Tag Archives: Roger Ebert

That’s two big dragon heads up


The 1988 fantasy adventure Willow is nowhere close to being a good film, but this Behind the Scenes Photo feature at Ain’t It Cool News reminded me of its most distinctive feature: its anti-movie critic subtext, courtesy of producer George Lucas, who conceived the story but assigned directorial duties to Ron Howard. The chief villain is General Kael, whose name was a jab at the famous Pauline, and the two-headed dragon that makes a brief appearance in the middle of a battle was dubbed the Eborsisk by the effects team at Industrial Light and Magic. That name, of course, is a cock of the leg at Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who doubtless incurred the great man’s wrath by dumping all over Howard the Duck, the big-budget fiasco Lucas produced in 1986. With Ebert’s death still in the news, some obliging film buff posted the clip of the Eborsisk in action:   

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Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert may not have set out to become the world’s number one film critic, but circumstances handed him the title. When newspapers began their long dumb-down retreat from cultural life, Ebert was there to take up some of the slack. He had the Pulitzer, he had the name recognition, he had the television show, and he had the energy to churn out reams of wire copy as most newspapers were abandoning the idea of nurturing homegrown talent. That was his great good fortune. Our good fortune was that Ebert, in a position where he could have spent the rest of his life coasting, decided to step up his game in a big way. Blessed with a reach and status enjoyed by no other critic, Ebert became a better critic than he needed to be. In fact, during his last decade or so, he became a great one. There are many critics just as good as Ebert, but I doubt there will ever be another one who combines his talent with his wide-ranging impact. It’s standard for career retrospective pieces like this to end on a for-whom-the-bell-tolls note, but in Ebert’s case it’s more than appropriate. In terms of impact, he really was the last of his breed.

Ebert was tagged early on as a “Paulette,” favored by the influential film critic Pauline Kael, and his best work shared her passionate engagement, disdain for deep-dish critical theories, and readiness to celebrate art (or, at least, craftsmanship) where he found it. But he had a shaky start as a rather callow and conventional reviewer. This early piece about George Romero’s seminal horror film Night of the Living Dead is a long whine about violence in movies, with only the last paragraph devoted to the real issue — that the theater owner should have been horsewhipped for showing such a Sneakpreviewsfilm as a kiddie matinee. The early months of Sneak Previews, the PBS show that made Ebert a household name, featured a stinker-of-the-week selection, complete with an appearance by Aroma the Educated Skunk, that invariably picked on some no-name release that hardly seemed worth the bother. The show’s chief attraction back then was the simmering dislike between Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel, and the chance of seeing it boil over on camera. (See above.) One of their themed shows presented movies they thought celebrated the American family, one of them being The Great Santini, a film that could serve as a legal defense of patricide. A lot of writers who imagined that someday they would have a good media perch and a Kael-scale five-foot-shelf of books with their collected reviews scoffed at the show and thought, How did these two dweebs luck out? I know whereof I speak, because I was one of those scoffers.

But the genius of Sneak Previews, at least during its initial 1975-1982 run, was that it tapped into the essential quality shared by all movie buffs — their love of argument. There are passionate fans for any art form, but movie geeks are in a class of their own in terms of their readiness to throw down at any moment. By pitting two pugnacious critics from competing newspapers, the format tapped into that argumentative streak. Over the years Ebert and Siskel became friends, but Siskel remained officially unimpressed by Ebert’s Pulitzer-laureled credentials, and he never hesitated to call bullshit on camera. About 3.33 into this clip, you’ll see Siskel berating Ebert for giving higher praise to Benji the Hunted than Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket:

Note that Ebert gives as good as he gets during the exchange, which both parties allowed to air without any edits or re-dos. It reflects well on bot parties that they didn’t mind being seen at sword’s points. That air of intellectual aggression between equals vanished when Siskel and Ebert left Sneak Previews and took their show on the syndicated road in 1982. (They were succeeded by journalist Neal Gabler, who left in 1985, and Jeffrey Lyons, an over-the-hill showbiz columnist so desperate for TV time that he stayed on as Michael Medved’s dog until the show was euthanized in 1996.) Bob Costas once got Ebert to admit on camera that he probably never would have enjoyed the same level of success without Siskel. Costas also got each man to describe what he envied most about the other during a 1992 interview:

