Missing, and Moving Past, Roger Ebert

I love Roger Ebert and think about his reviews all the time, but he is very much a figure out of time.

by MATT STOKES | APRIL 4, 2018

In his memoir Life Itself, Roger Ebert discusses the act of remembering the moments of his life to inform the book’s writing:

All my life I’ve been visited by unexpected flashes of memory unrelated to anything taking place at the moment. These retrieved moments I consider and replace on the shelf. When I began writing this book, memories came flooding to the surface, not because of any conscious effort but simply in the process of writing. I started in a direction and the memories were waiting there, sometimes of things I hadn’t consciously thought about since. Hypnosis is said to enable us to retrieve past memories. When I write, I fall into the zone many writers, painters, musicians, athletes, and craftsmen of all sorts seem to share: In doing something I enjoy and am expert at, deliberate thought falls aside and it is all just there. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note.

I hope this is true for all of us, that our memories are nestled somewhere in there, ready to come out when we’re ready to retrieve them. I used to remember everything—or at least, I remember remembering everything—but now it seems like the only thing I have an unlimited capacity to recall is Roger Ebert’s movie reviews.​

A phantom limb in my brain urges me every Friday to check Roger Ebert’s website for his thoughts on the week’s new releases, even though he died five years ago. For cinephiles, Ebert is considered gateway drug to the world of film criticism. His writing is fun and accessible and his opinions aren’t terribly challenging. To read him is to want to ingest more film criticism, which leads you to finding the real stuff. And though this did happen with me, I never stopped reading and caring about what Ebert thought about movies, even as I came to trust his opinion less and less.

Still, over a period of several years I read Ebert’s review for every movie I had ever heard of, usually more than once. I’ve probably read more words by him than by any other author. To this day I could probably tell you within a half-star’s accuracy how he rated any title. Even though it takes me a few seconds to remember how old I am, I can instantaneously tell you that he gave the Jimmy Fallon vehicle Fever Pitch 3.5 stars out of 4 and mentioned in his review that he would have been devastated had he not seen the Illinois basketball team upset Arizona in the NCAA Tournament. And I have never seen Fever Pitch.

I never watched Siskel & Ebert on television (it was a little before my time), so unlike most Ebert fans I had no negative feelings toward Richard Roeper, the only Ebert co-host I’d ever known.I)And I feel bad for Roeper for being known first as the much-loathed replacement for an icon, and now as someone who bought fake Twitter followers. But I also didn’t watch much of Ebert on TV—I mainly cared for his reviews which, thanks to the internet, I discovered at exactly the right time. His reviews were available at the Chicago Sun Times website, but they were only archived as far back as the late ’80s. His out-of-print movie yearbooks compiled many of his reviews from before that time, so I saved up money to order them from eBay, and would devour them before placing them proudly on my bookshelf next to Video Hound’s Golden Movie Retriever and Leonard Maltin’s annual movie guides. Eventually, rogerebert.com launched and compiled every review the man had ever written.

I was not a discerning film fan. If Ebert liked a movie, I would convince myself I liked it too. Same went for when he didn’t like a movie. This made me feel uncomfortable cognitive dissonance for movies like The Usual Suspects that were part of the canon according to most critics, but only worthy of 1.5 stars to Ebert. His less-than-great assessments of The Godfather Part II and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly made me feel bad about myself for loving those pictures. I avoided seeing The Village—a movie I would have adored as a teenager—because of Ebert’s 1-star review. I remember seeing Superman Returns in 2006 without having checked Roger’s review beforehand, loving the movie, and then being devastated to learn the next day that he’d only given it 2 starsHow could I have been so wrong??

Eventually I learned to trust my own reaction more, and discovered that Ebert was quite often wrong about things. He named Crash the best film of 2005, galvanizing support for the movie that eventually led to its winning the Best Picture Oscar. On the Important Cinema Club podcast, Will Sloan said, “With Ebert, you didn’t often go to him for an against-the-grain take. You went to him for, ‘What is the official opinion of this movie?'” One of the reasons Crash bothers so many people is that Ebert’s “official opinion” was so eager to embrace the film’s exoneration of white liberals (like Ebert) from America’s racism. His review almost reads like a parody:

A black cop (Don Cheadle) is having an affair with his Latina partner (Jennifer Esposito), but never gets it straight which country she’s from. A cop (Matt Dillon) thinks a light-skinned black woman (Thandie Newton) is white. When a white producer tells a black TV director (Terrence Dashon Howard) that a black character “doesn’t sound black enough,” it never occurs to him that the director doesn’t “sound black,” either. For that matter, neither do two young black men (Larenz Tate and Ludacris), who dress and act like college students, but have a surprise for us.

