Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gene Siskel

The list of a lifetime

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I miss Roger Ebert for a lot of reasons, but I always loved how fully he occupied the role of the celebrity critic while expanding it into something more. “Two thumbs up” has become a way of dismissing an entire category of film criticism, and Ebert was as responsible for its rise as anyone else, although he can hardly be blamed for his imitators. Yet he wouldn’t have been nearly as good at it—and he was damned good, especially when paired with Gene Siskel—if it hadn’t been built on a foundation of shrewdness, taste, and common sense that came through in every print review he wrote. He knew that a rating system was necessary, if only to give shape to his discussions with Gene, but he was also aware of its limitations. (For proof, you need only turn to his classic review of the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, which transforms, unexpectedly, into an extended essay on the absurdity of reconciling a thoughtful approach to criticism with “that vertical thumb.”) Read any critic for any length of time, whether it’s Pauline Kael or David Thomson or James Wood, and you start to see the whole business of ranking works of art, whether with thumbs or with words, as both utterly important and inherently ridiculous. Ebert understood this profoundly.

The same was true of the other major tool of the mainstream critic: the list. Making lists of the best or worst movies, like handing out awards, turns an art form into a horse race, but it’s also a necessary evil. A critic wants to be a valued guide, but more often, he ends up serving as a signpost, pointing up the road toward an interesting vista while hoping that we’ll take in other sights along the way. Lists are the most useful pointers we have, especially for viewers who are encountering the full variety of movies for the first time, and they’ve played an enormous role in my own life. And when you read Ebert’s essay on preparing his final list for the Sight & Sound poll, you sense both the melancholy nature of the task and his awareness of the power it holds. Ebert knows that adding a movie to his list naturally draws attention to it, and he pointedly includes a single “propaganda” title—here it’s Malick’s Tree of Life—to encourage viewers to seek it out. Since every addition requires a removal, he clarifies his feelings on this as well:

Once any film has ever appeared on my [Sight & Sound] list, I consider it canonized. Notorious or Gates of Heaven, for example, are still two of the ten best films of all time, no matter what a subsequent list says.

In short, he approaches the list as a game, but a serious one, and he knows that pointing one viewer toward Aguirre or The General makes all of it worthwhile.

Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

I thought of his example repeatedly when I revised my list of my ten favorite movies. Four years had gone by since my last series of posts on the subject, and the passage of time had brought a bit of reshuffling and a pair of replacements: L.A. Confidential and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had given way to Vertigo and Inception. And while it’s probably a mistake to view it as a zero-sum game, it’s hard not to see these films as commenting on one another. L.A. Confidential remains, as I said long ago, my favorite of all recent Hollywood movies, but it’s a film that invests its genre with greater fluency and complexity without challenging the rules on a deeper level, while Vertigo takes the basic outline of a sleek romantic thriller and blows it to smithereens. As much as I love them both, there’s no question in my mind as to which one achieves more. The contest between Inception and Wrath of Khan is harder to judge, and I’m not sure that the latter isn’t ultimately richer and more rewarding. But I wanted to write about Inception ever so slightly more, and after this weekend’s handwringing over the future of original ideas in movies, I have a hunch that its example is going to look even more precious with time. Inception hardly needs my help to draw attention to it, but to the extent that I had a propaganda choice this time around, it was this one.

Otherwise, my method in ranking these films was a simple one. I asked myself which movie I’d save first—solely for my own pleasure—if the last movie warehouse in the world were on fire. The answer was The Red Shoes. Next would be Blue Velvet, then Chungking Express, and so on down the line. Looking at the final roster, I don’t think I’d make any changes. Like Ebert, who kept La Dolce Vita on his list because of how it reflected the arc of his own life, I’m aware that much of the result is a veiled autobiography: Blue Velvet, in particular, galvanized me as a teenager as few other movies have, and part of the reason I rank it so highly is to acknowledge that specific debt. Other films are here largely because of the personal associations they evoke. Yet any movie that encapsulates an entire period in my life, out of all the films I was watching then, has to be extraordinary by definition: it isn’t just a matter of timing, at least not if it lasts. (You could even say that a great movie, like Vertigo, is one that convinces many different viewers that it’s secretly about them.) Ebert knew that there was no contradiction in embracing The Tree of Life as both the largest cosmic statement since 2001 and an agonizingly specific evocation of his own childhood. Any list, like any critic, lives in two worlds, and each half gains meaning from the other. And when I think of my own list and the choices it made, I can only quote Ebert one last time: “To add a title, I must remove one. Which film can I do without? Not a single one.”

