Roger Ebert: An Appreciation (Part 2)
As I mentioned yesterday, no other writer has influenced the way I watch the movies as much as Roger Ebert. When I write about film, or indeed about much of anything, I’m really channeling three distinct voices: Ebert, Pauline Kael, and David Thomson. Kael is the voice of enthusiasm, a reckless love of being alone in the dark; Thomson, of irony, perversity, and a sense of how strange the experience of moviegoing really is; but Ebert provides the indispensable foundation, a kind of practical common sense about how movies really work. Unlike Kael, who could afford to be selective, and Thomson, who is more of a curmudgeon than a regular critic, Ebert is a real journalist, perhaps the last of the greats. Aside from breaks for health reasons, he’s written about essentially every movie to come out in Chicago over the past five decades, and many others besides—and on deadline. It’s no surprise, then, that his body of work is both so rich and so gloriously makeshift, with an underlying pragmatism embodied in Ebert’s Law:
A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.
In other words, no genre or subject can be dismissed out of hand. A film deserves to be judged according to its own intentions, which is why Major Payne and The Godfather Part II both get three stars, and why a critic who sees ten or more movies a week needs to keep an open mind. Yet too much objectivity is also a mistake. All decent criticism is written in the first person—it’s the closest most of us can get to honest autobiography—and at its best, Ebert’s body of work is like a lunchtime conversation with a man I’ve come to think of as a friend. Perhaps because of his television shows and public appearances, I feel that know Ebert in a way that I don’t know Kael or Thomson, much less Manohla Dargis. Ebert flourished at a time when a critic could still be a colossus, as well as a companion. (I still remember where I was when I learned that Gene Siskel had died.)
In the end, though, Ebert deserves to speak for himself. My own favorite Ebert review is probably that of the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, a nominally positive three-star review which, when combined with second thoughts and a trip to Cannes, resulted in an unusual amount of introspection. I also like the snapshot of his life that we get in his review of Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy—and can there be any greater proof of how these reviews keep otherwise forgotten movies alive? A few more favorites, plucked essentially at random, include Infra-Man, The Life Aquatic, and, moving down the list, Big Foot and Basic Instinct 2. And there are thousands more, on movies good, bad, and consigned to oblivion. It’s as rich a body of work as any living writer can claim. And it changed my life.