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
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.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.