This piece was inspired by Steve James’ moving documentary Life Itself, which I watched via Amazon’s Video On Demand service earlier this week. What follows is not exactly a review. I experienced the film as a Roger Ebert admirer first and a critic second. Any insights that I have about the filmmaking would be tied to my own feelings about the subject matter. Especially given that the subject matter is movie criticism itself, the connections seem too close to warrant a straightforward review.
Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed the film and found it worthy of Roger’s towering presence in the film world. I particularly appreciated that the movie was tonally diverse and willing to acknowledge its subject’s faults and limitations. Steve James carefully modulates the tone so that the movie celebrates Roger’s professional achievements and examines his personal ones. He affords plenty of screentime to Roger’s remarkable wife Chaz, and the scenes that depict their loving relationship are among the film’s most poignant. No single film can capture the implications of this one’s title, but Life Itself offers a potent memorial to a man whose legacy towers over film criticism.
His presence also lingers in my own life. I think about him often. Here’s why.
Roger Ebert taught me to love movies.
I never met him, and I never will. But I read his words, and I understood what it meant to sit in front of a movie screen (or a TV screen, or a computer monitor, or a tablet screen, or a smartphone screen), feel something, and then convey that feeling using the written word.
When I was younger, I maintained a rigid moviegoing and movie-watching routine. I’d see the movie and immediately head for the computer to read what the critics had to say. When I’d watch older movies, the online pickings would be slim, as most newspapers archive their older reviews for all but the most ardent subscribers. But Roger Ebert never did. He was film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times for 45 years, and every single one of his reviews is currently accessible at rogerebert.com.
His writing had a profound effect on the way I thought about movies. He transcended all of the stereotypes my peers used to discuss movie critic culture. For the latter part of his life, he was indeed an old white man. No amount of critical ambition could get around that. But he was no hack, and certainly not a misanthrope. He didn’t regard blockbuster films as inherently insulting to his intelligence. He didn’t consider emotional reactions or personal resonances separate from the critical reaction. He didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator of his reading audience, but he didn’t ignore the fact that his readers had a wide range of cinematic knowledge and expertise either. At his best, he seemed to see directly into a movie’s soul, past the structure and the technique.
Roger never went to film school or planned to spend his life reporting on his reactions to the latest cinematic offerings. He became a movie critic the same way that everyone else does: he watched lots of movies, he thought about how they made him feel and what they made him think about, and he documented the experience in the newspaper. Of course, he did a whole lot more than that. He championed independent filmmakers whose voices would have been drowned out if not for their placement in a newspaper with the clout of the Sun-Times. He pioneered the critical grading systems that have long since entered the popular lexicon, even as he expressed ambivalence about their rigidity. He inspired an entire culture of well-executed critical barbs.
In the latter part of his life, as his cancer ate away at his ability to function, he demonstrated truly stunning acts of perseverance. He seemed unfazed by the prospect of appearing physically mangled by his various surgeries, which robbed him of the ability to eat, drink and speak. Instead, his limitations freed him to express his thoughts on a new platform: his blog, which covered expected topics like movies and unexpected ones like politics, alcoholism, romance and evolutionary theory. In Life Itself, he says that his blog became his voice. I can’t think of a better testament to the positive power of the Internet, or a more poetic way of saying that it’s possible to overcome even the most challenging circumstances by forging ahead with the skills you retain.
And of course, when he was still a motormouthed chatterbox, he also introduced an entirely new mode of criticism to the American public: the televised head-to-head dialogue. The idea of a TV show in which two ugly old men sit down in chairs and talk about movies for half an hour was unthinkable before At the Movies (which started as Sneak Previews and went through several name changes before At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert became the show’s iconic moniker). The show lent credibility to the idea that movies are worth discussing, that teasing out reactions to movies as works of art is as a part of the moviegoing experience as valuable and intrinsic to the cultural experience as watching the movies themselves.
I’m happy Roger Ebert existed for any number of reasons, but perhaps my favorite is that he provides a note-perfect counterargument to the commonly held beliefs that movie criticism is not an intellectual pursuit; that no self-respecting, intellectually curious individual can make a dignified career out of watching movies and talking about them; that movies serve only to distract us from the pleasures of the physical world; and that people who write about movies for a living are weak, self-indulgent and unpleasant to be around. Even as I continue to pursue a career in entertainment journalism, criticism and even scholarship, I look to Roger as proof that an activity can be intellectually stimulating even if not everyone experiences it that way. I’m reminded of all the ways he’s touched my life, with a pointed quip or an enthusiastic recommendation, with his astonishingly wide-ranging memoir or the nearly unlimited archives of short video clips in which he passionately discusses the successes and failures of the week’s new movies.
Most of all, I’m reminded me of his unwavering affection for the movies – as an art form, as a national pastime, as a facilitator of relationships and an educator for the masses. Any time I write a movie review, record an episode of The M&M Report with my friend Devin Mitchell, or discuss movies with strangers on the street, I’m carrying on the traditions he established. He may not be with us on earth any more, but for movie lovers like me, Roger Ebert is eternally omnipresent.