[Marxism] Nice tribute to Ebert by NYT's A.O. Scott
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 6 08:09:38 MDT 2013
NY Times April 5, 2013
Ebert Was a Critic Whose Sting Was Salved by Caring
By A. O. SCOTT
By midafternoon on Thursday the digital common was crowded with
mourners. #Ebert and #RIPEbert crowded out all the other hashtags on
Twitter. Every movie blogger, entertainment journalist, critic and film
buff who had crossed paths with Roger Ebert or absorbed his influence —
which is to say just about all of us — posted an elegy or a
reminiscence. Along with those collegial and filial tributes came
salutes from filmmakers and a statement from the White House after his
death at 70, almost surely the first time a film critic has been
eulogized by a president.
There is a hometown connection between President Obama and Mr. Ebert, of
course, and there is much to be said about what Chicago meant to Mr.
Ebert (who grew up downstate, in Champaign-Urbana), and vice versa. He
was a singular figure in a city where celebrity is typically the
prerogative of politicians and professional athletes, and where the
local news media sometimes seems determined to feed a longstanding civic
inferiority complex. Not only was he a great newspaperman, an heir to
the noble tradition of Mike Royko and Irv Kupcinet, but also the man
who, with his rival and television partner, Gene Siskel of The Chicago
Tribune, helped to make Chicago the first city of movie criticism.
He was proudly local, his byline gracing The Chicago Sun-Times, his
caricature decorating the wall of half the restaurants in the Loop, his
aisle seat reserved at the Lake Street screening room. All this even
after he became the universal embodiment and global ambassador of his
profession, at home in Cannes and Hollywood and, most recently, on Twitter.
Twitter was the last, and maybe the least, of the discursive forms Mr.
Ebert mastered. A journalist for nearly half a century, a television
star for three decades, a tireless blogger and the author of a memoir
and a cookbook, he was platform agnostic long before that unfortunate
bit of jargon was invented. Social media, another neologism and, too
often, an oxymoron, was for him a tautology.
Every medium he made use of was, above all, a tool of communication, a
way of talking to people — Sun-Times readers, the critic in the other
chair, Facebook friends, insomniacs and enthusiasts — about the movies
he cared about and, perhaps more important, the human emotions and
aspirations those movies represented.
An unapologetic liberal (always ready to fight back when scolded for the
imaginary sin of injecting political views into his criticism), he was
also an exemplary small-d democrat, a committed anti-snob. He routinely
answered letters and e-mail from schoolchildren and college students and
happily tangled with younger, less credentialed critics who challenged him.
After surgery for cancer of the salivary glands and chin took away his
power of speech, his blog, Roger Ebert’s Journal, became the vehicle of
a newly personal, at times breathtakingly intimate, literary voice, as
illness forced him — and freed him — to contemplate memory, mortality,
religion, sex and other noncinematic matters. Somehow, in the midst of
reviewing five movies a week and working on a half-dozen other writing
projects, he found time and energy to respond to his commenters.
It is partly this ubiquity that makes his loss feel so personal, even to
people who never met him. Anyone with an interest in movies who came of
age in the post-’70s film generations — through the blockbusters of the
’80s, the indie boom of the ’90s and the digital revolution that
followed — has had Roger Ebert as a foil, a role model and a companion.
It was sometimes easy to take him for granted, to make fun of him
(though he and Siskel were brilliant at beating mockers to the punch
with knowing self-parody) or to complain about the thumbs.
Like many critics who grew up under his influence, I have been guilty of
all that. My relationship with Roger (if I may abandon the pretense of
formality) got off to an unpromising start. In the fall of 1999 I wrote
an article for Slate about Martin Scorsese that accused film critics (in
whose ranks I was not yet enrolled) of giving him a free ride, and
singled out Roger’s embrace of the dreadful “Bringing Out the Dead” as a
prime example of uncritical favoritism.
It wasn’t very nice, but in retrospect I would not say that I was wrong.
Roger was not wrong either, though, when a few months later he greeted
the news of my hiring as a film critic at The New York Times with
skepticism. What could it have been thinking when it hired a
wet-behind-the-ears book reviewer with no film background to write about
“Has he seen six films by Bresson? Ozu?” Roger wondered aloud. Stung, I
name-checked both auteurs in the second review I ever wrote for The Times.
Soon enough, he accepted me into the critical fraternity, and we became
friends, and eventually I sat in his chair (across from Richard Roeper
and then Michael Phillips) on his show, “At the Movies,” where I learned
just how tricky critical thumbwork can be.
But none of that is why I’m recalling our early spat. My point is that
Roger was both a zealous defender of the standards of film criticism —
as a way of thinking and as a writing discipline that demanded as much
knowledge and rigor as any other — and a gracious and generous supporter
of anyone who wanted to practice it.
That spirit extended to some of the performers and filmmakers who felt
the sting of his negative judgment. His brutal Cannes takedown of
Vincent Gallo’s “Brown Bunny” elicited a furious, vulgar reaction from
the director, but when Roger saw a later cut of the movie, he found
reason to praise it. And after savaging “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo”
he was pleased to tell the world that the movie’s star, Rob Schneider,
had sent him flowers and a get-well card.
The bouquet was a reminder, Roger wrote, “that although Rob Schneider
might (in my opinion) have made a bad movie, he is not a bad man, and no
doubt tried to make a wonderful movie, and hopes to again.”
There are a few lessons here. It can be hard to discern the good
intentions behind bad work, but it’s important to try to keep them in
mind. And wielding the thumb of judgment takes more dexterity, more art,
than you might think. Roger made it look easy, thanks to the clarity of
his prose and the passionate, sometimes prickly directness of his
television persona. Both the writing and the TV show took a lot of work,
of course, but the way he approached them inspired many of us to think
that this was something we could do too.
Not that we can, exactly. No reasonable person would take up film
criticism expecting wealth, fame or a presidential proclamation, and the
fact that Roger got all of that is proof of his singularity. He is
But his death should not be taken as yet another occasion to lament the
decline of movies or the decay of movie criticism. The day before he
died, Roger announced that he was taking a “leave of presence”
necessitated by the reappearance of his cancer, and even though the
message was a farewell, it was also full of plans for the future: the
redesign of his Web site; the kick-start of the latest iteration of his
television show; the refocusing of his energies on the films he most
wanted to write about.
There was always room on his list of great movies for those that had not
yet been made, always time to revisit and reassess the old ones. There
were always new critical voices to be discovered, encouraged and nurtured.
That will not change. Roger was not one to collect disciples, but he
taught a lot of us — and I don’t mean only, or primarily, professional
critics — a lot of what we know about movies and about criticism. It’s
hard work, but anyone can do it. All you need are eyes, a voice and a
friend in the next chair to tell you when you’re wrong.
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