Roger Ebert Documentary 'Life Itself' Reminds Us of a Time When Film Criticism Mattered; A Film about Roger Ebert Reminds Us of a Time When Movie Criticism Mattered

By Elder, Sean | Newsweek, August 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Roger Ebert Documentary 'Life Itself' Reminds Us of a Time When Film Criticism Mattered; A Film about Roger Ebert Reminds Us of a Time When Movie Criticism Mattered


Elder, Sean, Newsweek


Byline: Sean Elder

Back in the 1980s, I was working in a bookstore across from a movie theater in San Francisco, arguing with a bunch of other marginally employed English lit graduates. When things got slow--when tourists weren't buying stacks of postcards and the latest Ludlum novel--it was easy to start a debate by talking about movie critics. Not the movies themselves, mind you, but the people who reviewed them. Sarris versus Kael, for instance--an oversimplified debate about the relative merits of The Village Voice's Andrew Sarris (he of the "auteur theory" that held a director was as responsible for a film as an author was of his book) and the California provocateur Pauline Kael (who championed the importance of collaborators and found Sarris rather stuffy and square). For most moviegoers who came in, killing time before the next screening, it was angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff that had nothing to do with the possibly cathartic but more often disappointing experience of seeing things blow up and then made right in under 120 minutes.

And for those who made the mistake of asking us how many stars a given movie had, or whether Siskel and Ebert had given it their signature thumbs up or down, we had no time. Take your remaindered cat calendar and let us go back to pretending we're French.

In light of a new documentary about Roger Ebert (Life Itself, in theaters and on demand), the days when people cared about critics, any critics, seem halcyon indeed. And the loss of Ebert and his longtime adversary and critical partner, Gene Siskel, is not the problem. "The reality is that when Siskel and Ebert were on TV, film was a part of the cultural conversation in a very different way," says Stephanie Zacharek, who reviews films for the Voice today. "It was like everybody talked about a film and it would be around for a couple of weeks. If you didn't see Kramer vs. Kramer the week it opened, you'd see it two weeks later, you'd go to a dinner party and talk about it. Things would just linger a little bit longer."

If snobs like us hated Siskel and Ebert (whose show, under various titles--Sneak Previews, At the Movies--ran on public television and then in syndication for over 20 years), it was because it made film appreciation too simple, we'd say--too black-and-white, good-or-bad, up-or-down. "This was not Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael," The New York Times's A.O. Scott says of their debates in the documentary, and he means that as a compliment. He calls Ebert "the definitive mainstream film critic," and as someone assigned with the unenviable task of telling millions of Times readers whether they should waste money on a babysitter, Scott may have inherited that mantle (as opposed to the paper's more unabashedly intellectual and generally amusing Manohla Dargis).

Ebert, who died of complications due to cancer in 2013 at the age of 70, was the product of the print age. He began working on his local paper at the age of 15, ran the student newspaper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and was writing for the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1960s as American film began to get interesting again. "Pitilessly cruel" and "astonishingly beautiful" was how he characterized Bonnie and Clyde (1967)--a film that became a bellwether for critics. Kael, who was writing for The New Yorker by then, offended some of the magazine's readers with her enthusiasm for the movie's lyrical violence, and Newsweek's Joe Morgenstern famously panned the flick--and then changed his mind and came back to write a second appreciative review a week later. …

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