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The Man Who Loved Movies: Roger Ebert, Film Critic - Part Two

Film critic Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert loved movies” is the simple epitaph over at Rogerebert.com. It might seem like stating the obvious when talking about a person who spent almost half a century writing about cinema, yet few critics revealed their love for film in every word the way Ebert did. He never phoned it in, and each review clearly came from the heart. 

There are still plenty of great writers out there producing quality criticism since Ebert’s passing in 2013, but none have quite got close to his standing or influence. Perhaps no-one will, now the field is diluted by Rotten Tomatoes and millions of bloggers chipping in with their reviews. I guess in the UK, the closest equivalent would be Mark Kermode in terms of popular reach and opinionated criticism.

For aspiring critics, there is no greater teacher. Here are three things his writing has taught me over the years:

 

1. As much as possible, be kind. When I started writing about movies 18 years ago, I went through a cynical phase where I thought I’d get more attention with hatchet job reviews. It’s fair enough to criticise a movie if it’s terrible, and Ebert wrote plenty of scathing reviews in his time. He hated plenty of movies, but his negative reviews came from the perspective of a guy who passionately wanted every film to be the best it could be. If you’re just bashing movies in an attempt to get more traffic, you’re not a critic. You’re a troll.

2. Don’t show off. Or at least, not all the time. Ebert’s writing was simple and accessible, with a forthright style that enabled him to convey many complex ideas about cinema in a way that even the most casual film buff could understand. He wasn’t trying to impress readers with fancy writing, because he just wanted to get his thoughts across to as many people as possible. That’s not to say he wouldn’t get creative from time to time; one of my least favourite Ebert pieces was when he took apart Wet Hot American Summer in the style of that old “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” song. It’s okay to mix it up occasionally, but accessibility should be the goal.

3. Don’t be afraid to get personal. Ebert wrote with wisdom and sincerity, and reading his reviews feels like a conversation with a friendly, knowledgeable uncle. His style was highly subjective, often using personal anecdotes to explain his stance on a movie or provide insight into how he approached it. He wasn’t afraid to make himself part of the review, which was something I was afraid of at first. Surely the reader came to find out about the movie, not about me, right? But now I think balanced subjectivity makes you more approachable and trustworthy, especially if you’re willing to put a little of yourself on the line too.

     

    Ebert reviewed hundreds of movies each year and he changed the way regular people thought about film criticism. First, he made his name in Chicago with the Sun-Times before reaching millions on TV with fellow critic Gene Siskell, with whom he shared a prickly relationship. Eventually he went global with the dawn of the internet.

    Ebert received a Pulitzer for his writing in 1975, becoming the first film critic to win the prize. Thirty years later, he also became the first critic to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    After suffering cancer, surgeons removed Ebert’s lower jaw, leaving him without speech and feeding through a straw for the rest of his life. Despite this, he stayed upbeat and philosophical, working right up to his death in 2013. His passion for movies kept going until the very end. A few years before he passed away, he wrote:

    “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”

    In 2012, he submitted his final Top 10 list of the greatest films of all time to Sight and Sound. Last week we took a look at the first five of those films. This week, let’s finish off his list.

    The General (1926)

    The General is Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, but like Citizen Kane 15 years later, its poor performance meant the director lost full creative control of his later pictures. As a result, it is regarded as one of the last great comedies of the silent era.

    I often struggle with silent movies, but Keaton’s feel more modern than many of his contemporaries. The General isn’t as outright funny as some of his more straightforward slapstick efforts like Sherlock Jr or The Navigator, with the laughs spread out more among the drama. It makes up for it with sheer epic scope and legitimate thrills. Based on a real incident during the American Civil War, Keaton spent a whopping (for the time) $750,000 telling the story of a lowly engineer pursuing his beloved steam engine after Union agents steal it to cause chaos behind Confederate lines.

     

    An original movie poster for the Buster Keaton film The General

     

    The General makes great use of Keaton’s deadpan facial expressions and hair-raising stuntwork, typified by one of the film’s most iconic moments. Rejected by his sweetheart, our hero sits down on the coupling rod of a train as the wheels start turning. Heartbroken, he is oblivious as he is carried away through a tunnel. It looks so simple, but was incredibly dangerous; if there was any error, Keaton could have easily been thrown under the wheels of the train.

