The Death Of Roger Ebert
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/30/13
I went to sleep one afternoon (I usually work overnights), being informed that film critic Roger Ebertís cancer had returned, and woke up that evening to learn that the man had just died. That day, April 4th of 2013, is now almost a month gone, and in the interim, some of my fans and readers have suggested (some more strongly than others) that I needed to chime in my own two cents on the man, his life, his criticism, etc., and the reason for this is that they feel that since the man wrote a lengthy 2009 article on me, on his highly trafficked blog (which has resulted in, to this date, about 1400 comments), that I somehow owed it to the man to eulogize him. Thus, I find myself in an uncomfortable position since I think eulogies are best left to those who knew someone intimately. Other than having grown up watching and reading the manís reviews on television and in print, my sum interaction and correspondence with Ebert over the years consisted of a 2007 email to him, requesting an interview for my Dan Schneider Interviews series, to which I got no response; the aforementioned blog post Ebert did on me and my website, Cosmoetica; a handful of emails between us over that post and a few other minor topics, over a few years, with no more than a paragraph written each time; and a few tweets from Ebert re: me. That is it.
Yet, in this world where everyone is online, and most people, be they trolls or sincere fans, think they have a RIGHT to know everything about everyone, I will state some things about the man, but they must be taken for what they are: musings about someone I knew merely the persona of, not the person; a man who was as insulated from reality by his celebrity as almost any other celebrity is. In regards to me, personally, via email, I thanked Ebert for his words of praise, but I do not think they were generous words nor really even praise, as they were correct in their content. Cosmoetica and my writings ARE great and praiseworthy, as they represent everything that is good about the intellectual pursuits that film critics, critics, and thinkers SHOULD pursue, online or not. I have also gotten many emails from people thanking me for a positive review of something they either created or enjoyed and my response to them is always the same: I am NOT being generous, I am being fair and correct. It would be generous, and wrong, if I praised a piece of shit.
Yes, one can argue that Ebert could never have praised my writings. So? That would not have been a black mark against him, but merely praising what is obviously great is nothing to praise the praiser over. The reason is because Ebert often praised BAD things, too, such as this, which sort of takes the blush off the rose to the praise of genuinely great things that are praiseworthy. In this flaw, of course, Ebert merely reiterated his human fallibility, as well as critical ones. But, just as it is not a plus for Ebert to praise my writings and criticism, it is not a minus for me to point out his flaws. Oddly, while looking through Google in trying to find links of Ebert-Schneider connections, I did come across a number of blog posts wherein some sad, strange, and deluded little minds seem to feel that I dissed Ebert, somehow, in 2009, by pointing out his critical flaws- mainly prioritizing emotion over intellect, and some even felt that my criticisms- not their content, but the fact that I even dared to criticize Ebert- were attacks. This is merely more proof of one of the things that Ebert seemed to be blind to- his own celebrity and its popularity and effect.
Oftentimes, on his blog, Ebert would chime in on how civil his commenters were compared to others. Part of this was due to the fact that a) his own celebrity lent him a good will not extended to the average blogger, and b) the fact that his blog was hosted by a major media entity that regularly edited out negative comments- and I got numbers of emails from people, after Ebertís post on me, to this effect, wherein they stated that Ebert chose NOT to post their comments, and, if the emails were true, the comments were not hostile nor inflammatory, merely things Ebert felt not important nor positive enough to post. Of course, this was his right, as it was Ebertís blog and he could run it as he saw fit, vanity or not. But, the comments from others, both in the comments section- which was initially hostile towards me then completed the thread drift to being mainly positive, then indifferent, then veering off into subjects wholly unrelated to me, Ebert, much less film, and the blog comments on other blogs from others who were fans of Ebertís, reminded me of an email I received well over a decade ago, from some deluded soul who commented that he enjoyed what my poetry was trying to do, but that I had to give up because a poet like W.B. Yeats was Ďfar above us all,í or something of that sentiment. In a similar manner, the Ďgreatí Ebert was beyond reproach, critically or in other areas, and to even speak negatively of anything he wrote was an affront to, well, someone.
I said and say nonsense to such idiocy. That sort of sterilized, emasculated, and neutered version of Ebert is the abomination of his character and person. Ebert could be charming and correct in his criticisms but he could be spectacularly wrong, usually because of his hyper-emotionalism and sentimentalism. In one of the comments in the thread he wrote on me, there was an interesting exchange between Ebert and a commenter wherein Ebert admitted that his blog posts were unedited by the Chicago Sun-Times staff. This gibed with exactly my thinking, for, before he wrote about me, I was not even aware that Ebert was blogging. I thought he just did reviews. I am so celebrity non-obsessed that I had no idea that his lack of response to my 2007 interview request was due to a major illness. But, I noticed, right away, after I perused other blog posts Ebert had written, before and after the one on me, that his blog writing was significantly worse than in his reviews: he rambled, his syntax was often off, and there was simply less ĎEbertí in the blogger Ebert. That is to say that the vintage Ebert of the classic reviews was not just the words that Roger Ebert wrote, but the redactions, likely quite good, made by many quality editors who were aware of his flaws: unneeded excess, sentimentality, and logorrhea. They likely shared as much in his Pulitzer Prize win for writing as anyone else- including Ebert! But, as the years went on, I suspect their influence over Ebert waned, in proportion to the manís own writings, as his fame and media power grew. If Ebert had been a creative writer, his Selected Writings would likely have been a far greater read than his Complete Writings, which would be strewn with pieces Ebert likely had no idea were not as good as his best writings- such is often the way of artists, even those of a much higher standard than a film critic.
Let me demonstrate this. Here is a comparison of Ebertís own opinions of Martin Scorseseís great film, Taxi Driver. The first is from his initial review in 1976:
He sees a beautiful blonde working in the storefront office of a presidential candidate. She goes out with him a couple of times, but the second time he takes her to a hard-core film and she walks out in disgust and won't have any more to do with him. All the same, he calls her for another date, and it's here that we get close to the heart of the movie. The director, Martin Scorsese, gives us a shot of Travis on a pay telephone -- and then, as the girl is turning him down, the camera slowly dollies to the right and looks down a long, empty hallway. Pauline Kael's review called this shot -- which calls attention to itself -- a lapse during which Scorsese was maybe borrowing from Antonioni. Scorsese calls this shot the most important one in the film.
Why? Because, he says, it's as if we can't bear to watch Travis feel the pain of being rejected. This is interesting, because later, when Travis goes on a killing rampage, the camera goes so far as to adopt slow motion so we can see the horror in greater detailÖ.
These people are seen almost in flashes, as if darkness threatens to close over them altogether. "Taxi Driver" is a hell, from the opening shot of a cab emerging from stygian clouds of steam to the climactic killing scene in which the camera finally looks straight down. Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis's rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he's there, all right, and he's suffering.
Note at how Ebert points to a great scene, and then explicates it, and ends the review with an utter gut punch. By 2004, though, when Ebert re-reviewed the film for his Great Films column, he wrote this, to end the piece:
There has been much discussion about the ending, in which we see newspaper clippings about Travis' "heroism," and then Betsy gets into his cab and seems to give him admiration instead of her earlier disgust. Is this a fantasy scene? Did Travis survive the shoot-out? Are we experiencing his dying thoughts? Can the sequence be accepted as literally true?
I am not sure there can be an answer to these questions. The end sequence plays like music, not drama: It completes the story on an emotional, not a literal, level. We end not on carnage but on redemption, which is the goal of so many of Scorsese's characters. They despise themselves, they live in sin, they occupy mean streets, but they want to be forgiven and admired. Whether Travis gains that status in reality or only in his mind is not the point; throughout the film, his mental state has shaped his reality, and at last, in some way, it has brought him a kind of peace.
Instead of the uniqueness of insight and wording of the earlier piece, we get an almost anonymous and vacuous Ebert as merely one of many discussing a faux controversy on the filmís ending, adding nothing to it, and ends the piece with an unmemorable banality.
Interestingly enough, there are a number of websites that track and monitor the big name film critics, and a popular meme going around is how, despite the fact that Hollywood and American filmmaking has clearly degenerated in the last 30 years- a fact even Ebert acknowledged, the reality is that Ebert, himself, gave out many times more 4 star reviews for films in the last 20 years than he did in the prior 20- despite claiming, rightly, that filmmaking had devolved. The inescapable conclusion could only be that Ebertís critical skills deteriorated even more than the filmic skills of directors, and the above excerpts from Taxi Driver reviews tend to bear that notion out.
