Apr 092013

What Ebert was was a very hard-working, daily journalist who, as he should, watched thousands of movies and wrote about them in a very clear, concise, fairly interesting but obvious way.

By Gerald Peary.

The late film critic Roger Ebert — he was one among many print critics worth reading. Not alone on the throne.

Roger Ebert, who died last week, was a national institution, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and by far the most famous and celebrated film critic who ever lived, eclipsing Bosley Crowther, who lorded for decades over The New York Times, and even the dazzling, charismatic, star-power Pauline Kael. To my mind, however, Ebert was hardly the best critic we have. I can name half a dozen people with far more interesting and stylish things to say about the cinema: J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dave Kehr, Manohla Dargis, biographer Joseph McBride, master blogger-academic, David Bordwell.

In Boston, I’m more taken with the writings of various critics—Peter Keough, Ty Burr, Jim Verniere, Sean Burns, for example—than those of Ebert. For populist writing, give me Owen Gleiberman and the recently retired Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly any day over Roger. Check out Variety for lots of shrewd reviewers, including Scott Foundas, Peter DeBruge, Justin Chang, John Anderson. Read Peter Rainer in the Christian Science Monitor, David Denby in the New Yorker, Stuart Klawans in The Nation. A.O. Scott in the NY Times. And others!

Roger was one among many print critics worth reading. Not alone on the throne.

What Ebert was was a very hard-working, daily journalist who, as he should, watched thousands of movies and wrote about them in a very clear, concise, fairly interesting but obvious way. There were rarely startling insights or, even more telling, idiosyncratic readings of movies that went against the crowd—that made you go back to a movie and see it again, rethink your reading. He looked at cinema in a smart, common-sense way but not a radical way, and he spoke most to (a) fan boys who devour movies non-intellectually and responded to Roger’s movie-watching enthusiasm and to (b) the many people who are secretly insecure about analyzing cinema themselves. To them, he was a sage.

How often at film festivals did I see this sight? Roger exiting a film and, in the lobby after, making pronouncements to whomever was there listening: his groupies, also total strangers thrilled to be about, all nodding in agreement to his “profundities.”

Shouldn’t being a film critic be a modest profession? Tell that to the full-of-himself Sun-Times guy I observed in 1981 at the Sundance Institute, lecturing down to a room of bullied, Hollywood types how to do things Roger’s way in studio filmmaking. Ebert became the VIP celeb among film critics by willing himself to be that and sweating day and night to be seen, heard, and read everywhere, writing and tweeting to the very end. Call up any aggregate website, and the first at the top is always Roger, and you are always led to RogerEbert.Com. Looking back, wherever there was a film panel, Ebert would be there, and, in the days when he could, doing the bulk of the talking. Poor other panelists!

Whenever I was in Canada, I was amazed to find that the best-known Canuck critic was . . . Chicago’s Roger Ebert. His reviews appeared in the National Post. In the USA, how many papers saved money hiring a knowledgeable, local critic by running syndicated Roger?

The many obits and tributes give so many examples of tales of kindness from Roger that it must be true—especially, if you were one of his acolytes. When I made the documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, I interviewed Roger in Chicago in 2002, and he was genial and cooperative, eager to have the story told of how he and Gene Siskel changed the critic playing field by bringing “thumbs up” discourse and argument to TV. He was definitely helpful in getting reduced rights for some TV clips of At the Movies, and he even supplied me with a generous quote for the DVD cover: “I enjoyed it immensely. I learned a lot. Very well done, edited, researched—and narrated!”

And yet: I knew that Roger knew that I was not among his true believers, that I did not lean in when he talked, beholden to his brilliant thoughts. He intuited that I (my own big head and hubris!) probably felt that my insights were more insightful, surely more daring, than his! Little me, with one millionth of his power or fandom!

When For the Love of Movies played at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago, there wasn’t a peep about it from Roger in the Sun-Times. I guess he shut me out. The last time I saw Roger was in a line at Cannes, when he hadn’t yet got cancer, when he was still speaking. And speak he did — at me — an unasked-for torrent of his film festival opinions. Finally, I saw an opening and started to reply. And—sweet revenge on an Ebertian skeptic!—Roger’s eyes totally, unmistakably, glazed over.