    The chase scenes, using real locomotives, are an endlessly inventive variation on a theme. You might think not much can happen when by nature one train is locked in to following the other, but Keaton’s imagination constantly switches things up. Those scenes are funny and spectacular in equal measure, with sweeping battles and natural beauty as a backdrop. The final train crash, where Keaton dropped one of his real trains into a gorge from an exploding bridge, feels like his closing statement on the era. He would make more good films, but nothing quite of the same calibre as The General.

    Ebert wrote:

    “Today I look at Keaton's works more often than any other silent films. They have such a graceful perfection, such a meshing of story, character and episode, that they unfold like music. Although they're filled with gags, you can rarely catch Keaton writing a scene around a gag; instead, the laughs emerge from the situation; he was ‘the still, small, suffering center of the hysteria of slapstick,’ wrote the critic Karen Jaehne. And in an age when special effects were in their infancy, and a ‘stunt’ often meant actually doing on the screen what you appeared to be doing, Keaton was ambitious and fearless. He had a house collapse around him. He swung over a waterfall to rescue a woman he loved. He fell from trains. And always he did it in character, playing a solemn and thoughtful man who trusts in his own ingenuity.”

    Raging Bull (1980)

    In the early part of his career, Martin Scorsese made an astonishing sequence of films with Robert De Niro (let’s ignore New York, New York in the middle of this run). First, there was the actor’s livewire performance in Mean Streets, a warm up for three of his greatest roles: Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, and Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy.

    Of the trio, Raging Bull is the film I find hardest to actively enjoy. All three characters are sociopaths whose alienation manifests itself in different ways, but Jake La Motta is such an incredibly ugly character to spend time with. Playing a real-life middleweight champion whose brutal fighting style often saw him receive almost as much damage as he dealt out, De Niro’s performance is so raw and violent it is sometimes painful to watch.

     

    An original movie poster for the Robert de Niro film Raging Bull

     

    This is the whole point of Raging Bull, a biopic of a man so volcanically ill-tempered that his anger tips him over into self-destructive tendencies. De Niro commits so fully to the role without ever winking to the audience, never letting us off the hook even once. He gets terrific backup from Joe Pesci as La Motta’s brother and Cathy Moriarty as his young abused wife. Thankfully, some of the blunt brutality is offset by the stunning black and white photography from Michael Chapman, who finds poetry in a life of aggression and pent-up self-loathing that frequently explodes into violence.

    “Jake has an ambivalence toward women that Freud famously named the ‘Madonna-whore complex.’ For LaMotta, women are unapproachable, virginal ideals--until they are sullied by physical contact (with him), after which they become suspect. During the film he tortures himself with fantasies that Vickie [Moriarty] is cheating on him. Every word, every glance, is twisted by his scrutiny. He never catches her, but he beats her as if he had; his suspicion is proof of her guilt.”

    Tokyo Story (1953)

    Yasujirō Ozu was a director who made films of such breathtaking simplicity that he made other filmmakers look like they were over-complicating things. Tokyo Story is a tale of an elderly couple from the countryside journeying into the city to stay with their grown up children. While their kids are happy for the visit, their lives are far too busy to really spend any time with them. As a result, the parents are left idling away the days, lonely together in their old age.

     

    An original movie poster for the film Tokyo Story

     

    Ozu allows his signature style to frame the story rather than embellish it; the camera rarely moves and observes the characters arranged in a series of pleasingly geometrical tableaux. Shot at a low level as if seated on the floor with them, we are drawn into their lives. While the story is terribly sad, Tokyo Story isn’t a bummer. Ozu is representing this cycle of life as a fact of the world, without exploiting the situations by yanking at our heart-strings.

    “[Tokyo Story] does this with characters so universal that we recognize them instantly -- sometimes in the mirror. It was made 50 years ago in Japan, by a man who was born 100 years ago this year, and it is about our families, our natures, our flaws and our clumsy search for love and meaning. It isn't that our lives keep us too busy for our families. It's that we have arranged them to protect us from having to deal with big questions of love, work and death. We escape into truisms, small talk and distractions. Given the opportunity at a family gathering to share our hopes and disappointments, we talk about the weather and watch TV.”

