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Roger Ebert and the Joyful Necessity of Criticism

When I was thirteen, my best friend’s family bought a home entertainment center.  As an extra, Best Buy threw in a copy of Roger Ebert’s Video Companion, 1995 edition.  I sometimes perused the book while I was at my friend’s house.  It was a morbid curiosity, an 800-page behemoth with gaping holes in it that made it a poor reference guide.  Leonard Maltin’s movie guide was more concise and more exhaustive.  I was puzzled at why it took Ebert so many words to recommend a movie.  I was puzzled at the principles of selection: where were the Monty Python movies, and why would I want to read about Henry and June or My Favorite Year?

I found myself returning to the book repeatedly, without really knowing why.  I re-read reviews of movies I’d already seen multiple times (The Shawshank Redemption was a particular favorite).  I read reviews of movies I’d never seen and never would see – like Exit to Eden, in which Ebert included his grocery list.

It took several months for me to learn that I actually enjoyed reading the book, and it took even longer for me to figure out why.  It was not a reference guide to pick up and discard at my leisure, but a companion for silent conversations.  Talking about why certain movies were better than others seemed to extend their powers over time.  The sadness I felt when a movie I loved had to end could be lifted; good words about good films let them live on.  He seemed able to say why I liked Shawshank better than I could.  But talking about movies also had powers over and above the movies themselves.  Talking about why bad movies were bad was fun, in a way that went beyond “I hated…hated hated hated hated hated this movie” into more subtly sarcastic articulations like, “The parents have provided little North with what looks like a million-dollar house in a Frank Capra neighborhood, all on dad’s salary as a pants inspector.”  From such combinations of plot summary and judgment, I could build a miniature movie in my head, complete with my emotional reaction to it, regardless of whether or not I’d seen it.

I had already been regularly consuming film and music reviews by then, but Ebert was the first critic I ever read for the sheer pleasure of reading criticism.  Well into my high school years, I would look in the school library’s local newspaper every Friday to read his reviews.  It didn’t matter what he was reviewing or if I wanted to see it.  When he began posting his “Great Movies” series online, I devotedly awaited its new entries every month (I have distinct memories of coming home from school to check the site a day or two early, then checking again later in the day).  In college and beyond, I held fast to the pleasure of losing in the words of a critic for hours at a time (mostly Pauline Kael), flipping randomly through reviews.

As I discovered other critics and learned more about film, I became impatient with Ebert’s style.  His way of talking about movies seemed stuck in my early adolescence, prone to empty hyperbole and driven above all else to communicate large incommunicable feelings.  I came to view his work in the ways I viewed other adolescent discoveries like alternative radio and my first Kurt Vonnegut book: with a mix of sentiment and mild embarrassment.  If there is a canon of American film critics, it’s hard to articulate why or how Ebert fits into it.  For all the words he spent describing cinema’s monuments, it’s difficult to pinpoint a piece of lasting criticism he wrote.  He has no equivalent of Kael’s Bonnie and Clyde call to arms, of Manny Farber’s termite art manifesto or crystal-perfect blurb on Wavelength – or, I would argue, J. Hoberman’s manically confused awe at Southland Tales.  I resented (and still resent) his assumed place at the forefront of criticism at the expense of more observant and careful writers.  After he taught me that criticism could be more than just recommendation, I found his insights less than satisfying.  He will more likely be remembered for his business sense and brand-building savvy than for anything he wrote.

Even as a young teen I found his reviews uniformly better than his essays or special-occasion pieces.  He wrote with a journalist’s pulpy, sparse toughness.  Sometimes it worked exceptionally well, as in these clean and evocative words on Scorsese:

His camera is active, not passive.  It doesn’t regard events, it participates in them.  (“Twenty-Five Years in the Dark,”390)

Sometimes it didn’t, as in this ambitious description of a passage from Ozu’s Equinox Flower:

A room with a red teapot in the foreground.  Another view of the room.  The mother folding clothes.  A shot down a corridor with a mother crossing it at an angle, and then a daughter crossing at the back.  A reverse shot in a hallway as the arriving father is greeted by the mother and daughter.  A shot as the father leaves the frame, then the mother, then the daughter.  A shot as the mother and father enter the room, as in the background the daughter picks up the red pot and leaves the frame.  This sequence of timed movement and cutting is as perfect as any music ever written, any dance, any poem.  (“Twenty-Five Years,” 391)

This is a rare moment of detail in Ebert’s writing, and its failure is indicative.  I assume Ebert wants us to feel the way that Ozu’s cozy pauses make the mundane mingle with the infinite, but there’s zero evocation here.  Instead it’s a straight plummet from seven sentences of dry analysis into a sentence-long abyss of vagueness.  This is just where an expert critic is needed, to convey the minutiae of what makes a great thing great.  Ebert’s tastes and vocabulary are too middlebrow for the task, relying on shopworn clichés when something more daring and specific is required.  (Celebrations of him as the people’s critic or a critic for the common man strike me as disguised apologies for this, and they don’t quite describe what made Ebert stand out among the thousands of newspaper critics – as if the average local critic was not writing for the common man.)

Yet it’s no small achievement to master the journalistic form in the way that Ebert did, and he never wavered in his sincere devotion to the shopworn clichés of movies or their criticism.  Perhaps because of his comfort with universal-humanist tropes, his love for the movies remained unabashed and unironic.  Unlike more partisan critics, he never saw film history eclipse his tastes.  I continued to learn from unexpected examples that excited him.  Sublimely ridiculous movies like Knowing and Orphan are easy to enjoy.  But to shower them with straight-faced praise (to feel with such movies rather than feel above them, so to speak) is much more difficult for a hardened critic.  Ebert’s sincerity all but forced me to take both of those movies seriously (or at least more seriously), acknowledging their effectiveness even while I wanted to laugh them away.

Ebert had a gift for analyzing the minutiae of sheer effectiveness .  He excelled at the ambivalent, not-bad-but-not-great film review, usually three stars.  He celebrated the limited pleasures of modest movies like The Journey of Natty Gann, without making them feel larger than they were.  My thirteen-year-old self had adored Natty Gann, and reading Ebert’s measured praise made me feel okay about loving it — made me feel that I could love it in a smart way.  He could sniff out minor flaws that made a big difference in more ambitious movies, like the lack of pacing or discipline in The Godfather Part II (a movie I find vastly overrated, for exactly the reasons he gives).  His journalistic acumen was uniquely attuned to near-misses and small successes.  Grander critics like Kael, needing something to get worked up about, often floundered on lukewarm material.

The humility and sincerity of Ebert’s style, balanced with just enough elevated language, are probably those very qualities that led to my hours spent with his words on my best friend’s couch.  The sheer volume of words and accessibility of the sentences made the whole task seem effortless.  I came to believe something that I take as obvious now: that talking about movies is as essential to the movies as watching them.  We need to talk about them, even if we don’t always know how.  He was an ideal instructor in this method, teaching its necessity through the pleasures of articulation.  No other critic could have spoken to me at exactly that age, in exactly that way.