Life Itself: Movies, Death, Criticism, and Thought

That above clip(s) is a pretty decent explanation for how I seriously got into movies (and I just did this, realizing that: a)I made a life decision based on a short lived cartoon and b)I may be unconsciously turning into Jay Sherman). In my younger and more formative years, The Critic and The Simpsons (and in retrospect Muppet Babies) are what motivated me spend my summers going to my local library in Beaverton, Oregon to check out (in varying degrees of VHS quality) art , silent, and foreign films (I already had a love for classic movies from my Mom and our Saturday afternoons watching Hitchcock). The reason? To get the references. This was in the nascent years of the internet when the amount of time it took to download a picture wasn’t worth the minutes on your America Online account. At that time Siskel and Ebert were one of the major outlets for hearing about the obscure movies that you’d have to drive (or get my parents to drive) to downtown Portland to watch. Also, in the time before the internet, and if you lived outside of one of the hubs of cineculture, they provided perhaps the only way to experience a conversation about movies.

One of the strengths about Life Itself, the documentary biography of Roger Ebert which became a fitting eulogy, is that it talks about the critiques of Ebert’s criticism: that it wasn’t exactly film criticism (seen as more academic and thoughtful). The answer that Ebert gives is that he hoped that talking about films, arguing about movies, would inspire “ambitious” young people to go farther with them. I suppose I am that person. In a simplistic manner it would seem to suggest that the value of Ebert was to introduce me to the study of movies enough to realize I don’t need Ebert or how deficient the “Thumbs up!” approach was. But that last sentence is little more than a “thumbs down!” Siskel and Ebert, their “And/At the Movies” versions, provided a different service: the consumer report. Siskel and Ebert would tell you what was probably worth not spending your money on-or more importantly, your time. And that leads me to the bulk of what this post will be about as I think about some anxieties as someone who writes about movies.

The big unanswered question that director Steve James asks Ebert is “Why did you call your book ‘Life Itself?'” In a very absurdist twist this question about life is left unanswerable by death. And the movie called Life Itself is very much about death.

I just made a movie in New Mexico last month, a short, rough essay film, about history, film, and death. I may put it up here later on when I’m not as self-conscious about it. One of the themes is that cinema is death. A lot of the reasons I believe that statement are in the movie and said better creatively (hopefully) than here in a post. But I’m not the only person who’s said something like that about photographic technologies. Some of the earliest uses of photography were to take those creepy corpse portraits. To enshrine forever what will shortly decompose. Film and death. Ebert is dying. James may not have known how soon Ebert would die, but he had to know that he was making, in part, a eulogy here. Unlike visual arts, movies have a temporality.

Recently I saw an infographic on Tumblr. It had the duration of a number of popular TV shows in days for those who may be inclined to binge watch. The Simpsons took up about 9 days, which means I’ve probably spent over a month of my life with them, which wasn’t too depressing (but still kind of my Comic Book Guy Aquaman moment). So movies (And TV) take up time. And in this documentary we have death and movies juxtaposed directly next to each other. A man with months to live spending that time watching movies. This hit me hard. And brings up a pretty obvious question: what’s the point of watching movies (and writing about them)? Let me put that another way. Here is Roger Ebert, a man who’s seen thousands of movies, has seen as many terrible movies than I’ve seen any kind of movie. Does he regret the 2 hours he spent watching (insert title of movie you hate here)? Why call it “life itself?” What is “life itself,” or rather what is the relationship between movies and life?  It could be: a) life itself, as in “this is Roger Ebert’s lived experiences in movie form;” b)”life itself” as in “I’ve written about movies so here is ‘real’ life,” which presumes that movies aren’t “life itself;” or c) “life itself,” as in movies are in some way life itself, or concern themselves with life itself, and Ebert’s life and his life of movies are one in the same movement of experience.

Answer A: The moment which Ebert is happiest that Steve James captures on film is suction; a medical reality, a daily reality for Ebert, that he does not believe has been captured on film before. Film as evidence. The ability to see the unseen. Ebert’s brave cover photo after his surgery, to attempt to show the physiological realty of his life, was done largely for this reason. The film shows Ebert introducing his granddaughter to Michael Apted’s 56 Up and the concept of the Up series, which Ebert felt was the most important work of cinema.

