Friday, June 19, 2009

Happy Birthday Roger Ebert!

As with last week, when I posted my retrospective on John Wayne the day after the 30th Anniversary of The Duke’s Death, I am a day late here as well. Yesterday was Roger Ebert’s 67th birthday. Say what you want about Roger Ebert these days – which he has grown soft over the years, and his illness has only made him softer (I mean really, 4 stars to Departures? You got to be kidding me!), but the fact of the matter remains to pretty much every cinephile I know, their first exposure to movie criticism of any kind was through Ebert, and his old partner Gene Siskel, and their television show. It certainly was for me, and Ebert helped to shape my view of the movies. Siskel may have been the more “intellectual” critic, but I always preferred Ebert. His enthusiasm for movies was infectious, as was his sense of fair play. No movie was beneath Ebert, and you could sense real disappointment in him when he disliked a movie. To this day, while I find myself drifting further away from Ebert as far as movie tastes go, whenever you read his reviews, he is still able to justify his opinions with insight and clarity. In short, while I read many critics on a regular basis now, Roger Ebert is the only one who I always read.

My first exposure to Roger Ebert was not actually through his TV show, but through one of his hulking Video Year Books, where he compiled many of his reviews. As a kid of around 10, I was already interested in film, and yet I didn’t really read any criticism at all. I didn’t know what films to watch. Every summer I spent a week with my Aunt and Uncle in Massachusetts, and we would spend many nights watching old movies. This was the first place I ever saw Casablanca, Citizen Kane, My Fair Lady and the films of the Marx Brothers among many others. I slept on a pull out couch by the TV and the bookshelf. One of the books on that shelf was one of Roger Ebert’s. I was, and remain, an early riser so often in the morning I had some time to kill before everyone else woke up. I would pull Ebert’s yearbook off the shelf and read his reviews. I started reading the reviews of the films I already knew I loved – Oliver Stone’s JFK and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven among them – expanded out to others that I had seen, and soon was reading reviews to films I had never even heard of before. Ebert’s reviews were simple and straightforward, and yet offered great insight into the films. I started viewing films in a different light than I used to. Yes, I was still an adolescent male, so I still loved action movies more than anything else, but slowly my opinions started to change. I owe Roger Ebert for that.

Over the years, I continued to read Ebert’s reviews. I do not know how many of those yearbooks I ended up buying, because they would become so worn and torn by repeated reading that eventually they would rips in half, the covers fall off. And yet, I kept those books for years after that. I couldn’t bear to part with them. Later, in high school, I started reading Ebert’s reviews online, and whole new world of films opened up to me. I also started watching his TV program, and I loved to see him and Siskel go at each other when there was a film they disagreed on, but liked it even more when they agreed strongly. Siskel and Ebert were the most widely known critics in the country, and their reviews could change the fate of a movie. Would Steve James’ Hoop Dreams be remembered like it is today had it not been for them? I don’t think so.

When you are the most well known anything in the world, you are bound to take some criticism of your own, and over the years Ebert has taken his share. There are people who believe that Siskel and Ebert ruined movie criticism forever by reducing it all to “Thumbs Up” and “Thumbs Down”, yet I have always found that argument ridiculous. Yes, because they covered anywhere between 4 and 6 films in a half hour show, in depth debates were not always possible. Yet in their short debates, they hit on many different facets of a film. I always found Ebert’s reviews on TV to be a good synopsis of his written reviews. It is through reading his reviews, and watching his show, that I learned a very valuable lesson about film criticism: It is not what rating a critic gives to a movie that is important, but why he gives it that rating. Ebert, whether he gives one of my favorite films Blue Velvet 1 star, or loves a film like The English Patient which I despise, has always met the criteria of being interesting to read.

Furthermore, his show exposed a number of different films to the masses that otherwise would have passed them by. I have already mentioned Hoop Dreams, but there are countless others. Let’s face facts and be honest here – most people in the world do not now, nor have they ever, really read much film criticism. Siskel and Ebert didn’t kill it; they simply brought it to more people. Yes, I do believe that criticism has taken a nosedive in recent years, with many critics simply dialing up the volume on the level of praise or vitriol they direct towards a film. And reviews have been shorter, and perhaps more populist. And many critics seem to use their reviews to practice their standup comedy routines, and not actually deal with the film in question in an honest way. But Ebert never did any of these things. While his taste has evolved over the years, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that Ebert gives every film he sees a fair shake. Whether it’s the new Scorsese film or something with Pauly Shore, Ebert gives the movie a chance to win him over.

In short, I owe a lot to Roger Ebert when it comes to my movie education. Would I have discovered Martin Scorsese and Hitchcock without Ebert? Probably. But what about Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, Renoir, Ozu, Mizoguchi, DeSica, Rosselini, Bresson or any number of other foreign directors? I don’t know. His great movie series has been a godsend, covering not just the confirmed classics, but also some stranger choices that have ended up being richly rewarding for me.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for Ebert has waned at times. After Siskel’s death, Ebert could have picked any number of great movie critics to co-host the show, and act as his intellectual equal. He chose wrong when he picked Richard Roeper, who was not a real movie critic at the time, and only gradually, and minimally improved, over time. Gone were the classic sparing matches between Siskel and Ebert. Watching Ebert debate Roeper was like watching Mike Tyson box a puppy. Sure, the puppy is cute, but you never doubt who is going to win. Ebert has also gone rather soft in recent years. He gives out 4 star reviews like candy, often to movies that only middling at best, and he seems to like nearly every movie that comes along.

Yet when Ebert was sidelined for a year while he faced his cancer battle, I missed his reviews more than I care to admit. Whether I agree with Ebert or not, it is nice to know that he is out there, doing his thing, and inspiring more kids like me to take a serious interest in film. In short, we need Roger Ebert. He has now turned 67, and even if he still cannot speak, his writing has not been impacted. I look forward to reading Roger Ebert hopefully for years to come. When he does go, it will be a sad day.

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