Watching movies in a difficult year
December 2, 2004 1:18 PM   Subscribe

On the meaning of life... and movies: The radiation made it difficult for me to handle solid food, and I existed on a product named Ensure, which kept everything humming along. Very early on the first morning in Cannes I woke early, as I always do, and wandered, as I always do, down to the all-night cafe by the port, and ordered, as I always do, a croissant and cafe au lait. I dunked the croissant into the coffee, as I always do, and ate it, and that was the beginning of real food again.

Roger Ebert describes his battles with cancer--and his love of movies--in the introduction to his 2005 Movie Yearbook.
posted by Faint of Butt (25 comments total)
I stepped on his toes once at the Toronto International Film Festival. Now I feel bad.
posted by Capn at 1:24 PM on December 2, 2004

It's OK. His toes are Nazis.

As for the man himself, I like him, wish him well, and enjoy his essays.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:34 PM on December 2, 2004

My sister, while undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, subsisted on a diet of Vanilla Ensure. Only Vanilla, mind you. The fact that it had to be administered via a feeding tube through her nose meant that there was no tastebud-covered middleman, and so flavour was largely irrelevant. Vanilla, it seems was the only flavour she could stand when she burped.

The return to solid food, as I understand it, is one of the first small victories of cancer treatment
posted by UncleDave at 1:40 PM on December 2, 2004

He's gone mad with power. The man USED to be a decent critic.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 1:41 PM on December 2, 2004

I like Ebert. He's one of the only guys who reviews kids flicks without saying things like, "of course the premise is fundamently flawed in a current age of existentialism." I'm glad he's feeling better.
posted by UncleDave at 1:44 PM on December 2, 2004

I like Roger Ebert. But I liked Gene Siskel a lot more. Whenever the two disagreed on a movie, I found I agreed with Siskel about 80% of the time.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:59 PM on December 2, 2004

Poor guy. Ensure, if it's anything like its for-kids counterpart Pediasure, must be beyond gross. My younger stepdaughter used to have to drink the stuff (due to being underweight), and when I poured out the leftovers in the sink, I would nearly hurl. It smells vile.
posted by Shoeburyness at 2:04 PM on December 2, 2004

Let me take this opportunity to recommend Two Weeks in the Midday Sun, his sweet little journal of the 1987 festival. It features his own drawings, which are about as good as mine would be (terrible). It's a very pleasant read, with some insider tidbits: did you know that as a child Isabella Rossellini spent a year of her life in a full body cast?
posted by Turtles all the way down at 2:17 PM on December 2, 2004

I had surgery for salivary cancer in September, and in December spent a month in Seattle for radiation treatments.

it was probably all that popcorn.

get well roger. and don't let the cancer make a sequel.
posted by three blind mice at 2:30 PM on December 2, 2004

Shoeburyness, I loved the chocolate Ensure. I used to drink that three times a day and I had to restrain myself from drinking more (it was such an expensive habit which eventually made me quit it altogether). I used it as a snack and a supplement. The bottom sludge does look nasty (never noticed any bad smell) but it was heading for the trash by then so I didn't mind.

As far as Ebert goes, I never much cared for him until Siskel died. It wasn't anything about either of them, it was just that I started to get introduced to his writing and his attitudes beyond movies and he seemed like a really nice guy. I'm glad he's feeling better, too.
posted by effwerd at 2:37 PM on December 2, 2004

I'm glad you posted this, although in all honesty I wouldn't have posted it because it seems a little too high-profile. But I like it because I really like Ebert and read this just a couple days ago. And I even thought of MeFi when I did; partly because it seems to me that I've seen people accuse him of being a mediocre, Hollywood-centric critic. But in that essay, and when you read his reviews regularly, you see someone that has very good taste in movies, watches obscure, independent and foreign movies, and does his very best, especially considering he's probably the most prominent popular critic, to popularize and champion those films. He has his "overlooked" film festival, he does that thing in Boulder every year that he talks about (where they watch a film almost a frame at a time for a week and the audience discusses it...anyone can say "Stop!" and the film is stopped and they point out what they saw).

He has a lot of moments where his writing is fantastic.

He's not as highbrow as, say, Stanley Kauffman but I have no doubt that he can hold his own against the most stuffy film intellectuals. The man knows his stuff. I mean, the special "Citizen Kane" DVD has a commentary track by him.