Answer B is the criticism of answer A. We shouldn’t mistake our relationship with the image with real life. I don’t and didn’t know Roger Ebert, as much as I watched him, and the image I knew of him was skewed from the full experience of who he was. And perhaps this documentary is meant to try and present a fuller version of Roger Ebert by including things like his alcoholism or behind the scenes difficulties with Siskel. Like everything in this already long article, there is a lot more to say about this…

Answer C: The introduction, done by a voice actor who is whatever the vocal equivalent of a doppelganger is of Ebert, suggests “c.” Ebert suggests that movies have the ability to allow us to become more compassionate, to empathize, to virtually (maybe that word’s too problematic?) and Atticus Finch-like walk a mile in a person’s shoes. Compassion may seem a bit strange, and maybe Ebert is doing something similar to parts of Bergman’s biographies where the lofty ideal doesn’t match the evidence presented by history, for the person who had a book called Your Movie Sucks or gave us Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as his contribution to cinema texts. But maybe it does explain (some) things more. If Ebert really saw movies as conduits of charity and instead saw (insert movie title here) and (insert sequel to whatever movie you just chose) it would make sense that the idealist would become hardened.  In many ways this mirrors the first half century of film criticism. Many of the earliest film theorists saw in cinema a technology to make us better people: more aware of ourselves, others, and in many cases the mystical by showing what we couldn’t otherwise see, or perhaps experience. And then real life happened. After depressions, wars, and genocides there were schools of criticism, even some of those earlier writers, that thought maybe movies are wastes of time at best and mass unthinking capitalistic machines at worst. But that still doesn’t answer my question, it just illustrates a philosophy toward movies. Is it worth it? What’s the point of writing about movies?

Two short, personal vignettes: 

No matter what “Life itself” mean, movies are to many people a part of their lives. After my grandmother passed away my Mother found one of her journals. In it, she noticed that my grandmother, like many in her generation, went to the movies multiple times per week, and she’d write about these films, b-pictures that I hadn’t heard of in her journal. I think something that significant to a person’s life deserves study. For years I had the goal of tracking down the movies and TV shows that scared me as a child. This may have been partly nostalgia, but mostly curiosity. And it was the simplest and most important kind of curiosity that humans have: why does X do this to Y? It may be out of the prevue of film critics, mostly versed in philosophy and literature than psychology, to say if movies have an effect on people. And any statement of direct causality is dangerous and improbable to make. But if millions of people do something, there should be people who consider what it does to people if not scientifically, philosophically, culturally, even spiritually.


It would be awesome to have your favorite filmmaker make the documentary about your life. Just a second, let me pause and try to visualize what David Lynch’s version of mine, or even documentary, would look like…Steve James wasn’t Ebert’s favorite, I think his was probably Robert Altman, but he loved Steve James’ films. Would Steve James have the career he does without Roger Ebert? Ramin Bahrani also shows up to wish Roger well in the hospital and talks about what Ebert’s exposure did for his film career. The critic as tastemaker may be problematic but it shows a tangible effect on the industry and the medium that he loved. Not every critic will have the power Ebert did, in the age of the internet most likely never will. The hope here is that somehow what is written, anywhere and by anyone, will change what is produced.

Perhaps the answer is what makes “A” different from “C”: the critic helps to explain how the filmed evidence could be applied to life and real experience. “A is only the footage. “C” is what we do with it. I’m not going to come to a nice conclusion here. I’m not sure when the ability for films to enrich life to when they become a waste of time occurs. But the key idea is thought. I think Ebert did some of his best writing after his surgery not about film, but about political issues; “real life.” Life, whatever was as humans do, must be examined. As Socrates said:

The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being

The last 3 words are generally omitted when that is quoted. Perhaps it’s just assumed, but it makes the statement true. There are all sorts of value judgments going on in “human being,” and philosophical problems in defining it. I’ll add my own interpretation trying not to go down another impossible set of questions: if one wants to participate in whatever it is that humanity is, whatever makes life worth living, to choose to be more than just a set of instincts, one must think about what they are doing. And all writing is is a way we’ve figured out how to transmit thought from one of us to another. Movies have this capability as well. All this time in this post I’ve spent worrying about movies and the meaning of a title. The more important philosophical question is enacted by Ebert. In the face of excruciating pain he rejects the instinct to shy away; to give up. He lives, loves and, yes, watches movies knowing full well his time is short. He thinks, decides, and acts the best he can. Even without a voice he says “yes” to life. That is life itself.


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