Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

Getting real tired of your shit, death.

ROGER EBERT died today. My feelings about Ebert are strong, if ill-defined. Anybody who loves movies has taken turns both loving and hating the man, watching as he eventually trashed a favorite movie while simultaneously admiring his devotion to a sometimes wobbly sense of aesthetics. He's absolutely correct when he said “No good film is too long and no bad movie is short enough," words that will surely be repeated often during the next few days. While the quote suggests a cavalier attitude to film, what he's really saying is "There's more to storytelling than putting actors on film." While it might not seem like a novel idea today, there was a time when film criticism never ventured beyond discussion of gross entertainment value.

Ebert was among the last of a generation of film critics that helped to move the very concept away from the empty egomania that had defined it for so long. Thanks to his generation, film criticism stopped being a way for writers to ingratiate themselves on Hollywood and became a worthy medium all its own. Because of people like Ebert, PAULINE KAEL and JON LANDAU, guys like myself have a road map on how to conduct ourselves professionally ... no matter what medium we're shooting our mouths off about.

But nobody's perfect, and Ebert didn't get where he was overnight. Here's what he had to say about HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS back in 1970:
"But supposing you're a vampire and you want to end it all. You're licked. W. C. Fields once observed that the only permanent cure for hangovers is death. But even death is no help if you're a vampire, because you're already dead. No, you've got to find some friends cooperative enough to flash crucifixes at you, whirl garlic around on a string and hold a mirror up to your eyes (so you can see you're invisible). And thus distracted, you can hope they've had the decency to bring along a wooden stake and put you out of your misery."
His entire review for HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is like that, written in a snarky manner that doesn't suggest he actually watched the movie. By the next year, though, he was trying a little harder. Whether or not you liked what he had to say, his 1971 review of NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS provided insight into the film's mechanics:
"No effort is made to give the characters any human, or even inhuman, dimension, and toward the end of the movie not a lot goes on except for double takes, screams and lots of bleeding. There are, however, a couple of messy sex scenes that make the movie unsuitable for its GP ratings. Why do some producers insist on putting in unsavory stuff when they know the horror-movie audience has a lot of kids in it, and is easily satisfied with a few laughs and a few scares?"

Now, if you like either HOUSE or NIGHT, you're probably a little pissed off. Provocation is one of the functions of criticism, and I've made my peace with Ebert's less-than-glowing reviews of films like DIE HARD and BLADE RUNNER (not to mention his bizarrely favorable reviews of dreck like SPAWN and TOMB RAIDER.) Everybody's got an opinion, but so few of us understand the tapestry of personal experience that helped us to form those opinions. I'm not saying Ebert was better acquainted with his own perspective than you or I, but he wasn't afraid to conduct a little soul searching in public. It wasn't about WHAT we liked, it's about WHY we like it.

Starting in 2002, a series of catastrophic illnesses made life increasingly difficult for him. But the guy still went to work, attending screenings and sharing his thoughts on movies with yet another generation of film fans and writers. It's rather amazing that I'm acquainted with at least three people who've had some sort of positive interaction with the man (CHS contributors WILL McKINLEY, FRANK JAY GRUBER and PATRICK McCRAY) in the years since cancer took its toll on him. Ebert was a work horse who genuinely loved what he did.

Not only did he continue to thrive while seriously ill, he continued to thrive in an industry that has has been steadily laying off movie critics during the last 20 years ... if not closing up shop altogether.

Just so we leave no stone at Collinwood unturned (or unburned) here's what Roger Ebert had to say about TIM BURTON's 2012 film:
"We know we can expect a pitch-perfect performance by Depp, who plays Barnabas with a lasered intensity, and we know Burton's sets and art direction will be spectacular. I think the best use of Depp in a Burton world was "Sleepy Hollow" (1999). Here Depp seems to inhabit a world of his own, perhaps in self-defense. The others seem to be performing parodies of their characters. "Dark Shadows" begins with great promise, but then the energy drains out."

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