Some critics are hunter-gatherers who range far and wide, seeking art in obscure corners and disreputable genres, then returning to bring readers the good news. Other critics are more like country club desk managers, categorizing high and low art in order to decide who will be allowed into the swimming pool area. Ebert was a hunter-gatherer. Like Kael, he was shaped by a period in which American filmmaking was breaking down barriers and exploring new artistic frontiers — a period in which movies were exciting in ways that went beyond the hyped-up marketing of peanut-brained behemoths like The Dark Knight Rises. Kael worked her way up through the decades when European and Asian films were making their first serious inroads into American viewing habits; Ebert wrote about those films (and the later works they influenced) with an appreciation that was clearly shaped by Kael’s critical judgments. When American filmmaking narrowed, Ebert responded by widening his focus: no critic of comparable stature devoted as much space to foreign works. In May, when the studios usually rolled out their big summer blockbusters, Ebert was at the Cannes film festival, prospecting for works of promise and greatness, and sending dispatches back Stateside. One of the great pleasures of working as a wire news editor in the Nineties was the opportunity to read those dispatches, unedited, even though the paper I worked for would never use them.    

Ebert was a man of sides. Apparently he used to be quite the drinker, as is to be expected when one’s colleagues include Mike Royko. He worked with exploitation king Russ Meyer on the film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and reteamed with him for the never-realized Sex Pistols film Who Killed Bambi. (Charles M. Young, who wrote a classic profile of the Pistols for Rolling Stone, paid a visit to Meyer’s hotel suite and was introduced by Meyer: “This is Roger Ebert. He’s really into tits.”) He was an unabashed science fiction fan, and had actually published stories in genre magazines before turning his attention to full-time reviewing. During the Nineties, when his critical writing truly bloomed, Ebert also showed himself to be a shrewd writer on politics. When the Gingrich gang was on its contemptible jihad against Bill Clinton, Ebert’s response to the campaign of humiliation against the president was as discerning as it was outraged. Perhaps for that reason, when the smoke cleared, Ebert has granted an interview with Clinton as well as a screening in the White House movie theater.

The love of argument overlapped with the instinct to teach and inform. He did DVD commentaries for six films, and an idiosyncratic, wide-ranging bunch they are: Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Ozu’s Floating Weeds, Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about Robert Crumb, the cult fantasy Dark City, and, naturally, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Now, Citizen Kane is one of my favorite flicks — I’ve read biographies of Orson Welles, even Kael’s much-maligned essay “Raising Kane.” But I found the flow of information on Ebert’s Citizen Kane commentary so exhausting that I had to switch it off halfway through and go staggering into the kitchen for a couple of boilermakers. The man knew his onions.         

The love of argument also led him to the Internet, that nonpareil domain for never-ending debates. Ebert dove into the Internet head first in a way that few other critics matched, and his website remains a model for all writers. When websites like Ain’t-It-Cool News were still being derided as watering holes for unhygienic dorks, Ebert invited AICN ubergeek Harry Knowles to share the balcony with him. Late in life, as recurring bouts of cancer sapped his strength, Ebert turned his site into a meeting place for movie writers from all over the world, giving Stateside readers a chance to see how Hollywood films affected their counterparts in India and elsewhere. The collapse of the newspapers and magazines that once hosted film critics (as well as reviewers in all other fields) may have saddened him, but Ebert knew the intellectual fizz of cultural commentary had moved to the digital realm, and he made himself comfortable there early on.

There are plenty of great film websites and lots of fine film writers on the Internet. I have my favorites; you have yours; tomorrow we’ll both find plenty more to follow. The collapse of credentialism has, overall, been a good thing for criticism. One need only look back to the days of Bosley Crowther, or some snobbish bit of snark in the New York Times, to recognize that pedigree and critical judgment don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand in the arts. But I’m old enough to remember when there were lots of magazines and newspapers worth following and arguing about, and I miss them. When I started to develop a serious interest in movies, I sought out critics in the scores of magazines glutting the news stands — The New Yorker, Clay Felker’s New York, Time, Saturday Review, The Atlantic, the Village Voice, and even TV Guide, which at one time gave space to both Judith Crist and Cleveland Amory — and the hunt introduced me to other writers and subjects along the way. Movies were worth reading about and arguing about, and even the most low-rent mass market magazine felt obligated to join the conversation. Ebert was the last great writer to cross that landscape, and the last to enjoy the kind of clout that came with the role. As Lester Bangs once said about Elvis Presley, we will never agree about anything the way we agreed about Roger Ebert. We really are moving into a new realm, and one of the compass points for getting around in it is now gone for good.

