Three Rules for Assessing Movies; Life Itself (2014)

Rule One (Thanks to an old friend from Cold War days):

The badness of a movie is directly proportional to the number of helicopters in it.

Exception: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Rule Two: “Biopic” is a misnomer; “fabrication” might be better.

Examples: The Imitation Game, Hyde Park on Hudson, Selma (re LBJ), Factory Girl, Nixon, Hitchcock, Jobs, Frida, The King’s Speech, The Queen, The Iron Lady, The Last King of Scotland

Exceptions: A Beautiful Mind, Capote, Raging Bull

Speaking of biopics: Life Itself is a CNN documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert, and based on his memoir of that title. It brings up another rule:

Rule Three: When the ads say that grotesque physical maladies are shown extensively in a movie out of compassion, everyone, especially old-time circus managers, knows it’s a lie.

Examples: The Elephant Man, Life Itself

I can’t recall another biopic about a film critic.  You would not imagine a demand for such. Can you imagine a biopic about, say, A.O. Scott? David Denby? Bill Krohn? Even for favorite movie experts of mine, such as Ken Mogg, Anthony Lane and John Podhoretz, I chuckle at the thought. (I’d be very interested in well-organized, well-presented analyses of the critical stances and standards of  important movie reviewers and scholars, replete with examples. But even were such to be narrated by Morgan Freeman and Meryl Streep, with music by David Raksin, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who would pay $10 or $20 to learn such things? I’m guessing diehard moviegoers might not accept complimentary tickets.)

So why the biopic of Roger Ebert?

The sad answer, it seems to me, lies in Rule Three. Roger Ebert died from an especially awful cancer which toward the end grotesquely disfigured his face. In Life Itself, the camera lingers there far more than necessary, or so I strongly think. Ebert wrote some fine movie criticism, but Life Itself does not distinguish, characterize and exemplify that criticism, as though (correctly) the principals saw little audience pull in doing so. Here that business insight of the moviemakers only suggests their chief idea about what sort of proven shock in fact might exert mass pull. My sense about Life Itself is that Ebert’s life as a critic is finally a “frame” for a story about a tragically grotesque malady. Coming into your mind is the old idea of morbid curiosity.

Perhaps the one interesting (and inadvertent) insight in Life Itself into Ebert’s often passionate movie reviewing comes from a voiceover of a few comments he made about Bonnie and Clyde, comments about a movie dramatizing the perils of naive if noble youthful dare and excitement–Rebels with a Cause–in dangerous, fatally entrapping times. Recall that marvelous pivotal scene at the family reunion out on the forlorn prairie when Bonnie and Clyde are on the run for their lives and Bonnie’s gaunt and weathered Plains mother, no less somberly wise than a Greek chorus, tells her daughter with a realism that as it quiets the tabloid preening of the bank-robbing lovers ushers in a story-shifting terrible truth–that Bonnie is lost to any return to safety in her old family, that she can’t go home again, that her days are surely numbered, her death but a matter of a little more time in a Run that instantly has lost all glamour and youthful naivete. Ebert, himself perhaps overwhelmed by that movie as were others when it came out, declares Bonnie and Clyde “beautiful” and “about us.” The visual content–momentary excerpts from Bonnie and Clyde–which play out as his comments are made, heighten the wonder in Ebert’s admiration of the movie. It’s at least one magic moment in an otherwise standard fare. Too bad there aren’t more.*

*Ebert’s written review of Bonnie and Clyde is available on Google.