I have been a steady reader of Roger Ebert’s reviews for about 6 years now. I read them before I see a movie and afterwards, and often for movies that I never plan to see. A lot of our more independent film orientated friends laugh off my laudatory appraisals of his work, preferring a Manohla Dargis or a David Denby perhaps. I’m here to set the record straight about old Roger, because he’s all I need – my ten-thousandth spoon when all I need is a spoon – and because he stopped writing due to the return of his cancer last summer, and I haven’t enjoyed a movie in the same way since.
For those of you who are snickering at my steadfast devotion to this man’s work – those of you who love your A.O. Scott or Anthony Lane – can just stop right there, because not a single name I have listed, neither Denby nor even the apotheosized Pauline Kale, has won a Pulitzer Prize for their film reviews. While I agree that a Pulitzer Prize and three bucks will get you a cup of coffee, I just wanted to throw out a little objective praise as a groundwork for my highly subjective and loving tone in this post.
With critics of any art – it may happen once in a lifetime or never at all – there are those critics who are universally off base (we’ll call them Peter Traverses) and those who seem to cater their appraisals just for you. And I don’t mean to imply that I agree with all of Ebert’s critiques; he hated the Usual Suspects, Tommy Boy, and the majority of Adam Sandler pics and raved about a lot of movies that, and I don’t want to mince words, frankly blow. Total agreement is neither a prerequisite nor a criterion for your perfect critic, for the onus of this arguably symbiotic dynamic, between reader and critic, falls on us. Tell you the truth, I’ve gotten the feeling that Roger doesn’t really need me at all. What sets Ebert apart, for me, is his true enjoyment of film. You get the sense that Ebert walks into a theater as both serious journalist and wide-eyed youth, entering each time with the hope of recapturing that Whitman-like wonder and openness that great movies offer, though we have suffered a dearth of these moments in recent years.
What those other critics of high repute lack is this innocence. They provide cynicism in spades (just read Denby unwarranted attack on Ben Stiller) but with the mirthless eye of the disassociated intellectual. They don’t have any fun with their work – too in love with their own prose and opinions. I don’t blame them; I assume that after one builds a career (on rock and roll? With bullets?) that their detached eye cataracts, and focuses on only those negative attributes of a film. In this context, however, Ebert stands apart, retaining whimsy in the face of what must be an overwhelming desire to ripe some movies apart. While some can do it with venom, good old Roger does it with panache:As in Ebert's review for A Lot Like Love: "At one point he[Kutcher's character] flies to New York to pitch his dot-com diapers to some venture capitalists, and is so inarticulate and clueless he could be a character in this movie. To call "A Lot like Love" dead in the water is an insult to water."
And one of my favorites Ebert reviews, which remained the only justification for my having suffered through The Village, Roger sums it all up: "Eventually the secret of Those, etc., is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.
And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we're back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets."
I hope you get better soon.