Rightwing Film Geek

Thumbs up, Rog

ebert.jpgApparently, the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Roger Ebert is expected to recover from complications from his latest round of cancer surgery. Still, no man is immortal, and he will be eligible for Social Security next year. (But then … gulp … my father will be the year after that, and my mother another year later.)

But Ebert was the man who first taught me that movies could be taken seriously. I doubt there are many US-resident cinephiles of my generation of whom that was not true. His books from the late-80s were the first film criticism I ever read, and the fire was lit under me. But his books also introduced me to the Sight & Sound poll, giving me the start of a canon to work with, and always included think-essays and reviews of theatrical rereleases of classics (his recent video guides, consisting entirely of reviews from the last several years, don’t have this value; I bought four from 1987 to 1993; none since). He could even get into the ring with Richard Corliss in FILM COMMENT when he went after their show, and said the problem with American movies is that they’re star-driven and exercises in marketing. Good call, Rog. Thumbs up.

I can’t say I read Ebert as much as I once did. It’s not as crass as “I’ve outgrown him,” more that he’s made his mark (plus Richard Roeper is simply a twit). The purpose Ebert served for me as a budding cinephile, he no longer can. I have a good sense of film history of my own; with my own areas of special interest (silent films, Bollywood, e.g.); I’m confident enough in my tastes that I don’t need to be assured that it’s OK to hate a film everyone else loves; I go to festivals myself, so I don’t need him as a gatekeeper, etc.

It’s tempting to forget now, with Mister Roper on the other side of the aisle, just how good Siskel & Ebert TV show was in the 80s. For us, Siskel & Ebert were doing something other than hyping the latest blockbusters and running Top 10 grossing lists, like Entertainment Tonight. It was the only word you could get at the time that there were the important Indie and foreign films to look out for if they eventually came to your town. And the two actually had something to say about film history and the classics. Again the comparisons with the clone shows — involving Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved, or Rex Reed, Bill Harris and Dixie Whatley — make the point about how much more substantial Siskel and Ebert’s show was. The other mentioned critics are all justly forgotten (except for Medved, who’s carved out a career as a political commentator).

But Siskel & Ebert was a great show and I still have about seven or eight VHS tapes of memorable shows. The clips and the verbal rassling was fun, but the specials were what was really memorable. Not just the annual and decade Top 10s, but shows like “the movies that made us critics,” where Gene and Roger described what films moved them at various stages of life — A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, the Judy Garland A STAR IS BORN, LA DOLCE VITA, BONNIE & CLYDE (I just astonished myself by remembering these titles of Roger’s without having to look them up); a show called “you blew it!”; special shows on black-and-white films and silent films; theme shows devoted to directors and stars like Spike Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They also got to be big enough celebrities to be invited onto other programs, and not just Carson, Letterman, and Arsenio. I cheered when during NBC’s Olympics coverage, the two did a segment about the greatest sports films of all time, and mentioned Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece on the 1936 Berlin games, OLYMPIA. The made the point that the very spectacle we were watching in Seoul (both in Korea and the coverage of it) would have been unthinkable without Riefenstahl.

Yes, Ebert is a liberal who can sometimes be annoying. But this post isn’t just an exercise in “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” (and not just in the sense that Ebert’s obviously not dead). He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for not marching in lockstep with the lefty twits who dominate the world of film criticism, the snootier you get, the thicker the smog is. Off the top of my head, I can think of his review of CLOSET LAND (he dismissed it as “a politically correct allegorical dirge” on the S&E show); the comments he gave to the LA Times in July 2003 (no longer online, but it was called “Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology: Film school isn’t what it used to be, one father discovers.”) about a Marxist-infested film-studies program at UC-Santa Barbara. Ebert said (working from memory, probably a wee bit off): “film theory has nothing to do with film; these programs are worthless and nobody with any taste or intelligence would take them.” Thumbs up, Rog. And then there was his famous diss on PRIEST (Ebert, a Catholic, already had complained once on the show, I forget where, about the cheap use of the sanctity of the Confessional), but he ended his review with this walk-off:

For this movie to be described as a moral statement about anything other than the filmmaker’s prejudices is beyond belief.

Wow. It was … “the most famous critic in America is actually slamming a movie on the grounds of religious bigotry and stupidity.” I don’t know if I can communicate how inspiring that was to me, in 1995, when I was just starting to write my first film criticism, on Usenet.

Get well, Rog. You’re still needed. And always be loved.

July 4, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: