Heartbreaking but uplifting, the recent documentary Life Itself explored the importance of film criticism through the prism of the 20th century’s most influential movie critic, Roger Ebert.
Completed after his death, Life Itself is a love letter to the man Ebert was through the majority of his life and the even more nuanced man he became after being diagnosed with both thyroid and salivary gland cancer which resulted in the removal of his lower jaw. After revealing his loss of speech in 2007, Ebert focused his energy on becoming an even stronger writer with his film blog, which has lived on after his 2013 death thanks to the work of a number of his movie-reviewing peers.
Ebert began his career as a film critic in 1967, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. Growing up, after I watched a movie of any historical significance, like Sunset Boulevard or Jaws, I would go online and read his review from his book series The Great Movies. Some excerpts were written exclusively for the books, while others were culled from his Chicago Sun-Times reviews. But all were illuminating to me, a budding cinema junkie.
From a writer’s standpoint, his words lack the lyrical prose of someone like The New York Times’ A.O. Scott or The New Yorker’s David Denby. But Ebert’s reviews were special for another reason: He was speaking to both avid cinephiles and everymen at the same time. He didn’t talk down to his readers, and he wasn’t afraid to explore why a movie spoke to him on a more primitive level—whether he found it titillating and sexy or a badass slice of pulpy, testosterone-fueled fun. And he understood the greater importance of cinema in the cultural landscape. He helped readers understand the value and beauty in something as obtuse as Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Roger Ebert could make anyone a fan of the movies, no matter their predisposition.
Now, in the age of snap judgements on Twitter and consensus crunching by way of the website Rotten Tomatoes, modern audiences don’t understand the art behind film criticism and why it’s important. Today, we are all critics of everyone and everything. And of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion. In fact, it was Ebert’s syndicated talk show with fellow critic Gene Siskel, Siskel and Ebert at the Movies, that really inspired the masses to think of movies as something everyone could consume and have a thoughtful and passionate discussion about.
But Ebert, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975, had something that most opinionated people of the internet era never seem to possess: context and facts. How else could we get the misinformed consensus, courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes, that Captain America: The Winter Solider was “politically astute”? Hopefully, it’s not too snobbish of me to outright dismiss that assessment and assume that whoever came to that conclusion has never seen any movie that remotely resembles being politically astute, such as All The President’s Men or Dr. Stranglove or dozens of other movies that span all decades and genres.
There’s something so problematic about boiling a film’s worth down to a percentage. I’ve seen plenty of objectively terrible movies that stir something in me that a number could never represent. No movie is above critical evaluation, but plenty are above a one-size-fits-all rating system.
Ebert actually had words behind his now iconic thumbs-up or thumbs-down reviews. He proved that film criticism was important because he didn’t just tell people what to see and what not to see. Ebert told people why they should see something. He told us that certain movies are for certain audiences and that certain movies were for all audiences and that it doesn't make either movie the good one or the bad one. According to Ebert, that’s the beauty of critical thinking. We don’t all have to agree. Websites like Rotten Tomatoes seem to think we do.
Martin Scorsese, the legendary director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and most recently, The Wolf of Wall Street, has said that Ebert quite literally saved his life.
In the documentary, Scorsese points out that it was Ebert who saw promise in his feature film debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) long before he created his first masterpiece, Mean Streets (1973). Scorsese, who fell in a period of depression in the 1980s, said that it was Ebert’s words that gave him the will to keep living and to keep creating better movies.
Not everyone who sees a movie needs to be thoughtful about it. In fact, many people go to the movies for the opposite effect: to turn their brains off and be entertained. But if Ebert taught me anything, it’s that film criticism matters. And it matters to me. It vindicates a passion so easily dismissed as frivolous. It engages a discourse for both high and low art. It gives valuable feedback to an industry mostly concerned with monetary accomplishments over artistic ones.
Film, and therefore film criticism, is just another wonderful way of sorting through the funny, sad, chaotic journey that is life itself. Movies are about understanding ourselves and being empathetic and responsive to others. Roger Ebert knew that. And that’s what made him such a great critic.