Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert - 1942 - 2013

Obituaries do not make for popular posts but they only appear on Flying Houses when the person in question has played an indispensable role in the development of the state of the art presented herein.
In terms of the methodology of Flying Houses, there is no more influential person than Roger Ebert.  He changed the medium of the review, and I have always endeavored to live up to the very high standard that he set.

He didn't create the medium, but he certainly deserves to be placed in the top ten most important people in the history of cinema.  Back in the 1990's before Gene Siskel died too young, people would make fun of Ebert because he was fat.  Then later on, he lost his ability to eat, and speak with a human voice, and people championed him as the survivor par excellence.  Lately, as I saw Richard Roeper post more reviews on, I started to fear that Ebert was not writing as many reviews because his condition had worsened.  I am sad that I will not know whether he agreed with Roeper or not on A Good Day to Die Hard.

Before I delve into this obituary, I want to highlight two things.  First, a question that was asked by a reader many years ago, and was printed in the 1996 Film Companion that Ebert released:

"Q: Help me settle something.  If Writer A and Writer B both wrote their opinions on a film--both with diligence and pride in their work--what difference in the two pieces would identify Writer A as a Film Critic and Writer B as someone just offering an opinion?  Take the weekly feature you see in some papers, where kids review films.  At what point do they cross the line, and can be called a Critics as opposed to reviewers?  Is there some sort of certification program, like taking the Sally Struthers correspondence course in gun repair? (Andy Ihnatko, Westwood, MA)

A: This is a fascinating question, not unrelated to, "at what point do we know Swift doesn't really intend for the starving Irish to eat their babies?"  The noncritic Reviewer will often betray himself by these mistakes:
(1) Pretense of objectivity;
(2) reluctance to introduce extraneous knowledge;
(3) predictions of which audiences will or will not enjoy the film;
(4) bashfulness about writing in the first person;
(5) distancing self from actual experience of viewing the film;
(6) an overwritten first paragraph.  The genuine Critic will write in such a way as to acknowledge that he had a subjective personal experience which he wants to share with you, and which reminded him of other films or other subjects.  He will wear his knowledge lightly and never presume to speak for other than himself." (920)
Ebert wrote for the common film-goer.  He did not write in a high-handed style, and he did not believe in an objective standard of film criticism.  And it makes sense.  Sometimes we can tell when there is bad acting.  That is a given.  A fair portion of the population has some experience in acting.  Sometimes we can tell when there is bad writing, too.  But it is not often that we walk out of a movie and say, "Man, that cinematography was so bad!" Ebert might remark upon the cinematography, if it was good, and he might have remarked about the superiority of the letterbox format over pan-and-scan, but otherwise his writing was addressed at the average moviegoer.  And he responded to them.  Second thing I wanted to mention:

When I was 17, I went to Old Orchard Mall in Skokie, IL and attempted to buy a ticket for the film Requiem for a Dream.  I was not allowed in.  I argued for a bit with the people in charge there, but I lamented my plight in an e-mail to Roger Ebert.  In his review of that film, he wrote that the film's NC-17 rating was unfortunate, because it was specifically the type of film that teenagers should see, because it showed how horrible drug addiction could get.  I wrote that this was just so unfair, man.  And he wrote back, "I know, I know.  Damn."
Two sentences.  They didn't change my life, but they made me realize that Roger Ebert was a very special type of celebrity: he was "one of us."

Every critic (whether it be film, theater, music, or literature) should study the work of Roger Ebert.  I never took a Cinema Studies course at NYU.  Maybe they do assign some his reviews, but my presumption is that they do not.  But they should.  I have often debated with my colleague (my "Siskel," if you will) Jay Maronde about the difference between a "film" and a "movie."  Ebert understood he could give four star reviews to either (his four-star reviews include Less Than Zero, Dick Tracy, Drugstore Cowboy, Lethal Weapon, Return of the Jedi, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, Superman, Superman II, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and L.A. Story).

I am deeply saddened by his passing and just wanted to state that the work of this blog is my attempt at carrying out his mandate on how to be a Critic, rather than a Reviewer.

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