Monday, 17 November 2014

Roger Ebert: Life Itself

Off to the cinema, to see Life Itself, a documentary about top late film critic Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert loved the movies, and now there is a movie about him. He was never a major public figure here in the UK. I knew of him because the Internet Movie Database used to list his name at the top of their reviews. It was a distinctive name. For a long time he was unconsciously engaged in a war with top late German politician Friedrich Ebert for domination of Google’s search results for “ebert”.

Whereas Friedrich Ebert had no firm political convictions and became President of Germany at a terrible time, dying of appendicitis ten years later, having achieved nothing of substance, Roger Ebert loved films and had the good fortunate to become America's top film critic during a fortuitous period in cinema history. Life Itself shows us some of his early work as a student newspaper editor, and I'm sure that if Germany had offered him the Presidency in the 1980s (say) he would have done a good job. But that's enough of Friedrich Ebert and Germany. Begone, Friedrich Ebert. I will not write of you again.

Life Itself is directed by Steve James, who also directed the classic documentary Hoop Dreams. If you look up Hoop Dreams on the IMDB, Roger Ebert is listed at the top of the reviews (twice - he loved it); the same is true of The Godfather, Five Easy Pieces, The Princess Diaries 2, and of course Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, which is about a giant prehistoric turtle who can fly. He is the friend of all mankind, and enjoys nothing more than fighting gigantic evil bats. Ebert’s review is warm and funny, and he clearly enjoyed the film. This is one of the reasons why his writing appealed to me. He seemed to genuinely enjoy films. He didn’t sneer, and conversely he didn’t seem over-awed by highbrow art films, and even when the film was forgettable he always had something interesting to say.

In fact his reviews made me feel incredibly jealous, because they seemed effortless. This is something that Life Itself unfortunately doesn’t get across. For a film about a man who made his living writing about the movies, it has surprisingly little of his writing. I learned that he could knock out a review in thirty minutes, and that writers once used paper notepads, and that they dictated reviews down the telephone(!), all of which made me feel pampered and inadequate, but what inspired Ebert to write? What did he like to read? Hmm?

Nonetheless I can understand why the writing takes a back seat. During the section on Siskel And Ebert At the Movies we see some of... sorry, Siskel And Ebert AND the Movies, we see some of Ebert’s early television work, and because he was simply reading his newspaper reviews out loud the results were stilted and awkward. Prose that works on the page generally doesn’t work on the screen, and so the film rarely quotes at length from his writing. I’m not sure how Steve James could have surmounted this problem. Ebert doesn’t talk about writing in the film and we never learn where his ideas came from, or who inspired him. It feels wrong to rag on Life Itself for this, because it’s clearly supposed to be a celebration of his life rather than a penetrating examination of Ebert's motivations, but I was drawn to Ebert by the pieces on his website rather than his television appearances, and that part of his life feels missing.

But it would have been easy to turn the film into a crass run-through of his most famous quips, and to the director's credit Life Itself doesn't go down this route (there's nothing about how Ebert "hated, hated, hated" North, for example). At one point we see one of Ebert's friends reciting the last page of The Great Gatsby from memory, but it doesn't work. Firstly because it's hard to savour words if they're being delivered in real-time - each new line overwrites the last, so that you only remember the last line, albeit that Gatsby has a cracking final line - and secondly because there isn't time to adapt to the style. "Something commensurate to his capacity for wonder" feels fussy unless you’re attuned to Fitzgerald's writing. Without preparation it just sounds fussy.

Also, the last page has the word "breast" on it. Why were authors so enamoured of the word "breast" in those days? Characters were forever clutching things to their breasts; great passions erupted within their breasts; even when the characters were men, who don’t have breasts. Next paragraph.

Siskel And Ebert A... And the Movies was never shown on television here in the UK. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert belong to a great sweep of American television stars who were massive in their home country but obscure in Britain. Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Tina Fey and ninety per cent of the post-1981 Saturday Night Live cast are essentially names and faces that don’t mean anything. Ultimately it was the internet that made Roger Ebert mean something to me. Toiling away in an office with a computer I could surreptitiously read about American Splendor, Nine Lives, Undertow, films that were unlikely to go on wide release over here, or that wouldn’t be released for many months. This being the 2000s I could always have downloaded them, but I would never have cared about them without Roger Ebert.

