Roger Ebert : A Tribute

“If a movie is really working, you forget for two hours your Social Security number and where your car is parked. You are having a vicarious experience. You are identifying, in one way or another, with the people on the screen.”
In The Critic As Artist, Oscar Wilde argued that it was the role of the artist to impose chaos on the world and the critic’s role to assemble that chaos into order. Wilde was playing on Hegel’s theory of Thesis and Antithesis combining to form Synthesis, in which both Thesis and Antithesis play significant roles in the development of new ideas. I only bring this up because yesterday marked the passing of a truly Great (capital intended) critic, Roger Ebert. Ebert wrote for the Chicago-Sun Times and collaborated, first with Gene Siskel and later with Karl Roper, on the long-running TV series At The Movies. So much you might have heard already.
So why was he one of the greats? For some movie buffs the answer is obvious and the question hardly needs asking, but for the rest of you it requires explanation. Roger Ebert was, for many of us, the first critic we would read to ascertain if a movie was good. I don’t hold much with critics generally. Stephen Fry once remarked that if a critic was asked to explain to Saint Peter what his job was (“well, people invest their hard work, creativity and time in projects and then I come along and say things like “limpid and uninspired” or “two stars” and hurt their feelings”) he’d have a very slim chance of getting into heaven. This is true for a subset of critics – people like Brian Sewell who impose their opinions on the public under the guise of knowledge and experience. About these people I have little to say – I can only quote Hamlet’s remark to Ophelia:
“We’re oft to blame, in this ’tis too much proved
That by devotion’s visage and pious action
we do sugar o’er the devil himself”
Roger Ebert was not one of these critics. Roger Ebert loved film. He didn’t regard every colour film as inferior to black and white. He didn’t have anything against action movies. He didn’t necessarily regard Citizen Kane as the greatest movie ever made. Roger Ebert was a man in love with his genre. He was the critic par excellence of film because he wasn’t prejudiced. He would assess a movie on its own merits – neither comparing it to the “greats” nor against his own standard. He was famous for his pithy comments. About Sex & The City 2 he wrote:
[This film] is an exercise in obscenely conspicuous consumption, in which the girls appear in so many different outfits they must have been followed to the Middle East by a luggage plane. I don’t know a whole lot about fashion, but I know something about taste, and these women spend much of the movie dressed in tacky, vulgar clothing. Carrie and Samantha also display the maximum possible boobage, oblivious to Arab ideas about women’s modesty. There’s more cleavage in this film than at a pro wrestler’s wedding.”
About a guilty favourite of mine, Freddy Got Fingered, he wrote:
“This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”
Roger Ebert once reviewed a film called The Brown Bunny in the following way: “I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than The Brown Bunny.” The director of the film, Vincent Gallo responded by publicly mocking Ebert’s obesity. Roger responded with “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny.”
He was infamously scathing of family comedy North, starring Elijah Wood:
“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.”
Roger Ebert was not, unlike most people, offended by The Human Centipede : Second Sequence, a gory schlock-horror torture-porn movie. He merely commented:
“I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.”
In case you somehow get the idea Roger Ebert was a negative person, he was capable of truly great bon mots about films he loved. But these aren’t fun to report. As much as he could eulogize about the great and the good in cinema town, he was a master of put-downs and sarcastic asides. He loved movies. He wasn’t pretentious or aloof. He was prepared to enjoy crappy, populist films like Avatar and Transformers. He didn’t attack out of malice or spite. If anything, he attacked a movie only because it failed to deliver what it promised. If he was malicious about a film, it was because it had disappointed him by failing to deliver – not on his terms, but on the film’s terms. He was also capable of genuinely human ennui regarding some films that retreaded familiar territory. About Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, he wrote:
“There is a scene in this film where a character is defecated on by several people at the same time, and I dunno … I didn’t enjoy it.”
Roger Ebert will be sorely missed. I’m not the sort of guy to get all emotional about the passing of someone I didn’t know, but I’m verging now, because for years I’ve regarded him as a sort of distant friend. And so did millions more. He, like us, loved films. He loved films in a way most of us can’t – fervently, realistically, and honestly.

“Every great film should seem new every time you see it.”


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