Friday, April 5, 2013

In memoriam of Roger Ebert, my first film professor

I don't remember my first encounter with Roger Ebert's work, which is fitting in a way because at least in the realms of my memory it's as if he's always existed, much like Mickey Mouse, Superman and Mr. Rogers.  It's impossible for me to remember a time when I didn't associate him (and his partner Gene Siskel) with film criticism.  That's one of the biggest reasons that the man's death yesterday at age 70 came as such a blow.

It shouldn't have been a huge shock.  Ebert had spent much of the last decade battling cancer off and on.  It cost him his jaw and his speech, but thanks to his blog, not his voice.  He'd been a prolific blogger and reviewer even since having to retire from his TV show, but just earlier this week announced that he was scaling back his workload due to a recurrence of his cancer.  It was inevitable that cancer would take him, though it was still sad to see it come so quickly.

His passing leaves an undeniable void in the world of film criticism.  It's strange to be mourning the loss of someone I never met, but his voice was so strong in everything he wrote that's it's impossible not to feel like I knew him.  I remember checking one of his Movie Companions out of the library when I was about seven or eight.  At first, I'd merely read the reviews of the films I'd seen.  For some reason it was important to me to know what he thought about Star Wars or Superman.

One detail I recall particularly well is in his review of Return of the Jedi, he singled out a small moment when the Rancor keeper mourns the loss of his beloved pet.  It was a moment I knew, but at that age, I had always felt it was played for laughs.  Roger saw it a different way, as a small moment of humanity and emotion that added a bit of texture to this space fantasy.  I'd never considered those beats from that point of view and I know it opened my eyes to seeing similar grace notes in other films.

I eventually ended up reading nearly every review in his companion books.  To this day, I'm sure there are film whose plots I know exclusively from their coverage in those books.  The thing I loved about Ebert's reviews is that he always made an effort to explain his opinion in a way that you could respect and understand his assessment, even if you disagreed with it.  A lot of critics don't take the time to do that.  The benefit of Ebert's approach is that after you read enough reviews of his, you had a pretty good understanding of the ven diagram that expressed the overlap in your tastes and his. I didn't read Ebert's reviews because I necessarily needed him to agree with me. Often I wanted to see where he and I parted ways and what I could learn from the divergence.

It's fair to say Ebert was my first film professor.  Before there was, Ebert's companions contained his Movie Glossary, which was the first place I ever saw someone point out movie "rules" (or cliches) like "Fallacy of the Talking Killer" (the instance where the bad guy merely has to pull the trigger and kill the hero, but can't resist either gloating or explaining his plan, thus giving the good guy a chance to turn the tables or get rescued by his buddy), or the observation that no chase scene in an exotic local is complete unless a fruit cart is overturned.  One odd "rule" I distinctly remember is "No good movie has ever contained a hot air balloon."  (Roger allowed that The Wizard of Oz was an exception.)  I absorbed all those "rules" and at the age of 10, vowed that when I made a movie, I'd subvert as many of those cliches as possible.  I guess time will tell on that count.

Back in the early days of letterboxed videos, it was Ebert who enlightened my nine year-old self about aspect ratios, and the fact that the black bars on the top of the screen actually meant I was seeing more of the original picture, not less.  In a 1990 essay, Ebert used the widescreen video release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the entry point into this discussion.  At the time, most people hated the black-bars at the top and bottom of their screen.  They preferred the cropped and pan-and-scan transfers even if it completely messed with the composition and meant you were no longer watching the film the way it was originally composed.

The argument that clinched it for me was when he quoted Spielberg's statements about how this argument would be inverted in the future.

"The real irony is going to come when high-def TV arrives," he said. "High-def will have a wide screen. So now, instead of black bands at the top and bottom of wide-screen movies, you'll have black bands at the left and right of the old pre-1953 movies. What will happen then? Will the same people insist on cropping the older movies from the top and bottom, to force them into wide screen? That would be great. You'd have an Astaire and Rogers musical with their feet cut off. The message is always the same: A movie should be seen in the same screen ratio in which it was filmed. Otherwise, you're missing something." 

