Friday, December 18, 2015
Roger, Me, and Life Itself
I am a movie blogger because of Roger Ebert. That’s a good a way as any to start an article at least tangentially related to Life Itself, a documentary about the life and times of the most famous film critic in the history of the known universe. I don’t mean that I had him at the forefront of my mind the day I found blogger.com and clicked “Create Blog.” I mean he has influenced the way I think about film for over thirty years. He and television partner Gene Siskel are largely responsible for making me cognizant of the fact there are people who not only think critically about movies, but discuss and debate their merits.
I stumbled upon their TV show, Siskel & Ebert At the Movies when I was around twelve years old. I had no idea if what Roger Ebert or Gene Siskel were saying made any sense, but I watched every chance I got because they were talking about movies. They always covered one or more films that I never heard of and/or had no interest in seeing. However, they also talked about the blockbusters I knew I was going to watch. I waited anxiously for them to cover these, which they did almost invariably at the end of each episode. Even if the details of their pontificating remained murky for a few years, their scoring system was crystal clear. Thumbs up was good. Thumbs down was a bad. The two men had different enough tastes that one giving a movie a thumb up while the other went thumb down was the general rule of things. Any film good enough for both of them to like received the coveted “Two Thumbs Up!” These movies usually incorporated that into their marketing campaigns and often saw a spike in ticket sales. “Two Thumbs Down” was a death knell to many a picture which played briefly to empty theaters before vanishing into the cinematic ether. Therefore, something said within Life Itself that sounds like an opinion is absolutely an indisputable fact. Siskel and Ebert became the most powerful film critics of all-time.
Ah yes, Life Itself. I almost forgot you might be here about a movie. It touches on his youth, but really zeroes in on him as a person starting from his time as a journalist on the college newspaper at The University of Chicago. In addition to talking about his journalistic prowess, we also get into his misadventures at local dive bars. We then find out how he became the film critic at The Chicago Sun Times. From there, we move on to his battle with alcoholism, the genesis and continuation of his relationship with his wife Chaz, and the battle with cancer that claimed his life before this film’s completion. Fittingly, a huge chunk of time is devoted to the one thing most responsible for the fame he achieved: Siskel & Ebert At the Movies and the rocky relationship he shared with co-host Gene Siskel.
We learn that Ebert was a bit of a blow-hard and a braggart, quick to remind people who questioned his writing that he was the one who won a Pulitzer Prize. Somehow, he still came across like a nice guy. For those who didn’t know, we also start to understand how vastly knowledgeable he is about film. More important than that, he simply loves it. That love shines through every frame of Life Itself. He fully appreciates film as art and recognizes that even at its most far-fetched it can reveal truths about the human condition. Occasionally, those truths are not pretty. We see how fully he embraces this edict as he voluntarily allows unflattering parts of his cancer treatment to be filmed, sneaking around Chaz to do so. She wants to protect him, and thus wants to keeps private things private. He wants to let the whole world see both the good and bad of what he’s going through.
Speaking of Chaz, she is the other star of the show. The love she and Roger share is evident in every word she speaks. That’s true whether she is acquiescing to his whims, sternly disagreeing with him, or anything in between. We know in our bones that it comes not from a good place, but a perfect place. This isn’t to say she’s perfect. She isn’t. Neither is he. However, they are perfect for each other.
Ebert’s enduring love affair with Chaz, his ups and downs with Gene Sikel, and everything else is presented in an outstanding manner. It never drags and the talking heads don’t bore us. They’re excited to be talking about someone they considered a friend, even if he slammed their films or were rival critics. They deliver heartfelt, often funny anecdotes about Ebert ranging from his influence on film criticism and how he made it accessible to the masses all the way down to some of the skanky women he dragged into those local dives in the days before he met Chaz. All of this serves to make Life Itself poignant, informational, entertaining, tender, and tough all at the same time.
