RIP, Roger Ebert

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I thought of Roger Ebert as one of the Three Secret Kings of the Internet, along with Wil Wheaton and George Takei.  And, like most of the people I see writing about Roger Ebert, I have a complex response to him and his work.  “I didn’t always agree, but…” seems the most common starting place for people’s tributes to Ebert.  Some of my earliest film memories are sitting on my family room floor watching Siskel & Ebert on Sneak Previews or At The Movies. It was an activity I did with my parents–even my mom, who “preferred to read” and only went to the movies four times that I can remember in my life.  But as an artist herself, she enjoyed seeing real people talk about their art of choice intelligently and passionately.

I think that mix of intelligence and passion is part of people’s complex and often conflicted response to Ebert. We’re all intelligent, so obviously an intelligent person would agree with our feelings about the movies we passionately loved or hated.  For my part, I was dismayed when Ebert didn’t agree with me.

siskel and ebertBut in the time between sitting on the living room floor and now sitting at my desk in my own workroom, I learned a lot more about art, criticism and critical thinking. I learned a lot about how art is multivalent, that one sign of  great art is that people always have new things to say or think about it. And I’ve learned that disagreement and difference can be productive, if in no other way than in helping me figure out what I think, but even more, helping me see art in a different way or find new things in it.  In a lot of ways, I’ve just learned to pay attention, to listen and not get too attached to my opinion or thoughts or feelings, or caught up in other people liking and validating what I like.  Worse yet, I’ve spent long enough in school now that “liking” something seems almost beside the point–and usually the least interesting, important or relevant part of art or engaging with art.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you asked me now if I “liked” Heart of Darkness, (or maybe, better, Apocalypse Now) for example, I would give you a blank look. I would be stymied. Some art is for struggling with. And sometimes, liking art is irrelevant and the art itself is just a fact in the world.

There was a long time when I didn’t think about Roger Ebert at all.  Most of it was after I was out of school. I didn’t watch a lot of mainstream movies anymore, so I didn’t keep up with Ebert’s reviews. I read film magazines, mostly Film Comment and Film Threat.  I started going to Toronto’s old Golden Classics Cinema to watch Hong Kong and Japanese films, and then followed Kung Fu Fridays on its many wanderings. I started going to the Toronto International Film Festival and Midnight Madness.  I wrote about movies in my zine, Monstress, and ultimately ended up writing about movies for the Midnight Madness Programme blog.  That’s when I almost became a degree of Roger Ebert.

One of my friends works in the film industry and he would come to Toronto to see what’s what at the festival.  Part of his job involves going to horrid industry parties. He never called them horrid, that’s all me.  If I’m within fifty feet of one, I can’t get any closer–like they have one of those ultrasonic pest repellers and it’s set for me. So my partner at the time and I would meet him at the perimeter when my friend was done to go do non-industry things or eat at non-industry places.  I told my friend about how I was actively repelled from all the industry hangouts and how weird it felt to me to flee Toronto’s Four Seasons while fans and media converged there, he said, “The only things you will find at the Four Seasons are Roger Ebert and hookers.”

While we were clearly not respecting Ebert as much as we could have been, I want to be clear that no one thought that Ebert was with the hookers. They were just co-existing at the same hotel bar.

I didn’t come to admire Ebert until he took to the internet and then not really until I joined Twitter for The Cultural GutterThat’s when I really started to appreciate his writing.  Blogging gave him more space and his prose felt less cramped, but he still had an old newspaperman’s sense of economy and concision.

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And in trying to figure out what to do with accumulating review copies, I came across, “Roger’s Little Rule Book.” rules for writing criticism. I am far from being a newspaperman, but I try to take those rules to heart.  They are old fashioned journalism and they help me try to write ethically about pop culture. Review copies are less of a problem now, as more publishers save on shipping by sending out digital copies, but Ebert’s column helped me decide to donate comics to the library.  Writing about films for film festival blogs is far more complicated. I have been hired to help create excitement about the movies and the festivals, but I write honestly about the films. I’m grateful to Ebert for writing those rules. I wrestle with them and with myself at a time when the line between critic and publicist has become so blurry, and writing about pop culture has become so ethically complicated.

I vowed I would never become a Twit. Now I have Tweeted nearly 10,000 Tweets. I said Twitter represented the end of civilization. It now represents a part of the civilization I live in. I said it was impossible to think of great writing in terms of 140 characters. I have been humbled by a mother of three in New Delhi. I said I feared I would become addicted. I was correct.

I followed his tweets and read the profile in Esquire and that’s when I decided, or maybe realized, that he was one of the Secret Kings of the Internet. I admire that he could take a new medium on and flourish, finding hundreds of thousands of new readers. I was moved by his description of how Twitter gave him a voice and allowed him to participate in conversations again.  I’m amazed by his ability to change his mind and to adapt.  I admire how he transformed his life over and over, how he found ways around obstacles–the shrinking influence of newspapers, his illness, the loss of his voice–so that he could continue doing what he loves, no matter what anyone else thinks. I admire that he was always looking forward to new projects.  And I admire how he supported new writers.

But I think my favorite blog post was about his struggle with his own predilection for (and mastery of) snark–especially since I had trouble with the snark in Ebert’s writing. I was gratified by his acknowledgment that being snide is a temptation for all clever writers.

What concerns me is that snark functions as a device to punish human spontaneity, eccentricity, non-conformity and simple error. Everyone is being snarked into line.

I admire that he could provoke a passionate debate about art with gamers and that the argument could change him and those who disagreed with him. (And that he knew how to use that to promote his own work, too).  Some of those gamers remind me of my younger self in my family room, dismayed or frustrated when he didn’t love what I loved.

Ebert wasn’t asking anyone to agree with him, though he believed he was right.  He was asking us to think, to form opinions rather than what one of my English professors called, “a gut response.”  I can see why fans were so frustrated and attempted to dismiss his opinions as “subjective” in these days of Metacritic and fan pushes for 100% Fresh ratings at Rotten Tomatoes, as if the numbers mean anything about a film in the end. But Ebert was never easy to dismiss. Of course his arguments were subjective–all analysis is, but his opinions were educated and his arguments were always supported. I’ll miss Roger Ebert. He was complicated and messy and smart and talented and human.

I wrote this sort of in response to Miguel Rodriguez’ lovely commemoration of Roger Ebert at Monster Island Resort. You should really listen to it. It’s much better than this.

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3 thoughts on “RIP, Roger Ebert

  1. Ebert was the first big time critic I ever heard give a fair shake to weird movies. And we, too, spent many a family evening watching At the Movies. I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie! still gets regularly perused as well. No one agrees with another person 100% of the time, but even we Ebert had a really different opinion than me, he always made it fun to read.

  2. A lovely piece that speaks a lot more globally than simply about Roger Ebert. I appreciate what you have to say about “liking” movies, about continuing to grow and flex with new technology and new ideas, about all our voices and how they are heard.

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