Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 10, 2018

Life Itself

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

In January, I reviewed “The Lovers and the Despot”, a fascinating documentary about how the father of North Korea’s current dictator was a bona fide cinephile, so much so that he kidnapped a couple of film stars from the south to help improve the north’s film industry that he considered overly propagandistic and just plain boring. What kind of films did Kim Jong-il go for? His tastes ran to Friday the 13th, Rambo and Hong Kong action films instead of socialist realism, according to Shin Sang-ok, the director he abducted. So, that should warn you about stereotyping the north.

“The Lovers and the Despot” was distributed by Magnolia, a company launched by the billionaire and cinephile himself Mark Cuban to help make offbeat art films and documentary available to the general public. I have a huge backlog of Magnolia DVD’s that have been sent to me on a regular basis for years now as part of its outreach to film critics taking part in awards ceremonies like NYFCO’s, a bargain basement version of the Oscars. These are the kinds of films I prefer to write about but I am under pressure at year-end to prioritize the DVD’s or digital screeners from the big studios like Sony or Fox since these are the ones that will likely have the inside track at our awards meeting. I have begun going through the Magnolia backlog recently and will repeat what I said last time. These are among the most interesting films being made today and a bargain rental for $3.99. The library can be browsed here: http://www.magnoliapictures.com/

After working my way through the 2015 and 2016 Magnolia DVD’s, I watched one from the top of the 2014 batch the other day that moved me profoundly. “Life Itself” is a documentary about Roger Ebert begun in 2012 and completed abruptly at the time of his death from cancer on April 4, 2013. It is hard slog in many ways since Ebert was deeply ravaged by the disease, having lost his lower jaw as a result of metastasizing thyroid cancer. Ebert was not shy about his appearance and was just as eager to share the experience of battling the disease in the hospital rooms he spent long periods in toward the end. I can only say that in the nearly 2 years I worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in NY, I never saw anybody more disfigured.

As someone with 1,054 film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, the film probably meant more to me than the average person even though it will be moving to anybody who sees it since it is about a heroic struggle to live a full life under daunting circumstances. Like Cuban, Kim Jong-il and Ebert , I am a cinephile. While I hadn’t paid all that much attention to Ebert’s reviews in recent years, I used to regularly watch the show he did with Gene Siskel on PBS between 1975 and 1982, as well as their appearances on late night TV shows. Like Ebert, Siskel was  cut down by cancer but even more prematurely. After learning that he had brain cancer in May 1998, he died 9 months later at the age of 53.

After Ebert’s death, I wrote an obituary that you might want to have a look at: https://louisproyect.org/2013/04/05/roger-ebert-an-appreciation/. I offered these thoughts: “If I write…mostly out of a love for the medium than for money, I can at least say that this appeared to be Ebert’s motivation as well. It is too bad that we have so few journalists worthy of the name.” After seeing the wonderful “Life Itself”, I can only say that my respect for Ebert has grown a thousandfold.

“Life Itself” was directed by Steve James, who also directed “Hoop Dreams” and “Abacus”, the marvelous film about how an obscure and tiny bank in Chinatown was made a scapegoat for the financial industry’s criminal mortgage-backed securities scam. If there is anything clear about this film, it is that James was much more than a filmmaker. He was also a friend and critical pillar of support for Ebert. In the final moments of the film, we see James and Ebert messaging each other about the next interview for the film until Ebert basically says that he is checking out.

Testaments to Ebert are given by old friends he worked with at the Chicago Sun-Times and by noted film critics such as the NY Times’s A.O. Scott and the now retired Jonathan Rosenbaum who wrote for the Chicago Reader, an “alternative” weekly. I often find myself sitting in the same screening room with Scott and was gratified to learn from him that he has read my reviews. I was friendly with Rosenbaum at Bard College but lost track of him after I graduated. Like Scott and Ebert, Rosenbaum writes from a left perspective but more specifically Marxist.

We learn in the film that Ebert was influenced politically from his father who was an electrician and a life-long Democrat. When Ebert ended up at the U. of Illinois, he rapidly became the editor of the daily newspaper there, which was a major responsibility. The film pays attention to the powerful editorial Ebert wrote the day after a KKK bombing left six children dead in Birmingham. He wrote:

“The blood of these innocent children is on your hands,” Martin Luther King cried out to the governor of Alabama.  But that was not entirely the truth.  The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling.  And it is not new blood.  It is old, so very old, and as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away.  It clings and waits and in its turn it kills again.

It was such writing that led him being hired by the Chicago Sun-Times just after graduation. Unlike the Chicago Tribune, this newspaper catered to the once-powerful unionized blue-collar workers in the city that included his father. Not too long afterwards, he became the paper’s film reviewer—the youngest at a major daily in the USA.

The most interesting part of the film dealt with the love-hate relationship between Siskel and Ebert. While my friend Paul Buhle, who was a classmate of Ebert’s at the U. of Illinois, regards Siskel as a reactionary, I don’t recall any political squabbles between the two. Mostly the disagreements were about film itself. I found the arguments compelling even though I can’t really identify with them. As a member of NYFCO for over a decade, I have never once argued with colleagues about a film except on one occasion, when they named “Zero Dark Thirty” best of 2012, a film that justified torture. I simply can’t get worked up one way or the other over films like “Lady Bird” or “Phantom Thread”.

