Life Itself

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My life would have been different if Roger Ebert had never existed. To say that I wouldn’t have had the same passion for movies that I do would be overstating it, but I definitely would not have the same motivation to write about movies that I do now. Ebert gave a very public face to film criticism and this opinion was like some sort of religion, especially when I started this blog. After I watched a movie, I would look on his page to see if he had written about it. If he did, I would immediately read the review. If I agreed, I would examine why I agreed and try to form my own ideas. If I didn’t agree, I would already be starting my review as a direct response to what he said. ┬áThis is all to say that the subject of Life Itself, Roger Ebert, is too close and personal to me to give a completely unbiased review. All I can do is record my ideas and my thoughts about him and about the treatment he gets in this film.

The structure of the film echoes his memoir and for those of us who have already read the memoir, a lot of the observations may seem a bit like rehashing old territory. If you have not read his memoir, which is titled the same as this documentary, I would suggest you do right away. It gives much more insight into the way Ebert thought than a two hour movie ever could. However what the memoir could not get across is the daily struggle and the awkward moments his condition brought on him and his wife. There is one scene in particular where he struggles to walk after getting a hairline fracture in his hip that I found so painful to watch. The camera does not shy away from looking directly at his mangled face or from showing his daily suction procedure which I assume is how he gets nutrients or how his wounds are cleaning. To watch someone waste away like that is extremely hard and I know it must have taken a lot out of his wife, Chaz. And yet she is so strong and never once gives up hope. When they are in the hospital after they hear yet another terrible diagnosis, Chaz exhibits an inner strength that is heart wrenching. She is hopeful and she allows herself to laugh at Roger’s terrible jokes that he makes on the computer. To me this movie is just as much about her as it is about Roger. Her love for him makes her capable of soldiering on, even after his death.

Just like in other documentaries, this one is littered with famous people talking about their experiences with the subject. While most of the time these famous people talking about how much they love x y or z seem mainly just a marketing ploy to get an unfamiliar spectator interested in the subject, here it felt organic. Through his show and his newspaper column, he was able to promote so many different kinds of directors and movies that they almost became his children or they were at least colleagues at the movies. So when Scorsese said that Ebert and Siskel helped him reinvigorate his career, I believed him. Or when Errol Morris said that he probably wouldn’t have a film career because of him, I believed him. Or when Herzog went on and on about something that was quite frankly amazing and incomprehensible, I believed him. They didn’t seem forced, like they usually are in other films.

In all that I do related to film, I aim to be like Roger Ebert (and a couple of other people, but those are posts for another day). Although this film could never replace Ebert and my emotional connection to him, I am glad it exists.

Two-Lane Blacktop

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This semester I am enrolled in an American films of the seventies course at my school. The class is basically about how and why this strange time in American cinema came about and the landmark films that came out of it. However the professor wanted to forgo all of the big seventies movies that most people have already seen like Star Wars, Jaws, The Godfather, etc. Instead he wanted to concentrate on films that might not have been as big at the time but have produced a lasting effect on the film landscape. Which brought us to watching Two-Lane Blacktop in class last week. Most of my classmates I would say are obsessed with film in one way or another. Some of them make it, some of them write it, some of them produce it, and others, like me, love to write about it. Being this in love with film helps people to develop taste that might not be seen as mainstream. There is a lot of emphasis on classic movies for instance by my classmates when they talk about film with me. However, when this movie came up in our coursework, I was surprised to learn that I was the only one to have seen this movie before class (some other movies that we have watched so far are more familiar: Midnight Cowboy, Bonnie and Clyde, Deliverance) and that after seeing the movie I was one of the few people who actually liked it. This got me thinking as to why I liked this movie so much and why so many people, who are used to European and classic cinema, did not.

Before I give explanation of my opinion on this movie, let me back up a bit and explain why my professor might have chosen this movie to watch in class. Two-Lane Blacktop is a road movie that got made purely because Easy Rider did so well three years before. Each major studio was looking for their version of Easy Rider. For Universal, this was supposed to be their youth oriented, counterculture, rock n roll music, free love and drugs road movie which would help commodify the younger generations. However they got more than they bargained for when they chose Monte Hellman, a director who worked previously with Roger Corman. Hellman wanted to borrow the European aesthetic of the French New Wave and implant it on iconic American images. This resulted in a movie that was slow-moving, where the plot didn’t really matter, and the characters were mere vessels for their hobbies. It of course bombed at the box office, because most people responded at the time much in the same way that my classmates did. They were bored.

Hellman chose to emphasize the atmosphere of what it was like to be a car fanatic during this time in America. The alienation and the nihilism inherent during this time is made obvious on the screen. All of the characters are known purely by generic terms: The Driver, the Mechanic, GTO, and the Girl. No one cares to even know each other’s proper names. While I would argue that the Driver is the main protagonist, to say that he goes on a journey of self discovery would be pushing it. His only lasting relationship is with his car, a customized 1955 Chevy. To illustrate the nihilism even further, Hellman completely abandons the main thrust of the film, a cross-country race, about half way through the film. GTO and the people in the Driver’s car just end up journeying with each other until something better comes along. This pervasive atmosphere of alienation and nihilism is what makes this one of the most European influenced films of the decade. More than jump cuts, strange music cues, and call backs to classic cinema, this movie embodies what Resnais and Godard were trying to accomplish in their own movies but applied to a genre film.

This atmosphere is made apparent in the many racing scenes seen throughout the film. In a conventional Hollywood movie, the car chases would be shot to have their own mini-dramatic moment in themselves. However here, Hellman chooses to cut away almost every time before we see them finish. He shoots these races from the side and at a distance which is different from how they would be shot anywhere else. They would usually be shot head on so that you can see the good guy as he eyes the bad guy.┬áBut you don’t get this dramatic release at any point. Hellman is constantly telling the audience member that you are watching a film. He wants to distance the image from the spectator as much as possible. He also achieves this by dropping you in the middle of a scene, letting dialogue that has been misspoken lie and make it into the final film and by choosing to let the engine roar as loud as possible on the soundtrack in lieu of actual dialogue.

The meaningful relationships these men (not the woman who is a hitchhiker that hops into the car at the beginning of the movie) have is not with themselves. It is with their cars. These physical and mechanic things are what makes sense to them. So the emphasis here is not on the relationships between each other, their outside world or with the counterculture. It is with the cars. You see the film several times from the Driver’s perspective as he shifts gears on a long stretch of American highway. The fluttering of the cover to the exhaust is an image that sticks with you after seeing the film. The engine rips through rock n roll songs that are partially played. This gets back to the nihilism of American culture. These men who care more about their cars than the Girl, who seems like nothing but a passing fancy for everyone except maybe the Driver, suggests the intense value that Americans place on material things. Why should they care that the Girl seems to be running away from someone, that she drifts aimlessly, and that she is desperately seeking some kind of connection with a man, if they have a car that they can easily fix the problems of with a tweak here or there?

I liked this movie because it gave me beautiful images of small town gas stations, diners, and long stretches of barren landscape. I liked this movie because of GTO’s wet bar in the back of the car and his penchant for wearing the same thing but always managing to change the color of his sweater. I liked this movie because it had no plot. I liked this movie because I got to look at a beautiful Pontiac GTO, one of the best seventies muscle cars ever produced. I liked this movie because the ending was perfect. I liked this movie because it reminded me of other car fanatics I have met in the past and the types of conversations they have. I liked this movie because sometimes I want to aimlessly wander around America with no purpose just for the hell of it and race a car for pinks. I liked this movie for a multitude of reasons. Maybe you will too…