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The long and the short of it

Movie writers in need of a space-filling trend piece or analytical thumbsucker have one topic they return to again and gain: movies are getting too long. Type the question Are movies getting too long? into Google and you’ll score plenty of hits from every year of the past decade. The recurrence of this topic led Roger Ebert to opine that “no good movie can be too long, and no bad movie can be too short.” Since two of this year’s biggest hits — The Avengers and The Hunger Games — are nearly two-and-a-half hours long, and other blockbusters waiting in the wings — Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit — will probably be in the same range, I expect we’ll see the topic trotted out again before too long.

Funny thing is, when you look at this inflation-adjusted list of all-time box office champions, only one Top 10 film clocks in under two hours: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was Walt Disney’s first attempt at the labor-intensive field of feature length animation. The rest are comfortably above the two-hour mark, except for E.T., which falls two minutes short. And two of the most enduringly popular flicks, Gone With the Wind and Titanic, are very long indeed, as are Dr. Zhivago, The Sound of Music, and The Ten Commandments. The next ten titles tell the same story: except for animated films, which are aimed at a young audience with a limited attention span, the majority of the flicks are over two hours long, and sometimes quite a bit longer.

Since film is the most immersive art form, it follows that the most successful films take the time to make the viewing experience as detailed and absorbing as possible. So while I have my own list of movies I would be happy to see shortened — some of which I’d be delighted to edit myself, with a chainsaw and acetylene torch if possible — it appears that audiences tend to agree with Ebert. If the length of movies is indeed a problem, it’s mainly a problem for movie critics. If I hear of anyone shedding tears for that tribe, I’ll be sure to write it up here.  

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Friday finds

Speaking as someone who found the bogus movie trailers to be the most watchable part of Grindhouse, I’m happy to see a full-length Machete flick about to become a reality. I also like the idea of the film taking a few jabs at teabagger fever. If nothing else, it will give Andrew Breitbart something new to froth over — even he must be getting tired of whining about the left-wing messages in Avatar. And won’t William Donohue be thrilled with all the scenes of nuns and priests toting shooting irons? Can’t hardly wait.

The different types of mothers. The negative side of positive thinking.

Via 3:AM Magazine, a three-part transcript of an interview with John Fante, the cult writer’s cult writer: inspiration to the Beats and Charles Bukowski; author of Ask the Dust, the quintessential prewar Los Angeles novel; creator of the literary alter ego Arturo Baldini. Read part one here, part two here, part three here.

The rise of Cute Cthulhu and what it says about us as a civilization.

“Many years ago, I saw the world through crap-colored glasses, and my writing was quite crappy because of it. These days, however, I look at the world with an almost childlike wonder. I don’t let mainstream reality control what I see or what I don’t see. I live in a semi-haunted Victorian farmhouse, and I believe in ghosts. They believe in me, so it’s only fair . . . I can’t speak for other writers, but my perception of reality is what makes my writing what it is. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate.”

Undercover Black Man interviews gangsta rapper Ice Cube and learns about the perils of singing “Fuck Da Police” in Detroit.

As a Pulitzer-laureled movie critic of many years’ standing, Roger Ebert might be expected to emulate Richard Schickel and other credentialed gasbags blatting about how the Internet has ruined arts criticism. Instead, he states what has long been obvious: When it comes to film criticism (or, I’ll add, any form of arts writing) blogs are where the action is.

There is now an actual Intercollegiate Quidditch Assocation. Who knew?

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Friday finds

Check it out at the Graphic Design Blog.

Who can resist reading something with the title The Icelandic Skin-Disease Mushroom Fashion Fiasco?

For that matter, who can resist the idea of a Muppet version of The Wicker Man?

Thinking of going for an academic career? Better read this first. (Bird-dogged by Jeff.) And then read this.

The WFMU fundraising drive is in effect.

