Roger (Ebert) and Me

04Apr13

Honestly, I’ve been kind of sitting on this title and topic for a while, but as morbid as it sounds, these types of things seem to work best when seen posthumously, as is the sad case today. And it’s a good title, so I stand by it.

Like most people, I discovered Roger Ebert through his show “At the Movies” with co-host Gene Siskel. As an idiot teenager, I tried to figure out which critic I most identified with, as though one would have his pulse on my tastes, and the other was way off base. I’m a negative person that way, I suppose, so I started out keeping a mental log of what these two liked, what they didn’t, and went from there. In short, I didn’t like Roger Ebert because he seemed to be too artsy. To be fair, this was labeled at most critics and reviewers, and still is. Any time someone disagrees with your opinion on as little as ONE THING, it’s enough to get that critic’s entire life’s work thrown under the bus. 

But that’s something even Ebert himself didn’t do with movies. He would look for positive things, weigh them against the negative, and see which way the scales tipped, rather than throwing out the entire movie for one lousy element. I feel like that’s missing in the internet culture. True, movies are a tricky balance; but I feel we have devolved into a society which waits for that One Thing We Hate to emerge so we can throw up our hands and say, “I knew it! These guys suck!”

As I grew out of my idiot teenager phase and into my ongoing period of slightly less idiotic extended prepubescent, I naturally discovered that I had it wrong, and I grew to appreciate Ebert’s take on movies. Namely, he reviewed movies at the movie’s level. “Did this movie work? Did it reach its intended goal?” This makes complete sense (and can be summed up no better than in THIS CLIP, where Ebert gave a negative review to “Full Metal Jacket” in the same show where he gave “Benji the Hunted” a positive review). You cannot really compare a horror movie like “Halloween” to, say, “Terms of Endearment.” They are two different things, so it stands to reason that two different sets of rules should come along. Such thinking allowed me to broaden my own horizons and consider enjoying things at their own level. This means there’s no such thing as “guilty pleasures,” because guilt has been removed from the equation, which is nice.

But to be fair, I still think some of Ebert’s opinions are way off base. Occasionally, he just didn’t seem to get it. He was human, and no one person can (or should) like all of the “good stuff” and dislike all of the “bad stuff.” No one is infallible. The difference with someone like Roger Ebert as compared to, say, Johnathan Rosenbaum was that level of approach. It seems some critics really did come at every movie comparing it to Eisenstein and Goddard, and anything less was seen as a second class piece of crap. This was my idiotic teen thinking again, made “artistically relevant.”

Perhaps it’s that populist thinking that made Ebert a natural fit for television. Neither he nor Siskel had Hollywood good looks, but they did posses the key component for compelling storytelling and television: a relationship. They cared deeply about movies. They were passionate about their own opinions as well as the other’s (even though they acted like they didn’t; but you don’t get riled up by opinions that don’t matter).

As fate would have it, I have been indulging in the last few weeks in one of my guilty pleasures (to use a phrase I just derided), and that’s old clips of “At the Movies.” I’ll look up my favorite movies, actors and styles, the “Best of…” and “Worst of…” a certain year and just listen to two educated men attack a topic. I’ve even been watching their interviews on other talk shows, especially their appearances on “The Arsenio Hall Show” (which provides a weird level of Pointless Nostalgia). This may just be grumpy old man talk, but I feel like the Siskel and Ebert combo represents the last great debates held on television. They did often talk over each other, but it wasn’t a screaming chamber. And both of them had something to say. Maybe it’s easier to do that while discussing movies than politics.

Ebert carried that “let’s talk it out” theory well past Gene Siskel’s passing in 1999 and even after Ebert himself permanently lost his voice a few years back. He was an enthusiastic presence and shaped the way I think about movies.

I considered finishing this post with a list of “The Ones Ebert Got Wrong,” where I’d call out the old guy for completely missing the boat on a few movies. But that’s not the point. What you should read, if anything, is Ebert’s positive — yes, POSITIVE — review of “Speed 2: Cruise Control.” He gave that turd of a movie three stars, and did a great job of detailing why he would ever consider doing such a thing. I’ve always heard rumors that Ebert was on the take from studios for certain movies, and a case could probably be made for this review, given the evidence that he gave a “B” to what has been culturally deemed a “D-” movie. But the review has always stayed with me because it perfectly exemplified his approach to movies: They’re supposed to be fun.

…That being said, I always thought his 1-star review of “Wet Hot American Summer” was way off base. I would have loved to talk to him about it.

EDITED TO ADD: the more I think about it (and the more emotional I get), the more I believe that Ebert’s positive review for “Speed 2” may be the most important review he ever wrote. Here was a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, who has examined some of the greatest films in the world frame by frame multiple times, and he had to review a product so schlocky, they couldn’t even get their lead from the first film back. And yet he (presumably) went into the screening with such a positive attitude, that he withheld his prejudice and allowed himself to enjoy the movie for what it was. Just a movie. Sure it was beneath his abilities. It was beneath EVERYONE’s abilities. But he let it entertain him and in return he popped out an entertaining and enlightening review. Sometimes a chainsaw is enough.

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One Response to “Roger (Ebert) and Me”

  1. Even though it is a negative review of Wet Hot American Summer – it is cleverly written.


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