I want to be Roger Ebert when I grow up. Not just because he was the world’s most respected, famous and influential movie critic, but because of who he was. It’s his qualities that make him admirable, not his achievements. He is my first and so far only role model.
When I read a typical film review, I can’t shake off the feeling that the critic is settling a personal score with the filmmaker. It is like a gang of kids who enjoy torturing stray cats behind an abandoned shed. Hitting, cutting, kicking and burning poor animal just for the feel of it. I heard somewhere that every critic secretly wishes he was a filmmaker himself and suspect that has something to do with all the vitriol. People who can’t taking it out on people who can.
Roger Ebert is (was) the only critic I know not afflicted with this camera envy. Even when he really disliked the film, he was never bitter or belligerent. He sounded genuinely disappointed, the way an old man might feel about the mess his wayward grandchildren have gotten themselves into. That comparison seems even more appropriate given how much Roger cared about cinema and how many modern filmmakers he helped to gain their footing.
I like movies too much. I walk into the theater not in an adversarial attitude, but with hope and optimism (except for some movies, of course). I know that to get a movie made is a small miracle, that the reputations, careers and finances of the participants are on the line, and that hardly anybody sets out to make a bad movie. I do not feel comfortable posing as impossible to please.
Another problem with “professional” criticism is its pretentiousness. I regularly come across summaries like “a compendium of multifarious genre inflections seemingly intended for friends of Tori“. It takes me several seconds and few re-readings to figure out what exactly the author means. And if you’re wondering who Tori is, you’re not alone. Reading those reviews is akin to hauling large timber logs: it feels like work.
The saddest thing about that puffed up professional nonsense is that it never amount to anything. From timber logs you can at least build a house, but after plodding through this mass of text you realize that the critic didn’t say anything. If you throw away all the literary excesses, the text has nothing of interest inside. No ideas, no stories, no knowledge, no passion, no experience, no insight. Only brief overview of the plot, with wordy flourishes growing like corals around it.
Ebert liked to repeat “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” He always was that man. From Ebert’s review’s, you can always understand clearly what he is talking about. He didn’t attempt to throw sand in your eyes, instead he attempted to communicate his opinion. Even if you didn’t agree with his judgment, you could always understand where he was coming from.
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Given all my admiration for the man, I had high expectations for an upcoming documentary devoted to him, Life Itself. Perhaps, too high. In the end, it comes to a difference between creator and creation. You may have highest appreciation for Rembrandt but no passion whatsoever for a book about his life. You may be a big Beatles fan but have no interest in a documentary film about them. A work about a person is not a work by that person.
But don’t get me wrong, this film can stand on its own. It has its own place, just like there’s a place for documentary about Beatles. My companions in the cinema were all, to a different degree, inspired by Roger’s fight with alcoholism and then cancer. None of them have read anything by him and none are likely to in the future, but they got some idea what all the fuss was about.
At times the film feels uncomfortably private, like when Roger and his wife, Chaz, are talking about a forthcoming surgery and then Chaz starts crying. At such moments I have an impulse to lower my eyes or turn away, but the camera knows no such sentiment. A long unflinching shot of Roger, who lost his lower jaw to cancer, being fed through a tube, with accompanying swish and slurp sounds, made me physically uncomfortable. And seeing outside the window through his open mouth feels plain surreal.
I don’t know if that sense of familiarity was necessary for the film, but I do feel disappointed because seeing a film about Roger is not the same as reading him. Yes, it was informative, inspiring and life-affirming, but it doesn’t stand out the same way Roger did. May he rest in peace.