Roger Ebert, RIP

So for this week, I’m doing something different.

As usual when a celebrity dies, the passing of Roger Ebert spawned a passel of cheesy obituary cartoons by editorial cartoonists who depict the departed at the pearly gates, enjoying the afterlife. I hate the format and I usually only do them to mock the form or take a really contrarian position on the subject.

This time, I’ve decided to show what the form could be: an opportunity for assessing a life, and its social and political meaning in our culture. Yes, Virginia, it is possible to draw an intelligent obituary cartoon. But is it possible for it to be printed in a newspaper?

No doubt, critic Roger Ebert had a remarkable passion for film. His brutal final cancer years couldn’t crush his enthusiasm for the form. Lost in the misty-eyed remembrances, however, was his awful taste. More than any other film reviewer, Ebert reinforced the hollow sentimentality and arrogant exceptionalism that compose the nasty side of the American character.

P.S. Worth reading.

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10 thoughts on “Roger Ebert, RIP

  1. Ebert will be remembered — by the young and by designers — for starting a “videogames are not art” kerfluffle, via an evidence-free peice whose most impassioned argument was, effectively, an angry old man screaming “get off my lawn!” Coming from anyone else, it would have been dismissed as trolling, and properly so, with little fanfare, but Ebert’s name on the byline forced a completely worthless controversy into existence. Worse, because Ebert provides basically no serious argument for his conclusion, people responded with shotgun diatribes against anything he could have possibly been saying.

    . . . when no one should have engaged him at all. Keep in mind, at their time of origin, cinema was dismissed as inferior art, if art at all. Similarly, old rockers may dismiss hip hop, just as rock was dismissed. Old people hate new things arbitrarily. People should have shrugged and said movies are art (Ebert would agree), music is art, box cover illustration is art, interactive art installations in a gallery are art, so if I literally combine all of those things onto one CD and slap the word “game” on the disc the whole thing stops being art because. . . why again?

    That episode proved two things: Ebert is a dim-witted hack and Ebert is an excellent writer. The Friedman comparison below was both apt and inappropriate both, because Friedman is a hack and a tremendously awful writer, which makes all the difference in the world. Even if Friedman is right about something, he’ll torture the English language to express it. Ebert could definitely entertain, and that counts for a tremendous amount. He’s fun to read and was fun to listen to with Siskel.

    But stray into areas of substance and weight and Ebert abandoned all burdens of proof and rejects all tools of argument, going with his gut. Alas, the gut is best, and, truly, solely, used for producing shit.

  2. @Alex

    “I can’t figure out how libraries burned in the past without the Internet to cheapen them.”

    Grumpy old men who hate technological advancement burned them, of course.

    (Sorry dude, but you walked right into that one).

  3. Claiming a movie is ‘culturally influential’ before it is at least a decade old is like when ESPN concludes each national championship with “it’s an instant classic”……there are hundreds of movies out there that are amazingly done, epic, great acting, etc etc…and few people know anything about them. Star Wars….now THAT is culturally influential.

  4. Someone,

    Thanks. Those are good points. But I’m sticking to my Cranky Old Man Pants: Ebert might not have been a great reviewer, but he was a great writer. And I’d rather be captivated by a piece of writing that I disagree with than suffer through the ordeal of choking down something that agrees with my worldview but flows like a rockslide.

    “It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I’ve seen ‘Paint Your Wagon.’ ” — Roger Ebert

    Isn’t that a lovely use of the adjective “scandalous”? Not the shopworn and vague “awful” or “terrible.” “Scandalous.” It has such lovely nuances.

    But don’t worry. We’ll never have to worry about this again. The next batch of movie reviewers will confuse razzle-dazzle with skill, continuous low innuendo with wit, and vague phraseology with stream of consciousness and “edginess” (whatever the hell that is; how can you have an edge with no sharpness?). Their dictionaries and thesauri (if they own either), will look showroom new for years and years because they will never bother looking up words or searching for more precise terms. The same Crayola 16-pack of terms will serve them indefinitely. Their “Angry Birds” skills will be in the top 3% of the free world. Their Twitter account will have many followers. They’ll get invited to all the right parties.

