The first time I encountered the concept of the film critic was seeing Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on television. I didn’t watch every episode of their various shows, Sneak Previews, At the Movies With Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert, or Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, but they were the most well-known and possible most powerful reviewers in the country, with movie posters trumpeting the receipt of the pair’s vaunted “Two Thumbs Up.”
Let’s be honest here. Movie Critic sounds like an easy job. You go to the movies, say whether or not you liked it, and then collect your paycheck. I certainly thought that was the case when I landed the job as movie critic for my college’s newspaper. I was going to get paid to go to the movies! Our campus paper was a weekly, which, when you factored in the deadline for articles, meant that the reviews tended to be for movies a couple of weeks old. I was going to change that. Since I had no classes on Friday, I was going to see the early matinee of a new release, race back to my dorm, slam out a review, and have it in to our editor in time for the 5PM deadline. I should point out that this was before e-mail was in wide use, so I had to hand deliver the disk (a 3.5 inch, 1.44MB) to the office. So it was a little bit of an inconvenience, but I could do it. And I was getting paid to see movies! All I had to do was write an opinion. Easy, right?
No. It’s not. Sure, I could bang out a brief plot summary in no time, but when it came to the opinion part, it wasn’t enough just to say if I liked the film or not. I needed the “Why.” I had to be able to consider what I had seen, mull it over a while, and come up with some kind of intelligent commentary about the movie. Looking back at those reviews I wrote then, I sucked at the “Why” part.
This brings me back to Roger Ebert. While I may have disagreed with his reviews on occasion (and felt that he missed major plot points of some of the science fiction films he reviewed), the man knew film, and, more importantly considering his line of work, he knew how to write about film. Even today, I will go to his site (RogerEbert.com) to read his reviews of older films. His commentary is always engaging, intelligent, and, at times, very funny.
Ebert died of cancer in 2013, but, in his last days, he worked with director Steve James on a film version of his memoir, Life Itself, which is my pick for this week. The documentary covers Ebert’s path into journalism, his development as a film critic, his love/hate relationship with Gene Siskel, and his battle against cancer. It’s a beautifully made film that doesn’t turn away from the more prickly aspects of Ebert’s personality or the facts of his condition at the end of his life. In the end, it’s the story of a man, who, like many of us, loved movies. I would say that he was lucky enough to make them his livelihood, but that wasn’t luck. He worked at his craft, took movies on their own terms, and even wrote one himself. For more about that, you’ll need to watch Life Itself.
- Alan Decker
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