Thursday, April 4, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert

I try not to post news and videos I read on The A.V. Club too often, as I use that site a lot and it's cheap to just repost other people work all the time. I get excited when I read something or find a new Gem through other sources before I find them on AVC. Screw all that - less than one day after they reported that Roger Ebert's cancer had returned (in his hip!), prompting the man to change his writing habits, the A.V. Club relayed the Chicago Sun-Times' message that Ebert passed away at 70 years old; the most notable name in film review and criticism has died, after 46 years of publication.

Like many kids from my generation, after weekend cartoons were over, I would run around and play. Other times, I would end up back in front of the TV, and this is where I got my introduction to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert through their show, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I would listen to their comments on pictures, their excellent, spirited banter. I took store by their "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" ratings. In my teenage years, I would buy a newspaper regularly and, quite often, go straight to the film reviews; Ebert was always my go-to reviewer, as I didn't put much stock in Jami Bernard or Jeffrey Lyons or Gene Shalit.

In college, my film student girlfriend (the one who made me half a film student in the first place) would share one of his books with me, and took great delight in showing me Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a truly insane sexploitation flick - and then revealing that Ebert co-wrote it. I continued to follow Mr. Ebert's work until around 1998, when I became too busy with my own life to follow paper-bound film reviews. Regardless, I still remember feeling angry that a pleasant film analyst like his partner, Gene Siskel, should die from a shitty, miserable disease like cancer.

And now it's happened again.

As the 20th Century turned into the 21st, I remember being less than kind about Ebert's reviews. I wouldn't even follow every one of them, but I would often check out reviews for movies I was interested in, or have friends tell me about one of his latest critiques. When he seemed soft on a movie that was bad, I would trash the guy for having flaky or lowered standards; when he trashed a picture I liked, I would say that he was "over the hill" and didn't "get" those films. It wasn't the nicest attitude to take to someone who introduced me to film criticism, but I was still just a kid, so my stupidity should be forgivable.

Of course, I was aware that he developed thyroid cancer in 2002, but I was too busy with my own life and problems to realize that the guy at whom I took potshots was still working diligently while having parts of his body removed and getting radiation treatment pointed straight at his salivary glands. Eventually, I stopped following his work altogether - save for occasionally looking at his back catalogue of older, "good" reviews; to my mind, his earlier work was less tainted by age and changing standards, but of course I was just being kind of a dick.

No matter what I might have thought - out of snarkiness or youth or having ridiculous expectations of someone I respected - I did hope that his cancer would be quickly cured and sent packing. That's over 10 years ago, now, and I am sad that things did not turn out better for him. Unless you lack a human soul, you have to feel something when you witness someone become "diminished" by a terrible disease was quite unfortunate - multiple surgeries, losing his voice, having part of his body reconstructed, suffering hip problems...

But I know that most people do not want to be pitied, and I have to believe that that feeling does not go away after someone has actually passed on. And, though I can't write out the man's life story or biography - you should read it yourselves, out of respect - it only makes sense to try to remember someone positively, instead of considering them as a source of sadness. Please join me in trying to recall that this man began reviewing movies for newspaper in 1967. He was the first film critic to get a Pulitzer for his work (in 1975).

And let's look at a nice moment from his life, courtesy of his Wiki page, from when his health was already in bad shape:

Ebert's reviews were also often characterized by dry wit. In January 2005, when Rob Schneider insulted Los Angeles Times movie critic Patrick Goldstein, who panned his movie Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, by commenting that the critic was unqualified because he had never won the Pulitzer Prize, Ebert intervened by stating that, as a Pulitzer winner, he was qualified to review the film, and bluntly told Schneider, "Your movie sucks." Ebert and Schneider would later mend fences regarding this.
Most importantly, it's worth remembering that Roger Ebert wasn't some off-the-cuff blowhard; he had a deep passion for film, and hoped that the film industry would handle itself and its audience with intelligence and integrity; he railed against anything that was contrary to those ideals.

And please join me in remembering the last review of his that I can remember watching on TV. After all these years, I still distinctly remember him criticizing a particular film's use of smoke and cigarettes. He cited his own personal experience with words I still recall, "my mother was a smoker." I copied some excerpts of the text for you below:

The cast of ``200 Cigarettes'' reads like a roll call of hot talent... I wish them well. But if they must smoke in the movies, can't they at least be great smokers, like my mother was? When she was smoking, you always knew exactly how she felt because of the way she used her cigarette and her hands and the smoke itself as props to help her express herself...

The stars of ``200 Cigarettes,'' on the other hand, belong to the suck-and-blow school of smokeology. They inhale, not too deeply, and exhale, not too convincingly, and they squint in their closeups while smoke curls up from below the screen. Their smoke emerges as small, pale, noxious gray clouds. When Robert Mitchum exhaled at a guy, the guy ducked out of the way.

I suppose there will be someone who counts the cigarettes in ``200 Cigarettes,'' to see if there are actually 200. That will at least be something to do during the movie, which is a lame and labored conceit about an assortment of would-be colorful characters on their way to a New Year's Eve party in 1981...

The witless screenplay provides its characters with aimless dialogue and meaningless confrontations, and they are dressed not like people who might have been alive in 1981, but like people going to a costume party where 1981 is the theme.
Roger, wherever you are now, I hope that you're happy and at peace. You were more than just the top of your field, you were a common and vocal enough presence to feel like an actual acquaintance. You will be missed. Please rest well.

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