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

By Genevieve Valentine
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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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