Writer Spotlight: Roger Ebert

I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn’t have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some “work” and others never could. He can urge you toward older movies to expand your context for newer ones. He can examine how movies touch upon individual lives, and can be healing, or damaging…. He can argue that you will have a better time at a better movie.

– Roger Ebert, “Critic” is a Four Letter Word

If the dailies are to be believed, studios are running scared from Rotten Tomatoes.  It’s a site that aggregates critical opinions on a movie, assigns a “fresh” or “rotten” number, and tallies up that sample to come at an opinion over whether it’s worth your time to see a movie or not.  This simple binary system has received a lot of criticisms.  Where’s the nuance that factors in whether a critic’s “fresh” rating indicates whether a movie was merely passable or whether it was an instant classic?  Can such a small sample size of crotchety critics ever truly reflect whether or not the general audience could truly find a movie worthwhile?

There was once a time, though, when the same size was two, and all nuance was boiled down to whether one or both of those critics raised their thumbs in approval or not.

Back in 1975, a PBS station in Chicago had a crazy idea.  What if we got movie critics from rival newspapers in the same room to talk about the exact same movie and yell at each other a lot.  And maybe kill each other?  (I think that was implied.) Arriving from the stuffy and austere Chicago Tribune was Gene Siskel, a former miliary journalist and public affairs officer.  An hailing from the populist Chicago Sun-Times was Roger Ebert, who held a Master’s in English and was the first ever movie reviewer to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.  The partnership on TV shows Sneak Previews and At the Movies would be legendary.

Hey, did you know he wrote a screenplay for an X-rated movie, too?  Nowadays you’ll probably find this pertinent information by following a link titled “You won’t BELIEVE that Roger Ebert wrote this!”  His job as a screenwriter on the Russ Meyer film Beyond the Valley of The Dolls often gets trotted out whenever Ebert is talked about.  Often it’s used to discredit his opinion.  After all, if he wrote such trash, why would he dare to judge whether other people have made a good movie or not?  It counts for a lot, actually.  Because, while you and I can also criticize a movie, Ebert has experience working on one.

For his part, Ebert didn’t shy from talking about his contributions.  He seemed to relish it:

We wrote the screenplay in six weeks flat, laughing maniacally from time to time, and then the movie was made. Whatever its faults or virtues, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is an original — a satire of Hollywood conventions, genres, situations, dialogue, characters and success formulas, heavily overlaid with such shocking violence that some critics didn’t know whether the movie “knew” it was a comedy.

I probably would have never read Ebert’s movie reviews if it wasn’t for the internet.  When I was in college in the mid-90’s, internet was new.  For the first time, you could read columns from writers who were the ones at your local newspaper.  Thanks to the shows (which I rarely watched), Ebert had a reputation.  His reviews would naturally be among the first things I would seek out… more because I was a fan of opinion pieces, and movie reviews were nothing more than opinion pieces about movies.  As fellow fans of pop culture opinion pieces and hot takes, I think you’d all agree with me that basically nothing has changed.

That when I discovered that this Roger Ebert could freakin’ write.

Take his review for Looney Tunes: Back In Action, for example, where he tells a story about how he lifted a Daffy Duck mug from Albert Brooks.

Brooks took the Daffy Duck mug from the shelf.

“Here, take it,” he said. “I want you to have it. Really.”

I could tell from the subtle intonation in his voice exactly what had happened. He had given me Elmer Fudd because he didn’t like Elmer Fudd, either. He liked Daffy Duck. I had taken his favorite mug.

“No, you keep Daffy,” I said. “I’ll bet it’s your favorite.”

“Come on, come on,” he said. “Take Daffy Duck. Take the one you want.”

I tried to put Daffy back on the shelf. He pressed Daffy into my hands. I left with Daffy, but I would have bet a hundred bucks that the moment I was out of his office, Brooks had his secretary call Warners to see if they could send another Daffy Duck over.

That’s all to say that he loves Daffy so very much.  The highly entertaining anecdote gives you some insight into Ebert’s personality, which let’s you understand how he could give Looney Tunes: Back In Action three stars out of four.  A movie that apparently very few liked.  Hell, even director Joe Dante didn’t like it.  But to know the critic is to know why he came to the conclusions that he did.  The great innovation that Ebert introduced to criticism was exploring the “why”.

