While at the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see the Scientology movie (see review, below), I popped into the gift shop. Everyone knows that gift shops are like Costco: they're Hundred Dollar Stores, 'coz you never leave without spending $100.... Hence my purchases of Roger Ebert's The Great Movies and the biographical DVD Life Itself. The former lifted me up, the latter not so much.
I decided I would buy the book if one of his 100 essays were about Kieslowski's The Decalogue: ka-ching! Okay, how about The Passion of Joan of Arc? Bingo! Was The Wizard of Oz too low-brow? Nope. Did it include other genres, like the Up documentaries? I was thrilled.
I'd never read Ebert before. Back in the days of watching TV, I saw him and Siskel bickering away like an old couple, often raising their voices over each other's. In his essays, I found a treasure trove of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays. I nodded in total agreement as I read his assessments of why films stand up years or decades later; how they make us cry; what their contributions to social culture is; when they have weak moments; and who contributed to their transcendence. Often, I thought, Yes, that's exactly how I feel about that movie, but I wouldn't have had the words to express that! For example:
"[James Stewart] was a legitimate war hero, and what he saw in the war is no doubt reflected in George Bailey's face as he stands on that Bedford Falls bridge" (on It's a Wonderful Life, p233).
"On television, [the shot of the suicidal trek across the desert] doesn't work at all--nothing can be seen. In a movie theater, looking at the stark clarity of a 70mm print, we lean forward and strain to bring a detail out of the waves of heat, and for a moment we experience some of the actual vastness of the desert and its unforgiving harshness" (on Lawrence of Arabia, p265-266).
"In a medium without words...to see [actress Maria] Falconetti in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is to look into eyes will never leave you" (p349).
"The settings are much the same: gray exteriors, in winter for the most part, small apartments, offices. The faces are where the life of the films resides" (on The Decalogue, p132).
Is it reiterative to read commentary on movies you've already seen, perhaps many times, as opposed to reviews that may prompt or prevent your viewing? Especially finer films? I suppose a lot of people still don't even consider filmmaking and film criticism to be subjects worthy of academic study, let alone discussion. When they're the great movies, the reading becomes contemplative.
Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert's life, lacked balance. It started off with a fascinating look at his early writing life, his break into film criticism and his influence, along with Siskel, on Hollywood and the movie-going public. <Screeching car brakes> Then we do a sharp turn into his battle with cancer, which focuses on his seemingly indomitable spirit throughout while keeping the camera relentlessly on what remains of his unsupported jaw and on his family's reactions to his trials. There's talk of how he reviews movies and reflects on his life on his online journal, but the viewer is made into a sort of rubber-necker at a car crash scene: you don't want to see his surgical disfiguration but you can't look away. Ultimately, it is draining. Perhaps the eponymous memoir was 'moving', 'a joy' and 'transcendent', but the director's/producers' homage to Ebert focuses too long on only one part of his life. Yes, he carried on, but do people with cancer want that to be the majority of how they are defined and remembered? I think the current view is that they live alongside their cancer and not with their cancer.
Anyway, there are The Great Movies II and III to look forward to as well, and those are how I will remember and appreciate the contributions of Roger Ebert.
Photo from http://www.rogerebert.com/memoriam