It’s all words.” This was Roger Ebert’s response when I demanded to know why he hadn’t reviewed Inception just for me. A big-budget, high-concept action flick like this should meet its audience halfway; so should a film critic who likens the movies toa machine that generates empathy.” 

What nerve I had! Inexplicably, he wrote back: I have always tried to write in a clear and entertaining way, which makes me a populist. I think I have good and informed taste, which (perhaps) makes me an elitist.” What he was trying to tell me, through the customary rhetoric and dumb semantics of his critics (myself included), was that it is possible to write about movies, even the smartest ones, in language anybody can understand. As any good critic will tell you. Populist, elitist, what does it matter? It’s all words.

Life Itself, the Martin Scorsese-produced bio-documentary based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name, broaches the unresolved matter of his legacy, but never quite gets to the root of it. Revealing no small amount of insecurity from both sides of the debate, the movie leaves one cranky newspaperman’s expletive hanging in the air when Rick Kogan, who has never heard of America’s most highly-revered film critic, dares to utter the words fuck Pauline Kael,” which probably wouldn’t be a very polite thing to say over dinner but then again what does film criticism have to do with table manners? And which raises the question: what does Rick Kogan have to do with film criticism? His comment is supposed to help redeem America’s most famous film critic, whose worst vice (at least according to Jonathan Rosenbaum) was sticking his thumbs out on cable television, but only succeeds in undermining whatever point it might have had.

Now, if you’ve ever read Ebert’s reviews, or enjoyed the sight of two fully grown, fairly unhip men go at it tooth and nail over the supposed merits of Benji the Hunted, you’ll know that neither of these opinions holds much weight. Ebert, in fact, often cited Kael as a key influence, even appropriating her idea that “the movies are so seldom great art that if we can’t appreciate great trash, we might as well not go at all.” As for the accusation that Ebert’s trademarked thumbs helped retire more new movies than they helped put to work, both men during the course of their long-running television show, Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, consistently went out of their way to boost those movies that otherwise would have failed to find a mainstream audience.

But it’s for an altogether different reason that director Steve James seems unwilling to permit a back-and-forth debate between talking heads: the movie belongs to Roger Ebert, not to his critics (except, maybe, for Gene Siskel). To debate is to argue yourself out of the film. Nevertheless, he does issue a defense of Ebert’s notoriously problematic rating system, and it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

Gene Siskel: This the show where you give Benji the Hunted a positive review and not Full Metal Jacket.

Roger Ebert: Now Gene, that’s totally unfair, because you realize that these reviews are relative. Benji the Hunted is not one third of the film, not one tenth of the film that the Kubrick film is. But you know that the same thing happens, that you review films within context, so it’s not fair for you to compare those two reviews, and you know it and you should be ashamed of yourself.

Let me intervene before the point gets away. Ebert’s rating system looks askew only when you don’t consider the fact that his appraisal of a movie was relative to other movies, based on genre, on how high or low its director was aiming, and on whether or not the movie managed to hit its intended target. The Master might not necessarily be “worse” than, say, When Harry Met Sally–although it could well be. It simply isn’t as good as Boogie Nights. That it falls short of hitting the mark is important insofar that the movie doesn’t quite live up to our own expectations. But it doesn’t mean we’d rather watch Meg Ryan fake orgasm with Billy Crystal (although that is a good scene).

The reason Ebert never actually made the comparison between these two movies is the comparison makes no sense. That’s the point. Questions of taste aside (he hated A Clockwork Orange for being ideologically deceitful, yet Dirty Harry he didn’t mind so much–it was openly fascist), it seems his only crime as a critic was never arguing for one set of aesthetic values over another, and where’s the crime in that?

Recommended Reading

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Deeper Into Kael by Jim Emerson

Documentary Life Itself is Strangely Devoid of Roger Ebert’s Rasion D’etre by Liam Lacey


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