No proper blog post this week, but I’ve written in a couple other places and felt like sharing the links. There’s a short review of Spike Jonze’s movie Her on my Tumblr page, and also a discussion of the movie The Intouchables between my friend Daniel Robison and myself at our blog Gaffer MacGuffin’s Movie House. Both of those films disappointed me, so the only thing I have to recommend these pieces is the quality of the writing. Thankfully, I do have a little pride in my work there. Even so, my self-confidence had a mini-crisis this week — specifically, last night, during and after a viewing of Life Itself, the Steve James documentary on the life of Roger Ebert.
Yep, him again. It’s actually a little surprising to me that Ebert should be such a touchstone for my thoughts on life and film criticism. He was a seminal influence for a time; to some extent, he got me started on the path I’m now following. But I do feel like I’ve graduated past him. I don’t often seek out his reviews after watching a film. I’m more likely to check Film Freak Central, or Reverse Shot, or The Dissolve, or Ferdy on Films. These are the next generation — the Internet critics. Ebert’s reputation rests more on the size of his influence and popularity than on the strength of his writing or the brilliance of his theories. Two other writers this past week have criticized Life Itself and the positive reaction to it by criticizing Ebert. They are Armond White (at National Review) and Devin Faraci (on Twitter). Now, these two fellows just happen to be widely derided in the online film critic community for being “trolls,” “contrarians,” and/or jerks. Despite my propensity to follow the crowd, however, I couldn’t help but think White and Faraci might be correct. If Ebert is the best critic I’ve read, I have a long way to go. I need to read more Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber, Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Molly Haskell, Laura Mulvey, and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Here’s where I had my mini-crisis. Two things from the film Life Itself struck home with me: I have a long way to go, and eventually I’ll die. There are so many more movies to see, so many more books to read, and so much more writing to do before I can consider myself accomplished. If I’m lucky, all of that work will lead to something that can outlive me, but otherwise, it will all be completely over when I’m gone. So, yes, I found the movie depressing. I understand why it devoted as much time as it did to Ebert’s long and uniquely scarring battles with cancer, but that emphasis put a dark cloud over me. All the usual thoughts swarmed in my mind: I’m twenty-six years old, nobody reads my blog, maybe there’s not much worth reading anyway, I’ve only seen a dozen movies from 2014 so far, I don’t have connections. I know I have an eternal home that isn’t dependent on worldly accomplishment, but there’s still plenty of room for discouragement on this side of heaven.
One specific moment from Life Itself made me look back at a piece of writing on this blog from over a year ago. That moment was the nadir, but ultimately a source of some encouragement. A few lines from Ebert’s review of The Tree of Life were cited in the film. “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 review begins. I unconsciously absorbed these thoughts and used them as the starting point for my own review of the film last May, around the time I decided The Tree of Life was my favorite movie. As Life Itself reminded me of Ebert’s sentence, I realized that a sentence I had written essentially plagiarized his. I wrote about Malick’s “colossal filmmaking hubris” and his “humble act of worship.” Last night, I deleted that sentence. We’re entering a murky area here. It was on the Internet, but to what extent can I consider it “published”? In any case, I decided I needed to call attention to the correction. More than a brief lapse of judgment, however, the sentence made me wonder about my writer’s voice. How long before I can feel confident that I’m only sharing my thoughts, not parroting the thoughts of smarter people? The solution is simple — more writing, more reading, more watching — but it will, of course, take time. Here’s where I got my encouragement, though. Perusing my Tree of Life review, I discovered that I know a lot more about movies than I did a year ago. This film blew me away from the start, but the more I see and read, the better I’ll be able to articulate why it blew me away. I’m on the path. It’s getting better every day. I should quit sulking and get to work. The dark cloud will surely lift, because there will be another movie to watch tonight.