Friday, April 5, 2013

Three Moral Movie Critiques by Ebert

Roger Ebert's death leaves a void in the world of movie appreciation. It probably does not leave a comparable void in the realm of film criticism, but appreciation is a larger territory that includes the high-power critics as well as most of us. I dare say that's a warmer world and also the one Ebert preferred to inhabit.

If you compare reviews of any given movie, Ebert often seemed to enjoy it more than the other reviewers. When he really disliked a movie, though, as he often said on "Siskel and Ebert At the Movies," "That's 90 minutes of my life I'll never get back." This is evidence of someone with abundant love for the medium he reviewed, who really enjoyed the good stuff and felt betrayed when a movie didn't come through.

Ebert also blogged about subjects outside the multiplex, often expressing his concern for social justice. After undergoing disfiguring surgery Ebert appeared at least once on television with his wife. He was an image of decency and, as his illness wore on in the past years, of courage and of persistence in what he loved about life.

When I think of Ebert's movie reviews, there are three that I remember most that illustrate further his decency and courage, and the courage is of a type we rarely see in a public figure: the courage that allows one to have an open mind. Two of the examples come from reviews of (shall I say?) low-class movies, which Ebert never comletely shied away from. (I wonder if he took guilty pleasure in some or was simply forced to watch them in the course of his job. In the review of the vampire movie 30 Days of Night, which, as a critic he did not care for much, he ended his column by quoting glowing words from a horror critic. Perhaps he no longer believed he could be a reviewer of violence in movies, but he acknowledged the views of others. See below.) The other review I’ll is about what has become a classic: Blue Velvet.

The original 1986 version of The Hitcher, starring Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell, inspired one of Ebert's most scathing reviews. I no longer find the review online, but from my memory Ebert said the movie was inexcusably immoral because of the implicit way story's protagonist and its sadistically homicidal antagonist were the same character. In other words the good guy and the bad guy might be the same person, and the bad guy was very, very bad. In Ebert's view this movie simply could not redeem itself. As late as 2001 I could find that review on his Chicago Sun-Times website, and as far as I know he never recanted, nor is there a review of his I can find now of the 2007 remake of The Hitcher. I offer my memory of this review as a kind of baseline of his sense of decency that could be violated, a boundary a movie could cross and never return from. Personally, I find The Hitcher to be an okay horror movie, and most of Ebert's objections to it sounded concocted, but I take him at his word. His authority was enough to cause me to question myself, and I can only assume I'm not the only one his review so affected.

Ebert saw real power in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, also 1986, but found the film irresponsible in handling sexually violent material. Famously, Ebert complained on "At the Movies" and argued with co-host Gene Siskel about the morality of the scene in which actress Isabella Rossellini wanders onto a lawn nude, bruised and disoriented. He thought Lynch had gone too far, and he even expressed concern for Rossellini's well-being in portraying such trauma. Later it was Ebert who wondered if he himself went too far in his scolding, saying in a 2007 question and answer session at Cannes that he should revisit Blue Velvet. The final verdict via Twitter would be, however, that he retained his opinion of Blue Velvet--it was flawed and misogynist.

Surprisingly, Ebert gave a good review to Wes Craven's woozy 1972 horror film The Last House on the Left. I bought a copy of the original movie on the power of my memory of his review. But upon watching I found the movie repugnant and wondered how Ebert, the man who had condemned The Hitcher, had let this emetic film gain his praise. My purchase was in 2009, the year the remake of The Last House on the Left was released. I reread his 1972 review and then his review of the remake and discovered in the new review that he no longer knew how he would review the original, and he lamented that his job in evaluating these movies had become "grading rape scenes." He also noted it had been 37 years since he had reviewed the original and that "I am uninterested in being 'consistent.'"

It was his re-evaluate Blue Velvet and his turnaround on The Last House on the Left that have been the most.common occasions for me to think about Ebert as a public figure apart from his recent struggles. We rarely get to see someone in the limelight who demonstrates the strength to change an opinion or revisit the evidence. I would like to believe that this courage was part-in-parcel with his apparent decency and dignity, and the fact that he would go about his business with an open mind. Let it not be forgotten—and how could it possibly be forgotten?that Roger Ebert was no prude.

Speaking as a fan of noir and horror (though I share with Ebert a growing fatigue with that genre) who also happens to occasionally make art, the ethics of literature of all sorts are a troubling fascination of mine.  A few years ago I watched the ice-cold horror movie Surveillance, written and directed by David Lynch's daughter Jennifer. I didn't need Roger Ebert's watching the movie with me in order to recognize what a profoundly troublesome movie it was. But I was glad to have watched The Hitcher, Blue Velvet and The Last House on the Left with him in some figurative way, as I imagine many of us have gone to the movies with him. I can also say he has read William S. Burroughs with me and read comics with me. Rogert Ebert answered no ultimate questions of value for me, but he let me have a better idea of what was on the screen, and he gave me the example of keeping my eyes open. And that’s a good example wherever you go in life.

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