In Memoriam: Roger Ebert

Death of a critic


They do look alike.
Walt Kelly

The late Roger Ebert's writing would have left a mark if he had never gone on television in his life, but it was his TV show with Gene Siskel that made him a celebrity. You wouldn't have expected that from their first episode: two writers droning on, not always sure where exactly they should be looking, with no excitement beyond the possibility that Siskel's 'stache will start eating his face. But it wasn't long before they perfected the bickering-brothers dynamic that made their show more entertaining than at least 60% of the movies they reviewed. Instead of suppressing their offscreen rivalry, which is on display in various outtakes floating around the Web, they channeled it into arguments about movies; and they made those arguments meaningful by actually giving a damn about the pictures they were rating. They also had a healthy sense of self-aware humor about their personas, as their inevitably entertaining guest spots on Letterman and other shows proved. The act could be imitated but it could never be equaled, as countless other programs -- including, eventually, Ebert & Roeper -- would learn.

Siskel & Ebert & Lovitz
The Critic

But if the TV show ensured that Roger Ebert was famous while he was alive, it's his writing for newspapers and the Web that should ensure he'll be remembered long after he's dead. For one thing, he was an exceptional stylist. I might disagree strenuously with Ebert's opinion about a movie; I might bristle at a factual flub or two about the plot; but I was almost always awed at his prose, which was thoughtful, graceful, funny, and accessible.

He didn't just write about movies. He had been a sportswriter early on, and an interview he did for his college paper with the left-libertarian author Paul Goodman was good enough to get reprinted in one of Goodman's books. (He invoked Goodman in at least one of his reviews too -- a thumbs-up take on Paul Schrader's underappreciated Blue Collar -- and there was a time when I had hopes that underneath it all Ebert was some sort of anarchist. Alas, when he unleashed his political-pundit side late in life he turned out to be a standard-issue liberal.) In his last few years he wrote many wonderful memoirs for his website, and then a much-admired autobiography. But of course it was his movie writing that defined him, and it was here that he made his other great contribution to American culture.

Ebert, you see, didn't care about those old highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow distinctions that occupied so many debates about criticism in the middle of the 20th century. If you were interested in learning about cinema as a high art, he could be your gateway to the greats, writing ably about Bergman and Welles and Kurosawa and other filmmaking giants. (I'm pretty sure I first heard of Fassbinder in a Roger Ebert essay. Or, at least, that essay was the first time I wanted to run out and rent a Fassbinder movie right away.) On the other hand, if you wanted to know if the latest spy flick was exciting or if the new Mel Brooks movie was likely to make you laugh, Ebert was perfectly willing to wax enthusiastic about those kinds of films too. It's not that he liked everything, you understand. (Check out his evisceration of Priest.) It's that he was capable of liking everything, or at least everything that was done well. Even when he joined in the chorus denouncing the slasher genre in the '80s, he had to confess that yes, he was the guy who gave three and a half stars to Last House on the Left.

Rest in peace.
Andrews and McMeel

And that leads us to what may be my all-time favorite Roger Ebert review: a joyful little essay about the pleasures to be found in even the most indefensibly trashy pictures. The subject is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it release called Rapa Nui. I've never seen it, and I don't think I even would have heard of it if I hadn't read Ebert's review. He gives it just two stars, and much of the piece consists of a litany of everything ridiculous about the picture. But then he says this at the end:

Concern for my reputation prevents me from recommending this movie. I wish I had more nerve. I wish I could simply write, "Look, of course it's one of the worst movies ever made. But it has hilarious dialogue, a weirdo action climax, a bizarre explanation for the faces of Easter Island, and dozens if not hundreds of wonderful bare breasts." I am however a responsible film critic and must conclude that "Rapa Nui" is a bad film. If you want to see it anyway, of course, that's strictly your concern. I think I may check it out again myself.

My head can't bring itself to believe in an afterlife. But my heart hopes that Ebert gets another chance to see it.

NEXT: Western U.S. Geography Could've Been Created by Pile Up of Tectonic Plates

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  1. Question Jesse,

    Who is will be remembered better, Ebert or the infamous Pauline Kael?

      1. Kael has a big following among eggheads. There have been full length biographies of her.

        1. She insulted Welles, so she can fuck off.

          1. And she didn't know Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed on location and not in a sound stage. She was really kind of an ignorant bitch.

          2. And Clint Eastwood. Seconded.

          3. I'm actually of two minds when it comes to Welles. He did some good stuff, especially as an actor, but he also made a lot of really overrated stuff (Mr. Arkadin and the horrible F For Fake).

  2. I have seen Rapa Nui. It was a terrible movie that was thoroughly engaging for all the reaons that Ebert lists.

  3. Maybe Ebert was a great guy, but I put film critics in the same basket as government economists.

    1. Wonder how Kurt would feel about that

  4. He could also be a real dumbass.

    At dinner one night, a woman at the table referred to Arizona as a "right to work state." Unwisely, I replied: "Yeah -- the right to work cheap." She said, "I think you'll find the non-union workers are quite well paid." Exercising a supreme effort of will to avoid pronouncing the syllables "Wal-Mart," I replied: "If so, that's because unions have helped raise salaries for everybody." She replied: "The unions steal their members' dues." I replied, "How much money would you guess the unions have stolen, compared to corporations like Enron?" At this point our exchange was punctuated by a kick under the table from my wife, and we went back to positive thinking.

    "The Corporation" is not a film my dinner companion would enjoy. It begins with the unsettling information that, under the law, a corporation is not a thing but a person. The U.S. Supreme Court so ruled, in a decision based, bizarrely, on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That was the one that guaranteed former slaves equal rights. The court ruling meant corporations were given the rights of individuals in our society. They are free at last.

  5. Rapa Nui gets three stars on IMDB and stared the rather lovely Sandrine Holt.

    So it can't be all bad.

    1. This was Jason Scott Lee's follow up to Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. He then make Mowgli.

      1. Didn't he die making the Crow?

        1. Brendon Lee (Bruce Lee's son) who died during the filming of The Crow.

  6. Ebert, you see, didn't care about those old highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow distinctions that occupied so many debates about criticism in the middle of the 20th century.

    Except for his opinion on video games, apparently.

    1. Ebert knew movies and was an excellent writer. He was also incredibly narrow minded, the worst sort of hate filled, smug liberal, and by all accounts was a generally nasty guy to those who worked for him.

      Like most people, he was a mixed bag.

      1. The irony of you calling another "hate filled" is delicious.

        1. Self awareness called Shreek. They want to know when you are going to start taking their calls again.

      2. The only thing worse than having a liberal for a boss is having a fat, rich liberal for a boss.

      3. "By all accounts" he was nasty to those who worked for him? I've never heard that. Do you have any kind of citation for that?

    2. And his opinion on movies. If a movie was made for art house dickholes, he'd enjoy it. If it were made for another audience his reaction was a total crap shoot.

  7. Jesse, I think he was a closet anarchist, in his review of the Dark Knight you don't see that scene as 'civil anarchy' w.o being one.

    This is a dark and heavy film; it tests the weight a superhero movie can bear. That Nolan is able to combine civil anarchy, mass destruction and a Batcycle with exercise-ball tires is remarkable.

    the liberal persona just helps with crowd

    1. He saw 'civil anarchy' in there (which it wasn't) because people had been harping on that in online (p)reviews/blogs ever since the production stills and cell phone footage were leaked.

      Don't give this retarded asshole any more than he deservers, which is very, very little.

      Plus he hated Dune.

      1. civil anarchy = civil disobedience. to see civilians putting the state on trial, in a movie scene, as civil anarchy means you are an anarchist. but he's not going to bite the hand that feeds. who reads movie reviews? Libs.

        Dune was memorable but bad.

