A Tribute to Roger Ebert
One of my heroes has died.
Roger Ebert wasn't just a critic I enjoyed reading regularly. Indeed, he wasn't merely a film critic. Ebert was the film critic. He was what you thought of when people mentioned film criticism. Before Ebert, film criticism was relegated to either lightweight puff pieces in the trade mags, or stuffy and impenetrable intellectual essays in high-brow European journals. Ebert came along with the experience of a newsman, the staggering intellect of the well-read, and the ground level experience of a legitimate barfly, and took great movies to the people. He started writing for his home newspaper The Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 and didn't stop until just today when cancer finally took him. First it attached to his salivary gland, then complications during surgery led to him losing a good deal of his jaw, which kept him off TV. Despite the recurrance of the disease, though, Ebert remained enthused, good-natured, and endlessly ambitious. Just the other day, he announced his big business plans for the future, and his intent to launch a Kickstarter campaign for the return of his TV show “Ebert Presents At The Movies.”
Roger Ebert was an idol of mine. He taught me and the rest of the country, how to talk about and how to think about movies. He was more than an idle conversation about an idle pastime. He was a champion of a cultural and artistic form that he balanced between populist entertainment and soul-stirring import. Ebert embodied the critical ethos that all we critics were to follow, consciously or not. Ebert's apprach was to give every film an even shake. He openly admits if he's baffled by a movie's premise (it was always fun to see him bend his mind around something like Pokémon: The First Movie), and reviews everything with an equal eye. This is not something most critics can do upon every written or spoken review. Ebert, and his longtime partner Gene Siskel who died in 1999, developed a much-criticized but wholly handy (and hugely influential) “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down” system for recommending movies. They both came to the conclusion that casual movie-going audiences don't necessarily want to hear eggheads giving extended theoretical spiels about the French New Wave or in-depth film theory every week (which both of them were perfectly capable of doing), but would want a simple answer to movies. Should they see it or not? Thus they invented the much-ripped-off “Thumbs Up” system. Many felt that the system was too divisive (are films only ever going to be “just good” or “just bad?”), and Ebert said, in his columns, how frustrated he was with the notions of Thumbs and Star Ratings. His goal was to keep the conversation open, not dole out rankings.
Ebert was a critic of the people. He was that rarest of birds: An intellectual who could stay in the public eye. He managed to have a doctorate and a Pulitzer (setting the bar high for other aspiring critics), but would not be above reviewing all the latest studio product. He was the first film critic to openly say things like “I liked it.” Film criticism can often fall into the mire of dissection and analysis, and we critics can often lose sight of what's really at stake when writing reviews: whether or not we enjoyed the thing. Ebert was an intellect (he was so intelligent, it was almost daunting), but his view of films was more of a tonal one. He appreciated the overall feel of a movie. It made him the perfect partner for Gene Siskel, who was more detail-oriented. He admitted his weakness for fanciful sci-fi as well as for slow-moving philosophical films. If he disagreed with the public at large (which happened often), he would stick my his guns, repeating another vitally important critical mantra: the critic must be honest at all times, even when they disagree with everyone else. Sometimes he would change his mind on a film (his famed debacle surrounding The Brown Bunny is well- documented), often not. When Blue Velvet came out in 1986, he gave it 1 ½ stars, citing it as cruel and misogynist. When Fight Club came out, he gave it a "Thumbs Down." Hundreds of film fans would appeal to him (he had an online presence unmatched by other critics), and he would studiously listen to their arguments, but rarely changed his mind. He told a story of how he met the stars of ¡Three Amigos!, and had to openly admit on TV to their faces that he hated ¡Three Amigos!. No matter who he was debating, be it Michael Phillips, A.O. Scott, Christy Lemire, or his second partner in crime, the wonderful Richard Roeper, he was always interested in intelligent debate. He never stooped to name-calling. Well, he could be amusingly nasty sometimes.
True, sometimes he had dubious taste, and I disagreed with him often. But no critic is going to agree with anyone 100% of the time, right? Part of his cultural presence was the film-goers' ability to outwardly disagree with him. He had such a loud critical voice, it gave nay-sayers (which I sometimes was) an object to sneer at. “Roger Ebert hated it. What does HE know?” This playful distant sneering was part of the fun, frankly. Ebert probably would have been flattered that he kept the conversation going.
Ebert was also much more than a populist and an intellect. He was also a jet-setter of the highest order. Actors and filmmakers (well, most of them) tended to respect him and admire him. That he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame speaks volumes to his presence in the Hollywood machine. Here was a critic – a critic! – who could mingle with those on the inside, those whom he had lambasted. Ebert famously wrote the screenplay for Russ Meyer's wholly campy and disturbing sex fest Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. No one could accuse Ebert of not having a sense of humor or an appreciation for fun-loving exploitation movies. He had a libido just like the rest of us. He also realized the appeal of his creative and enjoyable negative reviews, and published several books' worth of nothing but "Thumbs Down" reviews collected over the years. As Dave Barry once said, there are few things more satisfying than watching an otherwise composed film critic lose their cool in the face of horrible movies.
