8:47 a.m. April 9, 2013

Two Thumbs Up, Six Feet Down

It’s several days since Roger Ebert died, and I have to conclude that the world isn’t going to end after all. I half expected it would. Though by now I’m used to the paroxysms of public grief that follow every celebrity death, the Facebook howls, the Twitter sobs, the televised wailing and rending of garments, I wasn’t quite prepared for the Mount Vesuvius-like eruption of hot gushing tears that flooded the land after Ebert’s demise.

But on the bright side, we’ve gotten over other recent celebrity deaths pretty quickly, for all our lamentations:

Elizabeth Taylor (She was the ultimate star! She was stardom itself! There will never be a starrier star!)

Whitney Houston (Oh God, to die so young, with so much of her music still in her! The greatest voice in a generation—a century—a millennium! Jenny Lind, Maria Callas, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Nina Simone, they all sang like crap compared to her!)

Nora Ephron (The most accomplished feminist thinker of our time, as every fan of Sleepless in Seattle can attest! She taught us how to laugh, to live, to love! Now she belongs to the ages!)

Tony Scott (What a blindingly brilliant director, surpassing all others in superb craftsmanship! Just think, we’ll never have another Tony Scott movie! Never another Top Gun, another Last Boy Scout, another Pelham 123! Never! Goodnight, sweet prince! And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!)

Still, with the absolute devastation wrought by Roger Ebert’s passing, I didn’t see how the peoples of the world could carry on. As filmmaker Werner Herzog reportedly said when he heard the terrible news, “My question is, what do we do without him now? What do we do?”

Good question, Werner! What do we do when a film critic dies? A film critic whose name people actually recognized! Who said the immortal words, “Thumbs up/thumbs down”! Who made himself as ubiquitous as Burger King by pumping out blandly pleasant middlebrow opinions about movies in every possible media venue for years and years and years!

What do we do? Well, obviously, the joy flickers out of our eyes forever and we plod through the remainder of our lives as mere husks of our former selves.

Come on, buck up, everybody. It may be that there’s no cause for despair. It’s not absolutely clear to me that Roger Ebert is prepared to stop being an active film critic just because he’s dead. If you re-read his last press release, published in the Chicago Sun-Times two days before he succumbed, you see that he’s planning to go right on reviewing films, just a bit more selectively.

On Tuesday April 2nd Ebert announced he was taking a “leave of presence” in order to grapple with a return of the cancer that cost him his voice and most of his jaw, and Thursday April 4th he was dead. But a little thing like bodily decomposition can’t stop Roger Ebert. He made the necessary arrangements to carry on post-mortem. No doubt we’ll see his bespectacled ghost haunting press screenings and film festivals, and his reviews written in ectoplasm will appear on his website without interruption. He as good as said so in his imminent-death announcement, while bragging about his superhuman — soon to be supernatural — productivity:

Typically, I write over 200 reviews a year for the Sun-Times that are carried by Universal Press Syndicate in some 200 newspapers. Last year, I wrote the most of my career, including 306 movie reviews, a blog post or two a week, and assorted other articles. I must slow down now, which is why I'm taking what I like to call "a leave of presence."'

What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What's more, I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.

At the same time, I am re-launching the new and improved Rogerebert.com and taking ownership of the site under a separate entity, Ebert Digital, run by me, my beloved wife, Chaz, and our brilliant friend, Josh Golden of Table XI. Stepping away from the day-to-day grind will enable me to continue as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and roll out other projects under the Ebert brand in the coming year.

See? He’s merely “stepping away from the day-to-day grind” so he can really focus his efforts, re-launch the site, push the brand. Spectral Roger Ebert will probably be an even more heavily commoditized film-review-generator than corporeal Roger Ebert.

There’s no getting rid of this guy. There hasn’t been since 1967. Ebert’s tireless omnipresence as a film reviewer is the one truly awesome thing about him.

I used to go to film festivals a lot, and witnessed it firsthand. Roger Ebert was always there. Always. It was uncanny, like those old Droopy Dog cartoons. At the Sundance Film Festival, if you spotted him in his usual front row seat at one of the screenings and decided you couldn’t stand looking at the back of his big square head anymore, you could run a four-minute mile to a screening on the opposite side of town, and he’d be there too, seated in the front row again as stolidly as if he’d been born there.

