I love film writing.

When every city now boasts a plethora of film critics, ranging from newspaper journalists to bloggers and trade journal writers, it may not seem that film writing has any special connection to Chicago. Historically speaking, however, film criticism was born and raised in the Windy City.

In 1914, the Chicago Tribune ran the first motion picture review column, written by journalism’s first official film critic, Jack Lawson. According to A Million And One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture, his career as a movie critic was short lived, as he died in an accident at the Chicago Press Club (?!?) shortly after the inception of the column. He was succeeded by the popular and influential Kitty Kelly (a pseudonym for Audrie Alspaugh, who later moved to the Chicago Examiner) and then Mae Tinee (originally the pseudonym of Frances Smith, but later of many others). By 1925, there were 400 film critics writing for American newspapers.

Mae wrote many positive reviews of Louise Brooks movies.

One cannot discuss film criticism without mentioning the late, great Roger Ebert, who was not only a great Chicagoan but a hugely influential film writer on an international scale. The New York Times eulogized him as the first film writer to become a multi-media brand. In 1975, Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, marking Chicago as the city where he made the world take film writing seriously.

There are, of course, still movie critics in Chicago. Indeed, the Chicago Film Critics Association has over 60 members and mounts a film festival each year. Among their ranks are the podcasters of Filmspotting and the insightful film writer Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

I love Rogert Ebert.

Roger Ebert died last week. The internet probably doesn’t need one more navel-gazing reflection upon this great man, but I’m the kind of woman who goes to see midnight showings of The Big Lebowski at The Music Box, so fuck it, dude. Let’s go bowling.

In high school, I briefly entertained film school aspirations and wanted to be a cinematographer. Well, that never happened, but the dream was because of Roger Ebert. I read a review of his praising Sidney Lumet as a great director, so I went out to Blockbuster for DVDs and the book store for Lumet’s book. This is how I learned that everything you see or hear in a film is (or should be) intentional; for a purpose. Somebody is controlling not just what you see, but how you see. Mind blown!

Even before that, Ebert had opened my eyes with his writing. Having heard from somebody  that Being John Malkovich was his pick for 1999’s best movie, I begged my mother to take me to see it even though I was aware there might be “sexual situations,” something I would pretty much rather die than sit through with her. Ebert’s review in the paper caught my attention, and her suggestion (Toy Story 2) was not my speed. I had never seen anything like it. My parents typically favored moralistic action films and summer blockbusters, so it literally changed the way I thought about movies.

I did go on to take actual film classes. Here, too, Ebert changed everything, because he was not just a critic but a gateway for the average moviegoer to experience and understand film theory. He introduced me to the theory of multiple audiences, as discussed in A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood CinemaSeveral times, I went online and read his old reviews or flipped through his books to find references to ideas and critics I could use to understand something when the material in class was unclear; I ended up quoting him alongside Laura Mulvey in a theory class. I probably learned as much from him in those classes as from my professors.

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As I remember him, in a photo from his blog.

 

For perspective, I grew up in the Chicago television market at a time when Siskel and Ebert’s show ran multiple times per week. It was what I watched after Saturday morning cartoons. (He later wrote, “If “Siskel & Ebert & Roeper” had any utility at all, it was in exposing viewers, many of them still children, to the notion that it was permitted to have opinions, and expected that you should explain them.”) There was never not Ebert. He was never not talking about movies. Realizing as a young adult that he was secretly a clever genius was like discovering the meaning of life inside the prize packet in a box of Cracker Jacks. Who knew? Well, everyone, pretty much, but it was astounding to me. Then I learned that he wasn’t just on TV, but he was also a journalist–possibly one of the best journalists of his time.

Talking of him as just a critic or journalist still doesn’t cover it all. He was an amazing writer whose work includes local history and travel writing in addition to a cookbook and his memoir. Later in life, his excellent blog showcased his engaging writing style and witty humor with posts on religion, philosophy, politics, and fascinating bits of random local flavor. His film festival, which is still happening this year, also deserves mention. Then there’s the way Roger Ebert lived his life.

Other critics, even those with whom he had disagreements, loved and respected him. This is because he always conducted himself with integrity and furthermore didn’t believe you must demonize somebody who you believe is wrong. Every week on At The Movies, viewers saw friendly (if heated) disagreements and respectful (though passionate) debates. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert frequently disagreed, but you got the feeling they might still get a drink together after the show and exchange birthday cards every year. If you haven’t noticed, that sort of thing is pretty rare on television these days. Youtube has a great stash of segments if you haven’t watched the show yourself. It also has a clip of the time Siskel and Ebert appeared on Sesame Street (further proof that Ebert was a great man). Don’t forget his inspirational and courageous battle with cancer, of course. On top of all this, he championed minority film honestly, genuinely, and unpaternalistically, sometimes drawing criticism in the process and bucked critical trends by taking genre films seriously. (“When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to Mystic River, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.”)

His criticism was truly constructive.

If you have read this far and consider it possibly the most boring blog post ever, here’s a reward–some hilarious quotes from negative Ebert reviews.

On Kazaam:As for Shaquille O’Neal, given his own three wishes the next time, he should go for a script, a director and an interesting character.”

On Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys.”

On Battlefield Earth: Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way. Some movies run off the rails. This one is like the train crash in The Fugitive. I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies.”

On The Twilight Saga: Eclipse: “Of Taylor Lautner’s musculature, and particularly his abs, much has been written. Yes, he has a great build, but I remind you that an abdominal six-pack must be five seconds’ work for a shape-shifter. More impressive is the ability of both Edward and Jacob to regard Bella with penetrating gazes from ‘neath really dope eyebrows. When my eyebrows get like Edward’s, the barber trims them and never even asks me first.”

On Freddy Got Fingered: “This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”

On Baby Geniuses: “The movie involves a genius baby named Sly, who escapes from the lab and tries to organize fellow babies in revolt. The nauseating sight of little Sly on a disco floor, dressed in the white suit from ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and dancing to ‘Stayin’ Alive’, had me pawing under my seat for the bag my Subway Gardenburger came in, in case I felt the sudden need to recycle it.”