Roger and me

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Roger Ebert

Somewhere in my parents’ home, there’s a book with both its front and back covers missing. When it first fell into my hands, it was brand new, and I would have been about eight years old, which I remember because I can still see exactly where it stood on the bookcase in our old house. The strange thing is that it wasn’t on a shelf I could reach: either someone took it down for me or I made a point of retrieving it myself, and it’s been so long that I’m not sure which was the case. All I know is that for the next ten years, it was rarely out of my sight, and throughout the most formative decade of my life, it was probably the book I read the most. Even now, I know much of it by heart, and I’ll occasionally find its phrases and rhythms appearing in my work, like fragments of my own memories. It was Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, and when I look back now, I realize that it wasn’t just the book that first introduced me to the movies—which would be legacy enough—but one that made me think for the first time about journalism, criticism, and countless other aspects of the world and culture around me.

I’ve written at greater length about Ebert’s role in my life here and here, and I won’t repeat myself. I never had a chance to tell him in person how much he meant to me, although I’d like to think that he saw what I wrote here, and he certainly heard much the same thing from countless other writers and movie lovers. Still, the fact that I never met Ebert, despite having lived the last few years of my life in Chicago, will always remain a profound regret, although I’m very grateful that I got to see him in person at the celebration of his favorite film music at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For a while, Ebert and Gene Siskel were my two favorite guys on television, and I can still hum the opening theme for At the Movies, which was always a high point of my week. I’ll never forget where I was when I learned that Gene Siskel had died, and I’m sure I’ll remember where I was when I heard that Ebert was gone. (To give you a sense of how big a part of my life Ebert was, my wife called me with the news from work, and a college friend emailed later that day to say she was thinking of me.)

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel

If there’s a silver lining to Ebert’s death, it’s that it gives us a sense of how deeply he influenced a whole generation of writers and critics. Will Leitch’s bittersweet remembrance in Deadspin, which recounts how he benefited from Ebert’s example and generosity, then foolishly threw it all away, is essential reading. But the words that linger with me the most are those of Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club, which reflect my own feelings to an almost frightening extent:

Cinema is a river with many tributaries, and I’m sure I’m not alone among movie-crazy teenagers in the ‘80s in using Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion as the boat downstream. You go through all the four-star reviews. You see Taxi Driver, and then of course you have to see Raging Bull, and then every other Martin Scorsese picture that sits on the video shelf. (And then you get into the movies that influenced Scorsese, which is a lifetime in itself.) You argue with him, you glean insights in the things you watch, you learn an entire new way of thinking, talking, and writing about the movies. And you never stop watching. You never stop debating. You have a companion for life, even now that his is over.

“The old man was around for a long time,” Ebert says of John Wayne in The Shootist, and although Ebert was only in his thirties when he wrote those words, the same could be said about his own career. Ebert was the one who first taught me that, at his best, a critic is sort of an island of stability, staying at the same desk for forty years to regard a changing world through a very particular lens, until his body of work says as much about the decades through which he lived as about the movies themselves. Ebert once seemed more stable—and certainly more substantial—than most, and at his prime, it was hard to believe that he would ever be gone. Toward the end, of course, this changed. Yet it’s in the last act of his life that his influence will be the most profound: he proved that criticism, a trade that has often been denigrated and dismissed, can give us the tools to face the fact of our own mortality with honor. At the end of his life, Ebert seemed reduced to little more than his words and, remarkably, his thumb, as if his most famous trademark had really been a mysterious preparation for a time when it would be all that remained. And in the end, his words were enough.

Written by nevalalee

April 5, 2013 at 8:24 am

Roger Ebert: An Appreciation (Part 2)

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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.

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