I’d like to begin my blogging year with a look back at a documentary that proved to be my most inspiring and moving film of last year: Life Itself. It tells the story of Roger Ebert, his path to the status of arguably America’s leading film critic, through to his final days battling the rare illness that claimed his life. For anyone with a passion for the movies, all I can do is I wholeheartedly recommend seeing this. If you write about films, whether professionally or for your own amusement, it will be an inspiration. If you read or listen to the opinions of film critics, it will make you realise how few can express themselves the way Ebert did. If you simply enjoy watching films, then this is a well made and interesting story worth telling about a complex and fascinating character.
Being from the UK I have only been vaguely aware of the name Roger Ebert, oblivious to his major TV film review programme alongside Gene Siskel, and his Pulitzer prize winning writing. In fact it was only because I have been importing US dvd’s for years that I knew of him, and his “two thumbs up!” rating which often adorned the cover. To be honest that always seemed a little cheesy to me, yet now that I know more about how he worked, I realise that filmmakers coveted such a rating. It’s like a five star review from other critics, only more so.
The documentary itself is unexpectedly frank about Ebert’s personality, there’s none of the sugar coating you might expect of a film about someone so highly regarded. We learn of his battles with alcohol addiction, his refusal to accept that opinions other than his own could be correct, how difficult a person he was to get along with, and his ferociously ill-tempered screen relationship with Gene Siskel. It’s this that makes the film a success, because it produces a story that is honest and real, and just what Roger Ebert himself would ask of such any such documentary maker. It will also always be to Ebert’s credit, and that of his wife Chaz, that they allowed such access during his time in hospital and show his shocking physical deterioration. I suspect most high profile people would have shied away from that, and wanted only to be remembered as they were in the past.
His final written review was of To The Wonder by Terrence Malick. It is such a fitting film to have closed with, of course it is poignant to read, but it’s more than that. His writing is so eloquent, even poetic, and he offers such a profound final statement on the purpose of movies. I urge anyone reading this to go and soak in that review, given the context and beauty of what he wrote, I can’t help but think that it's one of the best film reviews I’ve ever read. Coincidentally, To The Wonder was one of the few films I also reviewed on my old blog, and I found it interesting to compare my own thoughts with his. I was actually quite pleased to find that I had similar feelings about the film and had picked up a few things from it that he also did - the difference is in how much better he could put that into words. Even though we won’t see any more reviews from him, Roger Ebert's legacy will be that people like me will keep returning to read his thoughts, be inspired by them, and through his reviews continue discovering great stories that we'd missed along the way.
"Well," I asked myself, "why not?" Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?
Roger Ebert, 1942-2013