But what I love about Ebert (besides his political cantankerousness), and so totally agree with him about, is his philosophy of judging in the appropriate context for the given movie. He does watch, and review, and like many schmaltzy Hollywood movies because he's willing to like them for what they are. This is totally how I am about this kind of thing. My DVD collection contains many of what are considered the very best films of all time, but it also has genre and big-budget Hollywood action films, and I'm perfectly capable of enjoying and appreciating the more slight entertainment for what they are.

More than anything, it's clear that Ebert loves movies. I mean, not only does he think about them, he knows a great deal about them, but he obviously still simply loves them. I deeply respect and empathize with that.

He's also very outspoken and, because of his high profile, on issues such as proper projection cropping (most of the time when you see a boom mike, it's not the director or cinematographer's fault, it's the projectionist's) and projector bulb brightness, and other technical stuff crucial to the quality of the filmgoing experience. He's long been very critical of digital projection systems, but I think he's willing to go along with it once the quality is sufficiently high.

I guess I'm sort of a fanboy. I've had at least two dreams where I've hung out with Ebert. We got along great. :)

I think he doesn't get as much respect as he deserves. Sure, it's true that he's not quite as stellar as a Bazin, Kael or even Kauffman. But he is damn good and he's willing to continue to love movies. A lot of the best critics seem to pretty much hate everything. I feel that way about the two "Ks" I mentioned, anyway.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:48 PM on December 2, 2004

Oh, also very worth reading is the old interview with Lee Marvin from 1970 that also is currently appearing on his site. It's hilarious.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:57 PM on December 2, 2004

I've always found Ebert's to be refreshingly smart and thoughtful. Then I read that Garfield review--damn, another icon, o'clasted.
posted by everichon at 3:17 PM on December 2, 2004

Roger Ebert is a "hometown hero", just like George Will. I used to not like both of them.

Then I read that his favorite movie of all time was Kurosawa's Ikiru("I Want To Live").

Watched the movie.

It's my favorite movie of all time.

The movie was so good it changed my opinion about the reviewer, since he was the one that pointed that movie out to me.

Then, he started his overlooked films festival here in Champaign. One year he picked Wild At Heart, and I watched that film with 1,200 people from a college town and listened to all of them go through that scene where Willem Defoe's bad teeth character rubs up Laura Dern, and heard a large crowd get yanked around by Lynch, and thought that Ebert had more than a little bomb tosser in him.

I suspect, even though he is pretty far up the totem pole, and may be a little old, he sems to be an independent cuss and is actually able to publish exactly what he thinks. And that is pretty admirable, however he managed to get it done.
posted by dglynn at 3:54 PM on December 2, 2004

I don't agree with Ebert about everything (in fact, I don't I agree with him a lot) and I used to actively dislike him, BUT my mind really changed about him when I had to do this reception analysis for a fim class of mine where I looked how this movie (in this case 1995 vampire/art movie Nadja by Michael Almereyda, who went on to do the Ethan Hawke Hamlet, among other things) had been received by critics. Basically a lot of them had made fun of it for being overly arty without for one second considering what Almereyda was actually trying to do; even the positive reviews were just like "It's a good idea, but it's too pretentious." Ebert was the only one who said something along the lines of "He's doing this deadpan irony satire, and he's doing it well, but it's not for everyone." I felt like he was the only one who was fair to the movie.

Since then, I've kind of turned around on him.
He gives everything a chance (even GARfield) and he will speak out about things he cares for. (I remember him basically speaking out for the ratings board to give The Whale Rider a lower rating, so it would be available to children.)

What I like about him is that you get the sense that he geuinely loves movies.
posted by SoftRain at 4:07 PM on December 2, 2004

"Ebert was the only one who said something along the lines of 'He's doing this deadpan irony satire, and he's doing it well, but it's not for everyone.' I felt like he was the only one who was fair to the movie."

Exactly. He seems to me to have a well-developed ability to watch a film on its own terms, and then try very hard to evaluate it with that in mind. Yet, in doing so he's not so distanced from his own experience of the film that his reviews are bloodless.

