|by Alex Paquin
I. Roger Ebert died twice. Before the man's death, there was the writer's. There are writers whose mind withers; whose will collapses; whose ambition finds itself sated by complacency. Worst of all are those authors, like Ebert, who remain at work after their writerly death. Ebert will in all likelihood be spared that third death which awaits most of us, namely, that of the collective knowledge of his existence. But is it not better to be forgotten, if one is to be remembered only as a disgrace, as a cautionary tale, as the butt of a joke, or as the weaker point of a comparison?
Ebert will be remembered in the same way we remember Bosley Crowther: as the orthodoxy of our age at its worst. But Crowther, if we want to be fair, was not exactly that; he was, rather, the orthodox opposition to the orthodoxy -- something that, to a new source of opposition with radical ideas, needed to be brought down as decisively as the orthodoxy in power. He championed foreign films and opposed McCarthy. That was fine. But there were people on the ascendency for whom even that wasn't enough.
Crowther, one will recall, was brought down by that radical new film, Bonnie and Clyde. Ebert asked in 1967, regarding the film: “What mysterious force caused three giants of journalism to change their minds? What caused Crowther's downfall after 29 years as the dean of U.S. movie critics? What the hell's going on?” The answer was: an avalanche that came from the top of the cultural tastemaking establishment, and which it was futile to attempt to fend off. Joe Morgenstern, who had written a negative review for Newsweek (one of the aforementioned giants), changed his mind, apologized, and survived. Pauline Kael, who wrote an ecstatic 6,000-word review of the film in The New Yorker, became, to many, the new most important critic of the age, the voice of the new orthodoxy. Crowther, who denounced the film on three separate occasions, was pushed aside by a New York Times always obsessed with its relevance among the people who mattered.
And Ebert? Bonnie and Clyde was, he later wrote, "the first masterpiece I had seen on the job". He understood what the hell went on, and acted accordingly by never really attempting to fend off the avalanche, not even in later years, which I think accounts for much of his critical decline. This being said, I don't think he ever lied about liking a film he despised, or vice versa, for he seemed to have internalized the values of the times without really attempting to do so. At this he was so deft that when cultural historians will ask: "What did the age think?", they will be able to answer, with a fair degree of certainty: "What Ebert thought". As befits any ideal expedient, he should unfailingly show up in the footnotes of undergraduate papers for the next fifty years at least.
II. If Ebert knew better than to let himself become culturally irrelevant (thus avoiding the fate of a Crowther), he realized that the old guard, of which he was now a member, had to resist change meaningfully. Just as he became pliable over what Hollywood tastemakers currently considered in vogue, he became a purist on format, objecting to digital film, 3D, video games, or simply admitting that television was now offering more challenging works than traditional cinema, even as he lamented that the large screen was being taken over by reboots and sequels. "I'm not ready to bowl alone", he wrote in 2011, to reject television on sociological grounds as it became clear that the traditional film theatre was being supplanted by other media. But a cinema, to a serious filmgoer, never was a place meant for socialization. It never was a bowling alley, nor a stadium. It was not even a live theatre, with its subtle symbiosis between the actors and the audience. A cinema involved watching people who were not really there, and that could be done from a television screen or a computer just as easily as it could be from a cinema.
The dichotomy between these two trends in Ebert's work was such that while he fell for the anti-democratic populism of the Hollywood movie-making machine, he also treated the film-going experience as a quasi-religion. (This reminds me, in passing, of John Simon's assessment of the young Ebert as a disciple of Pauline Kael.) Ebert thought that this experience was threatened by the money-changers in the temple, without ever quite realizing that it was the opposite -- that he was being a high priest at a bank, and that he was shutting down every attempt to take his religion to another place where it might flourish simply because he was hopelessly addicted to grandiose architecture and the rituals associated with it. "A cathedral or nothing!", predictably, gave us nothing. Ebert should have known this; in 2004, he bemoaned that "many multiplexes, booked by computer from Hollywood with no regard for local tastes", never screened lower-budget innovative films that won awards at festivals. "Even college towns in mid-America never get them." If cinema owners only want to screen blockbusters they think can put asses in seats, who can stop them? If they want to use digital projection because they believe it is going to be cheaper in the long run, Ebert's hortatory declarations on the superiority of film stock aren't going to make them reconsider.
