Enriching Our Lives, by Tyler Smith
There is so much to say about the late Roger Ebert that I don’t even really know where to start. I guess I’ll just kick things off by saying that no other critic has contributed more to my philosophy and outlook than Roger Ebert. He cherished film and desperately wanted others to cherish them, too.
Perhaps one of the most important statements that Ebert ever wrote was in his review of the remake of The Longest Yard. In it, he said that “movies can enrich our lives, instead of just helping us get through them.” This idea flies in the face of what so many of my family and friends would say to me, about film simply being an escape; an opportunity to turn off your brain for a while.
Don’t get me wrong; Ebert was not at all opposed to escapism. He loved movies that were content to entertain and dazzle, and he was always looking to be dazzled. A frequent criticism that he had for fantasy and science fiction films was that they lacked “a sense of wonder.” He loved movies that transported us away from our everyday reality and problems to another world, but he seemed frustrated when a filmmaker refused to explore that world.
Because that was something that Ebert loved to do: he loved to explore the world of movies. He loved to look at every inch of the frame of a well-made film and delight in every little detail. He longed to be a kid again, brushing his intellect aside and allowing himself to get swept up in the feeling and excitement.
Sometimes a filmmaker wouldn’t allow him to do that, and that seemed to frustrate him more than anything else. He sincerely wanted to like a movie. He would give a film every chance possible. To him, all films were innocent until proven guilty. This is how movies like Anaconda managed to get a positive- even glowing- review from arguably the most famous critic in the country. He wanted to like movies, and some movies didn’t give him enough reasons not to.
This is very different than the general attitude permeating the internet. Now it seems most people want to be the one person who really gets it; the person who stands apart from everybody else. The lone wolf. And in an attempt achieve this, hyperbole becomes the order of the day. There is very little respectful disagreement; there is good and bad, smart and stupid, right and wrong.
Like so many critics, Roger Ebert undoubtedly felt the urge to use reviews to show how clever and insightful he was; how he was the lone voice of reason in a world of morons. But he opted to stay positive and optimistic. His fellow critics were not opponents. They were comrades, just as eager to spread the gospel of great film as he was.
This is not to say that Ebert never wrote a negative word about any film. He was just as known for hating, hating, hating a movie as much as loving it. But he didn’t do it lightly. He saved his real scorn for films that seemed to have a negative view of the audience, or perhaps a general misanthropy. He hated movies that devalued human life or compromised its own philosophy for the sake of cheap thrills. In the case of a film like The Life of David Gale, when the film introduces a twist that completely contradicts the political stance the film seemed to be making, Ebert said he wanted to “throw something at the screen.”
Roger Ebert also clearly viewed part of a critic’s role to be the championing of lesser known films. On his weekly show, he and fellow critic Gene Siskel tried to devote a segment of their program to an independent or foreign film. Very few people would have access to these films, so it didn’t make a great deal of sense to talk about them, but perhaps a discussion on the popular movie review show could get the film into a few more theaters. And if there was anything that Ebert could do to ensure that good films got seen, he would do it. Because he loved movies, and wanted others to love them, too.
But he always encouraged us to love movies on their own terms, rather than require that they cater to us. People enter a theater with all manner of baggage; philosophical, professional, spiritual, emotional, and much more. It’s impossible to shed all of that, but Ebert asked that we at least take the time to realize that a film has its own baggage, too. And that perhaps our attempt to pile all of our issues and philosophies onto a movie could be too great a load and the film would collapse, frustrating us that the film couldn’t do something that it was never meant to do. Better instead to try to see what the film is trying to communicate and compare it to our own experiences. This way, we could actually learn something new, rather than simply insist that we’re told how right we are.
A great example of this was at Sundance over ten years ago. Filmmaker Justin Lin’s movie Better Luck Tomorrow had just screened and, during a Q&A session, a man stood up to make a comment. He asked how a group of talented Asian artists could make a film that showed portrayed Asians in such a bad light by having its main characters partake in criminal enterprise. Never mind that we had previously seen Italians, Irish, African Americans, Jews, and pretty much every other possible nationality engage in criminal activities on screen; this man took issue with a cast of Asians- an admittedly rare occurrence- looking bad.
Sitting in the midst of the crowd was Roger Ebert, who stood and called the man out, commenting that nobody would ever expect a group of white characters to represent their “people” in a film and that it was narrow to expect Asian characters to do that. He finished by saying that these characters “have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be!” It was a great moment to behold; a critic defending a film’s right to exist on its own terms.
That is what Roger Ebert taught me. A good film is a living thing with a point of view and I should stop expecting it to be what I demand and let it be whatever the hell it wants to be. A film may succeed or it may fail, but at least it was given every chance. And in an age when everybody seems to simply be waiting for their turn to talk, it’s worth noting that there was one man that spent his life encouraging us to walk into a movie theater, sit down, and listen.
Roger Ebert was a great man and a wonderful critic. He will be missed.