Roger Ebert: an ongoing appreciation

by wijeratneworks


In a very recent BBC Hardtalk interview (March 25th, 2013), the brilliant and polymathic theatre director Jonathan Miller remarked, when asked about critics:

“There’s a wonderful scene in the, er, well where the girl goes out to the mysterious place where the ‘Wizard of Oz’ is. A voice BOOMS at them, critically. Then the little dog runs across and pulls aside the curtain, suddenly revealing that the person who has got this booming voice is….a negligible figure.”

Roger Ebert, however, was no negligible figure. No, there was no doubting his influence. I would cringe to be that film-maker whose creation had received the caustic end of Ebert’s pen, along with the royal ‘thumbs-down’. Worse, a negative review from Ebert could potentially turn away cinema-goers who might otherwise actually enjoy the movie. But what about those movies he raved about?


w/director Martin Scorsese (right)

I find there to be a curious contrast between the average classical concert-goer and the average movie-goer: the former are stuck in the past (they don’t consider that the Western canon could include any music written post-1950, or even anything too dissonant), while the latter are stuck in the present (they have watched almost no films from the generation that preceded them). I find this phenomenon to be problematic….and tragic, when you consider that either person is unaware of unseen treasure.

I am no authority on cinema as an artform. I just adore it. In turn, it hugely influences my work as a musician. When I was just getting my feet wet, I would peruse the contents page of Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies, pick a movie, watch it, then rush back to the book to devour his essay on that movie. It was as if his recommendations and revelations would take me by the hand and lead me to sources of great inspiration which I would not have discovered otherwise: Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Hitchcock’s Notorious, Robert Altman’s Nashville, to name a few. I still go through ‘The Great Movies’ whenever I have time. And seeing as there are two more volumes, I am glad that my Ebert-inspired journey of discovery will occupy me for years to come. I am just broken-hearted that he is not around anymore to add to his collection.


I am surprised to hear myself say this but, on occasion, I have even found Ebert’s written digest to be as enjoyable as the film itself. After all, isn’t there something we say about mere words not being able to do justice to, say, great music? But perhaps someone with the combination of insight, passion and eloquence of a Roger Ebert could use words to provoke us just as much? I remember when, many years ago, I watched Citizen Kane. I simply wanted to find out why it was called ‘the greatest film of all time’. I ended up loving it, and immediately afterwards, Ebert’s DVD commentary made me love it even more. You can find this on the collector’s edition here. It is a commentary so natural and effortless that one assumes Ebert is speaking purely off-the-cuff on a topic he clearly knows inside-out.

I would also recommend Ebert’s Altman Home Companion, which I reread whenever I want to reflect on the work of my favourite director. I loved the fact that Ebert, who hugely raised awareness and appreciation for well-made independent films of all languages, would use the same yardstick for the commercial movies of the Hollywood studio system, drawing attention to artistry wherever he could find it. He just loved a good movie.

He also hated a bad movie, evidence of which is plain to see in such titles as:


Gotta love the cover. As we bid farewell to the great and indefatigable Roger Ebert, I leave you with an extract from his review of a film whose title I won’t mention. In it, he reminds us of the aesthetic values he carried until the very end:

“There is a lazy editing style in action movies these days that assumes nothing need make any sense visually. In a good movie, we understand where the heroes are, and where their opponents are, and why, and when they fire on each other, we understand the geometry. In a mess like this, the frame is filled with flashes and explosions and shots so brief that nothing makes sense. 

To conclude the same review, with a trademark flash of wit and wisdom, he offers the present generation some forthright advice:

Young men: If you attend this crap with friends who admire it, tactfully inform them they are idiots. Young women: If your date likes this movie, tell him you’ve been thinking it over, and you think you should consider spending some time apart.”