    2. Wait, what was civil anarchy?

  8. Whatever.

  9. Smell you later, dumb leftist shit bag.

  10. I avoided his political writing like the plague but discovering his reviews in high school was a revelation.

    I remember having to watch Dead Poets Society in 10th grade and not liking it but feeling slightly guilty for not liking it because everyone else loved it. Then I saw Ebert's (negative) review and it was like a light came on. Just because everyone else thinks a movie is a masterpiece, doesn't mean I had to agree.

    ""Dead Poets Society" is a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand in favor of something: doing your own thing, I think. It's about an inspirational, unconventional English teacher and his students at "the best prep school in America" and how he challenges them to question conventional views by such techniques as standing on their desks. It is, of course, inevitable that the brilliant teacher will eventually be fired from the school, and when his students stood on their desks to protest his dismissal, I was so moved, I wanted to throw up."

    1. He nailed that one. Funny how crap movies can slip through for a while but eventually get seen for the crap they are. No one watches that movie anymore for good reason.

      1. I watched it recently. Well, the last 15 minutes.

        1. Did you enjoy it?

          1. Yes.

            The amusing thing for me was that I didnt realize who was in it, since I hadnt seen it in 20 years.

            The guy that played Wilson on House, for example.

            1. IT is also probably the most comically homoerotic film not named Top Gun ever made.

              1. Oh, you saw that Quentin Tarantino's "Top Gun" skit too???

                What was that movie again? I think Eric Stoltz was on it.

    2. Dead Poet's Society was one of those films that nearly all of my acquaintance urged me to watch. I rented it and found that, once again. Robin Williams was playing the kind of authority-defying Lead Character that made me sympathize with the authorities.

      1. It is like Goodbye Mr. Chips' retarded grandson.

      2. I like to use the method for measuring poetry from the beginning. It works for lots of artsy things.

  11. Someone needs to start a Zombie Roger Ebert twitter feed giving 145 word movie reviews.

    1. Yeah, I imagine that will be the best obit written for him. Great stuff.

  12. But of course it was his movie writing that defined him, and it was here that he made his other great contribution to American culture.

    A big shame that such a delightful and cultured person was so wrong about many things and harbored so many misunderstandings about ecomomics or politics that could almost make the Buttwipe seem moderately intelligent.

    His review of Bruno, for instance, will forever be the monument to eternal stupidity.

    1. The movie he really missed on was O Brother, Where Art Thou?, giving 2.5 stars to one of the most entertaining movies ever made. Somehow he got hung up on it being a poor adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, which wasn't exactly the point.

      1. 2.5 seems about right to me.

        I know people that love that movie, and I dont know why.

        It was entertaining. Once. Its never occurred to me to watch it again.

        1. I have to admit, you may be right. I loved when I saw it in the theater. But I have never felt the desire to watch it again, unlike other Cohen Brothers movies like the Big Labowski or Fargo or even Intolerable Cruelty.

  13. I just hope GI Joe: Retaliation wasn't the last movie he saw.

    1. No, it wasn't, but The Host was the last review he published before he died. However, he apparently wrote a review of "To the Wonder" (the new Terence Malick movie), so his last film was apparently a good one.

  14. Check out his evisceration of Priest.

    I would have rather read his review of this "Priest' Movie:

  15. Alas, when he unleashed his political-pundit side late in life he turned out to be a standard-issue liberal

    Most of that can be attributed to his wife, who think encouraged him to be more outspoken. Or maybe lack of drinking.

    Certainly he was missing two important checks on his ego later in his writing life: Siskel and Mike Royko. Other (older) newspaper people all knew each other and all called each other on bullshit.

    Another case where competition was healthy for all; as newspaper staffs shrank (along with the associated gathering in bars) and remaining newspaper offices became more virtualized, the criticism of critics waned. Critics need to be criticized, especially in person. Nowadays criticism of critics is mostly just flame wars in which people dig into their positions deeper instead of actually examining their positions and reasoning.

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