Director: Steve James
Cinematography: Dana Kupper
by Jon Cvack
All great writers have the ability to make the reader feel as though the material is speaking directly to them. I recall when Ebert launched his blog. I was in college at the time, having countless conversations and late night debates about God, science, purpose, meaning, where we were going and what mattered most, all complemented by Ebert’s insight, as though it was written just for my friends and I. Given where I was in college, as I was battling with what I believed and thought and why, Ebert was a breath of fresh air. More often than not we agreed, and when we disagreed he made me understand why and appreciate an alternative view. When he passed it was a hard hit. A voice that millions of people felt connected to was no longer around, and the power it had in discovering new voices and talent seemed to pass along with it.
There was a game I played with each film I watched. Before checking out Ebert's score - I would rank it with both what I thought the film was and what I thought Ebert would think of it - never looking it up beforehand. There’s that old Ira Glass quote about how a person develops taste as they consume more and more of their passion. Ebert helped develop my tastes. By senior year of college, I found that I was agreeing with Ebert more and more. Herzog called him one of the last great soldiers of cinema. He was regarded as the blue collar critic. He made all movies accessible with his exceptionally straightforward, clear, and concise thoughts and criticisms. I didn’t “study” Ebert. I didn’t obsess over the guy. I loved his films and I loved his blog. It was after he was gone, though, when they had decided to bring back “At the Movies” and they hired a younger Chicago Native and I read his The Social Network review, which was pretentious, long, and confusing, that I was beginning to grasp what the world had lost (I can't seem to find this - my apologies). The purpose of movie criticism is to make any reader understand why a movie is good or bad and why, no matter the subject matter of the film, no matter the reader’s background. Criticism and theory, verbosity and grandiloquence is antithetical to the craft. The new reviewer was committing the biggest error with movie reviews - he was writing for other critics, or worse, an upper class, hyper educated audience. It was also a terrible review where I disagreed with most of his points after taking the time to figure out what they even meant and it was the last I ever read by the guy.
Ebert made his reviews accessible. He provided us with profound insights and fought to get good movies seen. It was after he was gone and I watched my first new release without his review that realized I no longer could play the game. Of course, I can still go through older and more obscure films and get the thrill of comparing my star rating to his. But with new movies it’s gone, which isn’t so much trouble for studio films so much as smaller independent fair who are now desperate for someone to champion them and help spread word. And that’s the biggest lost.
I was most shocked to discover that Ebert was kind of an asshole, at times. He flashed around his Pulitzer, using it to try and justify having his name being before Siskel's for "At the Movies." And yet his writing was fun and exciting. He loved the celebrity status and enjoyed his trips to Cannes where he was immersed in celebrity, which Chicago could never offer. He made us feel the romance of films; the excitement of going into a theater with the lights going off and immersing you in the world. I truly believe that we will look back at his passing as one of the most significant moments in Cinema’s fall from being the most popular form of entertainment. I really miss the guy, for selfish reasons as much as anything else. With my first feature done, I would have loved, and been scared to death, of hearing his thoughts. Ebert taught me what to look for in cinema, in the simplest ways imaginable. Everything beyond that was and is a personal experience for the viewer, still reserved for late night drunken debates.
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Thoughts on films, old and new
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