People are multifaceted and can buck stereotypes: What a novel idea!II)I mean it when I say parody. Michael Scott on The Office would basically deliver the content of this review verbatim one year later. Ta-Nehisi Coates put it succinctly that, “If you’re angry about race, but not particularly interested in understanding why, you probably like Crash.” This might be unfairly damning of Ebert, who championed films by black filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton and about black characters and subjects like Hoop Dreams and the 2004 Senegalese film Moolaadé. He was a well-traveled, well-read, curious thinker who was part of a multiracial family and who was hungry to embrace new ideas and trends. Still, it’s hard to ignore how old-fashioned Ebert comes across in just about every word he ever wrote. His writing fetishizes post-war, small-town (white) America, and it often pines for a time when things seemed, to him, simpler and slower.

But that writing. It’s simple, direct, and elegant. Coming up in the world of newspapers, Ebert learned to write quickly and concisely. He got right to the point and had a knack for stumbling upon something profound and moving, and then happily moving right along. Re-reading Life Itself, I was particularly struck by a throwaway line about a fireplace at the end of a maddeningly romantic ode to his favorite hotel in London: “Fires, I decided, were a source of heat, not merely, like central heating, its presence. There must be something deep within our memory as a species that is pleased by being able to look at what is making us warm.” 

Stories by film critics like Dana Stevens and Will Leitch detail how generous Ebert was with them personally, playing instrumental roles in their lives and careers, and the generosity of his spirit was well known. His enthusiasm and warmth came across very clearly in his love for movies in general. “Roger Ebert loved movies” still sits prominently in the heading banner of his website, and it seems totally apt.

The, “Movies are magical, huh?” thing can get exhausting every year at the Oscars, but from Ebert, it’s always sincere and believable. I love his explanation (in Life Itself) for why he prefers black and white to color photography:

Color is sometimes too realistic and distracting. It projects superfluous emotional cues. It reduces actors to inhabitants of the mere world. Black and white (or, more accurately, silver and white) creates a mysterious dream state, a world of form and gesture. Most people do not agree with me. They like color and think a black-and-white film is missing something. Try this. If you have wedding photographs of your parents and grandparents, chances are your parents are in color and your grandparents are in black and white. Put the two photographs side by side and consider them honestly. Your grandparents look timeless. Your parents look goofy.

When I cared about little else besides movies, particularly black and white movies, Roger Ebert was an essential voice to have in my head. No wonder he’s so deeply dug in there.

Still, I wonder how he’d fit in the world just a few years after his death. The Me Too movement has brought about the end of many figures Ebert greatly admired and was friendly with, and his old-fashioned ideas about gender would certainly be called out for being problematic were he still writing today. He never addresses the misogyny within the movie industry in his memoir, other than to seem a little amused by it. “Oh, those old cads!”

And movie criticism has moved well past what Ebert excelled at. Ebert was willing to bring his personal politics into his reviews on occasion, but now politics is the main subject of just about any movie review. The longform essay, the fanboy dissection, and YouTube videos have all replaced the 800-word newspaper review. He made a very successful transition into blogging in the final years of his life, but I’m not sure he’d have been able to adapt with where movie criticism ultimately went. He certainly would have lamented Hollywood’s reliance on franchise-driven blockbusters aimed at teenage boys, which is now so far beyond what it was even in 2013.

But my first thought whenever I think of any movie is still, “What did Ebert say about this one?” His reviews are all there, in my head, ready to be summoned up. He’s impacted me more than any other writer. I miss him, and I wish he were still here, because, even though I’d probably disagree with him, I’d love to hear what he’d say.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

I. And I feel bad for Roeper for being known first as the much-loathed replacement for an icon, and now as someone who bought fake Twitter followers.
II. I mean it when I say parody. Michael Scott on The Office would basically deliver the content of this review verbatim one year later.