Saturday, September 12, 2015

At the Movies

Film: Life Itself
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

It’s not a stretch to call Roger Ebert an inspiration. For anyone who keeps a movie blog, Roger Ebert is in some way the cause of that blog. Ebert democratized film criticism. He made it something that everyone could do, opening up the conversation on what film is and what film means to everyone. People have probably talked about movies since the movies began, but with their television show, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel made seriously discussing films something we could do. So when I found Life Itself, a film about Ebert’s last days streaming on NetFlix, I knew it was something I would watch. I also figure there’s a 50/50 chance of it appearing in the next edition of the 1001 Movies because of how much of an impact Ebert had on film criticism.

I’m not, however, going to discuss the film that much here. It isn’t exactly a warts-and-all biography, although there are plenty of warts on display. It is an honest look at the man’s life, though, looking at his faults and failures and his triumphs. Like any good biography, it’s filled with quotes from the man himself as well as from friends, colleagues, and admirers and a great deal from his wife Chaz. It’s also a frank look at his last days, his battle with cancer, and his how, despite losing his ability to talk in his last years, how he continued to be a part of the conversation, continued to be vital to film and film culture, and his own reflections of a life lived sitting in the dark and staring at a screen.

That’s really all the summary you’re going to get from me. For me, Ebert was, is, and will continue to be a hero. I said above that movie bloggers are beholden in some respect to Roger Ebert and to Gene Siskel, and that’s absolutely true of me. I was a dedicated fan of Siskel and Ebert At the Movies under its various names and incarnations. Of the two, it was Roger Ebert with whom I seemed to agree more often than not. Sure, there were plenty of times that I think he got something wrong, but while he was in his prime, he was the critic who I read more than any other and the one whose opinions I found to be the most in tune with my own.

I attribute a great deal of this blog to the influence of Ebert. Both Ebert and Siskel allowed someone like me—someone who had no real background in film aside from simply loving film—to join the conversation and throw my opinions into the mix. I’ve also tried to adopt as much as I can the opinion on criticism and reviewing from their example as I can. I have strong opinions on the movies I watch in general, and I’m not always in the majority. Even when I am, there are people who disagree with me. I’ve tried to encourage that as much as possible not by modifying my own opinions to match those of readers, but by not stifling what others have to say. I think it’s worked. I love respectful disagreement because it’s what makes the conversation happen. If we always agree, we have nothing to talk about, but if we simply argue, we have nothing to show for it.

I started this blog almost six years ago to because I think my opinions are any great shakes, but because I like to talk about movies. I particularly like to talk about movies with people who know what they’re talking about. That’s part of it, at least. I do this also because I wanted to chronicle my own progress as a film viewer, to see if from humble and amateur beginnings I could make my way into something still amateur but at least knowledgeable and informed. I wanted to see if I could make myself into not an authority, but someone who could speak with authority on a topic I love. I have Ebert to thank for that, too, since he is one of the people who made me think that such a thing was possible.

Have I done that? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Roger Ebert gave me a gift, and gave one to everyone else who loves film and loves writing and talking about film. He made it okay for us to do. Whether my opinions affect anyone else, change a mind or two, or even get someone to watch a movie they might have otherwise overlooked is a bonus. I’ve always done this blog for myself more than for anyone else, and that’s a legacy from Ebert as well—he made it okay for all of us to have our own opinions and our own reasons for them. Art affects us all differently. Not all film is art, of course, but enough of it is. Pursuing film has opened my eyes to that, and to seeing things that have affected me permanently, changed me in ways I still can’t fathom or categorize.

Life Itself is not a tribute to Ebert, but simply a discussion of who he was. That fact makes it a much more meaningful tribute than any worshipful biography could have been. It’s honest and it’s inspiring, and I’m happy to have seen it.

Why to watch Life Itself: Because Roger Ebert should be a hero to everyone who loves film.
Why not to watch: If you’re reading this blog, there’s no reason not to watch this.


