Roger Ebert, the famous, portlier half of the film television film critic duo Siskel & Ebert, died Thursday at age 70 after a long fight with cancer, a disease whose complications robbed him of his voice and his jaw, but thankfully, not his ability to make prose. Many people remember Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert as not just movie eggheads but icons–regular guys who pioneered intelligent everyman film comment and made us all want to be homesteaders. Not only that, let’s be honest–they were simply a classic TV comedy team, by turns grouchy and excited, dismissive and starry-eyed. Perfect foils for each other both temperamentally and visually. They were well aware of this and played it up–one making fun of the other’s thick middle, only to be ridiculed for this thin top. You always got the sense that Roger was more of the romantic and Gene more acerbic, but they could switch roles. Also, you could tell Roger was a bit of a star fucker.
And he liked large-breasted women. A lot. Enough to write dialogue for Russ Meyer vamps and to give films like My Tutor three stars, which is about three stars more than it deserved.
But even though I loved Sneak Previews as a child (remember “Dog of the Week,” S&E fans?) and the successor shows as a teenager, I soon grew out of Roger Ebert the TV star and grew to love and be influenced by Roger Ebert the writer. For anybody sensitive to language, for whom the written word holds endless pleasures, Roger Ebert wrote spare, wonderful, epigrammatic lines free of pomposity and pseudo-intellectual BS. He didn’t need three-dollar words in every sentence to cover up some intellectual insecurity about his job. He was too busy navigating his emotional reaction to film in commonsense language with razor-like accuracy and a journalist’s power of observation. He could tell you with one line of e.e. cummings poetry why the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t work. He could tell you with a quick, effortless, snide comment why something that had pretended to art had failed so miserably. He reminded me all the time what Charles Bukowski said of all writers: If they can’t write a simple line like “The little dog walked down the street,” they probably can’t write at all.
This golden gutted instinct was not on display, necessarily in his few, very strange attempts at screenwriting for Meyer, which went from Shakespearean verse to shit and back again. Of his lines from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, one of those I have never been able to get out of my head is “E’er this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance.” And I do not mean that as a compliment.
But his prose is as cutting, feeling, compassionate as Hemingway’s, just as concerned about what made cinematic emotional sense as real emotional sense. You learned to appreciate his idiosyncrasies, including his inability to say anything bad about his favorite stars even when they’d done bad work. And you might also notice if you read his oeuvre for a long time that he was maybe a bigger supporter of Lesbian sex in film than Lesbians themselves might feel comfortable with.
I could look up all his barbs to Siskel on YouTube. But I prefer to share some of my favorite lines from Roger Ebert, the writer, the guy who showed you that if you wanted to express yourself about life and art and movies, and where they meet in screwed up ways, best to write from your heart.
A selection of Ebert:
“What idea or philosophy could we expect to find in Apocalypse Now–and what good would it really do, at this point after the Vietnam tragedy, if Brando’s closing speeches did have the “answers”? Like all great works of art about war, Apocalypse Now essentially contains only one idea or message, the not-especially-enlightening observation that war is hell. We do not see Coppola’s movie for that insight–something Coppola, but not some of his critics knows well. … Coppola also well knows (and demonstrated in the Godfather films) that movies aren’t especially good at dealing with abstract ideas–for those you’d be better off turning to the written word–but they are superb for presenting moods and feelings, the look of a battle, the expression on a face, the mood of a country.”
“In Blue Velvet, [Isabella] Rossellini goes the whole distance, but [director David] Lynch distances himself from her ordeal with his clever asides and witty little in-jokes. In a way, his behavior is more sadistic than the Hopper character. What’s worse? Slapping somebody around or standing back and finding the whole thing funny?”
“All those years ago, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was first released, I began my review with a few lines from a poem by e.e. cummings: ‘I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.’ … 2010 is very much a 1980s movie. It doesn’t match the poetry and the mystery of the original film, but it does continue the story, and it offers sound, pragmatic explanations for many of the strange and visionary things in 2001 that had us arguing endlessly through the nights of 1968. This is, in short, a movie that tries to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”
“The Muppet Movie not only stars the Muppets but, for the first time, shows us their feet. And if you can figure out how they were able to show Kermit pedaling across the screen, then you are less a romantic than I am: I prefer to believe he did it himself.”
“Watching [Robert Altman's] Nashville is as easy as breathing and as hard to stop.”
“Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories is a deliberate homage to 8½, the 1963 film in which Federico Fellini chronicled several days in the life of a filmmaker who had no idea where to turn next. The major difference between the two films is that Fellini’s movie was about a director bankrupt of new ideas while Allen’s is a movie by a director with no new ideas.”
“When Hubert Selby Jr. wrote the book that inspired [Last Exit To Brooklyn] 25 years ago, it was attacked in some quarters as pornographic, but it failed the essential test: It didn’t arouse prurient interest, only sadness and despair.”
