[Marxism] Nice tribute to Ebert by NYT's A.O. Scott

Louis Proyect 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 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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