After 46 years of critiquing movies, Roger Ebert finally passed away last Thursday, April 4.
A good critic is a rare and useful thing, and in my estimation Ebert was very good. He was unpretentious, and to the best of his abilities he tried to evaluate a movie for what it was, not for what it made no attempt to be. If a movie aspired to be enjoyable trash, Ebert extolled whatever pleasures were to be had from wallowing in it. If a movie aspired to greatness, he measured it against the best. In so doing he provided a great service to both filmmakers and audience members. I am a member of both of those groups, and I mourn his loss for very personal and selfish reasons.
I believe it is primarily because of his sense of fair play rather than his personal taste in movies that made his reviews the most dependable indicator of whether I would enjoy a particular film or not, especially if he liked a humble entertainment that most other critics turned their noses up at. He was also willing on occasion to reconsider a film he previously panned, admit he was wrong, and give it a thumbs up. A filmmaker can learn a lot from a critic like Ebert. The man had an encyclopedic knowledge of the movies, and loved them passionately. Famously, Ebert dragged Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” over the coals after it’s Cannes premiere, declaring it the worst film in the history of the festival. Gallo responded by calling Ebert a “fat pig”. Ebert responded, ‘I will one day be thin but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of ‘The Brown Bunny.’ More than a year later, after viewing a new cut by Gallo from which the director had excised 26 minutes, Ebert was happy to publicly recommend the movie, generously enumerating all the ways in which it had improved. No sour grapes there, just a desire for quality.
I will admit to having daydreamed more than once about receiving a positive and thoughtful review from Ebert for one of my own movies, but I would have been happy with a negative review. Why? Well, I work hard and honestly and I believe he would have perceived that and that his criticisms would have been constructive. But let’s be clear: I would much rather prefer a favorable review. And that’s me being selfish. I will miss the help he could have given me. But I can’t underestimate how much he has already done for me with his vast body of work, which I may never finish reading.
I love that he said this:
“Every movie was made by people who hoped it would fulfill their vision for it, and is seen by people who hope to admire it. If you believe a movie is bad or wins its audience dishonorably, that can be a splendid beginning for a review, but you must remember that the people making it and seeing it have given up part of their lives in the hope that it would be worth those months or hours.”
So true. Goodbye Roger. I will always try not to waste my time nor that of my audience. I find it impossible to imagine that there are no movies wherever you’ve ended up, so do me a favor and keep your eye out for mine.
You could do far worse things with your time than make your way through Roger Ebert’s Great Movies List.