Jello Biafra once said “Do not hate the media, become the media”. What he meant with this quip is subject to interpretation, but I have always interpreted as urging the audience to replace a media that is not serving them with one that does. I say this because the subject of today’s article, Roger Ebert, was one of the few things left in the mainstream media that I did not actively hate.
Oh, do not get me wrong, I do not agree with every word he ever said. He did write reviews in which I agree with every word he said, but that is very different from agreeing with the entirety of his output. And there were some things I read in reviews he published that made me spit in anger. Things like a comparison of how “fun” one film is compared to another, for example. But such was the majesty and awesomeness of his writing that I could mentally spew venom at him for his words in one article, and then be in complete and utter agreement with him in many others.
Roger Ebert died today. Where he was at the time, it was April 4, 2013. He had lived to be seventy years old. The last few years of his life had not been kind to him. A large fragment of his jawbone had to be removed in order to remove cancer, leaving him unable to speak or nourish himself by the usual means. That is to say nothing of what it did to his appearance. But he pressed on, continuing to deliver prepared speeches through artificial means and write reviews that, regardless of whether they were glowing or scathing, almost always made one see his point.
Probably the best feature of his reviews was not how witty or well-worded they were, but rather that there was a point to them and he always worded them in a manner reflecting that he felt he needed to convince the reader of it. Such is a skill that very few reviewers in any medium even acquire, leave alone master to the degree he did.
The website maintained with his name as the primary component of the address has gone offline, so I have had to go to second-hand sources for examples of this craftsmanship with words. In his review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigalo, Ebert noted how star Rob Schneider had defended the series in an overly zealous manner. To wit, Schneider had called Patrick Goldstein a “third-rate, unfunny pompous reporter” in response to Goldstein‘s assessment that Schneider was a “third-rate comic”. Part of Schneider‘s verbal attack upon Goldstein made a big deal of the fact that Goldstein had never won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing.
So Ebert, in a classic example of how to verbally cut a man down to size, pointed out that he has, in fact, won the Pulitzer Prize. In fact, he was the first recipient of a Pulitzer for film criticism. Closing his review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigalo, Ebert stated, “Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, mister Schneider, your movie sucks”.
Now, I have only seen one film that I can recall with Schneider in it. To say that I had a venomous dislike of the man after it is an understatement. But having read that Schneider sent Ebert well wishes during the latter’s recovery from thyroid cancer, I have to agree with Ebert‘s response. “Rob Schneider might (in my opinion) have made a bad movie,” Ebert wrote. “He is not a bad man.”
(I have since managed to access an old copy of the review in question. I will reproduce the latter half of the review so you can see for yourself what a maestro Ebert was with critical words:
Schneider retaliated by attacking Goldstein in full-page ads in Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. In an open letter to Goldstein, Schneider wrote: “Well, Mr. Goldstein, I decided to do some research to find out what awards you have won. I went online and found that you have won nothing. Absolutely nothing. No journalistic awards of any kind … Maybe you didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize because they haven’t invented a category for Best Third-Rate, Unfunny Pompous Reporter Who’s Never Been Acknowledged by His Peers.”
Reading this, I was about to observe that Schneider can dish it out but he can’t take it. Then I found he’s not so good at dishing it out, either. I went online and found that Patrick Goldstein has won a National Headliner Award, a Los Angeles Press Club Award, a RockCritics.com award, and the Publicists’ Guild award for lifetime achievement.
Schneider was nominated for a 2000 Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actor, but lost to Jar-Jar Binks.
But Schneider is correct, and Patrick Goldstein has not yet won a Pulitzer Prize. Therefore, Goldstein is not qualified to complain that Columbia financed “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” while passing on the opportunity to participate in “Million Dollar Baby,” “Ray,” “The Aviator,” “Sideways” and “Finding Neverland.” As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.
Stephen King would kill to be able to write this well.)
This kind of integrity is not only almost never seen in film criticism now that Roger Ebert is no longer with us. It is rarely seen in journalism, period. In this day when outright lies are circulated as fact regardless of the cost to the people they are circulated about, the existence of Roger Ebert allowed people like me to hope that someday, somehow, somewhere, the press would regain the integrity it had so gleefully abandoned during the 1980s.
