Thursday, April 4, 2013

In Praise of Love

What’s interesting about Roger Ebert is that no one could ever land a serious blow towards him, reviewing films in a profession that practically places a bullseye on oneself. Rob Schneider’s pathetic barbs towards him in retaliation for a spat involving his classic “Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo” lacked enough teeth that Ebert’s returning blows were actually career-damaging. A mano-e-mano with Vincent Gallo isn’t really too distinguished, as Gallo gets into a row with everyone, while a potentially-biting spoof in “The Critic” was flattering enough to allow he and Gene Siskel to cameo as themselves, one of the few moments that show wasn’t taking the piss out of Hollywood. Most Ebert takedowns were along the lines of Mayor Ebert in Roland Emmerich’s pathetic “Godzilla,” as Ebert lookalike Michael Lerner boasted of a city given a “thumbs up,” seeming more like the schmucky Ed Koch.

There was always something Teflon about Ebert’s appeal. Pal Siskel was the angrier one, the feistier fellow with a bone to pick with some movies. With Ebert, his bone-deep hatred of some films seemed to come as a by-product of his love and affection for other films, whereas Siskel always seemed like an assassin. It’s what made their dynamic so interesting on “At The Movies,” which most movie buffs of my generation grew up watching: Siskel would take personal offense when the industry would chuck a piece of junk in his direction, and he wouldn’t mince words. And while Ebert had his share of pithy insults and clever put-downs, he almost seemed either hurt or disappointed when a film was a let-down.

Of course, not many films were, not even the bad ones. Ebert singled out a few he hated in a couple of his seventeen published books, but in most negative reviews, it seemed like he was having a good time. Writing seemed fun when it came from Ebert: his more serious essays and reviews would have real intellectual heft, but he knew when to boil it down to “just a movie” territory. The truth was, bad movies always had some sort of redeeming asset to him. He once told a lie that feels like truth to me: “All bad movies are depressing, no good movies are.” It’s a testament to how beloved he was that I had trouble googling the exact quote, his passing jamming the traffic at Ebert-related sites.

But I don’t think films depressed him: even “Kick Ass,” which repulsed him to no end, established a conflict within himself that proved more fascinating than the film: was this entertainment, and if so, why? Was the escalation of on-screen violence featuring children a changing of the times, or a lowering of standards? His changing opinion of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” ultimately said more about film criticism, and depictions of violence in society, than anything Ben Lyons has ever written.

The strongest criticism of Ebert came from those who derided the “thumbs up” school of thought. Most of the time, the content of “At The Movies” would be summed up by a late-show recap of thumbs, followed by a newspaper ad for a film that boasted the treasured “Two Thumbs Up!” (or, sometimes, a cut-rate “Thumbs Up!” from one of the two). The argument is that this led to the proliferation of odious sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which boiled down film criticism into arbitrary numbers or basic plus/minuses. Which may be true, but that was the direction the public was going to take in the first place.

Film criticism itself was alive and well when Siskel and Ebert found their way to television, but bringing it into our homes made all the difference. Suddenly, a debate could be had as to whether a film was good or not amongst family members, and film criticism wasn’t the dinosaur it is today, an arcane nerd caste system. The writings of Sarris and Kael would be even more obscure were it not for the public television efforts of Siskel and Ebert’s shows, a gateway drug for those who wanted to know about film, cinema’s “Mr. Rogers” that played to all audiences, not just children. To some, it changed the way they think about film, and the way they think about thinking about film.

But, to the rest of us, it was sweet manna from Heaven. Even written at a fourth grade equivalency, the newspaper reviews we would read had a certain dry academic air to them. Films had to fulfill THIS criteria, said any number of syndicated critics. Others would simply, humorlessly pooh-pooh anything that wasn’t an elaborate think piece made for an audience much older than I was.

But seeing this paunchy dork and his punchy, pencil-necked companion verbally duke it out was to see something more unique. Reviews existed next to film, but film LED to this: a genuine connection between two people who could freely agree or disagree all day long, discussing bigger life issues, or smaller, dopier minutiae about today’s biggest films. It’s funny, the desire to be cool felt so tangible when we were young, but at the same time, we WANTED to be Siskel and Ebert, off-the-cuff critics who could riff with ease. In contrast, Siskel’s replacement Richard Roeper was never nearly as exciting, unless he was sparring with a female guest host, when he would lean forward in his chair, top button undone. The less said about the parade of celebrity fill-ins for Ebert (John Mellencamp, Harry Knowles, Jay Leno), the better.

As Ebert aged, his health diminished, he became more specific and incisive in his language. Films were no longer a diversion for him, but they weren’t a way of life. As his writing leaned more towards introspection, they seemed like a gateway into deeper philosophies. His hate was no longer red hot, or even lukewarm: there was a newer warmth, as if he recognized that the world of film was a place of acceptance, and that we could appreciate the misfit toys that suddenly came his way, whether they be dopey blockbusters or small failures. With the pillars of the critic establishment having passed on, it felt as if Ebert was the remaining acknowledgement that we were in this together, for the appreciation of the craft, the thrill of film unspooling, the projector whirring, the lights dimming and the movie beginning. With his loss, the feeling is that this is now a world with a lot less love.

We’ll miss you, Roger.

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