One year ago today, I lost someone very dear to my heart–a man I never had the privilege of meeting, but with whom I felt a kinship extending far beyond the bounds of social acquaintance. His name was Roger Ebert, and he loved movies.
I certainly was not the only one affected by his passing, and I would not dare count myself among those most devastated by it. But all the same, I continue to mourn his loss as a deeply personal one, for on the podium where stand the greatest of my heroes, he alone occupies its tallest tier. It is not simply his linguistic prowess and nuanced understanding of cinema that places him there, either–for as acerbically witty (in attacking films he detested) or poignantly meditative (in extolling films he adored) as he ever was, what most attracts me to his writing is the fiery optimism that burns just beneath the surface, veiled but nonetheless radiant and immutable.
Now, that isn’t to say that he strove to find the good in even the worst of films–in fact, as several of the quotations below indicate, quite the opposite was true; rather, the optimism to which I refer was his fundamental belief that humanity’s capacity for greatness outpaced its apparent ills by hours per mile. It is a rare and stirring brand of hopefulness found only in a select few authors’ work (two others come immediately to mind: Carl Sagan and Studs Terkel, whose book of oral histories, “Hope Dies Last,” fittingly sits just below Ebert’s gaze in the picture above), and one I try as best I can to incorporate into my own writing.
It may at a glance seem contradictory for me to suggest that the man who wrote “Your Movie Sucks” and “A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length: More Movies That Suck” might have done so from a place of love, but the fact of the matter is, he made no habit of attacking films that were simply subpar–no, the ones in his crosshairs were those that he felt insulted the intelligence of the audience and made a mockery of all that was good in film. In reading his pieces on great ones, however, there is simply no question that his eye for the indomitability of the human spirit was the lens through which he examined all films. I hesitate to call them “reviews” even, for they are not merely ratings and explanations, but profound, even breathtaking, meditations on the cinematic form and its broader significance to the human condition; they are the reason he was the first recipient in history of a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism (in 1975; the second was Stephen Hunter almost 30 years later).
In honor of his memory, here are excerpts from, and hyperlinks to, a few of his best pieces–both the funny and the poignant ones. If you feel I’ve mistakenly omitted a great one or if you just have a favorite worth sharing, then by all means, do so in the comments. This is, above all, for Roger, whose hope will indeed die last.
Putting the Smack Down
- “I didn’t feel like a viewer during ‘Frozen Assets.’ I felt like an eyewitness at a disaster. If I were more of a hero, I would spend the next couple of weeks breaking into theaters where this movie is being shown, and lead the audience to safety.” –From his review of Frozen Assets (1992).
- “There is an idiocy here that seems almost intentional, as if the filmmakers plotted to leave anything of interest or entertainment value out of these episodes…I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.” –From his review of North (1994).
- “‘Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo’ makes a living cleaning fish tanks and occasionally prostituting himself. How much he charges I’m not sure, but the price is worth it if it keeps him off the streets and out of another movie. ‘Deuce Bigalow’ is aggressively bad, as if it wants to cause suffering to the audience. The best thing about it is that it runs for only 75 minutes.” –From his legendary review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo (2005), in which he verbally spanks Rob Schneider and sends him to bed without any supper.
- “‘Caligula’ is sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash. If it is not the worst film I have ever seen, that makes it all the more shameful: People with talent allowed themselves to participate in this travesty. Disgusted and unspeakably depressed, I walked out of the film after two hours of its 170-minute length. That was on Saturday night, as a line of hundreds of people stretched down Lincoln Ave., waiting to pay $7.50 apiece to become eyewitnesses to shame.” –From his review of Caligula (1980).
- “‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments…The movie has been signed by Michael Bay. This is the same man who directed ‘The Rock’ in 1996. Now he has made ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.’ Faust made a better deal.” –From his review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).
Note: Though not technically contained within a single review, several excellent zingers (including: “I will one day be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of ‘The Brown Bunny'”) worth reading came from a feud with actor/director Vincent Gallo, that has since been dubbed “The Brown Bunny Saga.”
- “Miyazaki says he made the film specifically for 10-year-old girls. That is why it plays so powerfully for adult viewers. Movies made for ‘everybody’ are actually made for nobody in particular. Movies about specific characters in a detailed world are spellbinding because they make no attempt to cater to us; they are defiantly, triumphantly, themselves.” –From his Great Movies essay on Spirited Away (2002).
- “Visiting an old people’s home, I walked down a corridor on the floor given over to advanced Alzheimer’s parents. Some seemed anxious. Some were angry. Some simply sat there. Knowing nothing of what was happening in their minds, I wondered if the anxious and angry ones had some notion of who they were and that something was wrong. I was reminded of the passive ones while watching ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’ Wiped free of memory, they exist always in the moment, which they accept because it is everything…The wisdom in ‘Eternal Sunshine’ is how it illuminates the way memory interacts with love. We more readily recall pleasure than pain. From the hospital I remember laughing nurses and not sleepless nights. A drunk remembers the good times better than the hangovers. A failed political candidate remembers the applause. An unsuccessful romantic lover remembers the times when it worked…What Joel and Clementine cling to are those perfect moments when lives seem blessed by heaven, and sunshine will fall upon it forever. I hope those are the moments some of those patients are frozen in. They seem at peace.” –From his Great Movies essay on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
- “One of the tasks faced by serious filmgoers is to distinguish good films in disreputable genres. It is insufferable to claim you ‘never’ see horror movies (or Westerns, musicals, war movies, teenage romances or slasher pictures). You’re presenting ignorance as taste. The trick is to find the good ones.” –From his Great Movies essay on Eyes Without a Face (1959).
- “Here is how it happens. We find something we want to do, if we are lucky, or something we need to do, if we are like most people. We use it as a way to obtain…whatever we think we need. To do this, we enact the role we call ‘me,’ trying to brand ourselves as a person who can and should obtain these things. In the process, we place the people in our lives into compartments and define how they should behave to our advantage. Because we cannot force them to follow our desires, we deal with projections of them created in our minds. But they will be contrary and have wills of their own. Eventually new projections of us are dealing with new projections of them. Sometimes versions of ourselves disagree. We succumb to temptation — but, oh, father, what else was I gonna do? I feel like hell. I repent. I’ll do it again. Hold that trajectory in mind and let it interact with age, discouragement, greater wisdom and more uncertainty. You will understand what ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is trying to say about the life of Caden Cotard and the lives in his lives.” –From his review of Synechdoche, New York (2008).
- “Every age gets the Shakespeare it deserves. ‘King Lear’ was written at a time when kings still ruled by divine right. It was the Renaissance belief that human destiny was influenced by one’s inner humors; Lear’s pride brought about his fall. ‘Ran’ is set in medieval times, but it is a 20th century film, in which an old man can arrive at the end of his life having won all his battles, and foolishly think he still has the power to settle things for a new generation. But life hurries ahead without any respect for historical continuity; his children have their own lusts and furies. His will is irrelevant, and they will divide his spoils like dogs tearing at a carcass. Did this express Kurosawa’s own view in his 75th year, as he looked back on one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the movies? Did he reflect that while the West was happy to buy, gut and remake his work, he had lost all power and respect in the country whose films he once ruled?” –From his Great Movies essay on Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).