Our equivalent was Barry Norman, who presented Film Night on the BBC until 1998. He was a familiar figure but I really can’t tell if he was any good as a film critic; he didn’t transition to the internet, and in any case I always felt that he was doing it as a job rather than because it was his life’s calling. Roger Ebert didn’t just review films for a newspaper, he organised film festivals, he gave talks on films, he even wrote a film once. It wasn’t a very good film, but it was great trash.

He also wrote the screenplay for Who Killed Bambi?, a movie starring The Sex Pistols as themselves. Sadly the film was never completed. The screenplay features a scene in which Steve Jones makes love with a groupie called Soo Catwoman while Paul Cook accompanies them on drums. There's another scene in which Sid Viscous berates Johnny Rotten for singing out of tune. I'm not sure if Ebert really "got" The Sex Pistols, but by God I wish that film had been made.

Life Itself shows Ebert interacting with his fans and generally communicating with the world via his MacBook. Ebert’s punchy, straightforward style transitioned well to the internet. I'm part of the first generation of people who grew up with the internet; I remember the pre-internet age of printed newspapers and magazines, but I can’t feel it. On the whole the internet has been a great boon for writers, but it has a terrible problem whereby there is not much diversity. Let’s ignore creed and colour and gender and nationality; the voice of the internet is young, almost uniformly young, so uniformly young that it doesn’t realise there are older voices. Roger Ebert had a wealth of experience and gave the impression that he had been around the block, and that he had nothing to prove; but whereas so many people would use this experience to moan about how the modern world is rubbish and that young people are stupid and shallow and nothing is as good as it was, he came across as a kindly uncle who still loved new films. Life Itself shows a man who was obnoxiously arrogant when he was young, but by the 2000s he had mellowed.

The film puts this down to the love of a good woman, his indomitable wife Chaz, who he met relatively late in life while they were both at Alcoholics Anonymous. And presumably the AA helped as well. Some people are happy drunks, Roger Ebert appeared to be a happy-then-angry drunk. He always looked to me like a perpetually-disappointed cat, but during the internet period his claws only came out occasionally, notably in his review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigalo ("Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks") and his rebuttal to Vincent Gallo following his disappointment with The Brown Bunny. When he laid into a film it was entertaining, and perhaps because he had made a film himself it never came across as simple abuse.

Roger Ebert got the internet; he was one of us. He had no inherent bias against action films and sci-fi, indeed he resembled a typical sci-fi nerd, except that he was a Pulitzer-Prize-winning serious writer who hob-nobbed with blonde ladies at Cannes, and had Martin Scorsese’s mobile phone number in his mobile phone. Scorsese appears in Life Itself as one of the few Hollywood talking heads, along with Errol Morris and, very briefly, Werner Herzog, who is in the film because every documentary has to have Werner Herzog in it at some point. Despite coming across as a friend to all nerds Ebert was not however an ingratiating sycophant. Famously he engaged in a lengthy online argument on the artistic validity of computer games - his position was that they would never be "art" - and he attracted a great deal of flack for it. I agreed with the surface of his thesis*, but I felt that his reasoning was flawed and ultimately it struck me that, yes, for one moment he was an old man moaning that modern life is rubbish.

* A computer game of sufficient artistic merit to be presented as "high art" would no longer be a game; any more than Grayson Perry's pottery sculptures are presented as pots, or any painting is presented as an exercise in craftsmanship. Nobody cars how Joan Miro held his brushes. And although the likes of Vib-Ribbon, Shadow of the Colossus, Journey etc are visually stunning, nay breathtaking, or in the case of Vib-Ribbon intriguing, the same is true of a Boris Vallejo painting or Marilyn Lange's May 1974 Playboy centrefold. The effect wears off, and then it's just a pretty picture. Is there an emotion, a concept, an idea that only a computer game can get across? Is it possible for such a resource-heavy medium to foster a distinctive vision? I digress.

