Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert.

(I typed this on my android in the memo section, and I hate typing more than a sentence on here.  In other words, I meant business here.)  

"The way he said 'Thumbs up'."
"The way he said 'Thumbs down'."
"The way he said goodbye." - Siskel and Ebert sing on The Critic (1995)

As I read the news today and had only an hour or so to process that sad information this afternoon, that Mr. Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun times but also father, grandfather, husband, At the Movies (which ran for many many years) and, yes, writer of Russ Meyer films including Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and the un-filmed Sex Pistols satire Who Killed Bambi, had finally succumbed from cancer after many years- nay, had two days ago written his last blog post infoming us of his 'Leave of Presence' from writing reviews for a while- I had to go off to two Tribeca film festival press screenings.  It struck me as I walked to the subway to it, and en route, how if it were not for Ebert, I wouldn't even be doing this.

Ebert and his wife Chaz
Ok. Maybe a touch dramatic a statement.  But its much the same way that I think I would not be the critical thinker I was if not for George Carlin, or the studious student of cinema I am if not for Martin Scorsese or tried for daring without Luis Bunuel.  After my mother, who I count as the first formative influence on what movies to watch in becoming more well versed in cinema, Ebert was the one who informed me the most in my late teens and early 20's, and still to this day (well, full disclosure, Leonard Maltin was first, but those were capsule reviews in his video guides, I'm talking about FULL film pieces).

And forget about the TV show for a moment. That was him as a personality, albeit a powerful one (and this coming after Siskel's passing, also from untimely ill health circumstances).  The writing and the thought into articulating what made a film work, or did not, on him made an impact for me.  Even if it was for some forgettable schlock in a theater his prose was concise, from the heart, and often quite funny.  Sure he wrote 'dolls', and that thumbing-your-nose spirit (some pun intended) went into such a book of hateful reviews as 'Your Movie Sucks', directed at none other than Rob Schneider.

Laugh and the world laughs with you.  Piss Roger Ebert off, and, well, just think back
to Vincent Gallo and The Brown Bunny..
And lets face it, reading a scathing review of a movie can be fun, and not as much of a seeming 'chore' as a Great Movie Review of some obscure foreign film (I use quotes to distinguish it wasn't for me, maybe for others).  He could pick apart a film or just find the overarching problems and relay them with the same clarity and fiery spirit as his positive ones.  It wasn't simply that he got angry or depressed or driven crazy by a movie, he wanted us to feel that too.  And his words have stuck with me for years and may till the rest of my days.

As I said, past the given socio-cultural recognition of his gifts as a personality- his thumbs were TRADEMARKED for goodness sake - and that a great or negative review could carry weight for a filmmaker (maybe not AS much as Pauliene Kael in her high point, but id argue for longer) could impact a film's success at the box office, he held authority in his field simply because he studied hundreds of films a year for decades. 

Before his reviews were fully archived and available on the internet, when I was in high school, the Bergen Record, the county paper, reprinted his latest reviews every Friday.  I had the paper anyway so I could consult for my movie-going strategy for the theater schedule, and Ebert was a mentor in the sense that he had his opinions, he could convey them, but, most importantly, it forced me to confront how I viewed each and every movie, studio drek or art-house pomposity (or profound work too), what I did or did not get out of it in performances, style, camera, editing, direction, music, background on the artists involved and if that did or did not inform on the work at hand.  He forced me in the best possible way through his analysis to understand his great axiom: its not what a movie is about, it is about how the movie is about it.

Film criticism, as Jim Emerson, Eberts editor in later years and, as a further gift from Mr. Ebert, writer of the Scanner blog on his site, once or more times noted how good film criticism is partially an autobiography.  Don't just take a cold clinical look at a movie and dot a b and c.  One of the things I loved with Ebert's work was i got a full sense of who he was and that he had to bring that with him seeing a movie, so if hes seeing a Scorsese film (especially Who's That Knocking, which connected the two I think completely for life in a way) its not simply about the director'ss Catholicism but his own, or if he sees Wonder Boys (the underrated Michael Douglas writer comedy), when he says it most accurately depicts a college experience i believe him due to his love and fascination with books and writing and was a professor himself.  Or even his/Siskel's views on women-in-danger horror movies of the late 70's (look it up, it's a famous video), he's looking out for the consumer, yes, but he feels so strongly about this, and was deep down a damn committed feminist in his own right.

Or La Dolce Vita, Citizen Kane, any given Herzog movie, Apocalypse Now.  And as well for the bad films; when he professes his hatred for Rob Reiners North (and boy did he) he comes from admiring so much Reiner that came before.  Or, not to forget, his fight with alcoholism and how that may have come into play in viewing some films (Leaving Las Vegas perhaps, or Flight?).