A couple of critics that I read but often disagree with (besides Kauffman who's really just a curmudgeon these days, perhaps valuably so) are David Edelstein and Charles Taylor. Both are smart, knowledgable people. But both, to my sensibilities, are far too influenced by their own deeply personal reactions to the films they review. Edelstein, in particular, defends this sort of personal, very subjective type of criticism—and it's not unstructured and not analytical, mind you. But it's obvious that if he has a visceral reaction to a film, good or bad, that determines the nature of his criticism of it. Taylor, on the other hand, has a more intellectualized, abstracted relation to the films he reviews, but he works within an ideological analytical framework that predisposes him to approve or disapprove of films often on their subject matter alone. Notably, both these critics deeply dislike Todd Solondz and Larry Clark while, interestingly, Ebert—the more "populist" critic of the three—defends those two directors. And it's because Edelstein and Taylor have a moral position on these directors' films. Ebert, in contrast, is perfectly willing to find the moral character of a film offensive yet see artistic and technical merit in the work. And, obviously, entertainment merit, too, since that's part of his job. (I've corresponded with Edelstein, but I've had more extended email conversations with Taylor, particularly about Solondz. I actually think very highly of him, even though I frequently disagree with him.)

Ebert, in my view, elegantly melds together the three disparate roles that a movie critic takes upon themselves. In no particular order: they're art critics; they're reviewers (or anticipators) of expected audience enjoyment; and they're reporters reporting on their own experience of watching a film. Each of those roles in some sense conflicts with the other two. But a really good movie critic—like a good pop music critic, because of the special context of popular art forms—has to be successful at all three roles, and somehow merge them into some unitary thing that is meaningful. I think Ebert does that more often than not.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:32 PM on December 2, 2004

Gotta go with Pretty_Generic. On account of that one review I will wilfully disregard anything that man ever says, ever, about anything. It's like he took what a decent, rational human being would think about that movie and then kicked you in the balls. It's a non-sequitur in review form. If he genuinely loves movies then it's the genuine love that brothers and sisters feel, post coitus. Words fail me.
posted by Sparx at 4:32 PM on December 2, 2004

Because art criticism of any variety is inevitably very subjective, it's also erratic. And someone like Ebert, unlike say, an architecture critic or a book critic, is viewing and evaluating on average about one work a day...and of vastly differing quality and contexts. There is inevitably going to be a time when a movie critic like Ebert likes and positively evaluates a film that everyone else thinks is utter crap. He's bound to be simply wrong from time to time just as a result of the chaotic nature of the enterprise. But he has to trust his own judgment, right? He thought that the Cannes screening of "The Brown Bunny" was one of the worst movies he'd ever seen. The final edit version, with about 15 minutes cut, he claims is much, much better. Other people don't see such a difference between the two (although a consensus seems to be that the shorter version is better more than just the cut fiteen minutes would lead you to think it would be). So were the two version so enormously different? I dunno, I've not seen either one. But I doubt that any of us don't have bad films we inexplicably like (and not just like, but evaluate as "good") and good films that we dislike (and evaluate as "bad"). A professional critic isn't going to be an absolute exception to this rule, if for no other reason than that they're watching movies every single day.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:06 PM on December 2, 2004

Thanks, EB. You've helped make this a great thread. Regarding Ebert's opinion on Garfield, my friend Steve has a simple theory. Whenever Ebert gives every movie three stars or better, Steve will mutter, "Hmph. Ebert must've gotten laid this week."
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:11 PM on December 2, 2004

For me, much of Ebert's appeal as a critic lay not only in his witty, populist writing style, but in his actually quite rare and genuine talent in displaying quite clearly why or why not he enjoys something. Even if I feel he's wrong, I see at least why he thinks he's right. Many times, even the best critics can fall short in that department. I can tell even from a negative Ebert review that I might possibly enjoy the movie he's describing.

It's also something of a feat when you consider that, unlike Pauline Kael or Stanley Kauffman, he's writing for a general newspaper, as well as being syndicated to other newspapers, and a great many of those readers aren't looking for analysis or perspective so much as what the movie is about and whether or not it's worth seeing. Considering that he's limited in length and expected readability, as well as stuck describing the plot to a good extent, and also in making his main focus qualifying things as being good, very good, bad, or awful, it's a surprise that he's able at all to wedge in witty remarks and genuine insight amongst the more mechanical aspects of his job.