Ebert yielded when he should have resisted, and vice versa. Ebert, in effect, was defending a cinema that could only be created expensively and distributed exclusively, on film stock and in theatres, even as he admitted that the entire chain of production and distribution might be controlled by philistines. Even though he would endorse smaller films (practically everything, really), his taste for expensive cinema became impossible to ignore. Gladiator, if it was not quite apparent at the time, appears to have been turned into a litmus test for Ebert's generation, just as Bonnie and Clyde had been for Crowther and others in their day. (David Denby: "What we were seeing in Gladiator and other movies were not just individual artistic failures and crass commercial strategies, but was a new and awful idea of how to put a picture together.") Ebert's two stars for the Russell Crowe vehicle ("muddy, fuzzy and indistinct") aligned him with the old guard, but this low rating was soon shown to be the exception, not the rule. In a G4TV interview made with him sometime before the release of Star Wars Episode II, he broached the subject of special effects in films; he recognized that the abuse of special effects no longer made them special, yet could still come out saying that George Lucas, one of the worst offenders, "is pretty doggone good." The last time I really paid attention to Ebert when he was still alive, he could be seen giving four stars to James Cameron's Avatar without saying anything that could possibly convince me to see it. ("Sexy" female aliens? Truly, here was the Foremost Film Critic of Our Time.)
Every time he pointed out that digital technology was not good enough yet, a claim he repeated over the years, the charge could be successfully countered by an emphasis on yet. For instance, Wired took exception to Ebert's objection to 3D by citing a 1929 Photoplay editorial against sound: "Nine out of ten say they would rather have a first rate silent picture than a second rate talking picture. They complain of the mediocre photography and static quality of the acting in the talking versions, and are sensible of the greater sense exertion and brain effort demanded by them." Certainly an Ebert writing against sound in 1929 might have seemed reasonably sensible (sound films from that time period appear crude and static today), and one writing in 1905 probably quite correct in light of the existing technology, but Ebert's argument was not so much about toning down our enthusiasm for a technology still suffering from growing pains as about denying the medium the chance to ever get from 1905 to 1929 and beyond because he liked it The Way It Was. And his battle was already lost by the time of his death; according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, 88% of American screens are now equipped with digital projectors.
It took me some time to turn against Ebert for his attachment to traditional formats, because I never had much patience for his main opposition, the techno-utopians of Wired and its ilk, who embrace technological progress for its own sake. That 3D has been tried before and never really caught on is not a particularly useful argument against them, if we consider what happened with widescreen: anamorphic lenses were perfected in the late 1920s but failed to make much of an impact until they were resurrected in the 1950s, so successfully that the Academy ratio has now become obsolete. Ebert's lectures on the shortcomings of 3D lighting were just as futile because they failed to address the real problem that 3D, unlike sound, colour and widescreen photography, will always remain a gimmick, and an expensive one at that. That is the main difference between 3D, on which I'm still aligned with Ebert, and digital cinematography, about which I now think that while I prefer film, digital is better than nothing. Digital might lack the visual appeal of film, but it is cheap. Online distribution might lack the legitimacy and glamour of a cinema release, but a cinema release means nothing if the lauded independent films are not screened where one can see them. Ebert's own Overlooked Film Festival/Ebertfest was a touching gesture of, I would say, noblesse oblige, but it was meaningless to anyone not living in Illinois. Befitting an aristocratic gesture, it may well be the precursor of an era when projection in cinemas becomes an archaic curiosity limited to a few remaining heritage theatres; already I cannot imagine the remaining drive-in theatres surviving on anything more than nostalgia.
III. A website dedicated to "Roger Ebert's Worst Reviews", cementing the position of Ebert as a one-man zeitgeist, as the man with his thumb on the pulse of the filmgoing public, conducted an exercise in declaring bad every review of a major film in which he failed to align with the times. The site considered, for instance, that his number-one worst review was for The Godfather Part II because he gave it three stars instead of the customary four. Sometimes, the discrepancy was reversed; that site would have us believe that Ebert's fourth-worst review (#2 and 3 were for Unforgiven and Blade Runner) was for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, to which he gave four stars while the webmaster insisted it deserved only two. But those discrepancies are precisely what makes Ebert, or any other critic, interesting and worth reading; professional contrarians, for that matter, realize this but exploit the technique to the point of losing all credibility. A critic needs to take risks, not remain silent to avoid offending the consensus. Ebert also should not be blamed for having famously changed his mind on The Brown Bunny; if anything, this about-face, even after the director's tasteless provocation, just increased my respect for Ebert, albeit temporarily.
