Genevieve Spoils Everything: Ebert's brilliant, well-lived "Life"

By Genevieve Valentine
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jul. 9, 2014

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The man knew movies: the career of famed film expert and commentator Roger Ebert is up for examination in Steve James' documentary, "Life Itself."

If you love to talk about movies, watching a documentary about Roger Ebert is a little bit like watching a documentary about your dad. For more than one generation of moviegoers, Ebert has been the entry point to appreciating movies. A critic who both hosted frame-by-frame movie breakdowns at the Conference on World Affairs and wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, his enthusiasm for film was infectious, and his reviews were a primer in the language of cinema. When watching Life Itself, the sheer scope of his influence is striking, but even more so is its depth.

Ebert occupied a precarious but deeply effective position that encompassed both academic rigor and utter lack of remove. He was transparent about the subjectivity of reviewing, and a reader of his pieces is often getting two things out of it: his review and how he felt about the movie. As a kid of nine or 10, I was relieved when I discovered he and I were agreed in our opinions of Beauty and the Beast. A few sentences outlined the difference between a movie calculated and pitched for children and a movie that managed to incorporate an all-ages energy that still felt organic to the story. Sitting at the kitchen table reading that breakdown–something that for him was most probably a glancing observation–put into words something I hadn’t been able to articulate. It was one of the first moments I remember thinking critically about film.

Ebert was a tireless advocate for movies, devotedly attending Cannes, and championing indies, oddballs and the occasional glorious mess. The one mentioned in the documentary is Gates of Heaven alongside Siskel, but Ebert had his own favorites. Anyone looking for a quick film-school course can find it in the commentary track Ebert recorded for 1998’s Dark City, a movie he instantly declared a modern classic, and one of the films of the year. In it, he likens cinematic homage to the specifics of jazz music, talks about how some movie mysteries are more effective when they’re left unexamined and declares that film is inherently ill-suited to intellectual argument, being by nature an emotional medium intended to draw the audience into a particular point of view. “We become people who are absorbed into the story,” he maintained, “if the story is working.”

The tag on the end of that quote is both a self-aware caveat from an experienced professional and a little sidelong shade at some of the movies he’s weighed and found wanting. Part of his egalitarian approach, Ebert was game to be offended, bored or enraged by a movie, and somehow it felt like the reveal of a Bond villain whenever he got to tackling something he hated. In Life Itself, when a friend of Ebert’s tells the camera, “He is a nice guy, but he’s not that nice,” we know what he means. With the turn of phrase Ebert possessed, there’s a reason a lot of his best reviews had a streak of vitriol in them. He hated the Transformers franchise in particular, to the point that he eventually took one or two commenters to task in rebuttals that were even more scathing then his reviews. Still, he hated Transformers less than he hated North, of which he’s famously said, in a sentiment that reads halfway between disappointed-dad and sheer malicious glee: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.”

Early in Life Itself, Ebert recalls a stamp with his name on it, with which he bylined anything the ink would stick to. His parents had their work cut out for him, he said, trying to keep him from authoring the world. It’s hard not to think that he managed it anyway. By writing so much and so beautifully about film, he’s a secret companion in many a theater seat, having decoded movies’ secrets so we can love them even more.

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1. glen b said... on Jul 15, 2014 at 09:03AM

“If this seems like overposting, I generally publish when I've been assaulted, or when my privacy is ignored, or when my cats cry out in pain by some action of government. I've been assaulted thousands of times over the past decade now, I'm sure that estimate is accurate....the other day one of my cats was bleeding, hair missing from its back, and two of them actually have scabs on their back as a result of being shot with energy weaponry. According to one report this results from my publication of Ronald Reagan quotes and biographical facts, indisputable and in fact from wikipedia. The federal government of course has all the power in the world to stop it. My tooth was knocked out in increments, over a 2 year span by energy weaponry assaults, for stating and proving the crimes committed by the federal government.
Typically operating through puppets--including puppets in the judiciary--the right wing has for decades been committing crimes and trying to classify them to cover them up, a move explicitly forbidden by the Code of Federal Regulations. The right has accomplished its political objectives by presenting a fraction of the evidence to judicial officials who, having seen the pattern dozens of times before, could not help but realize that they were being presented with incomplete and inaccurate information.
With either the willfully blind approval or the willful ignorance of the judiciary the right has killed & stolen several of my pets and routinely shoots energy weaponry at me and my pets. Recent harm to animals include: two kittens from a pregnant stray i took in were killed a few months ago. The remaining two, just 3 months old, shake their head as government operatives shoot them with energy weaponry. They shot the eye out or removed the eye of a large really good natured stray at the port, hobbled another cat at the port, shooting it with energy weaponry, and for years routinely killed and left dead animals in my path.

A few years ago one of them threatened 'we'll just kill a cat every so often', in so many words. This has continued despite my calls to the police, the FBI, Congress, and my petitions in court. In the usual case, it appears that the right goes to a judicial crony for a ruling permitting them to harm animals to retaliate against me for my free speech. The federal government, the right wing in particular, interfered with my personal life and economic options for 3 decades, so their solution to my noting it is to kill animals. Makes perfect sense right? It does if you're a sociopathic criminal, criminally stupid, and hawkish. Invariably their lies are exposed and the wrongfulness of the harm is clear to everyone, though not until the animals have been maimed or killed. There is really only one solution, and that's to disempower them politically and to impeach them.
If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth, right? the Democrats' great accomplishment is producing the political equivalent of a Rodney King video, clearly demonstrating the lies of the right, the right Hilary Clinton correctly identified as a vast conspiracy. Confirm by examining Central District of California Cases, 01-4340, 03-9097, 08-5515, 10-5193, US Tax Court 12000-07L --though I think you want to view my US Tax Court Appeal to the 9th Circuit for a good account of their day to day assaults, a few month time slice indicative of a decade of assault, and more recently 9th Circuit case 11-56043.”

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