    I can’t figure out how libraries burned in the past without the Internet to cheapen them.

  5. @Alex, I think Ted’s first panel, “No doubt, critic Roger Ebert had a remarkable passion for film. His brutal final cancer years couldn’t crush his enthusiasm for the form.” is a pretty open statement that “Ebert never phoned it in even after he was dying of a brutal cancer.”

    I don’t think anyone here is arguing that he was lazy or ever “phoned it in”. Ted is just arguing that Ebert’s taste in movies was crap and that Ebert not only loved unoriginal mush, but also fawned over movies that were at best unintentional propaganda for the worst of American actions and thoughts.

    Even in my harsher criticism below I am not calling Ebert lazy or insinuating that he ever phoned it in. I agree Ebert was a good writer and he certainly wrote quite prolifically. I just don’t think Ebert had much in the way of original thoughts or any capacity to actually analyze movies on his own.

  6. Ted,

    I’m kind of surprised by this. Not the criticism of Ebert’s work and his characteristics. I think you’re right about Citizen Kane, for instance.

    You complain about the “passel of cheesy obituary cartoons by editorial cartoonists who depict the departed at the pearly gates, enjoying the afterlife.” You criticize that because the cartoonist is lazily picking an easy, tired cliche and trying to pass it off as an honest effort. Right? You hate those clouds at the Heavenly Gates because they’re simply someone phoning it in rather than putting in some real sweat; it takes two seconds to slap one of those babies together and shove it out the door.

    Can you point to any of Ebert’s columns where he just phoned it in? A word equivalent to the Heavenly Gates ick of the cartoonists?

    With Ebert’s death, one more of the very few professional writers with a national market and a voice with some weight behind it is gone. It shrinks all the time. The industry (and cartooning’s in there too) loses the old talent and what comes up to replace it shows no signs at all of ever being able to rise to the same level of professionalism.

    Criticize Ebert. But at least I never came away from one of his columns feeling like I could have done a better job.

  7. I don’t know if you have time to do anything about it (or care) but the books in the last panel are just too small to read comfortably. I can read a few of them but it is far far more difficult to read them then your obit text in all the panels (which I had no problem reading but I foresee still being in the highly undesirable range of size for many people just based on prior personal experience).

    But yah, I agree with a lot of your take on Ebert, though the Rude Pundit, whom you have linked on your side panel disagrees pretty strongly: http://rudepundit.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/a-personal-appreciation-of-roger-ebert.html

    Similar to Citizen Kain, Ebert was a huge fan of The Decalogue: http://mubi.com/films/the-decalogue I watched it, and while there is interesting and good stuff in there – but hell if you have over nine hours of film one would hope there would be a few minutes or so worth watching SOMEWHERE in there – it was overwhelmingly boring. I can see your point on Citizen Kain Ted, but I actually found that fairly enthralling, and suggest that if you think that film is over-rated, slow paced and boring, that you try to sit through The Decalogue (or not, I see no reason to wish self flagellation upon you.)

    Either way, that was where I first lost most of my respect for Ebert. Not because he liked that ten part series of movies and talked glowingly about them at length, no I could respect that – if it were earnest. You see before he started speaking glowingly about them, or about them at all, he took a long film course specifically devoted to The Decalogue at U of C, roughly around the time I was there. I could be wrong but from what it looks like to me, he literally just sat in the course with a dictaphone, memorized some of the analysis and opinions, converted them into talking points, and then regurgitated them reflexively whenever he had the need to convince others of sufficient pretension and capacity for critical film analysis. Every time I have seen him speak on The Decalogue I have come away firmly convinced that he doesn’t understand a thing about those movies (and I am willing to bet that he did not even watch all of them based on some of his misstatements about events therein). Rather has simply memorized and then regurgitated talking points from the opinions of actual film academics.