There is also no point in attacking Ebert for not conforming to one's political bent and taste, as the cartoonist Ted Rall did in a cartoon obituary. According to Rall, the "establishmentarian and politically unsophisticated" Ebert had "awful taste" and "wasn't that smart", because he not only disagreed with Rall's assertion that Citizen Kane was "boring" but also "couldn't articulate why I was wrong". I doubt that any critic, Pulitzer winner or not, could convince anyone that a film is not boring. (The critics might as well try to persuade Rall that he's not Matt Groening.)
Yet an attack on Ebert is justifiable if mounted correctly. He was too generous, yes, and his books of negative reviews are really about shooting fish in a barrel. Even as I was prepared to be lenient about his assessment of individual films, I was much less so about his body of work, in which one could witness an endorsement of nearly everything that was projected his way which only grew worse with time. If transgressions of Sturgeon's Law came with prison terms, he would have started writing reviews from behind bars a long time ago.
And he made mistakes. The problem is not that he made mistakes (this can happen to anyone); it's that he occasionally made stupid mistakes, mistakes that even a rookie critic would have avoided. Instead of checking Ebert against the consensus, a more fecund exercise for the parodically inclined would have been to follow Ebert's modus operandi for Tru Loved -- the nadir of his complacency about his task -- and write Ebertian reviews of famous films solely based on the first eight minutes.
Those who would prefer a more scholarly approach could pore over his reviews to uncover errors of fact, especially when they come in clusters. Here, for example, is an excerpt from Ebert's 2003 review of The Adventures of Robin Hood:
"The movie involved a couple of firsts: The first Warner Bros. film shot in the three-strip Technicolor process, and the first of 12 times Flynn would be directed by Michael Curtiz. It was the second of eight films that Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland would make together."
There are, in these lines, three mistakes, at least two of which should have been obvious to a film critic like Ebert. If one is generous, he can be forgiven his having overlooked Warner's first two features shot in three-strip Technicolor, God's Country and the Woman and Gold is Where You Find It, for they are all but obscure today, even though they were directed by Robin Hood co-directors William Keighley and Michael Curtiz, respectively, with the second film starring Olivia de Havilland. But to claim that The Adventures of Robin Hood was the first time Curtiz worked with Flynn is to deny the existence of no less than four films, two little-known (one of which had Flynn in a small part) but also two classics, Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade, both of which also starred Olivia de Havilland. Worse, the twelve- and eight-picture figures are accurate (leaving out cameo appearances), meaning that Ebert must have known about those films but just forgot to put them in chronological order.
At some point, "the second of eight films" was replaced with "the fifth of eight films" -- without the mention of a correction, of course. Not that it matters, because it's still wrong: it was Flynn and de Havilland's third pairing. We are not talking about arcane knowledge straight from a dusty shelf in the Warner archives; this information is readily verifiable, as it was in 2003, at the Internet Movie Database.
But Ebert's stupid mistakes were nothing compared to his harmful mistakes. At times he seemed not quite content with being plain Roger Ebert and fancied himself King Roger, he of the thumb imperial, whose duty it was, as with all proper kings and pontiffs, to draw his last breath while still in office. But, in his admiration in others of the vigour which had long departed him, his choice of dauphins tended to run to the regicidal. "I declare for my Lord Armond," would he famously state one day, only to withdraw his approval when his courtiers apprised him of the fact that Lord Armond was in revolt against everything that he stood for. Nobody ever bothered to ask on what basis Ebert had endorsed Armond White in the first place, a valid question since the only way not to discern what really went on in the writings of Armond White was to not read him at all. This was not magnanimity on the part of Ebert, nor honesty, nor temerity, just ignorance. Ebert's coup de grâce, not against White but against his own credibility, was when he said: "White is, as charged, a troll; a smart and knowing one, but a troll." Translation: "I may have been fooled, gentle readers, but let me assure you that I have been fooled by the best, for I would not have been fooled otherwise." No, Roger, he fooled you because you were not paying attention.
