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Remembering Roger Ebert: Two Thumbs at Half Mast

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Roger Ebert, american film critic.

Roger Ebert

I fully intended to sit down and write a bit today about Jurassic Park, which, if you hadn’t heard, is being re-released Friday in 3D to commemorate its 20-year anniversary. I know this is happening because my wife, a legitimate dinophile, hasn’t let me forget it.

And I’ll get to that. But as someone who writes for a living – and has a love of movies – it’s impossible not to be sad about the passing of the most legendary film critic who ever lived, Roger Ebert.

Ebert died Thursday after announcing just days earlier he was dealing with a recurrence of cancer, which sadly defined much of the last decade of his life after he was initially diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002. That eventually robbed him of the voice many of us learned to know while growing up watching “Siskel and Ebert” in syndication, but his words never stopped.

He kept writing reviews over the past 11 years – as well as ever – and even during this week’s announcement that he’d be cutting back on his commitments, made it crystal clear that he intended to keep up with the Argos and Zero Dark Thirtys of the world, if not the Deuce Bigalows and the Freddy Got Fingereds.

“It means I am not going away,” Ebert wrote in a blog post late Tuesday. “I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.”

Watching Ebert on TV and reading his reviews in the newspaper – and later online – was not only a masters class in learning about movies, but about putting pen to paper. When you’re a teenager who’s mostly interested in watching Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis blow stuff up on the big screen, reading an Ebert review was eye-opening. I remember seeing “American Beauty” when I was a senior in high school, enjoying it greatly as a kind of dark comedy that I hadn’t really watched before, and then rushing to the computer to Google – or more likely, AltaVista – Ebert’s analysis.

Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey in American Beauty

Ebert’s love of movies made me, a journalism major who wanted to be a sportswriter, sign up for Comm 150 at Penn State, a class called “The Art of the Cinema” that to this day remains my favorite college course. We watched Casablanca, Rear Window, Sunset Boulevard, Thelma and Louise, Double Indemnity, Memento, Goodfellas – all of which I knew but had never seen, and Ebert’s reviews were like a side syllabus not only to help make sense of the deeper meaning to these fantastic films, but to appreciate them.

Ebert and movie reviews went hand in hand, but his writing wasn’t good by the standards of a film critic – it was good, tight, intelligent writing by the standards of writing. On why film criticism, the art that defined him, matters: “Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may be.”

While I most often remember him for his glowing reviews of movies that deserved to be praised, some of his most memorable lines were from movies that needed to be skewered.

On 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: “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.”

On Armageddon, which came out in 1998 – and would have been a great time to place your “Ben Affleck will eventually bounce back from this to become one of the five best directors in Hollywood” bets: “No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”

And possibly the most famous one, aimed at Tom Green and the aforementioned “Freddy:” “This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”

We read reviews of movies we love to gain assurance and often to aid our understanding. We don’t need to read reviews of Transformers, Armageddon and Freddy Got Fingered to know they aren’t worth our time. But in Ebert’s case, everything became equal in a way. The stage was open in everything he wrote, and poetry would emerge whether he was talking about an Oscar contender or a shoo-in for a Razzie.

The balcony may be closed, but that voice never left.


Sam Neill and two uncredited velociraptors

Sam Neill and two uncredited velociraptors

Seems a bit pointless to offer my take on Jurassic Park after all that, so I’ll leave you with Ebert’s. I love his point about the comparisons to the slow build in “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” because my review after seeing Jurassic Park for the first time would have been “DINOSAURS!” If you can’t get on to the Sun-Times’ site, you’re not the only one.

Finally, check out this outstanding oral history of Jurassic Park, courtesy of Entertainment Weekly. Well worth the time.


2 responses »

  1. Somewhere up in heaven Ebert is giving your article two big thumbs up!!!

  2. Pingback: Roger Ebert’s 20 Most Epic Movie Pans | Musings of a Mild Mannered Man

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