Why did a movie stick with you?

Why did it make you fly into a rage so fiery that you had to type two thousands words or so to tell everyone that no one under any circumstances should see this movie?

It was a way of reviewing that was so weird and strange in the typically matter-of-fact world of film reviewing, where content was often regulated to a few short paragraphs in the “Arts & Culture” section (e.g. the Leonard Maltin way).  Either that, or, as CNN points out, they were seen as “as fastidious bullies, often packing European accents and high-end vocabularies, with nothing but bad will to deliver to anything they saw or heard.”

Ebert’s style would prove to be highly influential in the burgeoning world of internet critics (of which I was a part of).  If you’ve ever run across a lengthy review where the writer spends way too long about their personal life before getting to the point over whether they thought a movie was worth your time or not… Ebert’s to blame.

Also legendary: the way he ripped apart a movie.  Those were the best from the standpoint of pure amusement.  He published three books collecting his lowest reviewed movies: I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, Your Movie Sucks, and A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length.  Let’s take a look at that infamous review of North, perhaps the gold standard for Ebert tirades:

I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid 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.

Or perhaps this priceless bon-mot in his review of Beyond the Poseidon Adventure:

But what did we really, sincerely, expect anyway, from a movie in which Karl Malden plays a character named ‘Wilbur,’ and Slim Pickens plays a character named ‘Tex’? If you can think of a single line of dialog that Slim Pickens, as ‘Tex,’ wouldn’t say in “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure,” please do not miss this movie, which will be filled with amazements and startling revelations.

I would go to the Chicago Sun Times site, filter reviews that ranged from zero stars to one, and read these reviews just for entertainment value.  The insults were cutting, creative, and yet strangely classy, as if your much smarter and more cultured friend was tapping into his deep knowledge reserves to come up with new put-downs.

I feel like a lot of internet fans of Ebert take all the wrong lessons away from him.  They focus on the deeply personal aspects and mix up critical analysis with far too personal LiveJournal entries.  or they latch onto the negativity and launch screed after screed ripping apart bad movies just so they can launch insults under the protective guise of merely just writing a review.

But most of the time, they’re missing an ineffable something.  Perhaps it’s thoughtfulness?  In 2007, Forbes named Roger Ebert as America’s Top Pundit, citing that he “is viewed by the public as intelligent, experienced and articulate.” (Pretty good for a guy who once reviewed a movie as Garfield the cat!) Now, even factoring in such scary sounding qualifiers as “the most influence by appealing to those most sought after by advertisers”, can you name any other movie reviewer who would even come close to approaching that status?  A movie reviewer!  The most powerful pundit in America!  Amazingly, Ebert gained the trust of his readers even when they didn’t agree with him on his conclusions.

I think more than the personal anecdotes, more than the wordplay, more than the clever and witty take-downs, Ebert’s writing benefited most from his confidence.  A confidence that he knew what he liked.  Confidence that what he was watching was either transcendent or a piece of junk.  If you backed him against the wall and asked him to defend his position, he could do so articulately.

And what’s more important that being confident in knowing why you came to that opinion?  In Ebert’s words:

It is not important to be “right” or “wrong.”  It is important to know why you hold an opinion, understand how it emerged from the universe of all your opinions, and help others to form their own opinions. There is no correct answer. There is simply the correct process. “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

Would Ebert ever admit that he was ever wrong about video games not being art?  Possibly.  But you would have to follow the process to lay out your opinions and defend your points.  it’s not enough to hurl invective and say no one should ever listen to Ebert because he wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  But hey, that’s online discourse these days.

Which I why I don’t think that Ebert’s writing would ever truly hold up in our current society, one which ranks thoughtful analysis below poorly constructed 140-character retorts and unsupported hot takes.  I discovered Ebert back in the day when you were so confident of his intelligent opinion that you could read a review, see his points laid out before you, and determine for yourself whether you agreed with him or not.

Nowadays, we don’t even see the points.  We only see the number.

We want people to shut up and tell us what to think.