Great writing and great films, with Roger Ebert and Se7en

I wonder how long it took Roger Ebert to realize Se7en was a great film. It took me at least ten years. I was two months shy of my fourteenth birthday when David Fincher’s stylized masterpiece hit theatres. The movie was as well-received as it was widely hyped, and just as notorious – my mother heard from a friend’s son two years older than me about the film’s horrific set pieces and chilling imagination. I did not see it until my freshman year of high school, when we gathered with tittering anticipation for a screening in Josh’s basement. I found it engrossing, brilliant, disturbing to the point of nausea, ultimately unsatisfying yet oddly enduring. I disliked the film’s ending for the same reason I initially disliked the ending of Apocalypse Now: both films close with acts of violence that don’t quite satiate all that has come before.

Read Ebert’s original 1995 review of Se7en, and you’ll see he felt the same. The movie was an outstanding entertainment, a landmark star vehicle for Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, a memorable piece of pop filmmaking, yet seemingly nothing more than a well-executed cliché. It did not strike me as one of the great films of my life.

And yet it is. Undeniably. The years rolled on and Se7en stayed in my rotation. The characters and their story lived in my mind. I watched it to completion whenever it showed up on network TV. I bought it on DVD because my collection was incomplete without it. Such a gruesome film, yet I was compelled to watch it again and again until the shock was gone and only the truth in the storytelling remained.

And then finally, a few years ago, as I’m flipping through my DVD book and realizing once again that, “You know what? I kind of feel like Se7en tonight,” finally I said it: Holy crap! This is a great film.

That is one of the charms of any great piece of art – it grows as you do. It evolves. A great piece of art reveals its true nature to you, slowly, over many years, over many viewings, until one night it’s 2 a.m. and the last film you should reasonably want to experience at that hour is the only one you wish to watch.

Which is why I love Ebert’s “Great Movies” series. He does not give us a top ten or top 100, and the star system he uses in his original reviews is obsolete. He simply realizes, during his umpteenth screening, that a certain film is great. A classic. Indispensable. That it endures. That it is fact. Its characters exist. Its story happened. It cannot be refuted. It is.

Maybe you think Se7en belongs in that tier and maybe you don’t. But if you’ve ever watched a great movie, you know the thrill of witnessing that greatness. Even better, you probably know the thrill of watching a film repeatedly over many years, being drawn in for reasons you can’t quite explain until one day the picture slaps you with its unmistakable brilliance.

I’ve experienced Ebert’s career in much the same fashion. I’ve read his reviews for close to twenty years. First I thought him a terrific film reviewer, then an iconic film reviewer. As my career progressed and I learned more about the craft, Ebert became for me a great writer, the label of “film reviewer” as limiting to his work as “gangster picture” is to The Godfather.

In my column on Monday lamenting the decline of newspaper substance, I wrote that a print newspaper “always provided a binding community experience.” For proof, I cited the Tribune’s famed front pages that documented the 1990s championships of the Chicago Bulls. In the comments section, a reader named Torff took exception with my example, writing, “the more important sense of community building isn’t through shared sporting events, but through something like a shared understanding of the politics and true nature of our city.”

Though we seem to disagree about the value of professional team sports, Torff’s assessment of journalism’s power to unite through enlightenment and shared experience is spot on. And in his steady manner, Roger Ebert has achieved just that. His writing illuminates the meaning embedded in the best cinema, thus deepening our understanding of our time’s most popular mode of storytelling. His passion for the art helps us justify our own love of movies and the time we spend front of the screen. His unmatched talent in his field and commitment to his own craft has made him the singular voice in film criticism and appreciation, and that has created a community and shared experience of its own, because who among us has never read a movie review by Roger Ebert?

Not many, I’d imagine. Through his consistency of production and dedication to the work, Roger Ebert, the rotund wise-ass with the glasses and grey hair, has become the signature voice in Chicago journalism. I didn’t see it coming. But then, that’s why they call it a twist.

Jack M Silverstein covers music, sports, and community in Chicago, and can be found at ReadJack.com. His book “Our President” is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.

A sampling of my favorite Ebert reviews

Ebert the humorist: Armageddon, 1998

Ebert the absurdist: Four Christmases, 2008

Ebert the film lover: Do the Right Thing, 1989, his 2001 “Great Movies” entry

UPDATE: Check out Ebert’s terrific blog today about his new understanding of Marshall McLuhan’s famous principal and his reason for loving film, books, and records over Netflix, Kindle, and iTunes.

Leave a comment