In the latter half of the 1990s, I was a regular attendee of the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, and one of the highlights of every year was seeing Roger Ebert around town, taking part in various festival events. Ebert introduced films, conducted onstage interviews, and led multi-day movie-watching exercises, in which he encouraged attendees to yell “Stop!” whenever they saw something on the screen that deserved further comment. (I once impressed Ebert by suggesting a loose staircase-post in The Third Man reflected the hero’s displacement. I was so proud.) At some point during the first weekend of every festival, Ebert would set up a table at a downtown bookstore and sign copies of the latest edition of his movie guide, which was usually a month away from being officially released. Sometimes Ebert hadn’t even seen the books before he cut open a fresh box and settled into his chair, pen at the ready. Then he’d read people’s names off their festival badges, and ask what movies they’d seen over the past couple of days. And if their badges said “PRESS”—like mine did—he’d ask, “Who do you write for?”
I never met-met Ebert—not like my colleagues in Chicago, who talked to him at press screenings—but I treasured those few seconds of talking to him at his book-signing every year. Even more than that, I treasured the books.
One of the great revelations of my youth was discovering that Ebert wasn’t just an entertaining television personality; he was also one hell of a writer. On Ebert’s TV appearances with Gene Siskel, Siskel frequently came off better, because Ebert could be temperamental, and he had such idiosyncratic opinions. Siskel, though, was nowhere near as good as Ebert at turning those opinions into smooth, engaging prose, simultaneously personally revealing and insightful. I read Ebert’s movie guides cover-to-cover every year, gravitating to the four-star reviews, where Ebert would sometimes make persuasive cases for films I disliked, or that I’d never seen. When he was on TV, Ebert could enrage me by defending some brainless blockbuster or crankily dismissing movies I loved (such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). Yet even when I thought one of Ebert’s print reviews was off-base, I enjoyed the writing so much that I never came away mad.
Not long before Ebert died, I started exploring what some might call his “deep cuts”—the reviews that never made it into his yearly movie guides, because neither the movies nor the reviews were strong enough. The archive of Ebert’s reviews on RogerEbert.com has been an invaluable resource, both for getting some front-line perspective on older movies, and for getting a better sense of who Ebert was.
For example, while I probably read Ebert’s reviews of movies like Nashville and Taxi Driver dozens of times when I was a young critic, I only recently read his take on William Friedkin’s Sonny & Cher showcase Good Times, which begins with this passage:
Used to be that when teen-age singing idols made a movie, you knew what to expect. There was Pat Boone in his white loafers, singing ‘Oh Bernadine’ to a beat-up 1949 convertible, and Elvis Presley with his ducktails, and Bill Haley playing the saxophone while swinging from a trapeze. The idea was that you went to these movies to see Pat Boone or Elvis Presley or Bill Haley. And the camera work consisted of shooting the stars from below, above, sideways and upside down while they sang all those songs. But no longer. Since Richard Lester directed The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night, the whole genre has undergone a revolution. The camera is no longer permitted to simply record a performance; it must interpret it.
Or Ebert on the long-forgotten 1967 counterculture thriller The Happening:
Since there is no Happening in the film, the film itself is apparently meant to be a Happening. (Metaphysical concepts like this crawl in every time you even mention a Happening, but they can’t be helped.)
Or the Bob Hope/Jonathan Winters/Phyllis Diller vehicle 8 On The Lam:
Bob Hope has given the screen some of its most amusing moments, but 8 On The Lam, unfortunately, contains none of them. You wouldn’t think Hope and Jonathan Winters, those masters of timing, could possibly make a dull and sloppy comedy, but they did, and their method is instructive. They began by trusting that what was good enough before is good enough again… Then they made sure that all the good old standby scenes from previous Hope, Diller and/or Winters movies were included to make the fans feel right at home. So we get Hope dressed up in a garish blue and silver cowboy suit, strutting around looking pompous and incompetent. ‘Howdy, gal,’ he drawls to Jill St. John, and we wonder if this line doesn’t sound familiar. It does. Hope has been using the tough-but-phony cowboy bit in every third movie since Road To Alaska, and it isn’t getting any fresher.