Quite a prescient statement more than two decades ago, wasn't it?  From that time forward, I was a convert to preserving the original aspect ratio. (In fact, this argument made such an impression on me that I was nearly able to reconstruct Spielberg's quote from memory.  Only after I went to the trouble of paraphrasing it did I decide to see if the original article was out on Google. I assure you, my recall for some of my film professors' lectures isn't nearly as accurate.)

But I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up Siskel & Ebert.  There was a point in time where I tried to watch that show every week.  It's easy to forget that at that time, the internet was new enough that there weren't a multiude of online critics.  There was no Rotten Tomatoes to tell us what the mainstream critical consensus was - Siskel and Ebert WERE the critical consensus.

Often they agreed, but the real fun was when they disagreed.  They'd openly mock each other's opinions and force the other to defend their like or dislike of a film.  Gene seemed more likely to give a thumbs down if a film displeased him in any way, while Roger took a broader view.  He'd give a thumbs up to a movie that might have fallen short in some ways, but still managed to succeed on some levels.

However this usually put Roger in the position of defending a thumbs-up on a film that was of questionable quality.  Gene never let him forget that he praised Cop and a Half and Benji The Hunted.  But you know what? I liked that Roger always went with his gut.  He wasn't concerned with looking like a stuffy critic who was afraid to praise more populist films for fear of losing credibility.

That said, he wasn't above ribbing Gene for his reviews, and perhaps my favorite moment of their show was when Gene offered a half-hearted endorsement of Broken Arrow, and then allowed Roger to twist his vote from thumbs up to thumbs down.

I could spend all week linking to Ebert reviews and Siskel & Ebert clips like that.  Those were two guys who loved film and loved discussing film for a living.  Too often I feel that passion is missing from many modern reviewers, or if it's present, it's lacking the insight that Roger Ebert's writing often contained.

No one was better than Roger Ebert at reacting to a film on an emotional level, and knowing how to translate that emotional reaction into an intellectual discussion.  Indeed, he once said, Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you," but he was wise enough to know the emotion was only the beginning of criticism. Too many critics are content to proclaim "It stinks!" and just leave it at that.  Ebert's reviews could be blunt and venomous, but they were funny and well-written as well.  I always got the sense that he went to each new movie with his mind open to the reality it presented.  It never felt like he rooted for a movie to be bad, and that's why on those occasions when a film really insulted his intelligence, he could be brutal.  I do my best to live up to that example.

It saddens me that we've lost that voice, but as numerous eulogies over the last day have shown, Ebert inspired many others.  I count myself among that number.  If it weren't for Ebert's reviews and essays, this blog might be very different today.  If you don't know Ebert's work, do yourself a favor - go to his site and start reading, and then go to YouTube and start watching him argue with Gene Siskel.

I don't think we'll ever have film critics as influential as Siskel and Ebert were, and Roger's passing marks the end of an era that I'm sorry we have to leave so soon.  Farewell, Roger.  I hope a man who railed against film cliches will permit me the obvious indigence of concluding this tribute by saying, "The balcony's closed."

Chicago Sun-Times obituary for Roger Ebert

Statement from Chaz Ebert, Roger's wife


  1. Your sentiments (especially the Return of the Jedi bit) so closely resembled my own that I thought maybe just maybe you're the me that went the other way in the post-college fork in the road.

  2. A Eulogy worthy of newsprint.

  3. Yesterday was an emotional thumbs down with Mr. Ebert's passing and his loss as you eluded to BSR, will be a personal one even though many of us never had the chance to meet him. In the mid-seventies I was an avid, movie-going high school student who always watched Siskel and Ebert hosting "Sneak Previews" on PBS before deciding which movie to see that weekend. Roger was always my go to guy when determining a film's worthiness even to present day. It seemed intentional Rotten Tomatoes forced you to scroll through the other critics comments before you would get to Roger's. Maybe just a coincidence but I like to think it was savvy on their part because once you read an Ebert review everyone else's opinions were secondary.