Then there was the very fact that Ebert praised many non-noteworthy things and people, and even actively promoted bad criticism, such as in his failed revival of At The Movies, a thing seemingly driven by Ebertís ego and latter yearsí obsession with pelf. Despite having left PBS for commercial tv, decades earlier, and gotten rich in the process, Ebert seemed to crave money more and more. A few years ago he even tried to scheme new ways to make money from his blog, by charging readers for content- a move doomed to failure. Only those close to Ebert will know what motivated him in these desperate moves at his lifeís end, but they should not detract from the positives of his earlier life and career. Death can do that sort of thing to even the strongest folks. My mother, who died some months before Ebertís blog post on me, was in a sort of psychic freefall for the last quarter century of her own life, after the death of my dad, and what compelled her to do some of the damaging things she did only she can truly know, but I suspect Ebertís motivations were borne of similar depressed and existential moments.
That Ebert died so soon after announcing the return of his cancer, and reading post-mortem posts by his wife about how Ebert died within a day or two of discussions of his being put in a hospice for care, only furthers my suspicion that Ebert actively willed himself to a premature death. This is, incidentally, no criticism, just a likelihood, given certain stated facts about his demise. My mother spent the last 17 days of her life starving herself, after a fall left her incapacitated and permanently bedridden. Rather than vegetate for months or years, my mother chose slow suicide, and I got her a hospice nurse. It was HELL. Now, there are good hospice providers, but for every good one thereís a horror story, and my mother, a lifelong atheist, happened to get a Bible Belt brimstoner who preached to her that refusing to eat was a sin that would land her in Hell. When my mother told me of this I reported the nurse to her superiors and she was removed. My mother died a few days later, in relative peace. Incidentally, the night before she died, the last time I spoke with her while alive, she told me to take an old heirloom windup pocket watch from her. The next day, when we found her rigor mortised body, my wife remarked that my mom must have known her time had come, and that she had given me the watch because time had lost all meaning to her at that point. I suspect Ebertís quick death was his own giving up of the metaphoric watch to his wife, Chaz, for he must have known that hospice can be hell.
My own advice to Ebertís wife is simple, and comes after reading some of her postmortem comments on plans to expand and monetize her husbandís site: please do NOT attempt to BRAND the man after death. Let him be his words and insights. Period. She may not know this, but all writers, at some level, understand this. They become their words. Anything else is a dilution, a bastardization, and sometimes an abomination. Make the site better, ok, but do not relentlessly exploit the manís name. There is no need for Ebert Avenues nor Ebert Elementary Schools. Tweak and play with the website, but let the man rest in peace, and be the man who was, the words that are.
And just who was that man? From all I know- admittedly little, he was a good, solid critic, a good to very good writer, a man of genuineness and generosity- things that are often at odds, and the latter almost always a sign of a bad critic when that generosity hinders the criticism. He was, admittedly, a man of increasingly shrill political pronouncements, even though his readers really only wanted to read his opinions on films, not politics. Like many celebrities- from Star Trekís PC-addled George Takei to former Playmate Jenny McCarthy and her noxious anti-vaccine crusade- Ebert could write and utter the dumbest and most naÔve sentiments. Fortunately for most, his pronouncements were largely vacuous and easily forgotten, save for being lambasted by other political hacks. Even more fortunately, his best reviews and some of his superb DVD film commentaries will last much longer.
The last few years of Ebertís life were certainly rough on him, but the reality of its totality is that Ebert led an utterly charmed and phat life: he made millions of dollars doing what he enjoyed most in life: watching films and writing about them, partying with celebrities and jetsetting about the globe. Yes, in a sense, his showsí noxious use of the thumbs up or down sort of critical shorthand helped contribute to the dumbing down of social and artistic discourse, but overall, his effect on pop culture was a net positive one, so my review of his life and writings is equally positive, with the usual caveats, as mentioned within. His life was certainly good, occasionally wonderful, but possibly a bit too short. You can insert the obvious clichť that has formed in your mind right here, for, in honor of the earlier criticism of Roger Ebert, I refuse to type it.
No one can say that anyone EVER gave Ebert a greater tribute than that!
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