  1. I didn't, like you, watch Siskel and Ebert At the Movies(I don't live in the US), although I've watched many clips on youtube and enjoyed his reviews online. Ebert had a lot to give and inspires us bloggers to do the same. Sometimes these types of docs just have non-stop praise, I liked how Life Itself was brave enough to explore his weaknesses as well as his strengths.

    1. That's what I liked about it, too. Ebert was willing to put himself out there in a way that most people wouldn't, and I appreciate that fully.

  2. Well written and thoughtful post. You are so right about Ebert practically birthing us amateur critics. I used to watch At the Movies when I was a youngster. Back then, I often disagreed with him, but mostly because I had no idea what he was really saying. Yet, I still watched every week because I enjoy the lively banter between he and Ebert and injecting myself into the conversation in some small way. They could never heat me, of course, but many times I called them crazy for not giving the latest action blockbuster or slasher flick two thumbs up. As I got older and really started to become something of a cinephile, I found myself spending hours reading through his reviews of films I had seen and agreeing with them more often than not. Even when I didn't, his reviews were written in a way that helped me understand why. And they were always engaging. That's something I strive for. I put Life Itself on my Netflix list months ago, but just haven't gotten to it. Needless to say I will soon.

    1. I think you'll find a lot to like with this. Ebert was a special critic.Siskel was a damn fine critic as well; I just didn't agree with him as much.

      These days, Michael Phillips is the guy I look to the most. I try to read Elvis Mitchell as well. I almost always disagree with Mitchell, but his reviews are so well written that I fully understand why he thinks the way he does. Even though I disagree with him, I respect the hell out of how well he tells me I'm wrong.

      For a number of years, if Michael Phillips and Roger Ebert liked it and Rex Reed hated it, I knew I'd like it.

  3. I used to watch Siskel and Ebert haphazardly. It was syndicated on a local broadcast station in the 80s and they seemed to move the time of it around to suit live, local events they were broadcasting. The first mention I ever heard of a Studio Ghibli film was when they reviewed Kiki's Delivery Service and I remembered it years later when Disney got the rights to release the films in the U.S. on video.

    As for Life Itself I do have to admit that the later scenes with Ebert where they had fashioned his mouth into a permanent grin after the removal of his jaw made me a little uncomfortable. I'm sure that if I had been around him I would have soon gotten used to it. I had read about the fact that people had taken all of his DVD commentaries, TV shows, interviews, etc. and used them to build a database of words in his own voice so that the computer still sounded somewhat like him, so I was interested in seeing and hearing that in the film.

    This just missed my Top 10 for the year. I did have one documentary above it - Citizenfour.

    1. It's brought up in the film that Siskel and Ebert seemed to go out of their way to talk about movies that a lot of people might not see and to promote smaller films that they really liked. It's one of the things that I liked about their format. They reviewed enough movies every week that they had time and space to bring up films that might not get any play for the general public. My guess is that a lot of young filmmakers got boosts from their show because Siskel and Ebert truly loved film and wanted to promote what was best in film.

      I agree with the discomfort regarding Ebert's appearance. But that's one of the things that makes the film as worthwhile as it is--he was willing to be on camera despite that appearance, to say "This is who I am now."

  4. Here here! Great review of a great documentary.

    If you haven't already, I'd highly recommend reading Ebert's "Life Itself" (*cough* reviewed by me at Your Face *cough* *cough*). The documentary just hits the surface of what's in Ebert's book and is a reminder of something that often gets lost when talking about the influence his shows had on our generation -- dude could flat-out write.

    I mean, damn: I'm in my 40s and write for a living, so at this point I feel like I have a pretty good handle on writing.. but there are passages in that book that are stunning, that made me hope that someday I might come close to writing something that good.


    1. Case in point:

    2. It's easy to forget that Ebert really was a hell of a good writer. I haven't read his autobiography, but I've read a lot of his writing. He had a way of making difficult concepts in film accessible to anyone. It's a rare talent to take something baffling and make it clear.

      And no one hated bad movies like Ebert. He made good reviews interesting, but he made bad reviews treasures.