Roger Ebert, Passion Writer

My first encounter with Roger Ebert, as with many outside of Chicago, came from his TV programs with the late Gene Siskel.  To be sure, none of us really went to the movies that much.  But we loved watching the two of them go at it, so their program became a TV watching ritual in our house. Had their various shows simply been weekly “slug fests,” with the two of them simply verbally bashing each other, I don’t think we would have watched so consistently. The power of their program, and indeed the power of the individuals, was that they both had something intelligent to say about the movies they reviewed. They may have loathed each other, at least in the beginning, but they never condescended to their audience. And woe betide the film-maker that did.

It wasn’t until the Internet age that it became possible to read Mr. Ebert’s reviews regularly. There I discovered his true power with the written word.

A brief aside: I once asked my mother why she read the LA Times sports section so regularly. She was a casual sports fan at best. She looked at me with vague indignation and said, “Because the writing is good.” She was referring in particular to the late Jim Murray, the long time sports columnist for the LA Times. I started reading Mr. Murray, too, and found out, as usual, she was right. (Indeed, some of the best writing in newspapers is usually found in the sports pages.)

It is with this heightened awareness that I read Roger Ebert consistently over the years. I’m no more of a movie goer now than I was as a teen watching him and Mr. Siskel on TV. In fact, I probably go to movies a lot less these days. But I enjoyed reading Mr. Ebert’s reviews because the writing was so good. He wrote accessibly, and in fact it is impossible for me to read anything he wrote without hearing his voice. He truly wrote the way he talked.

But these qualities alone are not why we are celebrating his work in light of his death. Roger Ebert didn’t just write about films. Roger Ebert wrote about passion.  He wrote about hate. He wrote about love. He wrote about revenge. He wrote about envy. He wrote about sacrifice. He wrote about stamina. He wrote about loyalty. He wrote about betrayal. In short, he wrote about humanity and all of the shadings of the human condition. He chose to spend his writing career talking about the human condition via the medium of film reviews. He celebrated films which depicted some aspect of the human condition vividly, intelligently, successfully, and castigated the films that did the opposite, or that simply didn’t even try.

One review that stands out for me was his take on “Zoolander” (2001). He hated it, not hated hated hated hated hated it, but he was not amused. While most of his peers saw a harmless fluff comedy, Mr. Ebert saw a film which answered the question, “why the US is so hated in some parts of the world.”

As this week’s Exhibit A from Hollywood, I offer “Zoolander,” a comedy about a plot to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia because of his opposition to child labor. You might want to read that sentence twice.

In the shadow of 9/11, he felt it rather inappropriate to put out a movie set in Malaysia, the world’s largest Muslim nation by population, with the plot being to kill that nation’s prime minister because he’s trying to eliminate child labor from his nation. In the story, the US fashion industry feels threatened by this, you see, and hires the bumbling title character to carry out the deed. Mr. Ebert found offense with this plot and stated that a Malaysian film depicting the assassination of an American president who opposed slavery would hardly be viewed as a comedy.

Some may argue that he went a bit harsh on what was supposed to be a senseless comedy. But as I said, this review stands out for me, nearly 12 years after it was written. And the reason is that his review went beyond the film and put it into context with the time of its release. Muslim bashing, both subtle and overt, was all the rage in light of 9/11, but Mr. Ebert would not be a part of it, even if it meant flunking a fluff comedy. Good for him.

I similarly remember Roger Ebert’s reaction to 9/11. It was a short statement — can’t remember if it appeared on his site or was quoted in some other context — but he argued against rebuilding skyscrapers at the World Trade Center site. He said that instead, the land should become a park, a place of quiet reflection. I remember these words well because of the passion that lay behind them.

As many tributes have noted, Roger Ebert celebrated diversity in films. JozJozJoz posted on the essay, “Why Roger Ebert is One of My Asian-American Heroes.” It features a great video of Mr. Ebert lambasting a heckler at a screening of an Asian-American film at Sundance. The heckler charged the film-makers with making an anti-Asian-American film because the characters, I guess, were not saints — or perhaps Model Minorities would be more appropriate.  Mr. Ebert would have none of that and stood up to yell at the heckler,

[W]hat I find very offensive and condescending about your statement, is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, “How could you do this to your people?” … This film has the right to be about these people and Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be.

Again, this harkens back to something my mom used to say, with equal passion. She argued that African-Americans did not need to be hallowed saints in films, on TV, or in books. We can be good, bad, or in between. We need to have the right be human beings like everybody else, she used to say. Clearly, Mr. Ebert felt the same way. He got it.

So he argued on behalf of humanity and celebrated humanity via the storytellers he reviewed week after week, year after year. But what made him such a master of the art was in fact his own ability to tell stories and how he infused his own considerable humanity in them. His valedictory essay, posted just two days before his passing, demonstrates this, as does his essay on dying from his book, “Life Itself: A Memoir.” reprinted that essay, “I do not fear death,” the day Roger Ebert died. Read it, if you haven’t already. And if you have, read it again. It’s a perfect example of why he was a great writer and why he will be missed.

© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.

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