So, when i started writing reviews, Ebert was a beacon, probably much the way Kael or James Agee or the Cashiers du cinema folks were to him and others before, for what to do in the form.  I saw that, yes, sometimes humor helps, and other times being dead serious has to be given too.  So when, for example, if Ebert writes that Battlefield Earth is "not merely bad but like riding on a bus with someone who hasn't showered in days, thoroughly unpleasant", he means it past the sarcasm.  But really, like any good hero (or as Herzog called him a warrior of cinema), what he gave by example was to be thoughtful in what you do, brave and yourself while doing it.


Like any film critic i disagreed with him at times. Sometimes to where i wondered if I saw the same film as him (Clockwork Orange, haggis' Crash, The Passion of the Christ- that one maybe is more of a personal thing) despite his arguments making sense in his context.  But more often than not i agreed with the majority of his points, and like any good movie authority (if there are or should be any) he lead me to films I might not have seen, or so quickly, unless by example- Chop Shop by Ramin Bahrani comes to mind, as does several films on his 'Great Movies' list.  and like any good experimenter he played with the format, even for films that may be seen as light entertainment (read his Muppets Take Manhattan review where its a letter to Kermit and miss piggy. No do it now i can wait...)  and in that very rare time he might walk out on a movie, such as Caligula, he'd be fair in explaining what the fuck went wrong for him.

That he kept going after his throat surgery where tragically his jaw was removed was something of a small miracle to me.  He could very well have retired then, put the thumbs up to pasture and rested comfortably on his laurels.  But he loved the medium too much, writing about it, presenting it a Ebertfest his film festival, and just getting his thoughts down in blog form.  Starting with his return, where did a fantastic great movie review for Pan's Labyrinth, not only was it like he was never gone (though his appearance and added robot voice made me cry in joy/sadness when seeing him interviewed), he was better than ever.  People who come to Ebert from now on, for the first time, may end up at his blog and more recent reviews before digging deep into his archives.  With his reputation solidified he had so much space and freedom to write about movies. Or about anything.  What an exemplar he was!

In 'All the President's Men' mode.  You're about to tell the world that 'I Spit on Your Grave'
is a piece of shit... make sure you get it right.  
So take note, you can do a lot of really, really good work in your life. You can see and write about a lot of films. Or film festivals. Or have an Answer Man column.  But if you have a chance, just a sliver of hope to go on and feel despair, Ebert, for my money, is someone to look to as 'there's the man'.

In closing I point to one other review which had a big impact for me though it was a small point- in his review of La Dolce Vita, which he counted with Kane, third man and taxi driver among his favorite films, he noted how he saw the film every ten years or so, and while he loved it more every time, he changed with it. So when he first saw it he was the wide eyed youth looking for the passion and glory Fellini put on screen. Ten years later, he was more in the thick of it, and more into drinking.  Ten more years he saw how he was lucky to get out of the craziness alive.  And another ten years, the distance oddly enough made it greater, he had matured with the film.  He spoke to the power that not only cinema can endure through time, but we can, and must, right along with it.  I hope to live to that point where the art form endures as such, as it did for Mr Ebert.

Thumbs up(TM) to you!

TOP 10 QUOTES  OF LIFE ITSELF (off the top of my research):

"We Americans like to see evil in terms of guns and crime and terrorists and drug smuggling - big, broad immoral activities. We rarely make movies about how one person can be personally cruel to another, through their deep understanding of what might hurt the other person the most."

"No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough."

"When a movie character is really working, we become that character."

(One of the quotes on my facebook page going back YEARS): ""It's not a critic's job to reflect box office 
taste. The job is to describe my reaction to a film, to account for it, and evoke it for others. The job of the 
reader is not to find his opinion applauded or seconded, but to evaluate another opinion against his own. But
you know that. We've been over that ground many times. What disturbs me is when I'm specifically told that 
I know too much about movies, have "studied" them, go into them "too deep," am always looking for things 
the average person doesn't care about, am always mentioning things like editing or cinematography, and am 
forever comparing films to other films."

"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."

"The point is not to avoid all Stupid Movies, but to avoid being a Stupid Moviegoer."

On the re-release of Pink Flamingos (1972): John Waters' 'Pink Flamingos' has been restored for its 25th anniversary revival and, with any luck at all, that means I won't have to see it again for another 25 years. If I haven't retired by then, I will. How do you review a movie like this? I am reminded of an interview I once did with a man who ran a carnival sideshow. His star was a geek, who bit off the heads of live chickens and drank their blood. 'He's the best geek in the business,' this man assured me. 'What is the difference between a good geek and a bad geek?' I asked. 'You wanna examine the chickens?'.

From his review of North (1994): I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every stupid simpering vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.

"Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you."

"Because of the rush of human knowledge, because of the digital revolution, I have a voice, and I do not need to scream."

In case you want to cry... a lot... as I'm doing now:

How about some laughs? Very awkward 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' type laughs?

 And animated! (How I first was introduced to him at 10)

Last, but not least, reviewing my favorite film of the past 30 years: