Filling in the blank spaces: Why I admired Roger Ebert
A blank page.
That’s both a writer’s bread-and-butter and stumbling block.
When faced with a blank page, some recoil at the prospect of having to create an award-winningly unique product. Others see an opportunity to express themselves, even if it may be mundane.
But to Roger Ebert, film critic and columnist who died on April 4, it was more than any of this — it was his essence. He was not intimidated by the medium and in fact instructed many prospective critics who were unsure of themselves to simply write — to put words down on the blank page and the column would emerge. It would flow from a sort of zone, a trance, a space where writers have a conversation with themselves and with some universal audience. This was not advice that he alone conveyed (many writers have shared similar perspectives), but he was able to make it sound easy and transcendent.
This is to say that Roger Ebert was not simply a film critic. He was a modern day Socrates in that he had a passionate desire to communicate and constructively argue with others — about films and any topic. Writing was his way of making those connections and, later in life, became his only way when cancer took his actual voice from us.
When compared with other critics, his analysis always seemed larger, more visceral. His comments reflected the perspectives of someone who not only loves good movies, but also respects the way that the average filmgoer approaches film. Many critics can be too cerebral and academically intellectual; others can overwhelmingly reflect personal biases and predilections. But Ebert had the gift of blending popular sentiments with just the right amount of sophisticated filmic concepts to make his reviews entertaining, informative and appealing to the infrequent viewer as well as the film snob. He was universal (sorry for the studio pun!).
The universality of Ebert’s thoughts and writings may have been overlooked because he was a, ahem, film critic. To many, a film critic is dilettante — artistic wannabes who circulate in the periphery of a light-weight entertainment medium that most people partake only when they have time to kill or want a vicarious thrill. They have cushy jobs going to movies all day, writing up their impressions, and munching on popcorn. They never have to truly break a sweat. A film critic’s work is usually banished to the back pages — an after-thought to the more serious matters covered in the front sections.
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For Ebert, the minutia of film criticism was a jumping off point to discuss larger matters related to the human condition. After having seen thousands of films, Ebert, like many other critics, was thereby exposed to every aspect of human endeavor to which he took advantage. Instead of limiting himself to the acting, lighting, directing, editing and all other technical matters (which he was able to evaluate with astute sophistication), he used the films as a way to examine emotions, philosophies, religion, politics and all other aches, longings, and foibles of us humans. And his prose was accessible and humorous.
As a way to exemplify this, below is Ebert’s review of Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life. This film elicited strong reactions — both good and bad — and represents the quintessential art house film. As such, it stands as the sort of film that typically has film critics’ conversing only with each other about such things as buried symbolisms, filmic theories, etc., instead of talking to potential patrons who may sense something deep in the film that Ebert was able to expose in an accessible and interesting way. Ebert’s review reflects his career-long desire to encourage people to see films that they might not otherwise see, as well as showcase his uncanny ability to use film as a launching pad to discuss weighty matters of interest to anyone. And, in keeping with the spirit of Ebert, in italicized brackets is my analysis of his analysis.
As reflected in the aptly titled The Tree of Life, Ebert’s passing leaves us with his words that branch from film criticism’s trunk to the higher reaches of human discourse. We will miss his contributions to the many weighty matters that stretch out before us.
The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives. The only other film I’ve seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and it lacked Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling. There were once several directors who yearned to make no less than a masterpiece, but now there are only a few. Malick has stayed true to that hope ever since his first feature in 1973.
[In this opening graph, Ebert adroitly captures (1) the essence of this film’s broad arc, (2) Malick’s technique of observant cinema, that is focusing on the day-to-day actions and ruminations of individuals, and (3) compares this more affecting technique with Kubrick, who was similarly interested in large, weighty matters, but was also coldly cerebral.]
I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of “The Tree of Life” reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this. His scenes portray a childhood in a town in the American midlands, where life flows in and out through open windows. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and idleness and urgent unsaid questions about the meaning of things.
[With a little more elaboration, Ebert again captures the mood and tone of this film. To those who have seen it and may have been frustrated due to its lack of a strong narrative and purposeful action, Ebert is able to give more flavor and meaning to this style of filmmaking — to give it some universal appeal as a way to evoke memory and reflect on how many of us grew up. He argues that the film is not boring, but personal and observant, genuine and real.]
The three boys of the O’Brien family are browned by the sun, scuffed by play, disturbed by glimpses of adult secrets, filled with a great urgency to grow up and discover who they are.
I wrote earlier about the many ways this film evoked my own memories of such time and place. About wide lawns. About a town that somehow, in memory, is always seen with a wide-angle lens. About houses that are never locked. About mothers looking out windows to check on their children. About the summer heat and ennui of church services, and the unpredictable theater of the dinner table, and the troubling sounds of an argument between parents, half-heard through an open window.
