Journeying through the movies, Ebert at my side
I don’t remember the first Ebert review I read. I fell fast and hard into the movies when I was about 15, and Ebert was the best known critic around. Reading him was an inevitability.
It was around that time that I became obsessed with Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke,” which remains my favorite film to this day (it occasionally shares that perch with “Three Colors: Red” and “Children of Men”, but that’s for another post). Ebert’s review of that film, which he loved, remains burned into my memory:
“I go to the movies for many reasons. Here is one of them. I want to see wondrous sights not available in the real world, in stories where myth and dreams are set free to play. Animation opens that possibility, because it is freed from gravity and the chains of the possible. Realistic films show the physical world; animation shows its essence.”
Yes yes yes yes yes.
That was what 15 year old me, lover of fantasy and animation, whose imagination was unleashed by this movie, needed to read. I was the tingling of my spine put to words. Most critics describe a bunch of elements (this actor was good, but this other was was bad, and the writing was mediocre but the cinematography excellent, etc. and so on). Ebert described the movies as an experience. The disparate elements, on their own, were not as relevant as the whole. This kind of writing was revelatory to me at that age. He could pick movies apart and analyze with the best of them, but at the end of the day, movies were a meal, not their ingredients.
There was a widespread sentiment that Ebert lost his fastball a bit in the last decade, that he gave out too many positive reviews to too many unworthy films. I don’t see that as a bad thing. His views changed over the years. If he was more forgiving, more inclined to enjoy films he once wouldn’t have, he didn’t owe it to anyone to hand out more negative reviews to preserve his sense of cred.
And he still was as good as ever, at the end, at transporting us to his place and time, his movie experience. “Tree of Life” was a true love it or hate it experience, inspiring as many angry walkouts as it did hosannas. And rising above the fray was Ebert, who embraced the film on terms both simple and profound:
Terrence Malick’s new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence. I believe it stands free from conventional theologies, although at its end it has images that will evoke them for some people. It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude.
If you disliked “Tree of Life”, you can’t fault Ebert for not preparing you for a film whose main plot points are the concepts of existence and mystery. And for those who, like me, loved the film, that paragraph absolutely sings with resonance and honesty. It can be difficult to describe the joys of Terence Malick films without the prose turning impenetrable. Ebert made it as simple as a prayer.