To seek self-destruction by proxy is one thing; to not care about collateral damage is another. The regicides, however, were less usurpers than anarchists; they understood that King Roger was an anomaly, that no kingdom would survive him. The regicides objected to him just as illusionists object to a hack barely tolerated as one of their own giving away all the tricks. He detracted from their sense of exclusivity. They objected to him not because they wanted his influence for themselves, but because he possessed such an influence in the first place. But if he ever endorsed them publicly, they knew the power of his name. They did not think his endorsement was the kiss of death, no matter how much they might have railed against his critical judgement before or how much they may continue to do so. All they thought was: thanks for the page hits, sucker.
The White incident was doubly damaging because Ebert had initially supported White for a reason that was in itself valid: to stand against the virtual lynch mob operating out of Rotten Tomatoes, where readers objecting to a "Fresh" rating of anything less than 100% for the fanboy movie darling of the moment went after White for providing the sole negative review of District 9, even though, as Ebert pointed out, it was before "most of those readers could have seen the film". That White has been accused of being a contrarian and a troll just muddies the issue. The virtual lynch mob doesn't care whether the offending critic is dishonest or truthful; it's the blemish the critic leaves on the mob's new favourite film that is the offence. (The mob did it again, long after White was removed from Rotten Tomatoes, over negative reviews of The Dark Knight Rises, one of which was written by an Associated Press critic.) But the Rotten Tomatoes mob and White, who has made no secret of considering all the people whose views diverged from his to be wrong, are guilty of taking away the same freedom, essential to criticism: the freedom to disagree. Not even Ebert could resist attempting to take it away from White: "It is baffling to me that a critic could praise Transformers 2 but not Synecdoche, New York. Or Death Racebut not There Will be Blood. I am forced to conclude that White is, as charged, a troll." (Ebert should have stuck to the general trend of White's reviewing, which is damning enough, not its particulars.) Here what we get from Ebert can be paraphrased as: "Agree with me on what are good and bad films, or have me question your honesty." The tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of one. Take your pick.
White later said that Ebert had "destroyed film criticism", a comment which might sound like what would happen if one turned Rocky III into an intellectual pissing contest. But Ebert did kill film criticism in one particular way: by popularizing the binary approach to film that a site like Rotten Tomatoes exploited, reducing arguments to so much superfluous verbiage that accompanied the crucial dilemma: Thumbs up or thumbs down? Hot or not? Fresh or rotten? These, in turn, to be compiled for an overall verdict that adapted for its purpose the crassest and most superficial aspect of democracy: the ballot box as an argument in itself. In this paradigm, the argument is nothing; the statistic, everything (see the popularity of Nate Silver for an ideal example). A lazy, pseudo-scientific approach for a lazy, pseudo-scientific age, and one that could even be gamed to predict a high Tomatometer mark.
And to pursue perfect marks, nothing makes more sense than to take full control of the means of prediction. Hence Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Warner Bros., and before that, was part of IGN, a subsidiary of News Corporation, owner of 20th Century Fox. Can we at least begin to treat that site as a breeding ground for conflicts of interest instead of fawning over Fresh/Rotten ratings every time a new film comes out? But no, the age which has placed its wisdom in crowds has stifled the need for individual voices, turning too many of the few who realized the importance of the latter into narcissistic reactionaries. Thus the all-thumbs criticism of Roger Ebert opened the way not only to the marketable and interchangeable criticism-by-percentage of Rotten Tomatoes but also to all those who, in response, thought it proper to review films with their middle finger.
IV. For all his antipathy toward television, Ebert would never have had the same influence without it. Since this era likes to measure things, we can measure the impact of Ebert by comparing the number of obituaries written about him to those, in the last two years alone, of other major critics like Judith Crist, Andrew Sarris and, most recently, Stanley Kauffmann. Most of Crist's causes célèbres took place in the apogée of the generation that came before Ebert, and she had since turned to teaching. Sarris was mostly influential among intellectuals. Kauffmann, in later years, took on the aura of a frumpy elderly gentleman who is perfectly content with being behind the times. They were all good critics, all on the level of, if not superior to, Ebert; but he had visibility. This visibility allowed him to coast on his reputation well past his writerly death.