I saw Life Itself at the Curzon, Soho. Part of the appeal of the Curzon is interacting with the bar staff as you order drinks, because the bar staff are effortlessly hip, and for a moment you can imagine that you are effortlessly hip as well. Part of the appeal is sitting in the window with an opened MacBook, with the Apple logo blazing onto Shaftesbury Avenue, listening to people mock the new Sainsbury’s Christmas ad. It uses the 1914 Christmas Truce in order to sell cut-price chocolate. And part of the appeal is striding onto Shaftesbury Avenue at the end of the film. This being the Curzon you wait until the credits finish. As I casually strode onto the pavement I deliberately ignored the passers-by, the little people. I remember thinking how much I hated the little people and their small, tiny minds...

... and then a voice appeared in my head. It was Roger Ebert's voice, delivered via a speech synthesiser. "You learned nothing from this film", it said. "You are not the one." Life Itself points out that Roger Ebert was a populist. He was the best sort of populist. A Beatles-style populist. He loved films and wanted other people to love them as well. From a British perspective he struck me as the film world’s version of John Peel, if John Peel had tried hard to be a mainstream Radio One DJ. It's difficult to compare a radio DJ with a film critic, because their markets are fundamentally different (and John Peel was a unique case). Roger Ebert was fully aware that if he devoted himself solely to the study of obscure but excellent Japanese cop dramas he would no longer have an audience, and in those days if you weren’t on television or in a national newspaper... well, you could create a fanzine, but Roger Ebert wanted to be famous.

Consider the list a few paragraphs above - Nine Lives, Undertow, and add that that Crash (the 2004 Best Picture winner, although Life Itself shows Ebert reviewing the 1996 David Cronenberg film) and Lost in Translation and Juno. It's fashionable to sneer at these films nowadays, especially Crash, and I wonder if this is why Life Itself shows Ebert reviewing the Cronenberg movie. My recollection is that it was fashionable to sneer at Juno even when it was new. Yes, he liked Garden State as well.

Ebert is occasionally derided in hipster circles as a middlebrow, shallow man, akin to the sentimental painter Thomas Kinkade. I never had a handle on his tastes - I was drawn to the craft of his writing - but in my opinion Roger Ebert always made a good case for his choices, even if his choices have not aged well. I can accept a Roger Ebert who was sometimes barking up the wrong tree; I cannot accept an oleaginous cipher who is always correct. If Ebert had tried to tailor his opinions to match the prevailing winds there would have been no point to him. Most of the aforementioned films appear in his Best of 200X lists, not because he felt pressured to include them, or because he wanted to win the respect of fashionable people, but because he thought they had something good about them. Does this mean that his opinion was worthless? I believe he was right far more often than he was wrong.

Right and wrong are loaded words. During one clip of Siskel And Ebert, Roger argues forcefully that opinions are subjective, which is true. In theory a film is neither right nor wrong, good nor bad, it is simply a mass of cuts and edits and noises until someone views it; but, dammit, Deep Star Six is a pile of cack and John Carpenter’s The Thing is fantastic and anybody who thinks otherwise is wrong. Their opinion is theirs alone.

Life Itself generally doesn't try to place Ebert within the context of other film critics. Pauline Kael is mentioned, and there's a suggestion that Ebert was not interested in being Chicago's Pauline Kael. This mostly went over my head. Pauline Kael died when I was young, but her heyday had been the late 1960s and 1970s, at which point I had not yet been born. I have read some of Pauline Kael's writing and it didn't stand out at all. The opinions seemed arbitrary, she appeared to hold French directors in awe - France is much less mysterious and otherworldly if you're British - and there were no funny bits.

