Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Roger Ebert: An Appreciation (Part 2)

with 5 comments

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.

5 Responses

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  1. Roger Ebert on “Life Aquatic”…

    …Anderson has built a wonderful set with a cutaway front wall so that we can look into all the rooms of the boat at once; it’s the same idea Jerry Lewis used in “The Ladies’ Man….”

    A folk singer performs the works of David Bowie in Portuguese, and the ship is boarded by Filipino pirates.

    “These characters involve themselves in great plot complications, which are facilitated by the design of the boat, which looks like a rust bucket on the outside but conceals innumerable luxuries, including a spa…”

    …Oliver Sacks people who just sit there on the stairs for decades, looking at you. His crew would seem slack-witted to SpongeBob…

    “I can’t recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it…”

    In Ebert’s own words…

    “So, is this the beginning?”


    February 25, 2011 at 10:29 am

  2. The Life Aquatic is one of my favorite movies of all time, although I’m the only one in the world—or at least in my house—who seems to like it.


    February 25, 2011 at 10:50 am

  3. I admire any artist who is true to themselves. For filmmakers, that means making movies which may not be popular. I think of the expense and the time gone into some of them…I just hope they get as much out of making it as I do when I see it. It’s rapture!!
    !!!!!! Heaven…


    February 25, 2011 at 10:25 pm

  4. Nice things to say about Roger. He seems like an interesting guy…I’ll check more of him out.

    He has a lot of warmth.


    February 25, 2011 at 10:36 pm

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