Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013)
‘Pearl Harbor” is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle’ – now that’s how you open a movie review. So farewell Roger Ebert, perhaps the last ‘famous’ film critic, an inspiration to many whose movie lore expanded past the mainstream to the arthouse, a tireless campaigner for cinema appreciation and education. It was only when I got onto the web back in those twilight years of the 20th century that I fully appreciated his enormous position in North America as simply ‘the’ face of modern mainstream film criticism, growing up in England my movie eduction revolved around Empire Magazine, the film section of my local library, Barry Norman and the now sadly defunct phenomenon of BBC and yes even ITV film seasons, an educational resource which peaked with those precious few years of Moviedrome. As such I can’t say that I’m enormously moved by his passing on an emotional level as many of my North American colleagues seem to be, I didn’t grow up watching him on the box as my formative cinema tastes were maturing, but I can appreciate the unparalleled impact and influence he had on the movies, and some of the recollections and tributes that I’m seeing are really quite moving. As the plaudits quite rightly stroll in – this Herzog response is probably the best I’ve seen so far – I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t offer something a little more substantial than a couple of sentences and a montage tribute, so lets start with this infamous exchange of fire over what else – a Kubrick movie;
I’m at the age when I prefer to have my preconceptions challenged, not to get angry like a petulant child if someone slates a movie I love or admires a movie I hate, but to make me pause in my opinions and perhaps take a look at something from a different angle, and many of Ebert’s reviews manage that difficult feat. This may sound like damning with faint praise but when I’m throwing together one of my inferior efforts that Chicago Sun Times library is my immediate fall-back position for any links, as I can rest safely in the knowledge that even if his review isn’t positive it will at least be interesting, well written and illuminating, and hopefully make me look as if I know what the hell I’m talking about through sheer osmosis. When scathing, he could also be very funny.
By all accounts he was an upbeat and optimistic guy, even when ravaged by the cruel cancer that took him, unpretentious and modest he walked into the cinema with an optimistic mood, with no hidden agenda to settle scores or stir controversy purely as a profile raising exercise. Enormously prolific he churned out a staggering 300 reviews last year alone, even on the day of his passing no less than seven reviews sprang up on his blog, and he was renown for supporting and encouraging younger writers, taking the time to foster colleagues when he could quite easily remained aloft his perch as the worlds most famous film critic. His politics were also sound, he was a great advocate for Universal healthcare and his writing was excellent beyond the world of cinema, I was directed to this article about a London hotel a few years ago which I thought was fantastic. Unlike many critics he actually had some direct experience of writing for and the production of the movies, working with Russ Meyer no less he was the wordsmith behind the cult classic Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls;
Like any critic he had some personal favourites, he was an early champion of dismissed fare such as Grave OF The Fireflies when Japanese anime was usually dismissed as juvenile (incidentally prefiguring that sudden tsunami of affection for the likes of Studio Ghibli) as he came to every piece with no preconceptions, whether is was animated or documentary he invested the same critical facilities, neither high or low brow, taking each movie on its own, individual terms. Did he always get it right? Well no, quite famously among cinephile circles he hated Blue Velvet in 1986 but was modest enough to revisit the movie some years later and accept that he was wrong (how rare is that in a critic of any field?) and he had a strange affection for the work of Alex Proyas, particularly his choppy Dark City, I love that when someone for whatever reason has an almost unexplained connection with someones work which they can’t quite explain or vocalise, it’s one of those difficult to articulate mysteries of the relations between movie and spectator sometimes, and anyone who also defends Joe Versus The Volcano is OK in my book – here’s his top ten list, and this is oddly sweet.
So his passing marks the passing of an era, there is no-one remotely qualified to step into his shadow in terms of populist, widespread appeal, which is just another symptom of film criticism in the era of the internet I guess – I wonder if 90% of your friends and family could even name another film critic other than Barry Norman or Jonathan Ross, at least if you’re in the UK. Here’s a fine quote summarising his world view which I think is apt, this ideology ain’t a bad way to be remembered ““Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. 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.” – Amen to that, finally this was one of his favourite films of the past decade, so this seems apt to wrap things up;