I keep saying that Life Itself isn't about this or that, why not describe the film? It's a documentary about Roger Ebert, interspersing scenes of his day-to-day life in the early 2010s with talking head reminisces of his life, plus photo montages set to readings from his autobiography. The format never really gets inside his head, and it's a shame that Ebert didn't make the film himself. The paradox is that although I would feel uneasy about such a film - what kind of man makes a documentary about himself? - I would pay money to watch it. Steve James famously didn't win an Academy Award for Hoop Dreams, in fact the film wasn't even nominated for Best Documentary despite near-universal praise (Roger Ebert wrote that "it gives us the impression of having touched life itself", which would be a good title for a film). This was a major scandal at the time. Neither Hoop Dreams nor Steve James appear in Life Itself, which has a transparent style and... I was going to write "feels as if they were on a tight deadline", but that goes without saying. They were on a tight deadline. Schedule. They had a tight schedule. I shouldn’t say deadline.

His day-to-day life. In the 2000s, early 2010s I assumed that Ebert wasn't all that ill, or rather I accepted that he was gravely ill but I couldn't feel how bad it was. And I assumed he had written a stockpile of reviews in advance, because his writing never faltered. In reality there was no stockpile. He was thoroughly professional; his writing never faltered. Looking back, it seems that all throughout the time I was reading his reviews he was ill. He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, and although it was treated successfully I imagine that the fear never went away. In Ebert's case the cancer came back, and it eventually took away his jaw, and with it the power of speech and the ability to eat and drink. On the bright side, he could still write. If Roger Ebert had been the world's greatest trumpet player he would have had to retire. There is no bright side beyond that.

Life Itself shows Ebert struggling to get back on his feet after a nasty hip fracture. It's painful to watch. The fracture was the result of the metastatic cancer that killed him. He was 70 when he died. He had almost died once before, but good fortune gave us a short while to remind us of what we were about to lose. We never got to hear his opinion on The Hobbit

At least he lived a life. Hollywood raised its game in the 1970s and film criticism became, for a short while, big business. Film critics were respected, and on a commercial level Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide was a regular best-seller. If Roger Ebert had been born a few years earlier he would probably have spent his career as an editor or sports journalist (I can picture him as a sports journalist), and you or I would not remember him. Over the last twenty years the internet has broadened the pool old of writing talent, which has had the inevitable effect of making individual voices less dominant, which is perfectly natural; the days when a mass audience pored over Movie Guide are gone. It's easy to be nostalgic about the past. Here in the UK our Leonard Maltin was Leslie Halliwell, who wrote an annual Film Guide. Halliwell was famously dismissive of popular films from the modern era, which in his case mean anything post-1966. If Roger Ebert represented a positive vision of old people, a good argument in favour of keeping them around, Leslie Halliwell embodied all the negative stereotypes of old age. He was a dominant voice in British film writing for several years, and he was wrong. Time has been especially cruel to him. Not only is his work forgotten, his medium - film directories - has died off, replaced by the internet. And he has been doubly forgotten, because the internet is American, and although I have heard of Roger Ebert, who in America has heard of Leslie Halliwell?

Will Ebert be remembered in the future? It's a difficult question, the answer largely tied up with the fate of the films themselves. He seems to have reviewed every major film and tonnes of minor ones released in North America between the 1960s and 2012, so as a resource for 4K re-releases and promotional websites of the future he is invaluable. Ebert is an unusual case in that his reviews were often entertaining even if the film was dire. Especially if the film was dire. His review of the forgettable, forgotten 1996 gangster film Mad Dog Time has a timeless quality, not just for the quip about it being less interesting than watching a blank screen, but for the observation that it was "like waiting for a bus in a city where you're not sure they have a bus line". I wish I had thought of that line.

If you imagine bad films as rabbits, Roger Ebert will be their General Woundwort. And when there is a good film he will be their Frith. Yes, over time his website will be shut down and nobody will care what he had to say about Prizzi's Honor and The Great Muppet Caper, but the same is true of everybody, every film critic, the vast majority of writers. Ebert earned a crust, was married to a woman he loved (and who loved him), got to hang out with Russ Meyer, presumably got to see a lot of very large breasts, that's enough. It's a shame he couldn't have died older and less painfully, but two out of three is better than none.

