Film critic Roger Ebert taught us to love the movies. He taught us to love movies for over forty years, as a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Dan Zak at the Washington Post states, “A critic’s noblest and most generous act is to inspire passion in others.” Ebert inspired that passion in this writer. He influenced my decision to occasionally pen reviews of films that I see from time to time. So, like many, many others, I feel this need to look back at what he did today, to celebrate—if only for a brief moment—his life’s work.
Ebert helped me decide what films to see and what not to see. I remember one of those films was Errol Morris’ 1978 documentary, Gates of Heaven. The film was about pet lovers who bury their pets and believe their pet has a spirit that needs to get to heaven. It was one of Ebert’s “Great Movies”:
“There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”
These words, by a woman who has just buried her dog, are spoken in “Gates of Heaven.” They express the central mystery of life. No philosopher has stated it better. They form the truth at the center of Errol Morris’ 1978 documentary, which is surrounded by layer upon layer of comedy, pathos, irony, and human nature. I have seen this film perhaps 30 times, and am still not anywhere near the bottom of it: All I know is, it’s about a lot more than pet cemeteries.
He found the film to be a ”litmus test for audiences, who cannot decide if it is serious or satirical, funny or sad, sympathetic or mocking.”
Ebert helped me decide what films to hate. His review of Armageddon was in his I Hate, Hate, Hated This Movie book. “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained,” he wrote.
He rejected the storyline involving Bruce Willis, an oil driller and one of the leaders of two teams for a mission to an asteroid “the size of Texas” that was about to hit Earth and end life as we know it. The premise involving the drilling of an 800-foot hole to put a bomb and explode the asteroid was ridiculous:
OK, say you do succeed in blowing up an asteroid the size of Texas. What if a piece the size of Dallas is left? Wouldn’t that be big enough to destroy life on Earth? What about a piece the size of Austin? Let’s face it: Even an object the size of that big Wal-Mart outside Abilene would pretty much clean us out, if you count the parking lot.
With classic movies, Ebert was able to so clearly articulate what made a film a “Great Movie.” On Apocalypse Now, “The whole movie is a journey toward Willard’s understanding of how Kurtz, one of the Army’s best soldiers, penetrated the reality of war to such a depth that he could not look any longer without madness and despair.” On Dr. Strangelove, “Kubrick made what is arguably the best political satire of the century, a film that pulled the rug out from under the Cold War by arguing that if a “nuclear deterrent” destroys all life on Earth, it is hard to say exactly what it has deterred.” On Network, “One of Chayefsky’s key insights is that the bosses don’t much care what you say on TV, as long as you don’t threaten their profits.” On Paths of Glory, the “shots of long duration impress the importance of their subjects upon us: The permanence of trench warfare, the devastation of attack, the hypocrisy of the ruling class, the dread of the condemned men.”
Like the Rolling Stone‘s film critic, Peter Travers, I believe Ebert wanted every film to be great and would not accept a horrible film. Travers, in reaction to his death, wrote, “He energized the medium by taking it on full force, two-fisted, making it better by not letting the suits get away with anything.”
Documentaries were not considered separately from narrative fiction films. “After all, a movie is a movie, right?” He would include documentaries in his Best Films of the Year lists. He would also list them separately so that they would get the attention they deserved.
When The Interrupters, Kartemquin’s powerful and riveting documentary on gang violence and efforts to solve the conflicts that lead to it, was released, Ebert scolded the Academy’s Documentary Branch for not short listing it as a “Best Documentary Feature” of the year.
Steve James, who made the masterpiece “Hoop Dreams,” now makes his most important film, telling the story of ex-convicts who go daily into the streets of Chicago to try to talk gang members out of shooting at each other. All have done prison time. Some have murdered. They were young when were seduced by the lure of street gangs. Today they see young people throwing their lives away and often killing bystanders by accident.
James’ film follows members of CeaseFire, tough negotiators who monitor gang activity in their neighborhoods and try to anticipate developing warfare. They make it their business to know the gang leaders and members. They build trust. In some shots in this film they are physically in the possible line of fire–and so are Steve James and his small crew. This film has true impact.
Now, James is producing the documentary on Ebert’s life. He remains committed to completing it and one can be sure that it will appropriately honor the mark Ebert left on movies and American society and will be as great as his previous films.
Ebert injected humanity into film through intelligent and thought-provoking writing that went well-beyond summarizing the plot and what might make the film a commercial success. He would bring in his personal experiences and social and political issues of the time. The stories of characters in a film did not only exist in the film world; they could be extrapolated and contextualized by current culture, events and trends in society. Film was a way of understanding life and life could be better understood through a film.