For the last number of years, he maintained a 'blog, which was a way of slowly composing a memoir. He talked about his wife, Chaz, who was the lynchpin of his empire and his emotional backbone. He talked about his struggles with alcoholism (he was in AA many years ago). He talked about his religion (he was raised Catholic and appreciated the church, but gradually more of an agnostic later in life, although he loathed any sort of labels when it came to one's beliefs). He talked about his favorite restaurants (I know what Stake & Shake is thanks to him). He talked about early moviegoing experiences. He talked about video games (he was, controversially, a vocal opponent to their artistic merits). He wrote about books (he was a voracious reader, and probably could have been a book critic as well as he could have been a film critic). Ebert wasn't just writing about movies and doling out star rankings. He was engaging us in his life. He welcomed us into his mind. He was a critic, but also a diary-keeper.
Ebert also ran a column called The Movie Answer Man, which would be devoted to general questions about cinema, and it was here that he got to spitball and theorize about the technical process of going to movies. He never sat too far forward, for instance. He opened conversations with film projectionists and movie theater workers, and tried to get the nitty-gritty technicals of film projection in real time. He didn't just respond to the movies themselves, but the details of the film-going experience. He wanted to know if projector bulbs were being tuned correctly. If sound was mixed right. He wasn't necessarily well-versed in the operation of the projection machines, but he was constantly aware of how they should operate. When the digital revolution was a mere threat to the film community back in the late 1990s, Ebert was (again, controversially) an opponent of the new digital processes, preferring old-fashioned film strips, citing their mere superiority of quality. He introduced me to a film process called MaxiVision 48, which I never got to see, but desperately wanted to, thanks to Ebert's defense. I think he imagined a future where film would remain and would continue to improve. He eventually ceded to the digital revolution (I guess we all had to, right?), but was intensely aware of picture quality. When he arranged his annual EbertFests in Chicago, he knew whom to hire, how things should be projected, and bothered to do more than just curate.
Another thing I realize I got from Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert did not just look for good movies. His goal was to discover great movies. When I graduated from my film school program in 2000, I had seen many greats, but my college was more free about assignments, and didn't bother to ensure that I see some of the gold standards. Luckily, a few years previous Ebert had started a vital and amazing written series which he called “Great Movies.” Not The Greatest Movies, ranked in any capacity, but a gathering of films that struck him as glorious and important. He was very big on the notion of emotional elevation, which is different than intellectual stimulation or mere entertainment. He wanted to feel that ineffable tingling at the base of his spine. Exhilaration. Elevation. Something grand. I find myself trying to emulate him in this regard. A good film is all well and good. A four-star film is still a four-star film. But some films seem to elevate a soul. Keep one amazed. Ebert was careful to find these films. I always loved seeing his essays regarding the famed every-ten-years Sight & Sound poll. He had no agenda. He just wanted what was great. Like we all do.
A preoccupation of mine as a film critic is the rather grim thought of what film will be my last. My love of movies is well known to my peers, and I wonder if my last will be one of my old favorites, a new film I enjoyed, or just some random flick I saw that week. I always hope that it will be something great, but I may not have control over that. There's a kind of gentle poetry, then, that Ebert's last published review, published during his life, was for The Host, the Stephenie Meyer-inspired body snatcher film. He gave it 2 ½ stars. Like all critics, Ebert was frequently asked what his favorite film was. This is an unfair question for critics, as they rarely have a single film they can point to as The Best of Them All. He even had trouble narrowing down his Sight & Sound list to a mere 10. When pressed, though, he admitted that the film he enjoys watching every time, and one that he could watch at any time, was Federico Fellini's 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita. It was a film that followed him through life, changing as he changed, always remaining vital and important and enjoyable. The title translates to “the sweet life.” And that's what Ebert had, and what he shared. He lived the sweet life.
His final 'blog entry (published only two days ago) was about taking what he called “A Leave of Presence.” It was a litany of how he was going to scale back on his regular reviewing, and only review what he wanted; the ultimate dream of any film critic; while still continuing to support several film projects. He had been ill a long time, and had lost his ability to speak, but his voice never quieted.
Roger Ebert was a hero of mine. He was the elder statesman of my profession. He was the casual film professor of the country. His absence in the film community will be enormous. Immeasurable. Tonight, watch a Great Movie. He would have wanted it that way.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.