Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942–2013)

It's hard to adjust to a world without Roger Ebert, not because he was the most famous American film critic, but because he was amazingly prolific, ubiquitous, a talented and smooth writer, reflective and honest, and thus quite insightful. He had an extremely deep love of film, from the moviegoing experience to the moviemaking process to the medium itself, appreciating all its strengths, malleability and most of all, its magic. I didn't always agree with his tastes, but I respected his opinions, which he always justified. Ebert had his moments of pique, but for the most part his reviews were much more honest and fair than those of the "clever film critic" crowd, where a good quip and smug condescension can take precedence over accuracy and honesty. Ebert was fond of quoting Robert Warshow that "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man." In practice, this meant that Ebert typically related, in deceptively smooth prose (he made it look effortless), his personal experience watching the movie, and he was introspective, sharp, humble and eloquent enough to explain that beautifully.

His general approach dovetailed with what I've always been taught: a good critic relays the experience of what it was like to see a given film or play or other performance. Get familiar with a good critic, and you will have a reasonable gauge of whether you will like a movie, because you will know where your tastes diverge. Most criticism should ask three questions: What does this piece set out to achieve? Does it achieve it? And what is the value of its ambitions? (How worthwhile is it in the first place?) For instance, is a summer blockbuster a good popcorn flick? (Sure, it's not King Lear, but it's not trying to be, and there's room for both Shakespearean tragedies and lighter fare in the world.) Does it succeed on its own terms? Does it deliver the goods? Such questions are especially important for "genre" pictures that traditionally don't get much respect.

Ebert touched on these dynamics many times, as when he wrote:

The star rating system is relative, not absolute. When you ask a friend if "Hellboy" is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to "Mystic River," you're asking if it's any good compared to "The Punisher." And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if "Superman" (1978) is four, then "Hellboy" is three and "The Punisher" is two. In the same way, if "American Beauty" gets four stars, then "[The United States of] Leland" clocks in at about two.

The Washington Post obituary adds:

The best movies, [Ebert] said, challenged viewers' understanding of the world and forced them to rethink their opinions. But all movies deserved to be judged according to their own ambitions, from French New Wave films to dusty Westerns, he said.

"If you try to apply the same yardstick to the new Godard and the new John Wayne," he told Time magazine in 1970, "you're probably missing the point of both films."

A good critic "doesn't have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers," Mr. Ebert wrote on his blog in 2008.

And if his movie-reviewing shows had any lasting utility, he wrote, "it was in exposing viewers, many of them still children, to the notion that it was permitted to have opinions, and expected that you should explain them."

I'm not a fan of strident "I'm right, you're wrong" criticism, where egos run amuck and someone tries to "pull rank," even if occasional excesses can be excused. Far better, though, to aim for passionate-but-still-civil discourse, or to simply ask, "What did you like about it?" and "What didn't work for you?" Approach the arts that way, and then we're having a conversation, sharing experiences versus trying to one-up each other. Most of the time, Ebert subscribed to the same ethos – he was starting a conversation versus trying to have the last word.

The "two thumbs up" stuff was too reductive, but it did cut to the bottom line of what someone wanted to know – whether a film was worth seeing or not. In his reviews, Ebert gave far more context. For the most part, Ebert spared his acerbic wit for deserving targets, and wrote very entertaining (but fair) negative reviews of genuinely bad films. Still, as much fun as those were, I appreciate the writing in his Great Movies series more. Sure, Ebert was popular, and writing for a popular audience, but he really knew his film history, too. He was erudite without being snobby. As the best critics do, Ebert would articulate some part of a great film's appeal or magic, and make you want to either see it again or see it for the first time.

My dad was an avid filmgoer (and from Chicago), and in our family, Siskel and Ebert's show (in its various incarnations) was regular viewing. It was gratifying to see people actually talk about film and clearly appreciate it. Siskel and Ebert reviewed the big studio releases, but made a point of also reviewing foreign films, smaller indie features, and documentaries. Hoop Dreams might be the best example, but Siskel and Ebert championed many great films that would have been overlooked otherwise (I was happy to see Ebert pick Junebug for his Overlooked Film Festival, later called Ebertfest). As Ebert pointed out every so often, genuine discussion of films as films on TV is unfortunately fairly rare. Most TV film coverage comes in the form of glossy entertainment shows or actors appearing on talk shows. Occasionally there's an interesting tidbit, but such programming is about shilling the films, not evaluating them. (Tellingly, I once caught Ebert discussing this point on a small local arts show on the Howard University PBS channel. Ebert had left PBS and was fairly famous by that point, but he was still showing up to have serious talks about film, never mind the small viewership.)