Watching the film, I remembered Ray Bradbury’s memory of a boy waking up to the sound of a Green Machine outside his window — a hand-pushed lawnmower. Perhaps you grew up in a big city, with the doors locked and everything air-conditioned. It doesn’t matter. Most of us, unless we are unlucky, have something of the same childhood, because we are protected by innocence and naivete.
[These three graphs underscore a very effective way to provide plot detail without being staid and perfunctory. Ebert weaves in more texture to the details and discusses these elements of the film without resorting to sterile reportage. Again, it’s an appealing and apt way to capture the film in prose and to nest these aspects of the film in a larger context of what it is like to grow up in suburban neighborhoods. Many filmgoers may want to go to films to escape these experiences, but Ebert makes them seem appealing and worthy of viewing.]
As I mentioned the O’Brien family, I realized one detail the film has precisely right: The parents are named Mr. O’Brien and Mrs. O’Brien. Yes. Because the parents of other kids were never thought of by their first names, and the first names of your own parents were words used only by others. Your parents were Mother and Father, and they defined your reality, and you were open to their emotions, both calming and alarming. And young Jack O’Brien is growing, and someday will become Mr. O’Brien, but will never seem to himself as real as his father did.
Rarely does a film seem more obviously a collaboration of love between a director and his production designer, in this case, Jack Fisk. Fisk is about my age and was born and raised in Downstate Illinois, and so of course knows that in the late ‘40s, tall aluminum drinking glasses were used for lemonade and iced tea. He has all the other details right, too, but his design fits seamlessly into the lives of his characters. What’s uncanny is that Malick creates the O’Brien parents and their three boys without an obvious plot: The movie captures the unplanned unfolding of summer days, and the overheard words of people almost talking to themselves.
[These graphs showcase that Ebert doesn’t just abstractly review films — he makes them relevant to lives actually lived, to how we encounter movies with our own personal experiences and reflections. He knows that we assess what we see and determine if it makes sense, is accurate and truthful. He is also able to take something esoteric — production design — and make it understandable and interesting. Without being professorial, he is able to inform the reader (and moviegoer) about such technical aspects and provide some context as to why these details are worth mentioning and thereby enhance the viewing experience.]
The film’s portrait of everyday life, inspired by Malick’s memories of his hometown of Waco, Texas, is bounded by two immensities, one of space and time, and the other of spirituality. “The Tree of Life” has awe-inspiring visuals suggesting the birth and expansion of the universe, the appearance of life on a microscopic level and the evolution of species. This process leads to the present moment, and to all of us. We were created in the Big Bang and over untold millions of years, molecules formed themselves into, well, you and me.
And what comes after? In whispered words near the beginning, “nature” and “grace” are heard. We have seen nature as it gives and takes away; one of the family’s boys dies. We also see how it works with time, as Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) grows into a middle-aged man (Sean Penn). And what then? The film’s coda provides a vision of an afterlife, a desolate landscape on which quiet people solemnly recognize and greet one another, and all is understood in the fullness of time.
[Again, there is a natural tendency of some critics to simply describe these more controversial aspects of the film. There is plenty of detail to explain and describe, and some of it may indeed be hokey to some (a scene of dinosaurs interacting and depicting “compassionate” behaviors, long stretches of special effects of colors and waves and celestial objects, people wandering around deserts and seashores in formal attire with poetic voiceover narration, etc.) But Ebert does not dwell on these details and instead nests them in the larger context that the director was clearly trying to impart about our place in the grand scheme of things. Again, some may not wish to go to the movies for such themes, but at least Ebert helps us to see the larger meanings and purposes.]
Some reviews have said Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt, crew-cut, never more of a regular guy) is too strict as a disciplinarian. I don’t think so. He is doing what he thinks is right, as he was reared. Mrs. O’Brien (the ethereal Jessica Chastain) is gentler and more understanding, but there is no indication she feels her husband is cruel. Of course children resent discipline, and of course a kid might sometimes get whacked at the dinner table circa 1950. But listen to an acute exchange of dialogue between Jack and his father. “I was a little hard on you sometimes,” Mr. Brien says, and Jack replies: “It’s your house. You can do what you want to.” Jack is defending his father against himself. That’s how you grow up. And it all happens in this blink of a lifetime, surrounded by the realms of unimaginable time and space.
[Here Ebert takes a small detail to make a cogent argument to rebut other impressions of the film. It is a small yet indicative example of his insight, his writing style, and his way of making larger points — not just about the logic of specific filmic elements, but of the way humans are and interact. He also, in this one graph, is able to encapsulate the entire essence of this film — that we meager humans do the best we can as mere specks in the vastness of the universe.]
Doug Young is an award-winning film critic, having received the first place award for his columns in last year’s Colorado Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest. It is the third award he’s won for his film reviews. He also serves as the senior policy director for Gov. John Hickenlooper.