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On the meaning of life ... and movies

"Touchez Pas au Grisbi": one of those great movies that reminds you of why you love movies in the first place.

Editor's note: The 2005 edition of Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook is now on sale, and features this introduction in which the critic explains how the movies helped him through a difficult year.

The new material in this year's edition was mostly written between August 2003 and July 2004. During the year I also went through some adventures with illness. I had surgery for salivary cancer in September, and in December spent a month in Seattle for radiation treatments. The surgery was not a big deal but the side effects of radiation were not pleasant, and I didn't really begin to feel restored until May or June.

During that time, I didn't miss writing a single review, nor did I neglect the Great Movies series and the Answer Man column. The "Ebert & Roeper" show continued without interruption; thanks to ingenious planning by our staff, we were able to tape several shows in advance to cover December and early January, and then I returned to the tapings.

I also attended, as usual, the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colo., in April, where we went through Renoir's "The Rules of the Game" a shot at a time during 10 hours over five days. And I hosted the sixth annual Overlooked Film Festival in late April, before leaving for Cannes in May.

The radiation made it difficult for me to handle solid food, and I existed on a product named Ensure, which kept everything humming along. Very early on the first morning in Cannes I woke early, as I always do, and wandered, as I always do, down to the all-night cafe by the port, and ordered, as I always do, a croissant and cafe au lait. I dunked the croissant into the coffee, as I always do, and ate it, and that was the beginning of real food again.

I supply this information not as a medical bulletin, but as an entry into considering the way movies work for me and perhaps a lot of other people. Even during treatment in Seattle, I was able to attend screenings, catch movies in theaters and write 20 reviews. One night I went to the local Landmark theater and saw Jean Gabin in "Touchez Pas au Grisbi" and found it so extraordinary, it went into my Great Movies series. Some of my friends and editors said they were impressed that I continued to see movies and file reviews even during the more difficult days of January and February. I tried to explain that it would have been harder not to.

I was not in any great pain, although radiation caused several varieties and degrees of discomfort. My problems were serious but probably not life-threatening. Illness had its greatest effect on my sense of personal immunity. After enjoying extraordinarily good health all of my life, I was faced with the prospect that my body was fallible and my life-span finite. Radiation causes erratic sleep patterns, and in the middle of the night, in addition to reading every one of the novels of Willa Cather, which were a consolation beyond all measuring, I had time to reflect on my mortality. I may have many years left, but I'd always thought I had forever.

These thoughts did not bother me while I was watching movies. I found myself drawn into them even more deeply than usual, as if giving myself over to them, healing in their glow. In a Seattle theater I saw the new P.J. Hogan version of "Peter Pan," starring Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Sumpter and the newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood, and was struck by how delightful it really was -- how they had tried to make something alive and special, instead of recycling the same familiar material. I had seen Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions" at Cannes, but now I saw it again and was struck personally by its portrait of a difficult but irrepressible man in his 60s, surrounded at his deathbed by current and former friends and lovers, and presiding over the celebration of his own passing. "Dying is not this cheerful," I wrote, "but we need to think it is."

And in Jacques Becker's "Touchez Pas au Grisbi," there's a scene where Max, the Jean Gabin character, a middle-aged gangster tired of risk and danger, is alone in his apartment contemplating how his best friend, Riton, has stupidly allowed himself to be kidnapped. He's less concerned about the loot he will lose, I wrote, than about his pal:

"He has a wonderful soliloquy, an interior monologue which we hear voice-over, as Max paces his apartment. He talks about what a dope Riton is, and what a burden he has been for 20 years: 'There's not a tooth in his head that hasn't cost me a bundle.' We understand that Max, who is competent above all things, almost values Riton's inability to live without his help. At the end of his soliloquy, instead of growing angry as a conventional gangster might, Max opens a bottle of champagne, plays a forlorn harmonica solo on his jukebox, sits in a comfortable chair and lights a cigarette. He treasures his creature comforts, especially when he might be about to lose them."

I appreciated that moment in Becker's film beyond all reason. I responded to the way it understood that a great movie can involve not plot but life and the daily living of it, and that although movies can amuse and excite us, their greatest consolation comes when they understand us.

A few months later, in June, I saw Julie Bertuccelli 's "Since Otar Left," a film set in the Eastern European republic of Georgia. The film stars a 90-year-old actress named Esther Gorintin, who was 85 when she began her acting career. She plays a stubborn old lady who lives with her daughter and granddaughter. Her thoughts are focused on her son, Otar, who has gone to Paris seeking work. We know, but she does not, that Otar has died in Paris. The daughter and granddaughter try to deceive her that he is still alive.

"What is clear," I wrote, "is that this old woman has a life and will of her own. There is a wonderful scene while she is still at home in Georgia. She leaves the house alone, looks up some information in the library, buys two cigarettes, and smokes them while riding on a Ferris wheel. With a lesser actor or character, this would be a day out for a lovable granny. With Esther Gorintin playing Eka, it is the day of a woman who thinks she has it coming to her."

Moments like that glow with a special grace. Writing about them has its consolations, too. I find that when I am actually writing, I enter a zone of concentration too small to admit my troubles. Although I might feel uneasy or unwell when I sit down at the keyboard and feel that way again when I stand up, while I am working I feel -- what? There is a kind of focus or concentration, a gathering of thought, language and instinct, that occupies all the available places and purrs along satisfied with itself. I am known around the office as a "fast writer," but while I'm engaged in the process, I don't feel as if I'm writing at all; I'm taking dictation from that place within me that knows what it wants to say.

This has been true all of my life. When I was 15 and starting out as a sportswriter at the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, I would labor for hours over my lead paragraph. Bill Lyon, who was a year older than me and would later become a famous columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, advised me, "Get to the end of the piece before you go back to revise the beginning. Until you find out where you're going, how can you know how to get there?" I took his advice and have never looked back. It condenses into a rule most writers discover sooner or later: The Muse visits during the work, not before it.

What I am trying to say is that I love my work. I love movies, I love to see movies, I love to write about movies, I love to talk about movies, I love to go through them a frame at a time in the dark with a room full of people watching them with me and noticing the most extraordinary things. On the Monday at Boulder, we showed "The Rules of the Game" all the way through and several people confessed they found it disappointing. Then we went through it for the rest of the week, a shot or even a frame at a time. By the Friday, they embraced it with a true passion. On Monday, we looked at it. By Friday, we had seen it.

Too many moviegoers look at movies and do not see them, but then it has always been that way. Movies are a time killer or a casual entertainment for most people, who rarely allow themselves to see movies that will jolt them out of that pattern. The jolting itself seems unpleasant to them. I'm not a snob about that; anyone who enjoys a movie is all right in my book. But the movies don't top out; as you evolve, there are always films and directors to lead you higher, until you get above the treetops with Ozu and Murnau, Bresson and Keaton, Renoir and Bergman and Hitchcock and Scorsese. You walk with giants.

One of our grandchildren told me the other day that he knew why I didn't like "White Chicks." It was, he said, "because you're not a kid. If you were a kid, you'd know how funny it was." "Yes," I said, "no doubt you're right. But if you were me, you'd know how bad it was." "But I'm not you," he said. "No, but you will be someday," I said. "I started out as a kid, and look how far I've come."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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