Yet things had begun to change. The middle-class mainstream film-going audience that catapulted him from Chicago's second daily newspaper (at which he had already won the Pulitzer) to fame on the national -- even international -- airwaves had, in this last decade, eroded and practically ceased to exist. If it used to go to the local cinema on occasion, it had now shut itself in. Just as it watched Ebert on television, it now watched everything on television. And it treated him like a venerable foreign correspondent: this is John Smith reporting from Lebanon, this is Sam Jones reporting from Moscow, this is Roger Ebert reporting from the movies. (At the Movies, in this, was a perfect title.) Film land was foreign, exotic, and what Ebert said and wrote reminded his audience of what it experienced when it went to the cinema, back in the good old days. He was reporting from places these people were curious about but would now no longer think of visiting themselves, "but maybe we'll catch the films he likes when they're out on home video", etc. That was why he was indispensable for such people, people who were no longer part of Hollywood's main demographic target but who had not yet entirely given up on film. He probably was their last link to film culture.
And that was how he became a relic -- a beloved one, certainly, but a relic nonetheless. I wonder how long this would have continued. Ebert, his mainstream audience, and the film industry became the points of an ever-widening triangle, which would explain why RogerEbert.com could not have continued to exist in the same way as it existed while he was alive. Ebert's audience was drawn primarily not even to film, but to Ebert. The fate of Ebert's show after his departure seems to indicate as much, as does the Chicago Sun-Times' choice of his successor. I can almost hear the managing editor (if not someone higher up) saying: "Get me a guy who has as much visibility as Roger had when he was hosting Ebert and Roeper at the Movies." So, they got Roeper -- and, for all I know, it might work.
The Internet is another matter; Ebert seemed well aware of its possibilities, but exuded a certain ambiguity in his interaction with it. The design of his website after it became more than a subsection of the Sun-Times' was, when he was alive, quaint despite its professional presentation, like the tidy house of that aunt who has not changed the furniture in fifty years. It looked different from the rest of the Internet because of this impression of reluctance. Now that he is gone, the Ebert Mansion, under the watchful eye of its dowager, who evidently wanted to be more than the curatrix of a mausoleum, has been turned into something that it was not. Out, or tucked into a corner, was the noble, weathered furniture; in was the exact same décor every other place already had. Roger Ebert's site became something the famous critic himself was not: something hip, something modern, something cool, something slick. Something, as we're already drowning in the hip, choking on the cool, slipping on the slick, and generally being asphyxiated by the modern, which is in actuality thoroughly skippable, perhaps even to be despised, by those who liked Ebert for what he was, and not really worthy of attention for those who did not. Ebert reportedly "handpicked the remaining writers from around the world for RogerEbert.com", but no long-toothed brat writing under the RogerEbert.com imprimatur is going to draw his old audience back. And Matt Zoller Seitz as editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com? No, it doesn't work.
I have never been certain of the state of Ebert's reputation among people far younger than he, but I doubt that his wholesale rejection of video games earned him much respect among them. Indeed, his attitude amounted to little more than wilful ignorance: "As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games." It does not really matter that Ebert ruled that video games "can never be art" (and even if one agrees with Ebert, Brian Moriarty's "An Apology for Roger Ebert" defends his position more persuasively), but it does matter that he chose to maintain his rigid refusal to consider the medium even as its influence over cinema increased. Had he lived but a few more years, this refusal may have made his growing irrelevance even more apparent, but I doubt his traditional readers would or could have called him out on it. Video games simply were not part of their world.
Around 2002, Ebert gave an interview to G4TV in which he mentioned that Kodak was so eager to (belatedly) embrace digital photography that it did not hesitate to denigrate film to accelerate the transition. We now know it was not enough to keep the company afloat. He also mentioned that the video rental chain titan of the day, Blockbuster, was stocking anime because "they have a very good inventory system and they only have it because somebody's renting them." It is now closing its last outlets. He even spoke of his thumb: "I realized a long time ago that if I start giving thumbs up to interviews, hamburgers, pizzas, somebody's new shirt, there would be no end to it, so I only give thumbs up to movies." The interview summarized, in eleven minutes, what was Ebert's world. Just a decade later, this world no longer exists, and with it went Ebert as a worthy critic; the few years he had left to live will likely be seen as little more than a lingering, embarrassing echo from a man whose misfortune it was to survive his time.
Sic transit, etc.
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originally posted: 11/13/13 22:50:57
last updated: 07/03/14 10:29:32