When we were younger, we would hold video nights: Nothing more complex than choosing a video from the rental store and watching it in a designated bedroom with whatever junk food could be stuffed in the oversized pockets of our oversized jeans. Usually, we’d aim for something highbrow, like Fargo or U-Turn (a film that still causes division amongst us today). Sometimes, we’d go with something less so. Anyone who has ever seen Mortal Kombat: Annihilation will know exactly what we’re talking about.
We were very particular about the quotes of recognition that emblazoned the VHS covers of the films we looked at. Often gaudily written in Day-Glo orange or yellow (this may have just been a UK thing), they would often take up the majority of the cover. We would actively look out quotes from The Sun or Paul Ross; the lesser of the Ross brothers, who once famously described The Matrix Revolutions as ‘A Melon twistingly mega magnificent sequel.’
Maybe because we were British, young, and potentially stupid, we weren’t that aware of Roger Ebert’s body of work. Due to pop culture references that cropped up in cartoons and movies, we obviously knew of him. In the same way we got the Grey Poupon reference in Wayne’s World without really understanding it, we knew about two thumbs up and two thumbs down. We’d seen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and so he became the thumbs up American who wrote a porn film (as we say, we were young and bare breasts equaled porn back then). As such, maybe in our search for the perfect quote from Paul Ross (a man who described 2003’s Peter Pan as ‘Peter Pan-tastic’), we overlooked Ebert. Had Ebert described a film like Undercover Brother as ‘Funkin’ Funny’ maybe we would have looked harder. You see, we equated the quality of the film against the litmus test in our heads of what constituted a reliable source of opinion and the Sun and Paul Ross weren’t it. We should have looked harder.
As we got older and the internet opened some doors for us, it became easier to dip in and out of Ebert’s work. Of course his bound collections of work are now available freely. And many a journey or time alone has been spent reading them; laughing, agreeing and, sometimes, downright disagreeing with what he had to say. And now we have Life Itself; a documentary by Steve James which is in equal parts a celebration of Ebert’s life and a memorial service.
The filming of the documentary ended up coinciding with an unscheduled visits to hospital for Ebert and it’s where our film begins. Silenced by cancer only in the sense that he can no longer talk except through his laptop and notepad, Ebert’s eyes sparkle as he introduces his wife and nurses. Despite ill health, he’s excited about the prospect of the film. Sadly, he would pass away before its release. The chances are high that he would have liked it. He admits in the film that it must be an honest film and as such, allows himself to be exposed in terms of his treatments and ailing health. As the film time travels through his life, picking up passengers along the way to discuss what he meant to them, nearly everyone is candid; highlighting his talent and joy of life, as well as his controlling nature and dark moods in one breath. Despite the image of TV’s Roger Ebert he created on Siskel and Ebert, he probably wouldn’t have wanted their stark reflections any other way.
James’ film is a superb look back on a life that embraces the art of cinema and wasn’t afraid to suggest that *gasp!* it was for everyone, not just the elite. And maybe, just maybe, the genres of cinema are not always comparable. You compare like to like, as shown in a wonderful scene where he does battle with his co-host Gene Siskel over Benji the Hunted. The scene also highlighted the boil in the bag nature of the show. A black and white opinion of thumbs up or down negating the subtle nuances of real criticism. But Ebert knew that and it certainly didn’t detract from his body of work at whole. If his recommendation got someone to see something they wouldn’t ordinarily, where was the issue? Surely that was better than a quote whore like Paul Ross, a man who called Alfie ‘A career best for Jude Law,’ Troy ‘a masterpiece’ and who gave Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow the rather ambitious ‘A wow factor of a gazillion.’
Man, we should have got to Ebert sooner.