And that Droopy Dog act has been going on in multi-media form for 46 years and counting. 200 reviews a year on average, prolific blogging and tweeting, innumerable interviews online, on radio, on TV. His fifteen books including the three-volume “Great Movies” series, “Questions for the Movie Answer Man,” “I Hated Hated Hated This Movie,” and an autobiography, “Life Itself: A Memoir.” His eons-long TV reviewing career running from “Siskel and Ebert At the Movies” to “Sneak Previews to Ebert and Roeper” to that creepy last one featuring hand-picked critic pals of his plus somebody reading Ebert’s reviews aloud and casting a reverent pall over the whole proceedings.

How many hundred thousand thumbs up/thumbs down is that exactly?

Roger Ebert may truly be a man who never had an unexpressed thought. And the result? A Pulitzer Prize, plus huge numbers of people believing Roger Ebert was/is a great film critic, presumably based on the capitalist rationale that the person selling the most reviews must be the best reviewer. Ain’t Coke the best beverage?

Ebert was indeed the most popular of a gaggle of now-elderly film critics who landed their jobs as young men in the 1960s and ’70s and have hung on like herpes from then to now. There’s no such thing as retirement for these guys. They have to be brutally forced out the door, protesting all the way that they can’t believe a mere forty years on the job is deemed sufficient (J. Hoberman, “The Village Voice”). Or else they’re carried out in a pine box, nominally deceased but still spasmodically clutching their passes for the coming week’s press screenings. Looking at you, David Denby, Richard Schickel, Richard Corliss, and Michael Sragow!

When they started, it was the “Golden Age” of American film criticism, i.e. a time when the general public actually read film criticism. Every newspaper and magazine had a critic. And in the ’60s there was a fortuitous wave of job turnover in the profession, because established greybeard critics were having trouble evaluating these strange, choppy, grainy, nudie, violent so-called “New Wave” films the kids were making these days. The greybeards’ knee-jerk disapproval infuriated the demographic that made up the majority of dedicated filmgoers in the ’60s — young people in their teens and twenties — and pretty soon the calls poured in for fresher, livelier, more with-it film critics to tackle the latest works of Godard, Antonioni, Oshima, and Peckinpah.

Up-and-comer Pauline Kael led the young-critic charge with her memorable demand for the balding head of Bosley Crowther on a pike. He was the thirty-year-veteran critic for The New York Times, and he started a generational war when he panned the 1967 revisionist gangster film "Bonnie and Clyde." The film became a cause célèbre for young critics, but Crowther refused to be daunted and panned the film twice more. Meanwhile other established critics ran for cover. Joe Morgenstern of Newsweek, for example, saved his job by having a sudden epiphany about what a wonderful film “Bonnie and Clyde” was, and hastening to retract and apologize for his initial negative review.

Pretty soon Crowther was out, and the sea change was underway. Suddenly every pimpled young cinephile who’d written film reviews for his college paper had a shot at a real job. In 1967, Roger Ebert was one of these lucky youths. He was twenty-four years old, and he was hired in part because he WAS twenty-four years old, and happened to be standing there, working at the Chicago Sun-Times as a part-time reporter, when the head reviewer retired. Reviewing “Bonnie and Clyde” was one of his first assignments. Here’s a quote from Ebert’s 1998 retrospective review of the film, looking back fondly on his own early triumph:

The legend of the film's production has become almost as famous as its heroes. Stories are told about how [producer and star Warren] Beatty knelt at the feet of studio boss Jack Warner, begging for the right to make the film. How Warner saw the original cut and hated it. How the movie premiered at the Montreal film festival, and was roasted by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times. How Warner Bros. determined to dump it in a chain of Texas drive-ins, and how Beatty implored the studio to give it a chance. How it opened and quickly closed in the autumn of 1967, panned by the critics, receiving only one ecstatic opening-day newspaper review. (Modesty be damned: It was my own, calling it "a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance'' and predicting "years from now it is quite possible that 'Bonnie and Clyde' will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s.'')

Notice how Ebert doesn’t mention the far more famous and influential rave review by Pauline Kael that appeared in The New Yorker a month after his review. Competitive careerism doesn’t end just because it’s thirty years after the fact.

In evaluating Roger Ebert’s half-century in the sun, it might’ve been a good idea for people to get to the end of their lugubrious 48-hour mourning period before they wrote about him, just so a little bit of sanity could prevail. There’s no reason a public figure has to be turned into a phony paragon of virtue, a combination of Einstein, Shakespeare, and St. Francis of Assisi, in order to be remembered more or less affectionately. After all, Ebert was a fixture in a lot of American childhoods, like a mostly-ignored uncle babbling genially in the background about his favorite subject, and people get nostalgic about things like that. You can miss your Uncle Roger, that’s okay.

