I still mourn the loss of Roger Ebert from our world. Oh sure, it had to happen sooner or later, and the last invasion of cancer in his body likely had him believing it would be rather soon. But there are deaths in the world where even people who only know the deceased through their work feel it for years after the fact. Roger Ebert‘s ability to impart facts about the workings of the film industry and inform the audience in poetic terms about what they can expect from a film were second to none.
The latest book that I have placed on my e-reader and started to read my way through is none other than Your Movie Sucks, a compendium of reviews by Roger Ebert in which he writes exactly why a film is so terrible that destroying the negatives would not be such a bad idea.
I am about a third of the way through my first read of this book, and all sorts of observations come to mind. Prefacing it with commentary and his reviews of two feature films (Deuce Bigalow, European Gigalow and the “director’s” cut of The Brown Bunny (the only film in the book to get a positive review)), the book serves as an A-Z list of the films that Ebert felt to have sucked. There is a slight date or cultural bias in the selections. The majority of the films I am reading reviews of in this volume were made within the last twenty years. In fact, I would not be surprised to do the math and discover that ninety percent of the films Ebert states sucked were made or released after the year 2000.
Contrary to what a lot of people critical of Ebert or his work would have you believe, he was never a curmudgeonly old man who automatically believed anything new sucked. No. In fact, the writing exhibited in Your Movie Sucks serves as a litmus test for amateur film critics wishing to attempt to make their way into professional film criticism. I am sure he would have agreed with me when I state that there is no film, or indeed any other kind of piece of art, that has not been seriously influenced by the time and political system in which it was made. So when I say that thus far, nine out of ten of the reviews I have read in this compendium are of films that were made in or after the year 2000, that reflects more the McDonald’sian nature of the American film industry after 1989 than anything to do with Ebert himself.
Nor is Ebert biased towards any particular kind of film in this book, other than the bad. Bad comedies, bad science fiction, bad drama, it is all right here. Nor is any particular level of understanding required to get the most out of these reviews. That is, other than a median level of literacy that is beyond your average species of hick fukktard.
I will not kid anyone and say that I ever agreed with every word Ebert ever wrote. In some ways, my critical analysis of films is a good deal harsher than his. The film X-Men: The Last Stand is a good example of this. He appears, albeit in mild hints, to think it a better film than its two predecessors in the series. Which, when you consider that I consider those two films a valuable teaching tool in terms of my world and how I live in it, and deride the third with titles like X-Men In Name Only or Bitch Ratner Really Does Not Get It, is an absurd and nearly indefensible position.
Unfortunately, the critical thinking skills of general audiences seem to have deteriorated severely since the days in which Ebert, along with fellow critic Gene Siskel, gave thumb ratings to films on American and international television. Indeed, this day and age in which anyone with a bit of pocket change can access the Internet has brought forth audiences with no insight whatsoever. Audiences who think that a critical analyst owes them agreement. Critics of this day and age have an audience who think the writer is obligated to tell them what they want to hear, and that everyone should only have one viewpoint. Namely, theirs.
Criticism is a lost or dying art, with Roger Ebert as its last great champion. Even when one violently disagrees with his view of the subject, his phrasings of his analysis make them difficult to dismiss.
Ebert also displayed a great sense of the terms on which to analyse a work. When savaging the Britney Spears starring vehicle titled Crossroads, he immediately begins dissecting it as if it were meant to be a serious drama that people whose minds are not completely under the control of eMpTyV were meant to be entertained by. This is not a good or amusing thing because the film was intended to be a serious drama or even a character study. It was a piece of fluff designed with the sole purpose of publicising yet another shitty pop recording. That it cannot stand up to serious critical analysis will surprise nobody who is intelligent enough to appreciate serious critical analysis. That Ebert could perform a serious critical analysis of this film in such an entertaining manner speaks volumes about his skill as an author.
Your Movie Sucks can also be seen, in a way, as a cry for help on behalf of an American film industry that is in a real mire. Every year, investors pour increasing amounts of money into high-gloss productions that look amazing, yet the returns seem to continue to decline. A little-known or acknowledged fact about Hollywood film distribution is that at one point, it was estimated that in order to break even after the costs of distribution and advertisement are taken into account, a film needs to gross at least twice what the studio admitted it cost to make. To concrete this, let us take for example the 2000 film Charlie’s Angels (which gets rightfully savaged in Your Movie Sucks).