PS- Facing death, did Ebert see cinema with a new lucidity? His last review, published posthumously on his website of Terence Malick’s new To the Wonder, compares the stonefaced, cryptic acting in Malick’s cinema to the expressionless “models” of France’s Robert Bresson. A remarkable insight.

Another Arts Fuse view on Roger Ebert.


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  5 Responses to “Fuse Film Commentary — Roger Ebert: A Contrarian View”

Comments (5)
  1. Amid all the praise of Roger Ebert’s contributions to the democratizing of film criticism, note of its anti-intellectualism should be made. Ebert knew that his TV show At the Movies was dedicated to dumbing down film criticism. It was popular because the format turned reviews into a weekly chatter fest that substituted clashing personalities for critical substance.

    When I interviewed Ebert years ago I asked about what At the Movies had done to film criticism. He told me a story about a producer who called up him to ask if the film he had just released would be reviewed on At the Movies. Ebert told him that both he and Gene Siskel hated the film, and they figured it was better to leave it off the show. The producer insisted that the duo review the film because he wanted people to see the clips. “People don’t listen to you,” he told Ebert. “They look at the images, that it what sells the film. The images are what the viewers remember, not your words.”

    Ebert became a success by helping to redefine reviewing as nothing more than a quick verdict, thumbs flung up or down. The image is what counts — not the words. And that mantra has marginalized the craft of criticism and the status of film critics.

  2. Thank you for your contrarian view on the whole Ebert cult. You summed up the situation superbly. I realize that in the 21st century we writers need to self-promote ourselves whenever possible, but Ebert truly took it to ridiculous levels. For those of us reviewing films during the 1980s and ’90s (I was a stringer for the old Milwaukee Journal at the time), Ebert-Siskel were a frustrating nightmare of arrogance, hubris, and superficiality, as they clawed their way to celebritydom.

    And, yes, I do recall my freelance income dropping after the Journal began running his wire service reviews on weekends. I never experienced one of Ebert’s personal streams-of-consciousness, but I did see him on three occasions: the 1992 Independent Spirit Awards, a 1994 Chicago film screening, and, finally, at an early 2006 weeknight screening in Chicago, shortly before he no longer could speak. From what I have observed over the decades, Ebert could be polite and accommodating when it served his purposes and then (in the case of his old TV series with Siskel) ruthless and even cruel. Am I the only one who recalls a 1988 network news documentary on Hollywood that featured him yelling at his long-suffering TV director?

    I would love to hear more about that 1981 Sundance event you attended! I do recall reading about Ebert attending some other film festival in (I believe) the ’80s and being politely asked by a sheltered woman filmmaker, “Do you have a film in competition, Mr. Ebert?” Ebert’s words to her were, “I can’t believe you don’t know who I am!”

    Sorry for rambling, but your essay will no doubt bring out similar repressed memories from other frustrated scribes! Great job!

  3. Don’t be such a baby, Gerald. You sound like such a cuckold with your fake modesty. Ebert walked all over you and other panelists at festivals who didn’t have the guts to just speak up then. Instead you stayed quiet and whined about it years later.

    Oh, and “When For the Love of Movies” was marginal and by-the-numbers. It didn’t warrant much of a review to begin with. It was meh.

  4. Why would a cuckold possess “fake modesty”? Work on your writing, Mr. Smith. I was never on a panel with Roger Ebert. I was part of the frustrated audience several times when Rog rattled on and on and on, never allowing his fellow panelists to speak. He was that competitive and territorial. It wasn’t lack of guts that stopped the others from piping up. It was politeness.

    Sorry you didn’t like my documentary, For the Love of Movies, but that isn’t the point, whether it’s a good or bad film. It should have been reviewed in Chicago simply because it had a week’s run at the respected Gene Siskel Center. But Roger’s paper, The Sun-Times, seemingly blacklisted the movie. Was that because Ebert realized I wasn’t among his acolytes?

  5. Ebert’s been dead a while now, yet he still manages to be more interesting than the writer of this piece. Perhaps Mr Peary will be so lucky as to be so well known in the future, that some other far less famous writer will choose to make a list of feeble criticisms of him within a week of his death.

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