Here's to Ebert. And total remission.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:42 PM on December 2, 2004

You're very welcome, FoB. And "heh".

I like thinking and talking about why I like Ebert because it gets me to thinking more carefully about my aesthetics, particularly in the context of film where I have a more firm footing in terms of expertise. Newspaper movie critics are often criticized for not being more like a "Consumer Reports" guide to audience enjoyment of films, although many of them are very close to something like that. But even the more analytical and intellectual critics newspaper critics like Ebert still to some degree must be evaluating a film from the audience's perspective (and this being an audience that goes to see Pauly Shore movies). And so someone like Ebert, who's really trying to actually do "film criticism" at the same time has a perlious path to walk.

But the thing is, my opinion is that this critical dilemma exists for every sort of art critic, though often much more obscured. The virtue of thinking about what someone like Ebert is doing is that it brings these sorts of tensions to the fore. Is the critic supposed to be knowlegably evaulating the work of art according to some sort of objective standard (even if we all agree we're not sure what that is)? Is the critic supposed to be reporting on their own reaction, as someone who's knowledgable? Is the critic supposed to be helping the audience seperate the wheat from the chaff? Is the critic supposed to be helping the audience find the art that they're already inclined to like and avoid art they're already inclined to dislike? Is the critic supposed to be educating the audience? Really, I think art critics of all sorts are playing all these roles, though some of them more covertly (or unwillingly) than others. And I think it's important to recognize this because this conflicting nature of art criticism, its almost necessary incoherence, its deep confusion about its very own legitimacy...all these are reflections of the nature of art itself.

On Preview: Sticherbeast, so well put. Very well put. And, yes, here's to Ebert's continued health.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:54 PM on December 2, 2004

Every year the Christmas present I most look forward to is a hefty tome of Ebert's movie reviews of the years releases.

I disagree with him quite often, but never fail to read and throughly admire any and all of his writings, not just reviews.
posted by marsha56 at 6:42 PM on December 2, 2004

Ebert, in my view, elegantly melds together the three disparate roles that a movie critic takes upon themselves.

Good bog, EB, I don't think I've ever agreed with you more than I have in this thread. I'm a huge Ebert fan, for almost all the reasons you've described (and I also like examining why I like his writing so much, because it helps me understand my own relationship to film). In addition to the fact that he's made me see films I might never have sought out, and rewatch ones I've already seen (Wenders' Wings of Desire was an entirely different film to me when I rewatched it after reading Ebert's essay about it), I deeply respect his knowledge and his sense of honour (the whole Gallo saga is a great example of that), and he's a really wonderful writer. He completely changed the way I watch film in many ways (not least the way he strives to create a room in his mind for each film he watches, empty of any foreknowledge about the story or stars).

The fact that he's a popular critic, who writes movie guides and reviews for a newspaper, and has a TV show, should not detract from his deep love for, and understanding of, film, as an art form, in a historical context, and from a technical standpoint. I think in many ways this illness has liberated him, I've noticed a definite increase in his willingness to be funny-caustic, and pepper his reviews with political humour and sarcasm, since he got sick. I certainly wouldn't wish it on anyone (least of all Ebert, who's one of my favourite public figures of all), but in his case I think it's improved the way he relates to his work. Long may his thumb reign!
posted by biscotti at 7:52 PM on December 2, 2004

I went to see The Rose based on his positive review at the time. It was not an enjoyable movie experience for me, and since then take his recommendations with a grain of salt. I do like his writing style, though.

I can't believe the thread made it this far without mention of Ebert's screenwriting credit.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:31 PM on December 2, 2004

Or his Pulitzer Prize for criticism -- the only time a film critic has won since the award was instituted in 1970.

I'm a huge Ebert fan, meself, for his consistently excellent writing, his palpable infectious love of movies, and the thought which plainly goes into his reviews. (Plus all that EB and others said above.)

He taught me that the important thing is not what a movie is about, but how it is about it.

I also saw this essay a week or so ago, and blogged it on my personal site without a second thought, but hesitated for some reason when thinking of posting it to MetaFilter. Now, I'm not sure why -- and thanks, FoB, for posting it where the rest of us didn't.
posted by Vidiot at 10:54 AM on December 3, 2004

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