Publicists and the kinds of morons on IMDB boards who want to kid others that everything their favourite actor touches turns to gold will tell you that Charlie’s Angels turned a profit. If this is the case, why has Drew Barrymore only been credited as a producer on a total of eleven completed titles since it was made (and this is including television episodes, where producers are a dime a dozen)? Well, let us use the math of the morons who do not understand the Hollywood system for a second.
Let us be very generous and round up the American gross of Charlie’s Angels to the nearest hundred thousand for a moment. That leaves us with a starting point of 125.4 million US dollars. That might seem big to some mouth-breathers, but when you compare it to an admitted negative cost (that is, just the cost to shoot the thing, never mind get it into theatres) of 92 million dollars, suddenly things do not look so rosy.
Then there is the little factoid that due to some laws that were intended to preserve competition, studios are not allowed to own the theatres that their films are shown in. The theatre owners are blessed with discretion over who gets to show what in their theatres, and thus can demand a slice of the gross that varies a bit, but averages at around half.
So based on this little fact that studios have to pay theatres a percentage to show their films, that 125.4 million dollar gross is now 62.7 million. And that is just for starters where the studio’s expenses are concerned. Whilst I would wish Drew Barrymore every bit of luck in the world concerning her ambition to become a go-to producer, I can only say that the Charlie’s Angels films got what they deserved.
For this reason (costs high, gains low), and in ways that Ebert made a career out of observing during my lifetime, Hollywood has fallen into a real dumbest buy the mostest rut. And no further evidence is needed of that than the number of reviews of post-2000 films where Ebert laments the seemingly endless trend of bodily function jokes. In films he reviews in this compendium, actors break wind, throw shit, eat shit, smear themselves in shit, and even get buried in shit. Is that bad in and of itself? Well, no, any joke can be made funny when timed and delivered right. Some of my jokes involving Orcs being buried in piles of shit and then being told their captors would happily put them right back in there even make me laugh just to remember.
But probably the greatest sin that Ebert laments in Your Movie Sucks is that so many filmmakers now seem to lack an appreciation of context. I call this the Fast Forward syndrome, named after the increasingly sucky show in which revolting Australian television personalities repeated the same jokes ad nauseum and just expected the audience to laugh. It begged the question of why, when the line was only marginally funny in the first place, it would become funnier after the two-dozenth time without any change in context.
I think that is what made Ebert‘s reviews the goal that everyone else in the business of film criticism, however shallowly, aspire to. Context. Or rather, a sense of context. Ebert knew that burying a man in a pile of shit on its own was not funny. What he would think of an enemy soldier being bured in a pile of shit, dug out, and then told by a leader that he can be put back in when he refuses to impart information about the size of the army he was part of, I will never know. But I do believe he would give the latter idea fair consideration given that there is a context and reason for all of the shit.
Ebert also quotes either the film itself or publicity materials when it will serve the purposes of his review. His review of Jason X does not begin with what many a lesser critic with similar positioning in the world’s media would say. Namely, why the hell am I watching this shit. No, Roger went one further. First, he quoted “dialogue from Jason X“, specifically, “This sucks on so many levels”. The first Ebert-written line in the review? “Rare for a movie to so frankly describe itself”. A comedic writer faces many challenges, which boil down to making the dialogue or action funny. Any writer who is competent can write something that is funny in the here and now. But to write nine words that will be funny long after their author has died takes a special level of talent.
Somewhere in the Wunderwerck, I picture Odin sitting with Roger Ebert and watching films of one another’s nomination. At one point in the book, Ebert estimates that he gets to see somewhere in the order of five hundred (presumably unique) films a year. Assuming a consistent rate after his eighteenth birthday and leaving out the last year of his life, that equates to about 26,000 films. So I believe Roger, and his longtime colleague Gene Siskelin the bargain, would have much to tell the universal paragon of intelligence and wisdom about this art that so many of us fall into the trap of taking for granted.
One month to the day that Roger died, his widow, Chaz, published this article on the revamped website that bears Roger‘s name as a domain name. It bears the title I Miss Roger’s Reviews. Chaz, please allow me to conclude my scattershot collection of observations about one of Roger‘s best works with the following statement. It is not possible for me to imagine a person who has heard or read a substantial amount of Roger‘s reviews and does not miss him or his reviews.