The Film: Raging Bull (1980)
The Principals: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana. Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, based on the book by Jake La Motta. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
The Premise: The life of boxer Jake La Motta (De Niro), whose brutal profession spills into his personal life and leads to emotional implosion and decline into obscurity.
A Eulogy and Appreciation: The death of Roger Ebert is an incalculable loss for movie culture and for film criticism. And it’s a loss for me personally. Roger was always supportive, he was always right there for me when I needed it most, when it really counted – at the very beginning, when every word of encouragement was precious; and then again, when I was at the lowest ebb of my career, there he was, just as encouraging, just as warmly supportive. There was a professional distance between us, but then I could talk to him much more freely than I could to other critics. Really, Roger was my friend. It’s that simple.
Few people I’ve known in my life loved or cared as much about movies. I know that’s what kept him going in those last years – his life-or-death passion for movies, and his wonderful wife, Chaz.
We all knew that this moment was coming, but that doesn’t make the loss any less wrenching. I’ll miss him — my dear friend, Roger Ebert.
If you are wondering where the rest of the usual Movie of the Day areas have gone, I have decided to subvert them for this entry. Trying to explain why Raging Bull is a great film to you is akin to having your high school English teacher tell you about the importance of Shakespeare—it’s clockwork. In all honesty, it does not crack my top five Scorsese films*—in fact, in the face of some of his other films, it feels just a tad overrated. Nevertheless, the film is a technical and performance masterwork and a brilliant study in Jake La Motta’s self-destruction and fall from grace and promise. Its influence carries waves and its impact is operatic, one of the last swooning voices of New Hollywood to sneak in after the 70’s had ended.
No other critic—let alone anyone—was a stronger proponent or confidante in Martin Scorsese than Roger Ebert. With the exception of The Color of Money (a two-and-a-half star review), all of Scorsese’s films from Who’s That Knocking on My Door? all the way to Hugo received at least three stars. Scorsese grew up watching world cinema on public television in New York. Ebert grasped the structural and aesthetic aspects of filmmaking from reading Mad magazine as a youth, evolving into a film critic while continuing his graduate studies.
Both men took opposite paths in terms of career. Scorsese is a creator. Ebert was a critic. Their mutual respect, however, grew exponentially over the years. Was the continuing favorable reviews Scorsese’s films received from Ebert a natural by-product of nepotism? Absolutely not. Their link was a mutual one, brought together by a meticulous precision and a shared passion that became a crossroads at which their means of approaching their passion met.
Scorsese’s formative years as an auteur came as Ebert’s exposure through the Chicago Sun-Times expanded not only through nationally syndicated newspapers, but through the rise of his televised sparring with Gene Siskel about the week’s latest releases on PBS’ Sneak Previews. Raging Bull came at a pivotal moment in each other’s career, where Siskel and Ebert gained national exposure, and alongside them, film unanimously agreed that Scorsese had achieved his zenith as an auteur. Pauline Kael’s presence in the film-criticism spectrum decreased with her Parkinson’s diagnosis and loss of faith in the art of cinema.
It was that era that brought about the commercial omnipresence of Roger Ebert as film-critic laureate, able to decipher the magic and power of the movies that Kael had lost her faith in. Intelligent without being condescending and irreverent without diverting the art of dissecting filmmaking into the territory of overzealous extremes that the Internet era has brought about, these columns would have never been as direct or consistent as they are. Further, I would not have had the same analytical eye that I possess for movies without Ebert’s guidance—no matter how staunchly I agreed or disagreed with him.
I was born in 1987. In a way, I was part of a generation on the brink of the analog-to-digital transition, and certainly I came of age during the rise of the Internet. At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert—or just Siskel & Ebert as it was shortened in the years I became aware—was scheduled all over the place in the greater New York City market, meaning that my chances of seeing “the tall guy and the fat guy” review movies were slim to none. My only exposure would be through sprawling newspaper ads in the New York Times and the Asbury Park Press showing “Two Thumbs Up!” endorsements, as Siskel & Ebert was relegated to the late shift on Sunday nights at 11 p.m. on WNYW (New York’s Fox affiliate for those of you outside of the area).
My best chance to catch him would be on long weekends, or yearly vacations to Long Beach Island, N.J. I distinctly remember catching episodes on those summer Sunday nights in 1996 and 1997, in Florida during spring break in ’97, alternating between enthusiasm and disappointment. Okay, cool, he liked Liar Liar—try to give a bad review to a Jim Carrey movie when I’m nine years old and you’re persona non grata. Conversely, how in fucking hell does Independence Day get a thumbs-down? My mentality was of a child, but it was these episodes that would give me a greater, long-term understanding of film.
I was crushed when Siskel passed on in 1999, but in a way, it only made me appreciate Ebert’s worldview of cinema even more. I obsessively looked up his reviews online. I bought a copy of I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie—a book whose cover, depicting Ebert making the Kevin McAllister “I’m home alone face”—became the butt of several jokes about my love of movies with close friends. Around the same time, I became a fanatic for Scorsese, Tarantino, Coppola, Oliver Stone and many other filmmakers that he had championed so many times. The 2001 Movie Yearbook that I owned was as close to a Bible for renting and watching movies as I could get. If it had a three-star or greater review, I knew I had to see it. If it was below that, I was cautious.
It was my freshman year of high school that I straightened my head that Roger Ebert was not my god. I watched Fight Club and Blue Velvet at the behest of others praising their virtues and qualities—films that my hero had decried or misunderstood. I realized that sometimes, he was wrong—especially about the Die Hard movies, because even as an ardent defender of the second one, the first one was only worth two stars? Bullshit.
You know who else was wrong? The Blockbuster guy who said Jackie Brown sucked.
You know who else was wrong? My mom, for thinking Apocalypse Now was a bad movie.
You know who else was wrong? Everyone who thought Crash was a bullshit movie, and that when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the fact that the pretentious homosexual love story was not the winner. Yes, I enjoy Crash a great deal—full disclosure. So did Roger Ebert, who praised the film endlessly and arguably swayed it towards Oscar gold.
When his cancer diagnosis worsened, I was beyond myself. When his voice was lost, I could not grasp the fact that the pipes that had accused Gene Siskel of being an asshole for enjoying Starship Troopers because Ebert had enjoyed Home Alone 3 more than its predecessors had gone away. I couldn’t bring myself to see his interview with Oprah, where he defied death despite losing his voice, because my grief for him had been too strong to see him so debilitated.
Losing Roger Ebert has had as strong and similar an impact as losing a friend or a family member. Without him, I would not have given the hundreds of films I watch every year a blurb about what I thought of him. I would have never taken film criticism for granted to help my writing in terms of not only criticism but creative output. I have crossed paths with many great teachers, mentors and elders in my life. I never met Roger Ebert, but he was absolutely one of those men. I’ve lost a hero. I’ve lost a friend. I’ve lost a mentor, and my grieving process will be an emotional but empowering one.
There will never be another Roger Ebert. It will not be me. It will not be you. We will apply what we have learned from him, but we will never be the full extent of who he was.
Goodbye, Roger. I can only hope that you and Gene will be thumbing this weekend’s new movies up in the sky—even if your voices and chemistry cannot be heard.
The balcony is closed. The doors that he has opened to us, however, will always be open.
* – My top five Scorsese films, all of which received four-star reviews from Ebert:
- Taxi Driver
- The Departed
- After Hours
- The Last Temptation of Christ