It also would be hard to overstate Ebert's influence on a couple of generations' worth of budding film critics and other writers. (I know a few people who were devastated by the news of his death.) Roger became for many a kind of geek hero, a guy with the dream gig of going to the movies and writing about them, who wasn't the most conventionally telegenic but achieved success through his mind and writing.

I found a new respect for Ebert in his second life as a blogger, most of all because of the personal courage he showed despite losing his voice and most of his jaw to cancer. It took real guts to agree to the Esquire feature that chronicled all this, and it was an ongoing act of bravery and will that, rather than retiring from public life, he actually accelerated his writing and became quite adept at blogging, tweeting and the rest. When he dared to discuss politics, mostly out of a basic social contract, respect-for-humanity liberalism, he was subject to some vicious personal attacks, but he shrugged them off with good cheer. (Some good bloggers have covered the pieces attacking him since his death, but I'll refrain from linking them here.)

On a similar note, the number of positive stories about Roger Ebert as a person is striking. Like his fellow Chicagoan and one-time drinking buddy Studs Terkel, Ebert just seemed to like people (most of 'em, anyway), and made a point of encouraging and helping budding writers and fans. He did far more than he had to. Read through Will Leitch's honest but painful story about attacking Ebert savagely and personally after Ebert had gone to great lengths to help Leitch. The way Ebert responded to this betrayal is really rather extraordinary, with a maturity, compassion and forgiveness that I sincerely admire.

This piece may seem overly rosy; I certainly didn't always agree with Ebert's judgments. But as I wrote for Andrew Sarris, for my money, if you truly love film and the moviegoing experience (and aren't too obnoxious), you're in the club; we are fellow travelers. Differences of opinion are inevitable, but in the club, they're minor in the grand scheme of things. Whatever his faults, Roger Ebert loved the arts and loved humanity, and understood how deeply those two are connected.

Finally, here are some choice quotations and links.

"Kindness covers all of my political beliefs," [Ebert] wrote, at the end of his memoir, "Life Itself." "No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."

– The Chicago Sun-Times obituary.

"Just write, get better, keep writing, keep getting better. It's the only thing you can control."

– The Will Leitch piece.

To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.

Ebert's review of The Village.

Mr. Ebert — who said he saw 500 films a year and reviewed half of them — was once asked what movie he thought was shown over and over again in heaven, and what snack would be free of charge and calories there.

“ ‘Citizen Kane’ and vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream,” he answered.

– The New York Times obituary.

So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.

– Roger Ebert's farewell, "A Leave of Presence."

Ebert Himself

Ebert's Site (Reviews, Journal, Great Movies Series)

"A Leave of Presence"

"I Do Not Fear Death"

"How to Read a Movie"

"My Name is Roger, and I'm an Alcoholic"

"In the Meadow, We Can Pan a Snowman"

"Best lines from Roger Ebert movie reviews"

Funniest Roger Ebert Quotations

Ebert's Seven Most Shareable Quotations


Scorsese, Spielberg, Herzog and more.


Chicago Sun-Times (plus Chaz Ebert)

The Washington Post (plus slideshow)

The New York Times (plus slideshow)

The Los Angeles Times

NPR one, two, three

Chicago Tribune


Richard Roeper

Stephen S. Duke

Rob Vaux

Dan Zak

Ann Hornaday

Digby and Dennis Hartley

Roy Edroso

Self-Styled Siren


Christopher Orr

Aisha Harris

Keith Phipps

Brian Doan

Will Leitch's piece

The Onion

Open Thread Remembrances

The Washington Post

Balloon Juice

Lawyers, Guns and Money

If you wrote an appreciation for Roger Ebert not featured above, feel free to link it in the comments. See you at the movies.


zencomix said...

Great post!

Marc McDonald said...

Nice work. Yes, Ebert will definitely be missed. Like you, I didn't always agree with his opinions. However, I did agree with Ebert a great deal more than I did with the late Pauline Kael (who didn't like masterpieces like "2001" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.")
About the only critic I bother to read these days is Nigel Andrews of "The Financial Times." Although I often disagree with him, as I did Ebert, I do respect the fact that (unlike most U.S. critics), he is aware that there are vibrant and important film industries in other nations besides the U.S.