Παρασκευή, 5 Απριλίου 2013

In Memoriam: Roger Ebert


They do look alike.The
late Roger Ebert's writing would have left a mark if he had never
gone on television in his life, but it was his TV show with Gene
Siskel that made him a celebrity. You wouldn't have expected that
from their
first show together
: two writers droning on, not always sure
where exactly they should be looking, with no excitement beyond the
possibility that Siskel's 'stache will start eating his face. But
it wasn't long before they perfected the bickering-brothers dynamic
that made their show more entertaining than at least 60% of the
movies they reviewed. Instead of suppressing their offscreen
rivalry, which is on display in various outtakes
floating around the Web, they channeled it into arguments about
movies; and made those arguments meaningful by actually giving a
damn about the pictures they were rating. They also had a healthy
sense of self-aware humor about their personas, as their inevitably
entertaining guest spots on
Letterman and other shows proved. The act could be
imitated but it could never be equaled, as countless other programs
-- including, eventually, Ebert & Roeper -- would
learn.


Siskel & Ebert & LovitzBut if the TV show ensured that Roger Ebert was
famous while he was alive, it's his writing for newspapers and the
Web that should ensure he'll be remembered long after he's dead.
For one thing, he was an exceptional stylist. I might disagree
strenuously with Ebert's opinion about a movie; I might bristle at
a factual flub or two about the plot; but I was almost always awed
at his prose, which was thoughtful, graceful, funny, and
accessible. He didn't just write about movies: He had been a
sportswriter early on, and an interview he did for his college
paper with the left-libertarian author Paul Goodman was good enough
to get reprinted in
one of Goodman's books
. (He invoked Goodman in at least one of
his reviews too -- a thumbs-up
take
on Paul Schrader's underappreciated Blue Collar
-- and there was a time when I had hopes that underneath it all
Ebert was some sort of anarchist. Alas, when he unleashed his
political-pundit side late in life he turned out to be a
standard-issue liberal.) In the last few years he wrote many
wonderful memoirs for his website, and then a much-admired
autobiography
. But of course it was his movie writing that
defined him, and it was here that he made his other great
contribution to American culture.


Ebert, you see, didn't care about those old
highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow distinctions that occupied so many
debates about criticism in the middle of the 20th century. If you
were interested in learning about cinema as a high art, he could be
your gateway to the greats, writing capably about Bergman and
Welles and Kurosawa and other filmmaking giants. (I'm pretty sure I
first heard of Fassbinder in a Roger Ebert essay. Or, at least,
that essay was the first time I wanted to run out and rent a
Fassbinder movie right away
.) On the other hand, if you wanted
to know if the latest spy flick was exciting or if the new Mel
Brooks movie was likely to make you laugh, Ebert was perfectly
capable of waxing enthusiastic about those kinds of films too. It's
not that he liked everything, you understand. (Check out his

evisceration
of Priest.) It's that he was
capable of liking everything, or at least everything that
was done well. Even when he joined in the chorus denouncing the
slasher genre in the '80s, -- he had to confess that yes, he
was the guy who gave three and a half stars to
Last House on the Left
.


Rest in peace.And that
leads us to what may be my all-time favorite Roger Ebert review: a

joyful little essay
about the pleasures to be found in even the
most indefensibly trashy pictures. The subject is a
blink-and-you'll-miss-it release called Rapa Nui. I've
never seen it, and I don't think I even would have heard of it if I
hadn't read Ebert's review. He gives it just two stars, and much of
the piece consists of a litany of everything ridiculous about the
picture. But then he says this at the end:


Concern for my reputation prevents me from recommending
this movie. I wish I had more nerve. I wish I could simply write,
"Look, of course it's one of the worst movies ever made. But it has
hilarious dialogue, a weirdo action climax, a bizarre explanation
for the faces of Easter Island, and dozens if not hundreds of
wonderful bare breasts." I am however a responsible film critic and
must conclude that "Rapa Nui" is a bad film. If you want to see it
anyway, of course, that's strictly your concern. I think I may
check it out again myself.

My head can't bring itself to believe in an afterlife. But my
heart hopes that Ebert gets another chance to see it.

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