RIP, Roger Ebert…
This is one of Ebert’s strengths; he doesn’t review films in a way that’s too academic or inaccessible, he writes film reviews like a guy who loves the shit out of movies and knows how to rage if they don’t love him back. I will never feel as passionately about anything as Ebert does about how much he hates this movie about a kid traveling around the world looking for parents. I love how important movies are to Ebert. I love how serious he takes his craft. I love that he sees bad movies as a personal attack. And I love the glee that he surely felt when he wrote this review.
Roger Ebert has loomed large in my life. As a kid movies were absolutely my favorite thing. The old Alameda Theater ran $1 matinees every Saturday when I was growing up, and I went almost every weekend from the age of 9 or 10 on. Most of the time the films they showed were bad to mediocre. Occasionally they were just resoundingly dreadful. But I loved the experience of sitting in that great old art deco theater, spending the afternoon watching stories flash by on the screen.
Most afternoons I’d walk home from school and tune in to Dialing for Dollars on KTVU, where the host, Pat McCormick gave away money to people who called in and tried to put a brave face on presenting what were never better than average, overplayed films. On Saturday nights I almost never missed Creature Features, hosted by Bob Wilkins. Again, most of the films were pretty bad, but every now and then a classic would sneak in.
Throughout high school and college given a choice between doing almost anything and going to the movies I’d choose the movies. As I grew up I became a fan first of Roger Ebert as a TV-based critic alongside Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews, which I rarely missed an episode of. Later on I discovered Ebert’s written criticism and as an aspiring critic myself I studied his work intently.
I couldn’t describe what made Ebert’s criticism great any better than the Dan O’Brien quote above. Most critics, whether they’re writing about films, music, books, art or architecture approach their criticism from behind a lectern. They are the all-knowing experts on art and write down to their readers. Much as I enjoyed Gene Siskel’s sparring with Ebert on Sneak Previews, this is why he was never my favorite critic. Siskel came across as professor Siskel. Ebert wrote from the seat next to you in the theater. In every way he was a guy who primarily went to see films because he really, really loved the experience of seeing a movie in a theater. He wanted to be entertained, and reserved his worst and most scathing criticism for those films that were insulting to the audience they were aimed at. The worst offense a filmmaker could make in Ebert’s book was to make a film that failed to transport the audience out of their seats and into the experience.
When I started writing music criticism I consciously kept this perspective in mind. I always wrote as a fan. Thanks Roger. I will truly miss you.