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Life Itself – The Book Is Always Better

Off to France! © Magnolia Pictures

Off to France!
© Magnolia Pictures

 

When the time comes for Le Movie Snob’s biopic, I want a director like Steve James to recap my life.

He will tell the tale of how my mother bought me the books banned by my elementary school and how she announced as much to the censorious principal.

He will describe how my father took me to R rated movies as a child, inviting speculation on its psychological repercussions.

He will recount my unjust loss at the third grade spelling bee when I failed to spell “woi-yer.”  The southern-accented guidance counselor had failed to correctly pronounce the word “warrior.”  (I did win the following year.)

He will certainly have one of my high school friends tell in flattering detail how I became fluent in French after my first trip to France and how that trip changed me. Fundamentally.

He will show scenes of Luc Besson’s Subway while several friends, most likely those with whom I only communicate today via Facebook, laugh as they recall how sections of the then-decrepit Tivoli Theatre had to be roped off so pieces of the ceiling wouldn’t fall on our heads.

He will find one of my far-flung classmates from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) who will express sympathy for how hard it must have been for me, a teenager -the youngest in the class- to have handled the resentment of the older students.  Hopefully he’ll mention that we all got to see Dame Judi Dench’s legendary production of Much Ado About Nothing starring a pre-Hollywood Kenneth Branagh.

My childhood will be analyzed, my boyfriends pictures scanned and panned (as in a camera shot, not judgement, I would hope).

In short, he will omit no detail; it will be the perfect summation of my time on Earth.

And NO ONE will want to see it.

If less is more, all is too much. It seems I am part of an elite minority with my less than rave review for this movie.  At the risk of offending my colleagues, I can’t recommend this movie enthusiastically. I suspect that there is an understandable lack of objectivity.  Ebert was one of us, and he changed how all of us watch and read about movies for the better.

When he died, I wrote about how touched I was by the way he lived his life.  It was brave that he let himself be filmed for this movie as his physical condition deteriorated. However, this is a review of the movie, not the man, and I don’t believe it does justice to its subject.

Ebert accomplished much in his life.  It seems Mr. James believes including all his achievements will present a complete sense of him. I believe the opposite approach would have been more effective.

For example, there are several scenes of notable movies, inserted in seemingly random and discordant order, accompanied by his commentary. Each goes on too long which lessens the importance of each individual movie and dilutes the essence of his critical voice.

Similarly, every aspect of his life appears to be given equal or uneven emphasis.

Do his alcoholism and frequenting ladies of the night merit an extended commentary an hour before it’s revealed he met his wife Chaz at an AA meeting? After that disclosure, is it necessary we see inconsequential home videos of their domestic life?

Roger Ebert would never have achieved great renown without his frenemy/colleague Gene Siskel. Their spirited debates made their show a success as they forced each to sharpen their skills for the betterment of all.  The clip of the two arguing their thumb directions for Benji, The Hunted shows them at their peak.

Nonetheless, the recurring mini-documentary of Siskel feels out of place. While it’s fun to see him sporting a handlebar pornstache and flannel shirt looking like he got lost on his way to the Chelsea Pier of the 1970s, this should be Ebert’s movie. Siskel’s life certainly merits its own documentary.

It’s interesting that with so much attention paid to Siskel, there is not a single mention of Richard Roeper, the critic who replaced Siskel on their syndicated TV show At The Movies, where he spent seven years in the seat across the aisle from Ebert.  A fellow movie reviewer revealed Roeper has been tweeting people about his absence from the film.

There are precisely four important points covered in Life Itself; I leave it to my fellow Movie Snobs to determine if they are worth seeing in a cinéma or at home via VOD or at all.

1. When Ebert received his star at the Chicago Theater on July 15, 2005, he expounded his philosophy about movies. It is eloquent and articulates better than I could why I am so passionate about curating this site:

We’re kind of stuck inside th[e] person [of the circumstances of our birth]. The purpose of civilization is  to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.  It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears.  I helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. 

2. Ebert became an ersatz kingmaker à la Johnny Carson in that his upward-pointing thumb could ignite a career.  Unlike Carson, he actively sought out and did not have gatekeepers between him and unknown directors like Gregory Nava (director of El Norte) who in the movie said he “gave light to new voices.”  He often reviewed independent movies that were playing in only a handful of theatres so his spotlight would force a wider release.

2A.  His being based in Chicago reminded the coastal elites that we in flyover country can appreciate -and can pay for– smart cinematic fare.

3.  He was always faithful to the movie.  As his fame grew, so did his circle of famous friends.  TIME movie critic Richard Corliss believes that relationships with the famous people who make the movies corrupts critics, but the movie clearly shows that Ebert never let personal relationships interfere with his review.  He was hard on close friend (who knew ?) Martin Scorsese.  In the movie he offers a touching and personal tribute.

4. In keeping with his mindset of making movies available to the masses, he enthusiastically acclimated to new Internet platforms as they emerged.  His younger self passed over a position at a more prestigious newspaper in Washington D.C. because he was unwilling “to learn new streets,” yet he put everyone over the age of fifty to shame with his ability to adapt.  He shames Amazon posthumously:  the Kindle edition of his Bigger Little Movie Glossary  published this month just last year still lists a CompuServe email address.

While the movie emphasizes his prolific and diverse writing œuvre, it merely describes the formats in which he wrote:  reviews,screenplays, fiction as if his profligacy ascribes equal merit to all.

Like all great artists, some of his work simply sucks.

I read two of his books in researching this review.

A Kiss Is Still A Kiss is very dated early 1980s famewhore pop-lit.  Ebert describes meeting the movie stars he idolized as a kid in the most banal situations.

However, I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie is a helluva fun read, with the kind of laugh-out-loud reviews that are not included in the movie.  Here are some examples:

Beautician and the Beast :  Fran Drescher is a taste I have not acquired, but I concede that one could acquire it.  It would help if she made a silent film.

Her Alibi :  You know a movie is in trouble when you start looking at your watch.  You know it’s in bad trouble when you start shaking your watch because you think it might have stopped.

Very Bad Things :  If you think this movie is funny, that tells me things about you I don’t want to know. (This was Peter Berg’s first feature film as director and Ebert presciently recognized his potential in this review.)

And my favorite:

Erik The Viking :  Every once in a while a movie comes along that makes me feel like a human dialysis machine,  The film goes into my mind, which removes its impurities, and then it evaporates into thin air.

Ebert also made the annual pilgrimage to the south of France for the Cannes Film Festival.  The movie contains not nearly enough footage of an unconsciously clumsy Ebert alongside stars in their better days- particularly Gérard Depardieu.  I’m glad I got my copy of his book about the festival, Two Weeks In The Midday Sun, before it became so collectible.

A fellow movie reviewer who hadn’t seen this movie but read the memoir of the same title asked me how it was.  He mentioned that the book has an entire chapter devoted to Steak N’ Shake, whose menus still include his blurbs.

Sigh.

The book is always better.  Fortunately, Roger Ebert left us with many to enjoy.

About 

This site was borne of my passion for movies, particularly French films. I have spent time in France and am fluent in the language, hence the “le”. The “snob” part, while of French origin, is not meant to intimidate, but rather an effort to reclaim the word from the pretentious, just as the gay community has done with the word “queer.” We’re all snobs; we all like what we like.

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