Or Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls:
Chelsea Girls must be believed to be seen. Like so many other elements of Andy Warhol’s world, it has little intrinsic worth. You must have the faith before you go into the theater; you must be, as the used car dealers say, ‘pre-sold.’ If you aren’t, this film will not win you over on its own terms, as a great film can and should. It will simply lie there before you on the theater wall, winking first with one screen, then the other. For what we have here is 3 1/2 hours of split-screen improvisation poorly photographed, hardly edited at all, employing perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the aroma of the meal. Warhol has nothing to say and no technique to say it with. He simply wants to make movies, and he does: hours and hours of them. If Chelsea Girls had been the work of Joe Schultz of Chicago, even Warhol might have found it merely pathetic.
Or I, A Woman:
If you can miss only one movie this year, make it I, A Woman. Here is a Swedish film which very nearly restores my faith in the cinema, demonstrating that all the other crummy movies I’ve had to sit through in this job weren’t so bad. Not by comparison, anyway… I think the problem is sex. Somewhere, somehow, moviemakers got the idea that it was an ‘adult’ film if it had a lot of skin in it. But an adult film, surely, is a film which examines with maturity and compassion the real laughter and sadness of life. I, A Woman doesn’t. It exhibits the maturity of a 13-year-old cranking the handle on the penny-peepshow at a county fair.
Those are just a sampling of Ebert’s reviews from 1967, his first year as a full-time film critic at The Chicago Sun-Times. The RogerEbert.com archives are filled with pans and mixed reviews for movies that don’t come up in cinephile conversations much any more, or that in some cases—such as with Chelsea Girls and Good Times—have lingered longer than Ebert probably could’ve expected when he was a 25-year-old.
I like reading Ebert’s earliest reviews for the same reason I liked reading his reviews of classic movies when I was 25: because collectively, they tell a story. Ebert was often fond of quoting critic Robert Warshow: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” Steve James’ new documentary about Ebert, Life Itself (which comes out July 4) is an invaluable portrait of the man, his times, and his influence, but I’m sure James himself would say that no one could explain Ebert better than Ebert. In review after review, week after week, year after year, Ebert let slip little details about his Illinois upbringing, his political leanings, his habits, and his hobbies. While the New York critics were staking out rigid ideological positions and savaging each other in print—fighting battles that seem far less important now than when they were raging—Ebert was coming at movies as a curious, studious, passionate Midwesterner, applying a little humility and a lot of honesty, to keep his confidence from slipping into cockiness.
Like Pauline Kael, Ebert had the good fortune to rise to prominence at a time when American cinema was going through a remarkable transition, and like Kael, Ebert embraced the emergence of the “New Hollywood,” though Ebert remained a fan of directors like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg long after Kael turned on them. Part of the fun of reading Ebert’s reviews from the late 1960s is that the transition was just beginning then, and Ebert didn’t know it yet—which is why he wound up looking for sparks of creativity in yet another tired Bob Hope comedy, or weighing the value in smut. He was willing to give most movies the benefit of the doubt, by putting them in the context of his own experiences, as a moviegoer and a person. He’d do his best to say, “Okay, here’s what this movie is,” and though he’d misinterpret filmmakers on rare occasions—even in his later years, with artists like Lynch, or Abbas Kiarostami—he kept watching, learning, and applying his evolving understanding to his work.
In his later years, Ebert revisited some films in his “Great Movies” series, and sometimes gave glowing reappraisals to movies he’d been more reserved about when they were originally released. Ebert’s “Great Movies” columns are some of his best work, but I don’t enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy the original reviews, where I can see him thinking things through on the page, in something close to real time. Writing on a deadline, with whatever might’ve been going on in cinema culture or the world at large rattling around in his head, Ebert carried on a continuing conversation with his readers, decades before the advent of blogging. And while it was a one-sided conversation, there was an element of reflectiveness to Ebert’s reviews that suggested other voices whispering in his ear, playing devil’s advocate.
“Who do you write for?” Ebert asked me in Charlottesville, wanting to know which newspaper or magazine I was representing at the Virginia Film Festival. But the question has another meaning, too. Ebert, always proudly a journalist, squeezed a lot of Who/What/Where into his reviews, serving as a reporter on what was happening in cinema during one of its most exciting eras. But he was trying to answer those questions for himself as much as for his readers. In those early years, not knowing what was waiting in the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and beyond, Ebert made pronouncements that he spent the rest of his career revising—always by asking the simplest questions out loud.