The Enthusiast: On Roger Ebert

Roger EbertIn 2010, at the age of 67, Roger Ebert reviewed The Human Centipede (First Sequence) — a horror flick that seems to exist primarily to make viewers vomit. As a professional movie critic for more than four decades, Ebert could have been forgiven for skipping it altogether. Curt dismissal was another perfectly reasonable option.

A charitable senior-citizen writer might have picked the movie apart on moral, narrative, or aesthetic grounds, or used it as a launching point for a screed against the depravity of contemporary culture or the torture-porn genre.

But Ebert turned in a no-star-rating review that begins with an earnest rumination on the path to mortality: “It’s not death itself that’s so bad. It’s what you might have to go through to get there.” And he says that within the writer/director, Tom Six, “there stirs the soul of a dark artist.”

Ebert was interested in the movie, curious about its method and meaning. Ultimately, he didn’t interpret or judge it — “It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine” — but it’s clear he thought this film that most people would find inherently repulsive or worthless deserved consideration.

And then there’s his marginally positive 1981 review of Tarzan, the Ape Man, in which Ebert is nakedly smitten with Bo Derek: “The Tarzan-Jane scenes strike a blow for noble savages, for innocent lust, for animal magnetism, and, indeed, for softcore porn, which is ever so much sexier than the hardcore variety. If you do not agree with me, you will probably think Bo’s banana scene is ridiculous. I prefer to think it was inevitable.”

I’m starting with these admittedly odd examples to remember Roger Ebert — who died on April 4 at age 70 — because I think they’re true. They reveal the man and the critic in a way that gets past the vagueness and overreaching of many obituaries and appreciations of him.

His generosity and his inspiration are self-evident from the tributes. He was already an icon when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, but the public, open way he dealt with his health problems over the past 11 years turned him into something even greater. He became, simply, a model of how to live and work in opposition to life’s shit. At Slate.com, Dana Stevens — in a touch over 1,000 words — uses a handful of perfect details and quotes to expertly sketch his exemplary attitude. She closes with a withering, precise Ebert put-down of Gene Siskel that is also a stunningly forceful exhortation: “You are parsimonious with your enjoyment, parceling it out as if you are afraid you will prematurely expend your lifetime share.”

It’s of course safe to say that there would be far fewer film fans and writers about the movies without him, both through direct contact and his example. You can get a sense of the breadth and depth of his influence here. (The proudest moment in my 25-year career as a professional writer, incidentally, was having something I wrote quoted in his Answer Man column in 2008.)

With his television sparring partner Siskel, Ebert became the ultimate name-brand critic, and his celebrity raised the ceiling for what it could mean to be a movie journalist — with the right chops and breaks. Let’s be honest: Despite his 1975 Pulitzer Prize and his considerable skills as an arbiter, writer, and debater, what distinguished Ebert first and foremost was his unlikely status: a smart but largely ordinary guy from central Illinois who became as famous as the movie stars he wrote about ... while working in the newspaper business.

He used his position as a force for good, and the film world is inarguably richer because of it. Werner Herzog, whose work Ebert ceaselessly championed, said: “He was the last mammoth alive. The last one who created excitement about movies, and intelligent discourse about movies.”

Errol Morris told NPR’s All Things Considered that he might owe his career to Ebert: “Here I had someone writing about my work who was a true enthusiast. His enthusiasm has kept me going over the years, and the memory of his enthusiasm will keep me going for as long as I make movies.”

Morris articulates the essential character of Ebert as a critic, with the perfect word: enthusiast. Even disfigured by cancer and unable to talk or eat, his love of movies (and life, and work) never flagged. In 2012, he wrote more than 300 reviews, and his list of favorites showed no signs of fatigue. (Argo topped the list, “because it is above all else a movie — pure, strong, and sound.”)

One of Ebert’s executive producers for television, Thea Flaum, hit on another key reason Ebert had such a large impact on his viewers, his readers, filmmakers, and those he led into arts criticism: “What Roger brought ... was a very clear vision of what he was trying to communicate to viewers. ... And that’s an enormous strength — maybe it’s the essence of what a great critic really is, and I think that’s what made the show fly.”

His prose was not generally dense or artful, but that’s a function of being a prolific writer for a daily newspaper — a career that started at age 16. (“To be hired as a real writer at a real newspaper was such good fortune that I could scarcely sleep,” Ebert wrote in his 2011 memoir Life Itself.) It’s also critical for that clarity of communication; the words aren’t coy, obscuring intent or meaning. He struck a tone that was conversational and straightforward but also informed and impassioned; the language was rarely showy but by no means dull or dumb.

And when Ebert hated something, his wit often shone. He writes that the “surprising” plot developments of The Life of David Gale “must remain unrevealed by me, so that you can be offended by them yourself.” With Hellraiser, he turns what threatens to be a movie-ad blurb into a classic barb: “This is one of those movies you sit through with mounting dread, as the fear grows inside of you that it will indeed turn out to be feature length.”

