I grew up with Roger Ebert’s movie reviews. I first read one of his pieces in high school and have been hooked ever since. I would usually consult him before deciding to watch a particular movie, especially if the IMDB rating was not very high: his judgment would be the tiebreak that would convince me – or not – to invest those 2-3 hours in a movie. Afterwards, I would tuck into bed and slowly and solemnly read his opinion, often forcing my wife to listen on.
What was so special about his reviews? What set him apart from the plethora of reviewers that compete for our attention on “Rotten Tomatoes” or “Metacritic”? For me it was the way he drew parallels between movies and real life. He was not judging a movie on its purely artistic or aesthetic merit; he stayed clear of high-sounding phrases and abstruse concepts. He didn’t need and didn’t want to show off his cinematic culture or talk condescendingly to his reader. On the contrary, his was an honest, almost heart-to-heart talk, in which he told us how he empathized with the characters, how he was drawn in by the plot, what details about the direction, the cinematography, the acting, the soundtrack had struck a particular chord with him.
But most importantly, he had this uncanny ability to put the movie in the context of “Life itself”, to use the title of his book and of the recent documentary about his life. He extracted meaning from virtually every movie; a movie reviewed by Ebert wasn’t just a movie, it became a vehicle for exploring our deepest emotions, aspirations, frustrations; a way of redefining our common humanity. After reading an Ebert review, I usually felt a strong connection with the man, because he had opened up to me, he wasn’t lecturing me or forcing his interpretation on me.
In fact, he seemed to always want to underline, explicitly or implicitly, that the review was all about how the movie had resonated with HIM. He never pretended that movies weren’t what they are: an entirely subjective experience. There are as many reviews as there are persons and, paradoxically, the more personal the review, the more interesting it gets. This is why I liked his reviews even when I didn’t agree with them, even if I didn’t feel the same emotions he experienced during the picture. After reading a review that I didn’t agree with, I even took particular pride in holding a different point of view. Most professional reviewers make you feel stupid if you don’t share their strong opinion: if you don’t like a movie that they praised, then you are uncultured and unsophisticated; if you loved a movie they torpedoed, you are superficial and have bad taste… Ebert never made you feel that way; on the contrary, you always felt on a level plain.
The documentary “Life Itself”, which touches on many aspects of Ebert’s life and work, is unmissable for any fan. I would’ve preferred a more in-depth coverage of his reviews, his relationship with movies, especially the one’s that changed his life. In my opinion, director Steve James dwells excessively on Ebert’s terminal illness – close-ups of his chin-less face are omnipresent – and on his relationship with his wife and with his television partner Gene Siskel (which takes up an outsize portion of the documentary). For me, Ebert is all about his reviews, and to have given them so little space is a pity.
Even so, I would recommend spending two hours with “Life Itself”, even if you’ve never read an Ebert review: it will introduce you to one of the best movie critics of all time, who has written reviews for half the history of motion pictures and touched the lives of thousands of people – including mine – guiding them through an exciting journey of discovery and self-discovery.