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The Wonderful Roger Ebert…

If you are in anyway interested in cinema, you know Roger Ebert. You already know that Esquire have put together a profile piece on the man, and also he has written a continuation (I was going to say ‘response’, but that would imply hostility) on his own blog. Both are probably the most essential film-related reading of the week.
There’s really not too much I feel qualified to say, or that I can say that hasn’t been articulated by others far more capable than myself. I, like many others, knew about his medical history and the loss of his ability to speak, but had no idea of the extent of his illness. I think that the image of the film critic without his jaw was a surprise to almost everyone who has been reading his prolific output in recent years.

I’m not going to patronisingly categorise this as the story of a triumph over adversity. That would be trite. But it is remarkable how incredibly devoted Ebert has remained to his art (and, yes, critiquing is an art, albeit an unrecognised one), continuing to contribute and frame debates on film to a point where many were unaware of any poor health on his part. He’s embraced technology (twitter and blogging) with a tenacity that would make my Sky-Plus-totting granny envious. He has not just continued to do his job, he has continued to excel at it. He may have lost the ability to speak, but has not lost his voice.

Ebert is the patron saint of film geekery. He’s come under fire in recent years for ‘softening’ and giving movies high scores that they don’t deserve, though Transformers 2 still got a good going over – describing fans as “not sufficiently evolved”. He’s somewhat philosophically justified his change of outlook (without conceding it was a change of outlook, mind you) as a recognition of the difficulty in making films and how each one must be a labour of love for someone:

I like movies too much. I walk into the theater not in an adversarial attitude, but with hope and optimism (except for some movies, of course). I know that to get a movie made is a small miracle, that the reputations, careers and finances of the participants are on the line, and that hardly anybody sets out to make a bad movie. I do not feel comfortable posing as impossible to please. Film lovers attend different movies for different reasons, all of them valid; did I enjoy Joe vs. the Volcano more than some Oscar winners? Certainly.

In fairness, this hasn’t affected his approach to critiquing individual works, despite the abundance of stars.

But I never read Ebert for the star ratings. I couldn’t care less about the stars out of four or the marks out of ten. You’ll notice I don’t give them out, because I don’t think they’re that important. I know what I’m looking for in a film, not what you are looking for. There is no “average” film goer. Sure the consensus agrees on some films, but it splinters on a lot more. But that’s a discussion for another day. To be honest, Ebert’s ratings don’t matter to me – they are contrary, inconsistent and sometimes illogical, like all good opinions.

His words do.

He’s always seen through a film and captured its beauty or its downfall in a few simply paragraphs. Some reviews are almost personal anecdotes, others talk about a single scene or line of dialogue. He is always well-observed and informed and, even when I disagree with him, I’ll concede he has a point. That’s why he’s probably the only film critic I read almost religiously. That and the fact he’s funny. It’s tough to be funny in print.

And he loves cinema. Too many critics are obsessed with the destructive aspect of the work. Beat it down. Mock it. Prove it’s a futile and worthless waste of effort. Flaws are always glaring, while positives tend to be fleeting. There’s no doubt that Roger Ebert loves cinema and has loved cinema from his youth. There’s no politicking in his work. There’s no desire to be contrary, just to be himself. Jeffrey Wells contributed to a debate last year on what made a critic a critic, and he suggested the following:

But critics aren’t truly and finally critics unless they’re stone Catholics about movies … I’ve been swimming in these waters for 30 years now and I don’t just skim across the surface of the pond when I see and write about a film. True Catholics put on the wetsuit and dive in each and every time. They swim to the bottom and search around and can identify and quantify the various fish and algae down there, not to mention the geological assessments of silt and sand and bedrock.

I think that is true of Ebert as a writer.

This isn’t an attempt to preemptively eulogise Roger Ebert. To do so would be in poor taste. And, as he points out – while conceding that “Esquire wouldn’t have assigned an article if I were still in good health” – he isn’t dying any faster than the rest of us. In his own words:

Well, we’re all dying in increments. I don’t mind people knowing what I look like, but I don’t want them thinking I’m dying. To be fair, Chris Jones never said I was. If he took a certain elegiac tone, you know what? I might have, too. And if he structured his elements into a story arc, that’s just good writing. He wasn’t precisely an eyewitness the second night after Chaz had gone off to bed and I was streaming Radio Caroline and writing late into the night. But that’s what I did. It may be, the more interviews you’ve done, the more you appreciate a good one. I knew exactly what he started with, and I could see where he ended, and he can be proud of the piece.

Why do we need an excuse to celebrate something that is worth celebrating anyway? It’s Friday and it’s time for another round of Ebert reviews.

That’s enough to celebrate of itself.

2 Responses

  1. Read the Esquire article and Ebert’s response last week, both were absolutely fantastic. Poor guy, very insightful though.

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