Most people, when realising that their life is going to come to an end in the near future, stop doing what they have been doing and begin a process of winding down. Not Ebert. If anything, he was even more active in the final years of his life than the rest. He wrote on a number of topics, some to do with cinema, others not. His enthusiasm for the new process of filming features at a rate of forty-eight frames per second and his explanations thereof not only made me keen to see a good example of the process, but also to see it become the new standard.
What I will miss most about Ebert is how frank he was able to be about things. When so much of his face was taken off in order to get rid of a cancer, he stated exactly why he refused a prosthesis for most purposes, and even posted pictures of what he looks like without one. How anyone can look at those images and not understand why governments and private industry are chasing a cure for all forms of cancer like I chase high definition transfers is a mystery.
Roger Ebert was not without critics of his own. I will not bother quoting or linking to them here, however, because I would rather illustrate something about him, not them. Such was the power of Ebert‘s artistry with words that his review of Meir Zarchi’s celluloid geek show, I Spit On Your Grave conveys everything an intelligent person needs to know whilst talking almost entirely about the audience. Whilst at the same time fooling the hell out of idiots who are looking to tear him down.
For all we know, and I suspect this may in fact be more likely, Ebert was in fact making up the reactions he describes among the audience he was seeing. I want to believe this not because of any lack of integrity on Ebert‘s part. As I have mentioned, he had enough of it to go around. No, the reason I believe Ebert may have made these parts of his review up is because he decided to try to summarise what an audience can expect from the film by describing a hypothetical audience that would enjoy this kind of film. The kind of catcalling and loutish behaviour described is more what we expect from repeat viewers of a participation film like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, not first-time viewers of a celluloid geek show.
(For my part, I agree with that review of I Spit On Your Grave. I possess that film on Blu-ray Disc, and I enjoy watching it in a geek show fashion because I feel some kind of release watching a woman who has been abused for a substantial portion of the film by idiot hick country boys proceed to hurt them in ways that make them wish their mothers had never been born. If Roger had known that, and known enough of my life story, I think he would have had interesting things to say concerning not only what it says about me, but also the world I grew up in.)
One of the more recent reviews published on Roger Ebert‘s website was of the Evil Dead remake. In fact, it was published the day before he died. Now, I suspect that Roger has a similar opinion to me of the endless parade of remakes of films from the 1980s that not only fail to bring anything new to the table, but also lack a shred of the artistry that made the original film such a favourite with select audiences of the bygone era. His review of Evil Dead is absolutely scathing. He awards it a singular star, which I suppose is a slight step up from half a star, the absolute lowest he will award a film unless it repulses him on at least one level.
The reason I mention this is not because of whatever artistic merit that Evil Dead may or may not have. The real The Evil Dead was both an exercise in fine horrific artistry and a geek show in the sense that it makes watching people suffer seem like fun. Evil Dead, from the sounds of his review, is another cookie-cutter slasher in which characters and their actions serve the expectations of the imagined intended audience rather than do things organic to the story. But what I do find to be of great interest is the way in which he closed the review:
I love horror films that truly shock, scare and provoke. But after 30 years of this stuff, I’m bored to death and sick to death of movies that seem to have one goal: How can we gross out the audience by torturing nearly every major character in the movie?
Could it be that fatigue with worthless films (not bad films, worthless films, which are two different things) killed Roger Ebert? I doubt it, as cancer apparently had quite the head start, and I am sure Ebert lived to squeeze as many four-star films into the remainder of his life as he could.
But a more fitting epitaph would be very difficult to find.
Edited to add, May 26, 2013: It seems the review of Evil Dead was, in fact, the work of Richard Roeper, a man with whom Ebert worked. The old format of his site made it hard to tell. That said, I believe my point still works. Ebert knew that he did not have a lot of time left, and tried to fit as many good film experiences into it as he could. I believe he would have agreed with every word that Roeper wrote about Evil Dead.