"Life Itself" | The Joy and Significance of Being a Film Critic


"Thank you for going on this journey with me, I'll see you at the movies."

This is the last line in "Life Itself", a documentary about the iconic film critic Roger Ebert. It is also the concluding sentence in his final blog post titled "A Leave of Presence".

To be honest, "Life Itself" is not the most remarkable documentary I have ever seen, but it is the one that resonates with me the most. Rather, what touches me is not the film itself, but Roger Ebert's life.

The work focuses on his lifelong passion for his career, which stemmed from his love for writing and movies.

His passion for writing, as the film depicts, started from his young age. With strong interest in writing, he became a full-time sports journalist at the age of 15 and began writing columns when he was 21 years old. With little financial support from his origin family, , he had to decline an invitation to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Chicago and instead chose to do a part-time job at the Chicago Sun-Times. It was during this part-time job that he discovered his passion for movies. From that point on, he pursued a 46-years lifelong career as a film critic.

His continuous writing of film reviews for nearly half a century is already a solid proof of his love for movies. This passion is so strong that it became a source of strength in his years as he battled against illness.

He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which later spread to his jaw. As a result, he underwent the removal of his jawbone. The removal made his appearance a bit frightening compared to his former amiability and humorous image. For the last 8 years of his life, it affected his mobility and even the ability to speak.

Roger Ebert

Due to his illness, he had to give up attending most events, except for one thing he couldn't let go of - going to the movies. However, each trip to the cinema was incredibly difficult. He had to not only endure much pain but also put his life at risk. Gradually, he couldn’t even go to the cinema anymore, leaving him to express his passion for movies only through writing. Since 2008, confined to a wheelchair, he continued publishing film reviews on his blog until his last breath.

Roger Ebert

Movies and documentaries may not be inherently moving. It is their ability to reproduce and condense real life into motion pictures that makes this art form captivating. This is particularly true for Roger Ebert. He had a deep love for movies, their power and charm. In turn, movies served as a narrative and documentation of his own life.

I must confess that, as an unknown film critic, my knowledge of Roger Ebert was limited to his film reviews before watching this documentary. However, after watching the film, I reread his works and this time, I felt the vitality behind his words.

People have different motivations in their careers. Some are driven by money, some by power, and some by a sense of achievement in their field. However, deep down in my heart, these things are not that attractive. I have always been puzzled by my own motivation of being a film critic. Yes, I love movies, and writing about my feelings after watching them brings me joy. But is this joy too shallow? Does it hold any meaning? Roger gave me the answer. Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, he chose to stay in Chicago and continue writing film reviews instead of working for The New York Times or The Washington Post. This choice reflects Roger’s peace with himself. In simple terms, writing film reviews itself is too joyful, liberating, and creative for him to care about anything else.

Before becoming a film critic, although I was a passionate movie lover, I didn't hold film reviews in high regard. I thought they were merely accessories to the movies and lacked artistic value on their own. It was only when I started writing and seriously reading those excellent film reviews that I realized film criticism is an artistic realm filled with imagination and free expression.

As for what makes such an "artistic realm" attractive, I would like to explain my views using two outstanding figures as examples, one of them being Roger Ebert, of course. In my opinion, the most impressive aspect of Roger’s film reviews is the flexibility in their structures.

Each of the first paragraphs of his reviews vary greatly. In the first paragraph of his review for "Raise the Red Lantern," he directly compares the film to "The Woman of the Dunes" and emphasizes the theme of oppression in both. In the one for “The Rules of the Game”, he recounts his experience watching the film in a college film club, and in the one for “A Sunday in the Country”, he offers a recap of a specific story from the film (All examples mentioned above are from his publication “The Great Moives”). Additionally, the introductions and interpretations of films can appear at any parts in his articles, at the beginning, middle, or end. It’s light and enjoyable reading his works. I can even feel his mood while writing. Only someone who is passionate about movies and possesses a strong command of language can craft such reviews.

In addition to flexibility, his choice of words is precise, rigorous, and not intentionally flashy. For instance, in his brief review of "Bonnie and Clyde," he describes it as "a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn't matter. It had to be set sometime, but it was made now and it's about us." The first two sentences demonstrate accurate expression, while the last one conveys beauty and thoughtfulness without complex words.

These traits of Roger Ebert’s reviews simplify complex film concepts, making them easy to understand. The film reviews cater to the interests of both avid moviegoers and casual viewers alike. Additionally, technical aspects are seldom mentioned in the reviews, as emphasis is placed on emotions and themes conveyed by the films. He believes that the true essence of this art form lies in guiding the audience to contemplate life, emotions, and humanity. Consequently, the critiques not only offer analysis of the films themselves, but also explorations into the cultural and societal values they represent.

In short, his film reviews incorporate a great deal of literary and artistic elements, making them a form of cultural commentary that everyone can understand. In his own words, "I discovered there was nothing like drinking with a crowd to make you a member. I copied the idealism and cynicism of the reporters. I spoke like they did."

I would like to mention another example: Mei Xuefeng, an excellent film critic on Peliplat, whose style is completely different from Roger Ebert's. His reviews may not be easy to follow at first, but after careful reading, you can appreciate its unique thoughts. Mei Xuefeng has a talent for finding unexpected connections between different films. In his review of "Oppenheimer's Success and Failures," he highlights the common thread of Greek Tragedy and the filmmaker's technical prowess as if he comes from a background in science and engineering. In his analysis of "Afire: The Price of Art," he uncovers the shared theme of exploring the darker side of art, similar to that of "In the House." Mei Xuefeng's writing style reflects his profound intellectual insight.

They make me realize that film criticism is a form of artistic creation. It is not bound by a fixed format, allowing critics to express their opinions freely. The content of film criticism is diverse, and it does not require the author to have a professional understanding of films or any specific qualifications. The only requirement is to approach the evaluation of the film with seriousness and sincerity.

Through film criticism, we enhance the dignity of the art form of film.

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