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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

entry arrow4:20 PM | Ebert's Life

The race for the 87th Academy Awards has essentially started with all the online punditry abuzz with each new screening -- and as usual, I want to do my annual unflagging attempt to seeing all possible films in contention, even before the official nominations come on January. This blog series aims to chronicle this effort.

There was a time in my young life as a cineaste where I'd scrupulously scan the reviews of the late film critic Roger Ebert to find out whether my opinion over certain films matched his: if it did, I'd flush in the beautiful certainty of having the right filmic taste; if it didn't, I'd wonder what flavour Kool-Aid Ebert drank that made him so wrong in all the awful places. But he was always a fun read. Also enlightening, given how superbly liberal he was about his opinions, and how well-spoken in his argumentation. (I remember the long battle with video gamers, for example.)

Reading him was like learning at the feet of a good professor. He had that teacherly spirit about him, even when he was cranky, even when he called certain movies "sucky." I'm not exactly sure how I first came to reading his reviews. I know for sure that, in the formative years of my movie-going, it was Pauline Kael's eroticised approach to cinema that got me first -- "Reeling" was my first serious book of popular film criticism. But it is Ebert that has stayed with me longer, whose opinion I treasured even when I disagreed with him.

I bought his books, of course -- one of which he dutily autographed for me, calling me a "cinema lover." (That was awesome.) I followed his journey through what he called the "Great Movies." I clicked on his website daily, and was amazed by how prolific he was in his writings and in his advocacies. I marvelled at how he went on to conquer social media, the perfect opposite of the usual cultural dinosaurs who balk at the latest platforms of engagements. He made me ask: How does one write that much? How does one feel so much about many things (politics included) and still be able to take them on with such fierce intelligence, without the bluster of a shallow know-it-all?

And so Life Itself, Steve James' documentary on Ebert which is based on the latter's memoir, seemed tailor-made for me. (And James seemed the perfect choice as helmer of this project produced by Martin Scorsese as well; Ebert, after all, gleefully championed James' documentary Hoop Dreams when it first came out, calling it one of the best films ever made.) And the new film is a good and thorough journey through the life of an idol, which includes his unseen story of having to go through the ravages of cancer. We get the usual revelatory talking heads from friends and colleagues. We get snippets of film criticism (but never quite digs into the impact). We get the unusual foray into Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. We get the story of the fiery rivalry and bromance with Gene Siskel. We get the love for Chicago. We get insights about the arrogance and the old addictions.

But it didn't involve me. The film feels like a paint-by-numbers effort, almost boring in the predictability of presenting its subject. Perhaps there's just so much of Ebert it cannot be contained in a single film, and any attempt to do so will forever will like a mishmash of Greatest Hits tidbits? Perhaps a greater documentary entailed capturing the man in the full power of his influence and physicality -- which makes this film about ten years too late? #RoadToOscar

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