As great as all that is, my favorite portion of Life Itself is about the one thing people have the most trouble reconciling with Roger Ebert’s public persona. It’s the nutty, cult classic, Russ Meyer directed Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Some have hailed it as a masterpiece of trash cinema. If you love cult movies, this is a must-see. For the uninitiated, Ebert actually wrote the screenplay. Others have simply called it trash. It certainly qualifies for the so-bad-it’s-awesome Hall of Shamelessness. My own personal history with this film goes back almost as far as my awareness of Ebert, himself. I saw it for the first time when I was about fourteen or fifteen years old. By then, I was already years deep into the habit of purposely seeking out movies that contained nudity for late night viewing. It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen, and frankly, I was confused by it all. I loved it, nonetheless. I don’t think I caught it right from the opening credits. Even if I did I paid no attention to them back then, so Ebert’s name would’ve slipped by me undetected. A few months, maybe even a year went by and I completely forgot the title. It became just one of the many bare breast filled craptaculars of which I was fond.
One day at my best friend’s house, Siskel and Ebert somehow became the topic of conversation among the adults. My buddy and I were in the room and got involved as they occasionally let us do. One of the men said that he hated Ebert. When I asked why, his answer jogged my memory, taught me something, and made perfect sense. He said something along the lines of “That guy talks all that junk about how terrible all these movies are, but what does he know? He wrote something called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh,” I thought. I did not dare say I had seen it, but there was certainly a lot of logic in what this gentleman said. How could a guy so renowned for his cinematic taste have written something so gleefully lurid? It was so out there, it was actually rated 'X' (NC-17 in today's lingo) by the Motion Picture Association of America. After years of developing my own tastes for both blood and Beethoven, i.e. the films that cater to our carnality and those which engage our intellects, I realized that enjoyment of one is not mutually exclusive to the other. They can both be enjoyed on their own terms, by the same person, and even inform and complement each other. I didn’t understand that right then. For years, I still paid attention to Ebert, but tended to dismiss him as something of a hypocrite or disgruntled hack who hated obviously “brilliant” stuff like Rambo II because he himself could only create rubbish. My stance softened as I continued consuming B-movies with voracious enthusiasm, but I still didn’t really appreciate Ebert. He and I co-existed this way for years. He’d get on TV and share his opinions with the world. I made sure I heard them, but usually rolled my eyes. I mean, what did he know, right?
Fast-forward to the late nineties. I was married with children, only watched At the Movies if I so happened to catch it while flipping channels, and finally getting with the times. By that, I mean I bought a computer and started messing around with this strange, new-fangled thing known as the internet. I was still years away from becoming something of a serious cinephile, gobbling up movies big and small with reckless abandon in a futile attempt to see everything. Still, it was normal for me to watch a couple movies every weekend as I had for what seems like my entire life. After finishing some action flick or another that I was underwhelmed by, I was curious what others thought. I slowly pulled up the AOL dial-up connection, because you couldn’t do it quickly, and did a search for the movie’s title plus the word review. One of the first results bore the name Roger Ebert. I clicked the link, expecting to find something at which to scoff. Instead, I found a thoughtful piece that made me expand my own thinking on what I had seen. It probably helped that I agreed with this particular review, but I was intrigued. I started combing the site’s archives which contained just about every review Ebert had ever written for the Chicago Sun-Times. I sought out titles I had seen and read review after review. Sometimes I agreed, sometimes I didn’t, but his arguments were always well-presented, and I was always compelled to read more. The bottom line is that it was simply some damn good writin’.
Before I realized it, hours had passed and I understood Roger Ebert better than I ever had before. Over the weeks, months, and years that followed I read lots more of his reviews and three of his books. I’ve come to understand why he gave movies as many, or as few, stars as he did. Thumbs were reserved for television. I even dipped into the Ebert dictionary. Through all of this, I found he had an appreciation for all sorts of films, including the trash cinema that fueled my insomnia since before puberty. There was no movie he liked or disliked solely on the basis of genre or type. He judged them against others within those genres. Therefore, a B-movie could receive the same number of stars as some film with a lofty artistic vision. When I decided to become a movie blogger I wanted to be as well rounded and open-minded. I wanted to be able to express my love for both Citizen Kane and Zombeavers in the same breath. After all, Ebert knew what I knew. He understood that artsy and technically proficient cinema is great, but schlock balances the scales. Besides, we’re all just beasts of flesh. Occasionally us men, even those as enlightened as Ebert and myself (hopefully), just want to see boobs. This brings me all the way back to the neighbor at my best friend’s house all those years ago, and to a question posed in Life Itself. How could Roger Ebert, of all people, have written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? I contemplated this as I watched the documentary, thought back on all the things I’ve shared with you here, and settled on my own answer. How could he not?