I knew film critic Roger Ebert had been battling serious health issues (namely, the loss of his lower jaw to cancer) for some time, but this Esquire piece really lays it out in detail. Ebert himself seems of two minds about the revelations. And here is Ebert speaking again for the first time in four years.

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Friday finds

Miskatonic University Embroidered PatchWant to give this year’s Halloween celebration a Lovecraftian flavor? Then Propnomicon is the site for you.

Now here’s somebody who really does it up brown for Halloween. The Martian invasion alone must have required a second mortgage.

A Chicago boy, Roger Ebert, writes about another Chicago boy, James T. Farrell.

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, and the wages of literary fame.

An evolved writer and thinker talks about evolution.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tax returns. John Scalzi considers the economics of the writing market in Fitzgerald’s era, as does Walter Jon Williams.

Writing the life of a writer who has already written his life quite well.

More than most writers, James Tiptree Jr. lived by silence, exile, and cunning — or, in this case, like an opossum.

A close encounter of the Pauline Kael kind.

Naturally, “Low Rider” deserves the top spot for any list of the “Top 10 Cowbell Songs.” But where the hell is “Mississippi Queen”?

Inspired film geekery over at Trailers From Hell, which gives directors a chance to riff about their favorite movies over the trailers for said movies. You get Eli Roth giving mad props to Forbidden Planet, Bill Duke singing the praises of The Spook Who Sat By the Door, Allison Anders rocking out to Privilege, and Larry Cohen getting paranoid over the original Invaders from Mars.

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Friday finds

In search of the origins of Bob Dylan’s accent. That clip above, by the way, is “Sugar Baby” as done by His Bobness earlier this month in Portland. Normally, Dylan in concert lifts his harmonica for the same reason a stripper lifts her skirt — it always gets a cheer from the audience. In this version, the harmonica gets some real quality time. And this post celebrates the top ten wonderfully weird Dylan performances, including a duet with Jack White. I particularly like the rendition of “Dancing in the Dark” from the legendary Toad’s Place show.

A celebrated film critic blogs about his life with books.

Joyce Carol Oates on Shirley Jackson.

Why Photoshop is a mixed blessing.

“I tried writing novels as a young man and I didn’t like my novels very much. And by the way, neither did anyone else. So I went to California eventually to seek my fortune and try and get into the movie business. And I was lucky. I started to make some progress. And then just as I was starting to have stuff produced, the Writers Guild did go on strike. This was back in 1972 or ‘73, I think. And I was sharing digs with a young woman who said, “Well now, since you’re not allowed to write screenplays, you can write that book you are always talking about.” And that book was my fanciful notion of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, in which Holmes met and joined forces intellectually as well as narratively with Sigmund Freud. And there really wasn’t any good reason at that point not to try doing it.”

How the use of antique words in fiction can be the equivalent of the Easter Eggs embedded in many DVDs.

“Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California from 1958 to 1967, used to describe his job as providing sex for the students, car parking for the faculty and football for the alumni. But what happens when the natural order is disrupted by faculty members who, on parking their cars, head for the students’ bedrooms?”

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Movie critic cage match!

Roger (Ebert) and John (Simon) and Gene (Siskel) and Ted (Koppel) talk about Return of the Jedi in this 1983 broadcast of Nightline. What I found most amusing about this clash of the titans (aside from the realization that Ted Koppel was getting his hair styled by Betty Crocker even back then) was the spectacle of two critics praising a movie for the wrong reasons while the third panned it for the wrong reasons. And as much as I appreciate Simon’s saber-toothed acerbity, I hooted when he suggested that Tender Mercies would have been a better movie to show your children.

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Vapor lock

Roger Ebert talks about the time he and Gene Siskel vapor-locked just before an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, early in their dual career as television’s feudin’ film critics:

We were scared out of our minds. We’d been briefed on likely questions by one of the show’s writers, but moments before airtime he popped his head into the dressing room and said, “Johnny may ask you for some of your favorite movies this year.”

Gene and I stared at each other in horror. “What was one of your favorite movies this year?” he asked me. “Gone With the Wind,” I said. The Doc Severinsen orchestra had started playing the famous “Tonight Show” theme. Neither one of us could think of a single movie. Gene called our office in Chicago. “Tell me some movies we liked this year,” he said. This is a true story.   

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