Thursday, July 24, 2014

Roger Ebert at the Movies

Roger Ebert was my favorite film critic because, first of all, I tended to like movies I saw after reading his positive reviews, or alternatively, I found that when I read his reviews after seeing a movie, I usually agreed with his views. He possessed a deep knowledge of the medium and had a fine ability to perceive what kind of audience would enjoy a particular movie.

So last weekend we saw the bio film on his life, entitled Life, Itself.  While the picture seemed to spend more time on his last days in a rehab hospital, after losing most of his jaw to cancer, it told me things about him that I'd not known. He was editor-in-chief, for example, of the Daily Illini at the Univ. of Illinois and after securing a foothold at the Chicago Sun-Times as an intern, more or less fell into the movie critic's chair where he remained and thrived and developed an international reputation for the next several decades.

He made his encounter with illness in his last years public partly, it seems, because his partner on public tv, the late Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, had kept his final illness a secret. Siskel and Ebert (the order of billing was determined by a coin toss) had their differences but each apparently disclosed at the end of each of their lives how much they respected the other. They were a good match. Siskel was a bit of a highbrow, having majored in philosophy at Yale while Ebert liked to style himself as a man of the people who grew up in Champaign-Urbana as the son of an electrician and a schoolteacher and went to the home-town school, Illinois. 

It was also delightful to see that although Ebert was able to pal around with movie stars at Cannes and elsewhere, he retained his sense of himself and place, rejecting offers to leave Chicago. After all, it took some years for Siskel and Ebert to get their public tv show shown in New York and L.A. but ultimately they became the two best-known critics in the country.

I thought of how he is missed--despite his having trained a cadre of young critics who carry on his work as reviewers at  I was reading a review in the Baltimore edition of the City Paper of the classic Sunset Boulevard.  The critic found the movie compelling despite his visceral dislike of most everything about it. He missed appreciating how Gloria Swanson had really been a silent star, how Erich von Stroheim who played her butler had truly been a great director in the 20s, and the irony of the tyrannical Cecil B. DeMille, whose extravaganzas are mostly ludicrous today, comes off in the picture playing himself as a kindly veteran who tries to let Swanson down with affection.Ebert doubtless would have remarked on most of these aspects, as well as the delight in seeing true silent stars such as H.B. Warner and Buster Keaton as companions of Swanson at a card-playing evening.

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