Over the years Roger Ebert has for me, as he evidently has for countless others, taken on the qualities of an old friend. A nerdy friend, perhaps, with whom I often disagree, yet a good solid friend nonetheless. As such I’ll confess to taking Ebert for granted in recent years, having naively believed, despite his lengthy bout with cancer, that he’d always be with us–which is why I was deeply shocked upon hearing of his April 4, 2012 demise.
I can honestly say I’ve grown up with Roger Ebert, having watched him trade barbs with the late Gene Siskel on SNEAK PREVIEWS, which later became AT THE MOVIES, for seemingly as far back as I can remember. Upon discovering Ebert’s print reviews as a preteen, through a late eighties edition of his MOVIE HOME COMPANION book, I became an immediate and lifelong fan. The passion and generosity of his writing definitely wasn’t lost on me, and it was his reviews of films like Werner Herzog’s NOSFERATU and FANNY AND ALEXANDER that kindled my interest in foreign and alternative cinema.
Of course, in horror and cult movie circles admitting to liking Roger Ebert is uncool. This is understandable, I guess, as he was the most famous and influential movie critic in America, and has been praised by everyone from Howard Stern to President Obama. Yet I contend that despite his mainstream credentials Roger Ebert should be embraced by horror fans, and here are ten reasons why.
10. He Scripted BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
Russ Meyer’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS has attained iconic status among horror/cult movie buffs, yet many of those same individuals like to bash Ebert. As one such fan recently informed me, the fact that Roger Ebert wrote BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS “only points up the hypocrisy of his early eighties campaign against slasher films.” On that last point I’ll argue that a). said campaign was more the work of Gene Siskel than Ebert himself, and b). it doesn’t lessen Ebert’s accomplishments as a screenwriter–and make no mistake, he had a definite talent for storytelling, as evinced by BEYOND… and his riotously inventive 1993 serial-novel BEHIND THE PHANTOM’S MASK, which I strongly recommend you track down.
9. He Had Good Taste
I’ve already mentioned that I often disagreed with Roger Ebert’s opinions–I’ll always contend, for instance, that he vastly overrated DARK CITY and underrated FIGHT CLUB–yet I feel his overall taste level was solid, from his championing of worthy obscurities like SHY PEOPLE and SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK to his tireless promotion of eccentric auteurs like Werner Herzog and Guillermo del Toro.
8. He Wasn’t Afraid to Go Against the Critical Tide
Fact: movie critics are among the most herd-like creatures that exist. Ebert, by contrast, marched to his own drummer. He championed films like THE WILD BUNCH and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT at a time when most other critics were gagging on them, and also rightfully called out his fellows for lavishing praise on the films of Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami. Writing about the latter’s Cannes winning snooze fest A TASTE OF CHERRY, Ebert proclaimed: “A case can be made for the movie, but it would involve transforming the experience of viewing the film (which is excruciatingly boring) into something more interesting…”
As Ebert once told Gene Siskel, “It’s lonely being right,” a sentiment I’ve echoed many times over the years.
7. He Had A Sharp Edge
Roger Ebert may have seemed like a warm and cuddly personage, and indeed was for the most part, but he was also quite opinionated, and didn’t mind telling people what was what. He had no problem, for instance, in publicly calling out the asshole film critic Michael Medved (author of the infamous HOLLYWOOD VS. AMERICA) and nor was he shy about lambasting airheaded movie audiences–from his BATTLE: LOS ANGELES review: “If you attend this crap with friends who admire it, tactfully inform them they are idiots.”
6. He Liked Horror Movies
Yes, he did: see his reviews for HALLOWEEN, SWAMP THING, SILVER BULLET, EVIL DEAD 2, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE CELL and DRAG ME TO HELL, to name but a few, which show that he had a real affection for and understanding of the mechanics of cinematic horror.
5. More Than Anyone Else, He Was Responsible for Popularizing Foreign and Cult Cinema
In a 2009 interview comedian Rob Schneider, one of Roger Ebert’s favorite punching bags, publicly thanked Ebert “for sharing his love of cinema with all of us,” and claimed that “one of the reasons I got into foreign films is because of Roger Ebert.” Those are my sentiments exactly, and I know countless more individuals can make a similar claim. As a commenter on Ebert’s website recently wrote, “I am struck by the number of people here and elsewhere who have written that Ebert was their gateway into thinking seriously about movies.”
4. He Was Prolific
I don’t know of any other critic who was more productive than Roger Ebert, who in addition to his thousands of movie reviews and TV appearances published a novel, a memoir, a travel book, tons of celebrity profiles and more blog entries than I can count. Furthermore, Ebert accomplished much of that output while suffering from cancer, something few others can claim.
3. He was A Trailblazer
Over the years there’s been a lot of anti-AT THE MOVIES blather claiming the show demeaned the art of film criticism by reducing it to 30-second sound bites and so forth, yet that didn’t stop high profile critics ranging from VARIETY’S Todd McCarthy to WASHINGTON POST’S Tom Shales to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’S Lisa Schwarzbaum from joining Ebert on the AT THE MOVIES couch in the months following the death of Gene Siskel. For that matter, quite a few movie critics (Leonard Maltin, Jeffrey Lyons, etc) have attempted their own AT THE MOVIES-style TV review programs, but the fact remains that Roger Ebert was there before them all, and did it better.
Ebert was also an early convert to the blog-verse. While I tend to prefer his earlier print-based reviews and commentary (let’s remember that the man wrote steadily for over 30 years prior to the blogs for which it seems he’s now best remembered), his early embrace of “new” technology was rare and salutary.
2. He Didn’t Kowtow to Hollywood
Unlike nearly every one of his colleagues, Roger Ebert avoided movie junkets, wherein critics and journalists are essentially bought and paid for with all sorts of free swag, and movie folk give studio approved interviews about how much fun it was making their shitty films. Ebert’s favored movie event was the Cannes Film Festival, which most critics treat as a novelty (Gene Siskel apparently only attended once) but which Ebert attended religiously, and wrote about with great affection in 1987’s TWO WEEKS IN THE MIDDAY SUN: A CANNES NOTEBOOK.
Other things Ebert didn’t do: unlike his quote-whore contemporaries, he didn’t give out blurbs to studio publicity departments, and nor did he try to become friends with movie stars or makers. Quite simply, Ebert called ‘em as he saw ‘em without pretense or apology.
1. He Understood What Makes Movies Great
This is another area in which Ebert broke ranks with other film critics: he understood that movies are an emotional rather than intellectual art form, a fact he made clear in his reviews, which were a far cry from the academic exercises practiced by so many mainstream critics. He also geared his reviews where they belong: at those who pay money to see the movies in question (unlike so many of his snooty fellows, who appear more intent on impressing each other), and did so without ever dumbing down his prose or blunting his opinions.
There was no one else like Roger Ebert. Mainstream he may have been, but, as I believe I’ve made clear, he was also one of us.