When Douglas Adams died he left behind h2g2, an online encyclopedia published by the BBC. But h2g2 never amounted to much, and along with a clutch of similarly ambitious but ultimately unpopular digital initiatives the BBC abandoned it in the 2010s. After John Peel died there were several John Peel Days, and the Glastonbury Festival has a stage named after him, but I suspect that over time we will all drift apart. It happens to everybody. Ebert's television appearances diminished greatly post-2006 and At the Movies was cancelled in 2011, but his writing was sufficiently good and modern that it doesn't feel fusty and staid, whereas (again) I can't see Pauline Kael's work appealing to new generations. Her books are still in print, and people still buy them, but I suspect this is because she is among the set texts of university courses rather than because she has a great popular following.

Kael and Ebert belong to an era that will probably never exist again. During the 20th Century entire countries, whole cultures were united by shared mass media; television programmes, books, albums sold in the millions, and there was a mainstream canon that most people shared. Roger Ebert was part of that canon, but now culture is fragmented and even the greatest stars of the age have album sales and viewing figures that would have been very poor in the 1970s. If Ebert's work appeals to an ever-smaller niche, the same is, again, true of everybody.

The film taught me a bit about Gene Siskel. He died in 1999 and is even more obscure in the UK than Roger Ebert; it seems that he was a regular guest at the Playboy club during the pre-silicone era, and indeed the funniest moment in Life Itself is the word “boobs”. They were frenemies, working for rival Chicago newspapers, and the film has some priceless behind-the-scenes footage in which they lay into each other like an old married couple. Albeit that Ebert generally lays into Siskel, and putting on my amateur psychologist hat I wonder if this was a result of Ebert being depressed. Siskel and Ebert were driven by a lust for fame, money, glory and - yes - boobs, and we’re supposed to tut-tut at that kind of thing nowadays, and it would have been easy for them to come across as coke-addled monsters, and perhaps if I had known them in the 1970s I would have hated their guts, but with distance and time they now come across as charismatic men who meant no-one any harm. Mammals are naturally obsessed with boobs, there are solid biological reasons for that, and both Ebert and Siskel were mammals, and so I am.

Life Itself points out that Ebert was accustomed to loss. His father died when he was young, Siskel died long before he should have, Ebert himself realised during the 1970s that he was going to die if he didn't stop drinking. He went dry in 1979. Throughout the film his weight goes up and down, and although the film strongly implies that he suffered from depression for a long time it has to be borne in mind that his job consisted of sitting in a chair, writing (or sitting in a chair, talking). He enjoyed food enough to write a book about it, The Pot and How to Use It, and I have the impression that Christmas at the Eberts was a jolly affair.

Nineteen Seventy-Four

I feel at a disadvantage writing about Roger Ebert. He wasn't part my culture when I was young, and he won his Pulitzer Prize in 1975, a year before I was born. He apparently won it for the totality of his criticism during 1974, work I have not read. Fifteen years ago, if I wanted to read Roger Ebert's reviews from 1974, I would have been out of luck. Now I just have to Google ""roger ebert" 1974" and then abandon that and use the advanced search to restrict Google to the domain with "1974" and... well, let's have a read.

(reads) Chinatown, Young Frankenstein, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Great Gatsby, Death Wish, The Godfather Part II. Blazing Saddles, that can’t be right. But no, Mel Brooks was on a roll in 1974. The year belongs to the pre-Star Wars era and thus the distant past, and some of those films are better than others, but I can see how a writer might relish them; Roger Ebert must have relished the chance to get stuck into Death Wish. For the record he grudgingly respected Chain Saw Massacre ("in its own way the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement"), he was impressed with Death Wish on a purely technical level, although the review feels more of a plot summary than a proper critique, but having said that in 1974 it was presumably just another thriller.

Reading his reviews of The Sugarland Express and The Parallax View I'm struck by the limits of film criticism. In theory those two films have not changed in the years since, but the context around them has grown, and criticism is really all about placing something within a context. Ebert's piece on The Parallax View is straightforward and surprisingly short - just shy of 500 words - because of course he was writing for a newspaper and had limited space. Over time, films like Parallax and Get Carter (which he liked) have grown, and it's to Ebert's credit that he was willing to go back and re-evaluate them for his website many years later. I briefly worked as a computer game reviewer - not a critic, a reviewer - but it seemed futile, pointless. How can I evaluate something without the benefit of time? Sometimes passion fades, and sometimes it grows, and it's the passion that grows that matters most. It has substance in a trivial world.