What’s not okay is making Roger Ebert out to be a hundred times more perceptive and talented than he actually was so you can have a bigger, wetter sad about him in public. Because that’s just disgusting.

Looked at clearly-headedly, Ebert made his mark as an indefatigable movie enthusiast with non-threatening mainstream tastes. People tended to like him because he came across as a nice enough man — nicer than Siskel, that’s for sure — who didn’t burden them with too much insight or analysis, which might make them itchy and resentful. He talked about films in pedestrian, easy-to-understand ways, nothing too spiky or startling or astute. Here’s part of his blandly favorable review of “Titanic,” for example:

James Cameron’s 194-minute, $200 million film of the tragic voyage is in the tradition of the great Hollywood epics. It is flawlessly crafted, intelligently constructed, strongly acted, and spellbinding. If its story starts well within the traditional formulas for such pictures, well, you don’t choose the most expensive film ever made as your opportunity to reinvent the wheel...

Movies like this are not merely difficult to make at all, but almost impossible to make well. The technical difficulties are so daunting that it’s a wonder when the filmmakers are also able to bring the drama and history into proportion. I found myself convinced by both story and saga.

See how you get the general impression that he liked the movie, but two seconds after reading it you don’t remember anything specific that he wrote? Classic Roger Ebert. Goes down easy, no aftertaste.

Ebert liked art films as well as commercial films, though his art film tastes were also numbingly conventional. He repeatedly stated that his favorite film of all time was “Citizen Kane,” a claim so reassuringly safe it amounts to genius if your goal is never to alarm anyone with your knowledge of film. Once, when pressed, he admitted his favorite was really “La Dolce Vita,” as if that were a more daring choice.

As a writer, his style was serviceable at best. It makes for amusing reading, all the recent tributes trying to find ways to build it up and make it sound terrific. Here’s Andrew O’Hehir of Salon trying to justify calling Ebert “The Great Communicator”:

He’s up there with Will Rogers, H.L. Mencken and A.J. Liebling, and not too far short of Mark Twain, as one of the great plainspoken commentators on American culture and American life.

Yeah, you got that right: O’Hehir just put Ebert into comparison with Mark Twain, the most vivid, slashing, furious, hilarious, earthy, pungent, black-humored, great-hearted, contrary, fantastical writer America ever produced. O’Hehir thinks he can get away with putting Twain and Ebert together under the umbrella term “plainspoken,” in order to make some of Twain’s virtues rub off on Ebert. But the additional what-the-hell inclusion of Rogers and Mencken and Liebling all under the same crowded umbrella gives it all away as total flapdoodle written under pressure, because even an umbrella the size of a carnival tent can’t possibly cover them all.

Other critics and pundits, also up against deadlines for generating their tributes, threw together various Roger Ebert quotes, “greatest hits” lists of Ebert’s supposed best lines, best “zingers,” even best political and philosophical musings. A small sampling:

“A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

“American Beauty is a comedy because we laugh at the absurdity of the hero's problems. And a tragedy because we can identify with his failure --not the specific details, but the general outline.”

On Last Rites, 1997: "Was there no one connected with this project who read the screenplay, considered the story, evaluated the proposed film and vomited?"

On North, Rob Reiner, 1994: "I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."

“Every great film should seem new every time you see it.”

“I am proudly a liberal. I am also patriotic, reasonable, pro-American, and stand for family values.”

“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.”

The most quoted line from the Ebert oeuvre seems to be, “I will one day be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny,” perhaps because it’s the most sharply, atypically personal and pithy insult he came up with in a very long career.

To be fair, Ebert certainly did some good things occasionally; he stumped for Michael Moore and Errol Morris early in their careers, for example. But I admit I was out of sympathy with him from early on. It was my view, as a cinema-maddened youth, that to speak and write as dully about film as Roger Ebert did seemed a sin so dreadful it called for horsewhipping. Over the years Ebert repeatedly panned the films I loved most, such as “Blue Velvet” and “Miller’s Crossing,” writing about them with the same kind of profound cluelessness that enraged Ebert’s peers when they read old Bosley Crowther’s reviews. Ebert’s ever-growing popularity made me despair of the possibility of any revival of real, distinctive, ambitious film criticism as practiced by the brilliant James Agee, Robert Warshow, and Manny Farber.

All told, Ebert’s greatest gift was his incredible ability to transcend a dying profession by parlaying his modest writing skills and insatiable appetite for prosaic “film appreciation” into a zillion-dollar media juggernaut. There’s no arguing with Ebert’s spectacular success. He got richer and more famous every year. And in America, we truly adore a person who gets richer and more famous every year. Especially if he can keep it going after his own death.