“In [Personal Best], Mariel Hemingway plays plays a young, naive natural athlete. … Patrice Donnelly, as a more experienced athlete, tries to comfort the younger girl. In a dormitory room that night, they talk. Donnelly shares whatever wisdom she has about training and running and winning. They smoke a joint. They kid around. They arm wrestle. At this point, watching the film, I had an interesting experience. I did not already know that the characters in the film were homosexual, but I found myself thinking that the scene was so erotically charged that, “if Hollywood could be honest,” it would develop into a love scene. Just then, it did!”
“From the moment [in Black Widow when Debra Winger and Theresa Russell] meet, there’s a strong undercurrent of eroticism between the two women. We feel it, they feel it and the movie allows it one brief expression–when Russell roughly reaches out and kisses Winger. But Ron Base, who wrote the screenplay, and Bob Rafelson, who directed, don’t follow that magnetism. They create the unconvincing love affair between Winger and the tycoon to set up a happy ending that left me feeling cheated.”
“I approach Heathers as a traveler in an unknown country, one who does not speak the language or know the customs and can judge the natives only by taking them at their word. The movie is a morbid comedy about peer pressure in high school, about teenage suicide and about the deadliness of cliques that not only exclude but also maim and kill. Life was simpler when I was in high school. ‘Teenagers don’t have any trouble with it,’ the film’s director, Michael Lehmann, has said of the movie. ‘It’s always adults that are shocked.’ This statement is intended, I assume, in praise of teenagers. Adulthood could be defined as the process of learning to be shocked by things that do not shock teenagers, but that is not a notion that has occurred to Lehmann.”
“I know, I know: He’s trying to demystify the West, and all those other things hotshot directors try to do when they don’t really want to make a Western. But this movie [Heaven's Gate] is a study in wretched excess. It is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen. A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.”
“Your Movie Sucks.” [A book title]
“[Van] Heflin, as the guy with the bomb in his briefcase, is perhaps the only person in the cast to realize how metaphysically absurd Airport basically is. The airplane already has a priest, two nuns, three doctors, a stowaway, a customs officer’s niece, a pregnant stewardess, two black GIs, a loudmouthed kid, a henpecked husband, and Dean Martin aboard, right? So obviously the bomber has to be typecast, too. … What Heflin does is undermine the structure of the whole movie with a sort of subversive overacting. Once the bomber becomes ridiculous, the movie does, too. That’s good, because it never had a chance at being anything else.”
“We sense that in some ways [Hannah and Her Sisters knows the characters] better than they will ever know themselves. And to talk about the movie that way is to suggest the presence of the most important two characters in the movie, whom I will describe as Woody Allen and Mickey. Mickey is the character played by Allen; he is a neurotic TV executive who lives in constant fear of death or disease. … If Mickey is the character played by Woody Allen in the movie, Allen also provides another, second character in a more subtle way. The entire movie is told through his eyes and his sensibility; not Mickey’s, but Allen’s. From his earlier movies, especially Annie Hall and Manhattan, we have learned to recognize the tone of voice, the style of approach. Allen approaches his material as a very bright, ironic, fussy, fearful outsider; his constant complaint is that it’s all very well for these people to engage in their lives and plans and adulteries, because they do not share his problem, which is that he sees through everything, and what he sees on the other side of everything is certain death and disappointment.”
“[River's Edge] is the best analytical film about a crime since The Onion Field and In Cold Blood. Like those films, it poses these questions: Why do we need to be told this story? How is it useful to see limited and brutish people doing cruel and stupid things? I suppose there are two answers. One, because such things exist in the world and some of us are curious about them as we are curious in general about human nature. Two, because an artist is never merely a reporter and by seeing the tragedy through his eyes, he helps us to see it through ours.”
“One day I will be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny.”
“Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is a movie about brute force, anger, and grief. It is also, like several of Scorsese’s other movies, about a man’s inability to understand a woman except in terms of the only two roles he knows how to assign her: virgin or whore. There is no room inside the mind of the prizefighter in this movie for the notion that a woman might be a friend, a lover, or a partner. She is only, to begin with, an inaccessible sexual fantasy. And then, after he has possessed her, she becomes tarnished by sex. Insecure in his own manhood, the man becomes obsessed by jealousy — and releases his jealousy in violence. It is a vicious circle. Freud called it the “madonna-whore complex.” Groucho Marx put it somewhat differently: ‘I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.’”
“I am trying to imagine what it would be like to write this review [of My Left Foot] with my left foot. Quite seriously. I imagine it would be a great nuisance–unless, of course, my left foot was the only part of my body over which I had control. If that were the case, I would thank God that there was still some avenue down which I could communicate with the world.”
And last, but not least, my favorite line from Roger Ebert, from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a line so silly you can’t help but think of him now sweeping heaven’s floor with his panache:
“This is my happening, and it freaks me out!”