A few words of wisdom from Roger Ebert (1942–2013)

Roger Ebert’s death at 70 last week has prompted an astonishing number of public tributes for a critic of any kind in the U.S., let alone a film critic. But then, Ebert was no ordinary movie reviewer. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism in 1975, even before he became a veritable household name thanks to his weekly TV show with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, At the Movies (a.k.a. Sneak Previews).

The show was many people’s introduction to film criticism, even if it drove other critics crazy with the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” verdicts that Siskel and Ebert rendered at the end of each show. Ebert became a trusted source for mainstream audiences the way Pauline Kael had been for the cognoscenti, and I would bet that the flood of tributes over the past few days stems from the fact that people associated Ebert with a love of movies, both his and theirs — with the pleasure that movies engender, in other words.

Between his syndicated reviews, numerous books (which, if I remember correctly, even turned up for sale in some Blockbuster Video outlets during the 1990s — talk about mainstream friendly) and TV appearances, Ebert was so ubiquitous that it was easy to take him for granted, or caricature him. Add in his avuncular manner, and some younger critics couldn’t resist taking the bait, pillorying Ebert as the definition of middlebrow mediocrity.

Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert, 1970. It's funny how much Russ Meyer looks exactly how I'd expect him to. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But that doesn’t do justice to his film criticism. In my job as a Movie Analyst, I’ve often been inspired to seek out reviews for the older and/or more obscure movies I get assigned. I quickly discovered that the reviews on Roger Ebert’s site, which go all the way back to 1970 or so, are invariably astute, and free of cynicism. (Which is unusual for someone who reviewed movies for so many decades; even the best critics can burn out after 10 years in the trenches.) As befits a critic who worked for large-circulation daily newspapers, Ebert never wrote about movies as if he were trying to show off, nor did he pander or condescend to mainstream readers.

And — most invaluable for any critic, of course — he had a reliable B.S. detector. In his review of Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell (2004), Ebert wrote,

“No doubt the truth can be unpleasant, but I am not sure that unpleasantness is the same as truth.”

A simple formulation, but it nails not only what’s most exasperating about the Breillat movie, but about indie film’s fixation on a facile notion of transgression, period.

The uniquely arid Anatomy of Hell is a special case, because like much of Breillat’s work the movie hails from a land of pure theory, with little connection to the real world. If there’s one line of film criticism I’ll always be grateful to Ebert for, it’s this succinct takedown of Anatomy of Hell: “[The film] plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians.”

Did Manny Farber ever co-write something like this, I ask you.

And lest we forget, apart from popularizing the very idea of film criticism in the U.S., Ebert also co-wrote Russ Meyer’s infamous camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Just creating Z-Man (Z-Man!) and penning such lines as “It’s my happening and it freaks me out!” would probably entitle him to some kind of cinema immortality.

Ebert’s last movie review was for Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, opening this weekend; I’m glad it was a Terrence Malick movie and not, say, G.I. Joe: Retaliation. You can read the review here.

A German poster for BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Not a movie that was popular with the nascent feminist movement in 1970.

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