Lessons in Film. Life. What’s The Difference?

If there’s one thing the Internet doesn’t need right now, it’s another person who didn’t know Roger Ebert writing about Roger Ebert.

But that’s the thing. We do know him. He didn’t just recap movies, he reviewed them with beautiful prose and wisdom and snark and startling insight. As we read the blog, scoured the archives, and fanatically opened the new reviews every Thursday, all the little pieces of his personality that came through in his reviews were added to the puzzle, and we have in our heads a picture of him.

Roger Ebert gives a thumbs up

I have no more claim on him than most, and far less than many. Still, I have learned so much from him I’d be remiss and ungrateful not to pay tribute.

I’ve written before about how I was often sheltered – such a benign word – from seeing certain movies and forbidden from many more, and the lengths to which I went to watch them anyways.  When I started sneaking VHS out of the library or watching 2AM TV, I  latched onto what was available or shiny. When I starting trying to figure out what was good, though, I had no real guide, especially once I got out of the black-and-whites. Things which were four stars, maybe? Things by that guy who made Pretty in Pink (my mom was a Molly Rongwald fan) worked out pretty well, but following the career of George Lucas and Julie Andrews only got me so far. I felt Speed was a really good movie, (no, I didn’t choose Keanu Reeves as an Actor Whose Work I Checked Out Of The Library En Masse. My illicit discovery of The Matrix while on a church trip is another blog post), but why, exactly?

A lot of the movie covers had blurbs from Siskel and Ebert, but more importantly, his reviews were syndicated by the big paper in my area. I started reading his reviews, as well as the local reviewers, and discovered I sided with him a lot more. What I understood, at least. The more I grew in my knowledge of movies, the more I understood what the heck he was talking about. The more I watched, the more I could disagree, with reasoning. There may be no accounting for taste, but there’s plenty of reasoning for good cinema.

It was several years before I switched my long-term goals from being a journalist (my aim since I was eight) to working in film and television. I’d like to say the weight of his influence helped tip the scale, but I can certainly say it’s shaped everything that’s come since.

In 2009 I began writing a script that would become my directorial debut. I read pulp paperbacks and books on gender roles in noir, I studied shot composition, I storyboarded. I watched and rewatched my favorite noir films, read Ebert’s reviews of them, and watched them again; from Brick to The Maltese Falcon, I wanted to catch and understand every possible aspect of this genre in film.

Meanwhile, I showed my script to a couple writers whose opinions I trusted. Every one of them told me the buildup was too slow; it didn’t have enough action to balance out the dialogue; there needed to be violence or at least a threat thereof before Scene 8 (in a 13-scene script); maybe I should consider having the murder happen on-screen; maybe the gun should be waved about. And so it went. While I respected their opinions – and they did point out several other things I tweaked – I vehemently disagreed about the buildup. The overall plot stayed exactly as it was, and only a tiny part of my brain was still panicking that these writers, some of whom had stageplays performed off-Broadway and books published, knew something presumptuous little me didn’t, and I was making a big mistake.

The day after we wrapped production on The Lilith Necklace, Ebert’s review of The Samaritan was published. I distinctly remember reading the final paragraph, “‘The Samaritan’ has the patience to establish its setup, and that’s important in a noir, in which action deferred is more important than action indulged.”

Roger Ebert will never see The Lilith Necklace. I’ll never have the honor of seeing his byline or blurb below a film of mine, alongside stars which I pray would number at least three. I’ll never know exactly what he thinks of The Great Gatsby 3D . . . though I believe I’ll have a fairly good idea. I’ll never get to thank him in person. I do know he would approve of a big stylistic decision I made, and that’s a thought simultaneously comforting and overwhelming.

Now my retrospective of the late, great Mr. Ebert has turned into a rambling about My Feelings. (This may be fitting, as sometimes that’s what happened to his reviews.) Certainly he’s had abiding influence on both cinema at large and myself, but in the end it’s only myself I can truly speak to. I’ve been made a better director, a better writer, and yea, a better person through his reviews. For this and more, I’m profoundly grateful.

So long, Mr. Ebert, and thanks for all the words.

2 Responses to “Lessons in Film. Life. What’s The Difference?”
  1. mattsamroth says:

    Great post, Mel! Sadly, Thursday mornings will never be the same again. And you’re right, we do know him. I’m not sure which I will miss more, his film reviews or his thoughts on everything else published on his blog. I know that Life Itself was one of the best memoirs that I’ve read.

    I’ve got to ask, though, which stylistic decision in Lilith are you referring to?

    • Melanie says:

      Of course! I simply meant the overall choice to leave the action until later, offscreen, or not at all. Perhaps I could replace ‘stylistic’ with a better word. It does seem to convey picture or audio design.

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