Roger Ebert was never one to walk away from an argument. As I pointed out in my obit, when I wrote him a snide message taking exception to his favorable review of “Crash”, Paul Haggis’s coincidence-laden fable about racial reconciliation in Los Angeles, he must have been so shocked by being attacked from the left that he rose to the bait and wrote me back defending his review. About 4 or 5 exchanges took place that day, leaving me finally with an appreciation for his lack of snobbery and willingness to engage with a lout like me.

Responding to email was just one part of his engagement with the Internet. As Ebert lost his tongue along with his lower jaw, it was impossible for him to speak except with a computer like Stephen Hawking does. However, he was just as enthusiastic about the net’s possibilities across the board. We meet the web designer who created https://www.rogerebert.com/, a tremendous resource for his film reviews as well as his blog entries on a whole range of questions. The website is still going strong with new reviews by a staff of dozens.

Long before the internet became dominant as a source of film reviews through sites like Rotten Tomatoes, Ebert had a debate with Richard Corliss of Time Magazine and Film Comment, a magazine catering to the film cognoscenti, that echoes some of the complaints about Rotten Tomatoes. It boils down to seeing TV reviews as an assault on longer and deeper treatments that can be found in print publications. Today it is Internet reviewers rather than TV reviewers that are seen as the upstarts.

You can read the entire series that took place in three parts at Film Comment in 1990, with the current-day Richard Corliss reflecting on the debate in the documentary.

  1. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/richard-corliss-all-thumbs-or-is-there-a-future-for-film-criticism/
  2. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/roger-ebert-richard-corliss-cure-for-criticism-of-film-criticism/
  3. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/richard-corliss-roger-ebert-cure-for-criticism-of-film-criticism/

Corliss’s initial article was an attack on how TV film reviewers mostly offered their audience 2 minutes or so of shallow observations, accompanied with some shtick like the kind that made Gene Shalit famous. He was noted for a mustache even more grotesque than the one Kenneth Branagh wore playing Hercule Poirot in the forgettable remake of “Murder on the Orient Express”. He also took exception to the use of stars that always remind me of a grade you get on a term paper. Even worse, is the thumbs up/thumbs down rating that Siskel and Ebert used. It paved the way for Rotten Tomatoes “fresh” versus “rotten” categories that appall me even more than the idea of giving prizes to films as if they were entries in the Westminster Dog Show.

Corliss opened his article, which was a defense of the time-honored serious journalism of people like James Agee, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, with these words:

Will anyone read this story? (It has too many words and not enough pictures.) Does anyone read this magazine? (Every article in it wants to be a meal, not a McNugget.) Is anyone reading film criticism? (It lacks the punch, the clips, the thumbs.) Can anyone still read? (These days, it’s more fun and less work just to watch.)

Corliss makes many important and useful points but when he wrote “On Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, the critics play Roman emperors and award a thumbs-down condemnation or a thumbs-up reprieve”, he got Ebert’s dander up.

Ebert’s defense of his own approach to TV reviewing and his credentials as a serious film critic is part of his rich legacy. He wrote:

I submit to Richard Corliss that he missed the real source of distemper in today’s American film market, and that is the ascendency of the marketing campaign, and the use of stars as bait to orchestrate such campaigns. Reviewers, after all, can only offer their opinions on a new movie. Some like it, some don’t; together they do not have the impact of a well-coordinated national campaign that lands a popular star simultaneously on the covers of a People-type magazine, a newsweekly, several glossy monthlies, and the talkshows. Hollywood has never been more star-driven than it is at this moment, and publishers and producers have never been more eager to get their piece of the star of the week.

Ebert hit the nail on the head. Hollywood is all about marketing today. The junk that shows up in Cineplexes follows a marketing plan put together by accountants and investors. That is why we end up with garbage like Keanu Reeves in a travesty like “47 Ronin” that dishonored this Japanese art film classic like a mustache as ugly as Gene Shalit’s painted on the Mona Lisa.

As it happens, largely as a result of digital technology, good and even great cinema is flourishing today. N.Y. has as many art houses as it did 40 years ago, maybe even more. That’s where most of the films I review show up. The cost of making such films has dropped dramatically as digital cameras and software like Final Cut Pro make films much less expensive to produce even though it might take $100,000 to get one off the ground. Not only that, you have conscientious film distribution companies like Magnolia, Bullfrog, IFC as well as Netflix and HBO getting into the act. After a film has spent its moment of glory in a place like the Film Forum in NY, it has a good shot of being available as VOD at Amazon, iTunes or Netflix. In fact, I would argue that quality filmmaking is on the rise today even if capitalist civilization is sinking rapidly into a septic tank.

Rent “Life Itself” here.



  1. This is a great Magnolia release, 100% on RT, but only 10 reviews! (I think it’s better than “Life Itself.”)
    Alive and Kicking [DVD]

    Comment by harveycritic — March 10, 2018 @ 11:14 pm

  2. Ebert frequently managed to bridge the divide between art and entertainment in his reviews, recognizing that great films can succeed at both. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I relied upon Siskel and Ebert to find good films for me. In Sacramento at that time, I needed someone to help me navigate my way through the Cineplex. I might not always agree, but they did help me avoid some of the dross.

    Ebert had an interesting life beyond reviews. I think that he worked with Russ Meyer, and he also flew out to meet Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols about a possible Sex Pistols film. He knew that there was a world of filmmaking beyond Hollywood and appreciated it. This may have been one of the sources of his arguments with Siskel.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 12, 2018 @ 10:52 pm

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