Friday, April 5, 2013

On Roger Ebert

Anyone who has decided to do reviews over the past 40+ years, whether for a living or for personal edification, has done so in the shadow of a giant.  That wasn't a fat joke about Roger Ebert but rather a trite metaphor for just how influential, respected and talented a critic and writer he was.  There have been and still are a lot of great critics and film reviewers out there, but few of them have the open-mindedness that Ebert did.  With most critics, after a time, you begin to understand their prejudices and their biases.  Not to say that Ebert did not have any, but Ebert was able to process film outside of his own preconceptions, able to assess film against any measure of criteria (against standards of filmmaking, against other films of their kind, against his own values and morals, against the social/political/technological landscape, etc) as such he could appreciate any genre equally.  If he had a bias towards any type of film, it was never apparent.

Roger Ebert was the prototype for the cinephile, the uber-film fan who thinks about film constantly, from all different approaches, from the technology in making a film to the technology in projecting a film, to the people that make them and the people that watch them.  He'd long been engaged in bringing film into social conversation, through "At The Movies" with Gene Siskel to his newspaper columns like "Ask The Answer Man".  Long before the internet, Roger Ebert wanted people to discuss film and film culture writ large.  In fact, Ebert was integral to the establishment of film culture.  He didn't care about celebrity, he cared about performance.  It didn't matter how famous someone was, all that mattered was how they fared in the roles they were playing.  If a personality were so pervasive outside of the cinema that it influenced the experience of watching them perform, you can bet he would comment on it.  He didn't care about box office, so much as he cared about how the masses were responding to a film, though he could often tell when a film he didn't like was going to connect with the general public, and he was often disappointed when a film he loved was ignored (Ebertfest was just one of his small ways of trying to give exposure to his favourite movies).

One got the sense that Ebert would watch any film (and do so objectively), so long as it was in theatres (he didn't delve so much into direct-to-video or made-for-TV movies... he had to cut things off somewhere in his hundreds of reviews per year).  One also got the sense Ebert loved the experience of film and the cinema, the escapism of it no matter what the subject matter.  As such, a horror film could be as beloved to him as a western, a period drama as much as a futuristic sci-fi.  He had geek leanings, a strong dabbling in comic book culture as a youth, and an understanding of cultural movements of the 20th Century, which would inform his reviews when necessary, but there wasn't anything in Ebert's knowledge base that one could point to as a trademark skew.  He may have tired of trends but he still gave each film an honest and earnest shot at currying his favor.

Reading thousands of his reviews over the decades, Ebert came off as intelligent,but not an intellectual.  He wasn't showy or pedantic (unless it was to make a point, or for comedic intent) in his reviews, he wanted his dialogue on film to be shared with everyone, from pre-teens to 80-year-olds.  But his reviews were so often illuminating, not just about the film at hand, but about film in general, or society at the time, or the nature of people.  He had insight and was thoughtful about the human condition, as well he also liked the explorations of surreal and supernatural concepts.  Whenever a film could engage and provide an experience all its own, pull you out of your body and make you feel like you were somewhere else, Ebert loved that.  Conversely, he hated films that made you painfully aware that you were in a theatre, mainly by not engaging or deterring you so much from engaging with the screen.  He also hated 3-D, and not just cynically, but with logic and thought and armed with an understanding of the technology and how it, by and large, did not enhance the cinematic experience (again 3-D so often reminds you that you have glasses on your face and that you're watching a movie in the theatre... 3-D calls attention to itself more often than it serves any storytelling purpose).

The bane of Roger Ebert's existence (yet, I bet, a secret delight) was the star-rating system.  The star rating is used as shorthand by people to judge someone's reaction to a film, more over judging the quality of a film based solely on a few little dots (or absence thereof).  But Ebert would hope (and implore) that people read his review, and not take the star-rating on its own.  He's given 3-star ratings to films he didn't really like all that much, and 1 and a half star ratings to films he quite enjoyed.  It's the words he wrote that were important.  I like to think that  Ebert used the stars as his own way to keep track and remind himself of the best and the worst of what he'd seen, and oh how he delighted in writing a no-star or half-star review.  I think he liked writing about the bombs and the most provocative of cinema almost as much as he does about the best it has to offer.  Of course, he would continue to write and discuss the best whereas the worst were generally reviewed and then done with.

Every Roger Ebert review was worth reading.  The man had a way with words.  Even his worst reviews were on par with the best of the best.  He also had a killer sense of humour, something too many critics lack.  Ebert loved films, but realized you didn't always have to take them so seriously... it's primarily entertainment after all.  I laughed out loud often at an Ebert review, there aren't many other reviewers out there whose wit is as finely honed as his was.

I didn't always agree with Roger Ebert's assessment of films.  I'd say half the time I was in league with what he was thinking, and maybe a quarter of the time I was diametrically opposed to his position on a film.  But what I could always trust from a Roger Ebert review is that it would be well thought out, and there would be no question as to why or how he came feel about a film the way he did.

I took lesson from Roger Ebert constantly.  He was a faraway, secret mentor.  I'm not even a half a percent as good a reviewer as he is, but from him I will continue to learn.  There are thousands of his reviews I haven't read, and rereading his reviews and commentary archives proves just as rewarding.

Late in his life, cancer took Roger's physical voice, and at 70, his life.  But he left behind a legacy of words, a written voice that will live on.  His reviews for the many films he did see in his lifetime will continue to be the go-to resource for critical thought.  For the films he won't ever see, we're all the less for not having his insight.

Roger Ebert passed away April 4, 2013.
You're a legend Rog.  I miss you already.