Life Itself (USA, 2014)

roger-ebert-poster-for-life-itselfDirected by: Steve James. This was a hard one. I don’t really know how to write about this movie in particular, and I was tempted to maybe just make a post about the whole topic of film criticism, weighing art, subjectivity vs objectivity, my views on such things, and how they relate to Ebert, who is basically the Beatles of film criticism: no matter what stance you take on him and his approach—for or against—your stance is in relation to him and to Siskel and their whole project. I’m not going to make that big, long-winded post today, but I’ll just say that yes, I was very sad when Ebert died. I had always seen him around, I loved catching the TV show if I was up late on a Sunday, I followed him on Twitter in the last years of his life, and I used to look to his reviews on a movie (and I still do), not necessarily to see if I’d like it or not, because I disagreed with his assessments about half the time, but because his voice was the clearly delineated, articulate voice of the mainstream culture and the mainstream industry. He didn’t just gobble up every dumb garbage movie that came out, but he was remarkably soft and generous and receptive to an awful lot of stock, pat, humdrum, Oscar bait pablum and blockbuster garbage. Where for me, a bloated piece of popcorn-bait lowest-common-denominator that exists to hustle masses of passive and uncritical viewers into the seats in whatever way possible (say, Olympus Has Fallen) more or less has a right to exist (mostly because I don’t get a say in whether it exists or not, so we might as well be pragmatic here), but the flip side of that is that if you, as a filmmaker/studio decide to go that route, you forfeit any claims to artistic legitimacy, and you open yourself up to the wrath of critical viewers, which in an ideal world would be mainstream, popular, well-paid film critics like Ebert, Roeper, A.O. Scott, and the rest. It’s laudable for someone to look for the good parts of an awful thing, and as someone who is subjected to awful movies on a professional basis, it helps keep you grounded, keeps you from sounding arty-farty and pretentious to the mainstream viewers you’re appealing to. In general, Ebert and Siskel were successful because they didn’t do what I do on this blog. And the only reason I have the luxury of doing what I do on this blog is because it’s unpaid, done in stolen moments here and there, and not on a professional basis. That being said, I still don’t really agree with Ebert’s basic stance: to judge the work “for what it is.” For me, it’s always been, what if “what it is” is a piece of garbage? The superhero film, for example, is a fundamentally juvenile, brain-dead, lowest-common-denominator genre. Now, for a juvenile, brain-dead, escapist fantasy meant to induce adults into the feeling of being children for 2+ hours, I might get more or less personal enjoyment out of a given superhero movie. But all that I can say is whether or not I liked it, as well as any observations that came my way about what this film says about the culture it came from. From that, you the reader can decide if the film I’m describing sounds good to you, and you can decide if my personal views line up with yours, and if they don’t, then maybe you won’t agree with my assessment. Ultimately, you have to go see the thing yourself to decide. But in that case, I’ve put myself, the film critic, out of a job. If my views are purely subjective then there’s no particular reason for anyone to listen to my opinions on any movie. If I’ve got a job as a film critic though, then it’s in my best interests to convince everyone, myself most importantly, that I’m not just “giving my opinion”, that my opinion is, like a craftsman or scientist, a collection of specialist expertise, cultivated from years spent watching films and reading film theory and criticism. But watching movies is no science, folks. I thought that Furious 7 was so dumb it didn’t even count as a real movie (I’m not exaggerating), and while I was formulating that opinion, the thing broke every box office record in existence. All of that being said, this blog, like Ebert’s reviews, can serve as an introduction to titles you might not have heard of, and most importantly, a starting point. That’s all: film criticism is a window, or maybe a door, or some other metaphor. What’s a connector? Film criticism is a block of Lego, here to connect the audience to the art form of film that all of us film watchers love. I’m a film watcher who can write (I can even write properly sometimes!). If that makes us “film critics” then so be it, and if some of us can get paid to do it, then god bless you, your’e a dying breed. As for Ebert—good night, sweet prince.

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