But he was at his best as an advocate. In 1996, Ebert began his “Great Movies” series (which has been collected in three books), and it represents his tangible, lasting contribution to film criticism.

Freed from deadlines and traditional-review word counts — and with the benefit of digestion and perspective that only years can provide — these essays are essential reading. That is not to say they always unlock or explain their subjects; often, they simply but incisively capture the magic of the movies.

His piece on Citizen Kane, for example, takes an agnostic view of the film, its main character, and its famous “Rosebud” reveal: “True, it explains nothing, but it is remarkably satisfactory as a demonstration that nothing can be explained. ... I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have found, I believe, pretty much everything that there is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery.”

On The Godfather, he latches onto a simple storytelling conceit to help us understand why the movie is held in such warm regard despite its subject matter and people. The film “is told entirely within a closed world. That’s why we sympathize with characters who are essentially evil. ... We see not a single actual civilian victim of organized crime. No women trapped into prostitution. No lives wrecked by gambling. No victims of theft, fraud, or protection rackets.”

That, too, can be said about The Godfather Part II, which Ebert famously gave only three stars in 1974 — and that rating feels awfully generous given the cool tone of the review. The movie, he wrote then, “moves both forward and backward in time from the events in The Godfather, in an attempt to resolve our feelings about the Corleones. In doing so, it provides for itself a structural weakness from which the film never recovers, but it does something even more disappointing: It reveals a certain simplicity in Coppola’s notions of motivation and characterization that wasn’t there in the elegant masterpiece of his earlier film.”

Ebert nonetheless included it in his “Great Movies” series in 2008, focusing on the music but not backing down from his original review: “I ... would not change a word.” But Part II “must be seen as a piece with the unqualified greatness of The Godfather,” he writes in his re-evaluation of the first sequel. “The two can hardly be considered apart ... .” He then offers a great backhanded compliment alluding to Part II’s status as a sacred cinematic text: “No doubt not all of the gospels are equally ‘good,’ but we would not do without any of them.”

He tried to bring the movies to audiences — a tricky task for a general-audience critic that Ebert managed fantastically well; it requires understanding the mechanics of the movies and then conveying them to a lay audience without getting mired in technique or losing sight of the shape and texture of a picture. It’s a simplistic example, but he fashions his piece on E.T. as a letter to the four- and seven-year-olds he had most recently watched it with, highlighting a question about “E.T.’s vision” asked by the older child. “The whole movie is based on what moviemakers call point of view. ... ,” he writes. “We’re usually looking at things through a child’s eye — or an alien’s.” He concludes: “I was proud of how brave you both were during your first pony rides. And proud of what good movie critics you are, too.”

Ebert is direct in dismissing complaints about JFK’s accuracy, relating a story about a “tongue-lashing” he received from Walter Cronkite and using it to explore what movies do best: “He wants facts. I want moods, tones, fears, imaginings, whims, speculations, nightmares. As a general principle, I believe films are the wrong medium for fact. Fact belongs in print. Films are about emotions.”

Fundamentally, this is an argument to consider the movie on its own terms, not as a theory to be tested against history: “Oliver Stone ... is a filmmaker of feverish energy and limitless technical skills, able to assemble a bewildering array of facts and fancies and compose them into a film without getting bogged down. His secret is that he doesn’t intend us to remember all his pieces and fit them together and arrive at logical conclusions. His film is not about the case assembled by his hero, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison ... . It is about Garrison’s obsession.”

“Great Movies,” as expected, includes a lot of canonical films — especially in the first volume. The second volume, with so many classics crossed off, finds room for A Christmas Story, a Bond, This Is Spinal Tap, Moonstruck, and Saturday Night Fever — personal choices that make for a far more idiosyncratic and interesting collection.

In a similar vein is his film festival, started in 1999. (We attended in 2004.) While most high-profile festivals are designed to generate buzz and find the next hot property, Ebertfest takes place at an old theatre in the critic’s hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and spotlights overlooked and under-seen movies that he loved — followed by conversations with the artists who made them. It is not a film festival merely presented or hosted by Roger Ebert or his brand; his fingerprints are all over it.

In his introduction to The Great Movies III, Ebert gives a simple criterion for inclusion in his series, and you could easily apply the words to his festival: “There are great films in my books, and films that are not great, but there is no film here to which I didn’t respond strongly.”

And he makes the case for movies as refuges: “In a sense, a movie is a place for me. I go there. Just as I return time and time again to London, I return to Fitzcarraldo, Dark City, Late Spring, and Bergman’s trilogy Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, and Winter Light.”

Ebert’s body of work, then, might be called a travelogue. A vast majority of it is first impressions of places visited only briefly, written about with an expert’s eye and thoughtfulness but still largely fleeting and thin. That’s the daily-newspaper movie critic’s job, of course.

But late in his life with “Great Movies,” Ebert became more than a critic and more than one of the famous Thumbs Up guys. He followed his own instruction from that introduction: “The way to know more about anything is to deepen your experience of it.”

And, most importantly, he shared his experience.

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