    The Tree of Life (2011)

    Few films evoke the feeling of memory as strongly as Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. It is sometimes compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, although it is very different in tone. Kubrick’s film inspires awe, while the cloud-gazing Malick is far more reverent to the tiny details that make life worth living. He starts with the Big Bang, the creation of the earth, and the rise and fall of the dinosaurs before taking us to a very specific childhood place in the ‘50s, then on to the modern day and the Hereafter. It is a deeply spiritual film, but you don’t need to be religious to appreciate its rapturous power.

     

    An original movie poster for the film The Tree of Life

     

    The memory part comes in the central section in the ‘50s, set in a grassy Texan suburb. It is the part of the film that most closely resembles a straightforward story, as we spend time with the O’Brien family. Brad Pitt is a revelation as Mr O’Brien, who rules the house as a strict disciplinarian, while the kids seek solace from their radiant  mother (Jessica Chastain). Through a series of abstract snapshots, Malick gives us a better sense of who these people are than most narrative films can ever manage.

    Malick’s use of imagery and music is nothing short of miraculous, aided by the stellar work of Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the greatest cinematographers in the business today. Malick’s approach lacks any cynicism, sensing God everywhere with clear-eyed fervour: in the trees, a net curtain billowing in the breeze, or the lightness of a loved one’s touch. I don’t believe in God, but I came away from The Tree of Life with renewed faith in the universe.


    “The film's portrait of everyday life, inspired by Malick's memories of his hometown of Waco, Texas, is bounded by two immensities, one of space and time, and the other of spirituality. "The Tree of Life" has awe-inspiring visuals suggesting the birth and expansion of the universe, the appearance of life on a microscopic level and the evolution of species. This process leads to the present moment, and to all of us. We were created in the Big Bang and over untold millions of years, molecules formed themselves into, well, you and me.”

    Vertigo (1958)

    In 2012, Vertigo knocked Citizen Kane off the top spot of Sight & Sound’s Top 250 movies, a position Welles’ masterpiece held for many years. He would have been furious if he was alive to see it; Welles often held low opinions of his peers, including Alfred Hitchcock. He hated Vertigo, now widely regarded as the master of suspense’s greatest film, suggesting Hitchcock was senile when he made it.

    Sour grapes? Almost certainly. Vertigo finds Hitchcock’s story-telling ability as its most assured, a masterful psychological thriller that carries us away on the ebbs and flows of its macabre tale. James Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson, a San Francisco detective who becomes obsessed with a businessman’s wife who claims to be the reincarnation of a woman who died a century earlier. When he is unable to save her from suicide by his acute acrophobia, his fetishes find another vessel in the form of a shop girl who he twists into the deceased’s image.

     

    An original movie poster for the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo

     

    Vertigo is thick with a mysterious, haunted atmosphere as Hitchcock airs his kinks more overtly than any other film of his golden Hollywood period of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Notorious for both controlling his actors and obsessing over “icy blondes,” the story mirrors the director’s own behaviour during this era. Grace Kelly was his first great blonde muse, and after she quit acting to marry a prince, he sought another actress to take her place - Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren etc.

    Novak is terrific in her dual role, but the film is dominated by Stewart’s performance. He left behind his aw-shucks nice guy persona of It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr Smith Goes to Washington to produce some of his finest work with Hitchcock. He taps into the darker shades of George Bailey as the tormented cop, and there is true madness in his eyes as Scottie’s fetishes come bubbling to the surface.

    “Over and over in his films, Hitchcock took delight in literally and figuratively dragging his women through the mud--humiliating them, spoiling their hair and clothes as if lashing at his own fetishes. Judy, in “Vertigo,” is the closest he came to sympathizing with the female victims of his plots. And Novak, criticized at the time for playing the character too stiffly, has made the correct acting choices: Ask yourself how you would move and speak if you were in unbearable pain, and then look again at Judy.”

     

     

    So there you have it, my thoughts on Roger Eberts’ top picks with a few words from the great man. If you’d like to find out more about him, I highly recommend the documentary Life Itself.

     

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