Roger Ebert applied his joy and his scorn without prejudice as the most revered film critic of his generation. He was as ready to scathe a vanity piece of art house as he was to enthuse about an apparently throwaway teen comedy. He followed the example set by Pauline Kael, disregarding the distinction between high and low art, the movies and cinema, entertainment and meaning. Good or bad was what mattered – a creed Pop Lifer slavishly follows.
This approach is now almost universally applied – certainly the likes of Mark Kermode bask in the space critics like Kael and Ebert opened up. He loathed “Blue Velvet” (an example of where he could be wrong). He was harshly indifferent about “Resorvior Dogs” summing-up that “now that we know Quentin Tarantino can make a movie like Reservoir Dogs, it’s time for him to move on and make a better one”. His advice however was absolutely correct. “Pulp Fiction” followed. He loved “Beavis and Butthead.”
His scorn endures over his praise simply because it is funnier. Scorn tends to be. His enthusiasms may prove to be more durable. We shall see. Whether sneering or cheering however, Ebert’s reviews and essay are insightful, intelligent and accessible. A rare mix. And one encapsulated when he trashed film theory as “designed only for the purpose of excluding those who have not mastered it and giving academic rewards to those who have.”
His praise and his wider musings, when taken in isolation, can veer toward the car-sticker sentimental but only because they are applied in quote marks and slapped bang on a cold floor and out of context (we do exactly this in three paragraphs). The context was a long and public struggle with cancer and surgery. These personal essays are however unquestionably moving and unfailingly humane. Oh, and true.
His stream of fine quotes are available elsewhere and they are choice. However Pop Lifer would like to draw attention to two which perhaps best illustrate why and how Ebert was different and which neatly draw out Ebert’s take on his approach to movies and which is used in this blog’s headline. They are applied to two high school comedies. One ironic cult and one mainstream, sentimental hit.
He gave “Napolean Dynamite” a low 1.5/4, neatly catching the cold in-joke superiority of the film as he did. “Truth is, it doesn’t even try to be a comedy. It tells his story and we are supposed to laugh because we find humour the movie pretends it doesn’t know about.” In comparison he gave all three American Pie films three stars. He explains why. “As I swim through the summer tide of vulgarity, I find that’s what I’m looking for: Movies that at least feel affection for their characters. Raunchy is OK. Cruel is not.”
The generosity of his approach to life was ferociously applied to his criticism. Here is one of those slightly sentimental quotes we mentioned earlier.
“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
Strange therefore that this application appeared to be most joyously unleashed when he considered something he really didn’t like. The worst seemed to bring out his best like a compensatory reflex to try and extract at least some joy from the dreadful. On “Transformers 2”:
“If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination… The movie has been signed by Michael Bay.”
Ebert had a lifelong and firm belief that cinema could be a source of enrichment and joy – and spent his life trying to hold it to that high standard. Bay, spectacualrly, failed both tests according to Ebert, hence the scorn.
Ebert, emphatically, did not fail either test according to Pop Lifer, hence the blog.