Only salmon fishing on the Kenai could tear me away from a Sunday afternoon on PBS. It was time to settle in front of the rabbit ears with a Coke, some saltine crackers, and a few slices of cheddar. “Sneak Previews” was on, hosted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
I’d root for Ebert as the two bickered. Siskel was the movie snob, but Ebert loved movies the way a normal person loved movies. For example, he didn’t ding an action flick if it lacked character development. He dinged it if it was boring. He would, of course, praise a movie that could integrate comedy, drama, and action – as well as acting, plot, and good technique. Yet Ebert wasn’t so unrealistic to think that all movies needed or even should need all these elements. He reviewed movies on their intent. Was the comedy funny? Was the drama sad? Did the action film thrill?
If you wanted to know how good a movie could be, you watched Siskel, read Janet Maslin at the New York Times, or listened to Kenneth Turan on NPR. If you wanted to know if the movie was any good as is, you went to Ebert.
Ebert was a great defender of movies. Movies are marshmallow creations that can change the course of society. I love movies and hate myself for loving movies. Ebert helps me feel better about movies. Sure, he lamented the film industry’s focus on action flicks and teen comedies, but good movies he considered required viewing. A good movie can offer a window into another culture, how people unlike you live, and how they get along in the world. A good movie expands a viewer’s horizon and helps develop empathy.
“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” Ebert once wrote.
I think about that when I see movies like “On the Ice”, the Barrow murder mystery that came out last year. “On the Ice” is an Alaskan movie that exemplifies what Ebert was talking about – a cold and frosty window on village-Alaska. You walk out of the theater with a lot more understanding, and empathy, for those who live in the arctic.
Only in the last decade did I understand how well received Roger Ebert was as a writer. Forget the thumb-driven distillation of his reviews; read his reviews. I have a couple litmus tests for good writing. One is whether the writer used the word “synergy.” I believe, based on nothing, that any time someone reads the word “synergy,” a puppy dies. I work in government, and I’m sure the word has convinced people to join the tea party. Can you blame them? What a horrendous word! Utilize is a terrible word too. But I’m off the rails here. Ebert never used the word “synergy,” at least there were no Google results for “+roger +ebert +synergy.” His writing was conversational yet tight, easily read but not stupid. And you can be damn sure Ebert’s love of the language never allowed him to write “Best. Movie. Ever.”
Ebert’s love of movies was highlighted in nearly every one of those beautiful and approachable reviews. His reviews were often more enjoyable than the movies covered. He really wanted movies to succeed. If they were not too bad, he would offer suggestions. Ebert could get snarky, but that was rare and for whatever reason, the movie deserved it. Here’s a bit from his review of “North,” an Elijah Wood film from the early ‘90s: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.” I would not recommend this film.
Ebert was a smart guy. It’s said he had a photographic memory. He could describe a scene from any movie he ever saw. But that’s only data. How he processed all that data with his gut reactions into concise, readable reviews and essays is what made him wise. “Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you,” he wrote. Ebert wanted you to know whether or not a film had a visceral impact. Did the film make you feel something? Anything more was just extra.
His commentary extended beyond individual movies. He often decried the ratings system. The MPAA mystified Ebert. Why would they allow inexcusably violent films to get PG ratings, yet a stray nipple in a skinny dip scene of an otherwise tame movie would earn an R. Of course, particularly toward the end of this life as he struggled with cancer, his writings covered bigger issues of life and death. At his TED talk, family and friends read experts from his writings on his cancer and the loss of his salivary glands, his jaw, his voice. It is one of the more touching things I’ve ever seen. http://www.ted.com/talks/roger_ebert_remaking_my_voice.html
Ebert was, in this crumbling culture of bullying, fear and anger, a voice of decency. That’s kind of amazing considering his job was to be a critic. He is someone I try to emulate in my own small time film and TV commentary. The man’s impact far exceeded the sum of his roles as journalist, TV personality, and critic. He exemplified synergy. He was … The best. Reviewer. Ever.
Rest in peace, Roger Ebert.
• Clint J. Farr can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.