Monday, January 31, 2011

Roger Ebert: Our Beloved Thumbs Up Critic

Our beloved film critic Roger Ebert is gone, but his passion remains!
By Jerry Saravia

Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer
I once emailed Roger Ebert during the 1999 theatrical release of Eyes Wide Shut (which he admired) if he
would give a second look to A Clockwork Orange. After all, it is a film he panned and awarded a two-star rating. His wife loved it and considered it her favorite film, and the late Gene Siskel had tried to get Ebert to re-review it (Siskel himself gave a second look to his initial pan of Apocalypse Now and gave it a positive review). Hell, if Ebert loves The Shining and 2001 so much (they are both on his Great Movies list), surely a revisit to the most controversial film ever made about the nature of violence merits a fresh perspective. Ebert emailed me back and said, “I’ll see it again someday.” I don't know if he ever got around to it.

Such is the brief correspondence I had with Roger Ebert, a film critic who I admired as much as any film critic. When I was getting into puberty during the 1980’s, I voraciously read reviews from film books at the local library in Fresh Meadows, NY. They would include the latest compilation of reviews from Pauline Kael, the Cult Movies volumes by Danny Peary, the Midnight Movies book (which opened my eyes to films like Eraserhead and Pink Flamingos), the Leonard Maltin Movie Guides and, of course, the Roger Ebert Home Movie Companion books. Ebert was also on the now defunct Sneak Previews TV show and the Siskel and Ebert show, both of which I watched religiously.

Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael
In many ways, Ebert informed my viewing of cinema (and still does). Yes, the late Pauline Kael’s witticisms were unquestionably literary and poetic – you knew that she loved the cinema and expressed it. Danny Peary, Peter Travers, Leonard Maltin, David Edelstein, Janet Maslin and many others were invaluable in their passionate insights – I spent many nights analyzing their words. But it is Ebert who made me see past what I was seeing – how a personal statement by a director could make a critic angry and volatile. Ebert has experienced this phenomenon with films that obviously got to him on a gut level, as witnessed by his pans of Clockwork Orange and Blue Velvet. Then there were films that made him angry because of their putridness. He made me rethink the unnecessary cruelty of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s demise in the unwatchable The Hitcher, though I believe it is not a film as cruelly illogical as he claimed. He and Siskel famously derided I Spit On Your Grave and Friday the 13th, thus enabling a disreputable stain on the slasher film genre through most of the 1980’s. In hindsight, those films were not nearly as severe in their unbridled brutality as Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, which Ebert admired a lot more than I did.  

There were times where Ebert left me incredulous in retrospect. I wondered why neither he nor Siskel made any mention of the graphic violence in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” or in “Gremlins” when they both later admonished the far less grimmer display of tricks in the rousing “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” I love “Temple of Doom” and “Gremlins” but the violence in both PG films was far more severe than in Costner's “Robin Hood.” I agreed with certain aspects of Ebert’s review of “Dead Poet’s Society,” though I think it is a fine film overall and especially uplifting towards the end. But that is what makes Ebert so wonderful – you feel like you are watching a film right beside him and arguing with him at the same time. No other critic does this.

I also love that Ebert didn't play with the current critical taste as often as people think. He awarded three stars to She’s the Man, The Longest Day remake, Necessary Roughness and Tomb Raider when most critics panned them outright. Of course, he did dismiss one of my favorite films of the 1990’s, the misunderstood and critically maligned Lost Highway by David Lynch, with a two star rating (which was used in the print ads). And how he could pan The Tenant, The Fearless Vampire Killers and What?, three truly magnificent Roman Polanski films, I’ll never know. But then I suppose he would've disagreed with my raving insights on all three.

Roger Ebert made me want to be a film critic. The fact that he is the first critic to win the Pulitzer Prize is astounding. The fact that he cared enough about films to save certain ones from extinction (“One False Move” is a good example) and promote them through his annual Overlooked Film Festival is an amazing feat. I also admire that he stood up to the MPAA and its former late president, Jack Valenti, about instilling a reasonable “A” rating for films with artistic merit that showed graphic violence or sexuality (all we got is an NC-17 rating that gets little to no advertising). Plus, if for no other reason, Ebert also co-wrote some Russ Meyer flicks – that is enough reason to make him a hero in my book.

Oddly, every few years or so, I am hesitant to write film reviews. I do it because I love film but I still feel I do not know enough about films or film history. Sometimes I feel I am reading a film the wrong way. Maybe I am not seeing a film correctly, or maybe I am misjudging something. Sometimes I feel that I love a film that no one else seems to like. I also try my damnedest to separate myself from just any other critic with a blog in the internet. What always set me in the right mood was reading Roger Ebert's reviews. To me, he is the man of the movies. He inspired me, and still does. Every time I read a review of his, I felt connected to someone who spent their life watching films. A critic by design is meant to be someone you often disagree with more than agree, and that is what makes him rise above any other film critics in general.

I had said back in 2006 that Ebert should take my word for it and come back to work as soon he could. Even former President Bush had hoped for his speedy recovery. Since 2006, Ebert had been quite prolific in writing film reviews and a blog on political issues. His show had come back on PBS with the title, "Ebert Presents At the Movies," where he reviewed one film a week and had respectable movie critics chosen to fill the aisle seats (namely Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky). That show had been cancelled over a year ago. Now Ebert is gone from our world due to his long battle with cancer. I can safely say that no other critic has filled me with the animated presence or passion of reviewing films than Roger Ebert. R.I.P Roger.