Roger Ebert, 1942-2013
“Write on a critic of your choice”
Roger Ebert is like that mean uncle that you love to hate, but have to love because he’s family. He’s loud, he’s obnoxious, he’s mean, but nine times out of ten, he’s also right. Take it easy on the cake, kid; you’ll end up the size of a house. You know the one I’m talking about. As ruthless as he may be, he is one of the worlds most well-known film critics; the co-creator of the ‘two-thumbs-up’ rating system, a Pulitzer Prize winner (1975, the first ever film critic to win one) and has been described as “what Jay-Z is for Rappers” (Barone, 2013) – a deserving title for his 40+ year career.
Ebert’s legacy of his filter-less negative commentary will be imprinted on this industry for many years to come. His vast archive of negative reviews are instantly recognisable with that distinctive underwhelmed bemusement underlying his words, the kind an infant would exude at Sunday mass. In some of his less-restrained pieces, it’s as if he’s genuinely annoyed that the creators have burdened the world with their work and is exasperated with the fact that they didn’t know any better; “Was there no one connected with this project who read the screenplay, considered the story, evaluated the proposed film and vomited?” (Ebert on Last Rites, 1988)
Many of his followers read his work solely for this criticism of ‘bad’ films. Or, more accurately, his relentless beat-downs of “long, painful lapses of taste, tone, and ordinary human feeling” (Ebert on Breaking the Rules, 1992) that give you the same so-bad-that-it’s-good-and-I-can’t-look-away pleasure that watching monster trucks or 12 rounds with Ronda Rousey would. His brutally honest words are not only offensive and evocative, but exceptionally imaginative and visually stimulating. One of my favourite techniques that he uses to articulate his dissatisfaction is his inimitable use of comparison and analogy:
“Going to see Godzilla at the Palais of the Cannes Film Festival is like attending a satanic ritual in St. Peter’s Basilica” (Ebert, 1998) / “This movie is simply financial leakage, a squandering of resources equivalent to polluting a river or plowing under a rainforest” (Ebert on Johnny Be Good, 1988).
His tone alone would easily leave him comparable to a real life Ari Gold, with no person safe and no subject off limits from his belligerent sprays. Another method that he uses to signify his frustrated disinterest is his distaste for offending inanimate objects, or anything that comically fits, really:
“To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material” (Ebert on The Spirit, 2008) / “To call A Lot Like Love dead in the water is an insult to water” (Ebert, 2005) / “To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes” (Ebert on The Village, 2004).
Reputation aside, he genuinely has made a living (and a hell of a career) on his talent and ability to laugh at his own public reception of being so vicious. He’s written over 20 books containing his most scathing and amusing pieces, many of which are titled with some of his famous words from his reviews. For example, Your Movie Sucks (2007) was inspired by Rob Schneider’s performance in the Deuce Bigalow sequel (2005) and I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie (2000) which he wrote (on behalf of everyone) in his review of the 1994 comedy North.
There is no denying that his harshness is hilarious, but his writing is certainly not just ‘for the lols’. On the other end of the scale, he’s also released many publications crediting his favourite films, such as The Great Movies series (2002-2005) and the Ebert’s Essentials (2012) which are a collection of guides to watching the best cinema out there. Ebert is no snob when it comes to films either, he reviews works from across the genre spectrum and acknowledges masterpieces when he crosses them. Although his status hinges on his ability to tear down any film that crosses him, his talents can also be used for good (instead of evil) and are written just as intelligently eloquent ; “On whatever level, they engage me so immediately and powerfully that I lose my detachment, my analytical reserve. The movie’s happening, and it’s happening to me.” (Ebert on Star Wars, 1977).
I think that his positive reviews are often mistakenly overlooked because of the reputation he has for the bad ones. However, with the amount of readers that would follow him purely to read him burn the latest blockbuster, there’s just as many people that would go to see films off the back of his recommendation. The visual imagery he uses in his tear-downs is funny, and that’s hard to compete with. But it is equally as effective in his ‘great movie’ reviews. I think the key difference is that he integrates cultural context and knowledge around the movie, he tells you exactly how important it is for you to see this film.
“A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” (1994).
Still, the amount of actors, filmmakers and producers who have felt personally victimized by Roger Ebert would be enough to make Regina George blush. And that’s why we love him. Rest in Peace, Rog. Your bashing insults and your intellectual, merciless prose will be dearly missed.