiences to see it and achieve any kind of financial success. I think he came to appreciate just how much went into that process and was more likely to give you a pat on the back for trying. Not trying was still unforgivable – see Sex and City 2 review again – but I like to think he wanted to encourage than discourage which is the mark of great criticism.
Life Itself does not reveal everything about Ebert. We never find out exactly how or why he wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – and I would LOVE to know. Interviews reveal that he could be a real jerk in life and how his marriage changed him. Ebert comes clean about his alcoholism and is absolutely no-holds-barred about his physical travails. We see him suffer through a daily suction process that is extremely difficult to watch, heroically work through physical therapy and lay all his physical weaknesses bare when he is hospitalized. He shows his old spark when championing the truth about himself for the documentary till the end. Steve James employs on-screen text for his correspondence with Ebert even as he tries to continue questioning Ebert by email at the end. When asked if Ebert can answer a just a few more questions from the hospital, Ebert’s brief reply, “i can’t” is devastating. I can only imagine that Ebert was too weak to even capitalize “i”. It seems small but it was a powerful moment for me.
I found an excerpt today from Life Itself, his memoir:
“I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
Having my own film appreciation evolve with Ebert’s writing and reviews, witnessing his graceful and brave exit and now this final insight, I feel compelled to enjoy, embrace and be grateful for life itself.