He loved Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, was greatly disappointed with The Great Gatsby, loved Chinatown, loved Amarcord etc. I was originally going to quote from those reviews but they're straightforward and to-the-point, perhaps because he was writing about serious films that he wanted to treat with the respect they deserved. He seems to have had trouble ending his reviews, and with the exception of The Conversation they generally stop dead. Overall Roger Ebert circa 1974 seems reverent and a bit staid, but context etc. Perhaps he loosened up over time. Then again, his review of Zardoz is unmistakably him:

    "Sean Connery wanders through all this with a slightly bemused expression on his face.  He begins as a barbarian given to distrust and childish impulses, but after he gathers all knowledge to himself (the movie is full of phrases like "gathers all knowledge to himself"), he turns into a sort of body-building Einstein who sees into the centre of the Vortex, deciphers the wisdom of the crystal, stimulates the Apathetics, makes love with a good-looking Immortal dame (she regains the knack), and finally turns into a fossil while the soundtrack milks Beethoven's 7th for all it's worth."

I have seen Zardoz. It is one of those films. Ebert's review is spot-on and encapsulates most of the film's appeal. Sean Connery really does have a slightly bemused expression on his face. Murder on the Orient Express begins in medias res, something which is quintessentially Ebert:

    "There is a cry of alarm, some muffled French, a coming and going in the corridor.  Hercule Poirot, adjusting the devices that keep his hair slicked down and his mustache curled up, pauses for a moment in his train compartment."

At which point I’m hooked. The description of Poirot as a man scurrying about like a paranoid crab is another neat turn of phrase. Crabs are paranoid, aren't they? Everything wants to kill them or rip their legs out. That's why they developed pincers and tough shells, and yet they still die, in their millions, every year. Ebert opens his review of Lacombe, Lucien in much the same way. The same year he gave The Godfather, Part II three out of four stars; revisiting his decision in 2008 he concluded that he would not change a word of his review, arguing that although the first two Godfather films were collectively a masterpiece, II was less effective than I taken in isolation, which is what he had to do in 1974. But if crabs actually are killed in their millions, surely they aren't paranoid. Right? They're justifiably anxious.

NB. Ebert's website mixes contemporary reviews with retrospectives written in the 2000s. However I'm not sure where the contemporary reviews come from; some of them describe the film in retrospect, and so they might be drawn from material that was written later. But perhaps films were released in a more leisurely fashion in 1974, and it took months for them to reach Chicago. I just don't know.

Somewhere back there I was writing about Life Itself and not crabs. It's a simple, straightforward film that showed me something of Roger Ebert. Goodbye Roger Ebert. A full exploration of his life and times would be sixteen hours long and would place Ebert within the context of his times; it would be Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as a miniseries, and it will never be made.

I was lucky to catch Ebert's work during his final years, and he was a terrific writer. Now it's our turn. It's up to us and our younger siblings and children, and the gleams in our eyes. There comes a horrible time in a man's life when he realises that his heroes are all dead, or old, or sick. They ran up the beach and now it's your turn, your generation’s turn. And you look left and you look right and it looks hopeless, because you're a bunch of kids cowering in the shadows of giants. Giants who slew dragons in an age of fire.

But the giants were kids once, and you only see the shadow, not the man who cast it, and the dragons and the fire are shadows as well. I learned from Life Itself that when the pain got bad Roger Ebert wanted to die; but the pain never dulled his writing, because he had a soul of steel. His last piece, A Leave of Presence, begins by thanking us, and promises great things to come on the digital front. He thanked us. A day later he was dead. Someone else will have to go back, forty years from now, and make us want to watch The Tree of Life and Beasts of the Southern Wild one more time. And Gamera.

In his writing I only saw the shadow. Now the man is gone. The shadow remains.