Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Transformation of Roger Ebert

I've spent hours and hours in churches all over the world. I sit in them not to pray, but to gently nudge my thoughts toward wonder and awe — Roger Ebert, April 17, 2009

After giving Alex Proya's Knowing a rave review, Ebert checks in on Rotten Tomatoes, and asks: "Is it just me? Or is it everybody else?" I haven't yet seen the movie, but I've been reading Ebert fairly closely since he returned to the printed (or virtual) word, so I'll venture forth and say, "It's mostly Ebert. But why should that matter?"

Since Ebert's return, I've found myself mostly at odds with his reviews, particularly the positive ones. Perhaps that's just me, but again I'd assert it's mostly Ebert. The various life crises that foist themselves upon us can't help but radically shift our perspective. I can recall the one time Ebert changed his thumb-stance: he'd originally panned Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven as lacking imagination, then changed his mind some months later, admitting that the circumstances he'd originally viewed the film in had negatively affected his point of view. Eastwood's film now qualified for his yearly top ten. Is it fair to suggest Ebert's health traumas might have a similar effect on how he now watches a movie, and which way his thumbs tilt or stars align?

Gene Siskel's take on watching films certainly took a radical shift when his health woes came to the fore. Shortly before he died he chose Babe: Pig In The City as the best film of the year — a controversial choice, to say the least. The "best"? Really?

I'm a younger guy, shaped by the po-mo reader response theory I encountered in late-80s academia, so for the sake of my own argument I'll propose shifting the critical terms to "Favorite Film Of The Year." When I watched Babe: Pig In The City, it was six years after its release. My daughters and I were cozying up on the couch, while their mother was in India, taking observer's notes on communities dealing with the trauma of that year's tsunami. Let me just say that when you watch this flick with your two children nestling close to your ribs, that is one hell of a fine film. Roosting like a big hairy bird with his two chicks on the family sofa, wondering what sort of "combat trauma" the mother might fly home with, I was deeply invested in the fate of the little pig with "an unprejudiced heart" as he faced unexpected viciousness and cruelty. Any adult father facing his own death would take enormous solace in a film of such a delicious spectacle and straightforward profundity.

So does Pig In The City rate as my favorite from that year? Hard to say (in retrospect 1998 wasn't much of a year for movies) but I can understand why readers were rooting for a film with some adult sophistication to make the top of Gene's list. Anyone confronted with their mortal end, though, can be forgiven a little impatience with the games of adult sophistication.

So it is with Ebert. These days I find his blog writing more compelling than his criticism. I think this is the forum where he speaks of what concerns him most — those aspects of humanity that (for better and for worse) have crept closest to his heart. From Dan-Dan The Yo-Yo Man to Ebert's favorite rice cooker to seemingly weightier matters, what he explores here might not change the way I see a movie, but it certainly encourages me to attend closely to my environment. And I've gradually come to realize that that was always the quality that appealed to me in his criticism and journalism.


yahmdallah said...

I've noticed all the changes you've noted - both Siskel and Ebert's - and would agree.

But I think even more typical life changes can cause this. I was no longer able to watch "children in peril" (a hated genre of Siskel's as well) after I had kids.

After I lost a child, I can't watch things that are just a consummate bummer all the way through, because life is full of enough woe; there's no need to put yourself through any more gratuitously.

Whisky Prajer said...

I couldn't agree with you more, on all points. Well said.