    Another thing that has always annoyed me about Ebert is that he can’t be bothered to even try to deconvolute personal bias from critical analysis of movies (although I personally think he may not actually be able to critically analyze movies all that well so maybe this is just a manifestation of that single problem.) While their are many examples that could be given, the most obvious one I can point to in the short space here is the classic example of his personal bias on the depiction of Aliens in movies (as in space aliens not illegal agreements). If an alien is depicted as loving open and friendly, Ebert loved the movie regardless of anything else. Meanwhile if the Alien acted, well, alien, Ebert hated the movie regardless of anything else. To be fair to him, he was at least kind of honest about that as he more or less makes his judgement of those movies based on this personal bias of his obvious in such reviews.

    One specific example of this is the movie Species. This movie certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but Ebert completely missed all the important points and plot twists in the movie, they were just too subtle for him. To be fair to him, so did all the writers of the subsequent films, who just made them about tits, monsters, and gore, which is all they or Ebert apparently understood in the original. Meanwhile, half way through the first movie, the key plot twist is that the the violent deprived “alien” isn’t actually an alien at all. Indeed the characters in the movie trying to understand, subtly ask and peruse the exact complaints that Ebert lists about the “alien” including Sils “Who am I?” statement that Ebert admits is interesting. Somehow Ebert completely missed all the reveals in that movie – which was kind of the point of the movie, and makes a long whiny rant that it depicts aliens in ways that he does not care for, when the point of the movie was it was NOT ABOUT AN ALIEN. Its not like he didn’t watch Species to the end either because he discuss the end in the review (of course maybe he just copied notes from someone else like The Decalogue). I think Ebert just isn’t smart enough to analyze or appreciate such things. Beyond even the main plot twists and subtle implications of Species there has been interesting analysis of Species from a feminist perspective as its (fake) alien character forces the inversion of most of the standard gender rolls making for a fascinating commentary on gender rolls in society. This is explored in the movie, but only done so very lightly and subtly as to not rub your face in it. Again, completely missed by Ebert, too subtle, and perhaps smart, for him. Among many other things wrong, his statement about “pure logic” in the middle of the review has nothing to do with the point or value of the movie, and even if it did his statement of “fact” isn’t even logical as the biological processes for maturing and senescence are not related nor even necessarily coupled at all. So very very many other things wrong and ignorant about that review too.

    In conclusion Ebert was a vastly overvalued intellectual lightweight, who was a pretty good con artist in terms of making himself seem more intelligent and valuable to society then he actually ever was. This was achieved mostly because his writing is pretty good, and because he knows how to appropriate talking points of people far smarter then he is for his own. It probably also helped that he was willing to kowtow to the status quo as Ted points out, which seems to be the key to being a highly prized and successful hack, like Thomas Friedman, in this day and age.

  8. I think it was a former president who said never to say nice things about the living, save them for the eulogy.

    The first panel was fair. But the critique that Ebert was a terrible reviewer is somewhat lacking. I read the linked blog, which lists 80 films Ebert got wrong. A typical example, ‘He only gave this film 2 1/2 stars. It clearly deserved 3 stars.’ I can’t see that giving a 2 1/2 instead of a 3 makes someone a totally incompetent reviewer. Plus, the linked blog only found 80 mistakes, when Ebert reviewed at least 5 films every week for more than 40 years.

    ***

    I stopped watching after Siskel got too ill to continue: Ebert alone wasn’t that good.

    But they both liked My Dinner with Andre, which was WAY out of the mainstream.

  9. I really don’t care much if he died or what his take on films was – I don’t look to film critics for whether I should see a film or not – I trust the aggregate opinions of film viewers on IMDB more than any single critic. Hollow sentimentality and arrogant exceptionalism don’t appeal to me, and that’s one of the reasons that I thought Zero Dark Thirty sucked, although it garnered a lot of praise for its hollow sentimentality and arrogant exceptionalism from apathetic people lacking empathy.

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