Saturday, April 6, 2013

Up, Beyond, Beneath: Deceased Artiste Roger Ebert

I will be praising Roger Ebert by the end of this piece. I say that in order to forestall the reader thinking I'm the cruelest bastard in the world, writing an unflattering obit about a man who very publicly battled a dread disease. I will say upfront that I admired the way that Ebert fought against cancer and, although it eventually did kill him, he triumphed far longer than most would have predicted. He is an example to us all in that regard.

But, since he was a writer first and foremost – something even he clearly tended to lose track of in his overarching desire to be back on television – let me discuss the writing. Roger Ebert was a newspaperman and that colored his writing. He was prone to recount the plot, I mean really recount the plot of a movie in his reviews. Until the advent of his Net-obsession and the refinement of his writing about film – TV needing to leave the equation for him to grow – he also was a classic newspaper reviewer, with plenty of bottled opinion and declarative sentences that could be read in piecemeal fashion.

His obits seemed to indicate that he fell into film reviewing when the main reviewer for the Sun-Times left the paper. Thus, he had to follow the newspaper format for reviewing, and the majority of his work in print has the feel of reviews written for a daily newspaper – the pieces stand as an interesting record of the time they were written in, but I don't believe it is work we will return to in the way we reread James Agee, Otis Ferguson, Robert Warshow, Manny Farber, or the “Glimmer Twins” of the Sixties, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris (not forgetting Bazin, Durgnat, and the folks overseas). That said, I have a copy of an interview with Groucho he did for Esquire somewhere in my living space, and I would reread it readily not because of Roger's writing, but because it contains quotes from Groucho.

His writing did mature when he was forced to express himself solely in print and TV was not a part of his daily activity. I think, though, that the years I had spent first eagerly watching, and then just as eagerly avoiding, his TV appearances blunted my potential interest in his criticism. (If readers want to recommend pieces by him that they consider exemplary, the comments field is below.) The fact that he had such stern and “concerned” opinions about major studio crap made me lose faith in his ability to discern the wheat from the chaff, great cinema from a good night at the multiplex.

And the TV show... oh, that TV show and what it spawned. I did love Sneak Previews for the few years that it aired on national PBS – more on that below. But as Gene Siskel and Ebert went to work for Tribune and then for Disney, the show rapidly descended into cartoon status. Both men clearly knew what their roles were and played them to the hilt. They had to agree at some points, bicker at others, rhapsodize about the “power of movies” at some points (usually when a piece of Spielbergian crap was being discussed), and soundly condemn what they felt was exploitative.

Perhaps that was the first sign of cracks in the facade – the campaign both men went on to condemn slasher movies. I'm not defending slasher movies, I hate 'em, I don't EVER go to see them. But Siskel and Ebert went on a tear about the goddamned things, and (of course!) drew more attention to them than they ever would have had as marginal entertainment. My only experience to date with I Spit on Your Grave, a movie I have no desire to ever see, was from their protracted discussion of what a digusting movie it was.

Here is a full episode of Sneak Previews that is all about the mistreatment of women in movies. Ride that high horse, boys!

The topic might've made a nice “theme piece” (the kind of thing that Arts and Leisures sections are made of), but hearing them go on and on (and on and on) about movies they thought were shit both fascinated and bored me. If they hated the movies so much, why not ignore them outright? Well, it allowed both gentlemen to be “outraged,” a position that Ebert had already been heading toward in his famous review of Night of the Living Dead where he focused on an audience of children who were traumatized by the film.

The piece on NOTLD was so wholesome that it wound up in Readers Digest. On his website he notes that the piece was indeed about the audience and not the film (then why the endless plot synopsis?), and he actually thought (or came around to think) that the film deserved 3 1/2 stars out of 4. So Ebert was capable of writing a piece that apparently condemns a film, but... he really liked the film.

I remember an appearance he and Siskel made on Tomorrow back during their very public and attention-grabbing we-hate-slasher-pics campaign. Tom Snyder asked Ebert to explain how he could condemn slasher movies when he had written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, where a woman fellates a gun before her brains are blown out. Roger's answer? “Well, that's funny.” I AGREE that BVD is funny – in fact I think it's a masterwork of camp (more below) – but that didn't strengthen his position as a moral arbiter, it made him look like a hypocrite.

Ebert had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his film criticism, making him the first critic to receive such a distinction (evidently the Pulitzer people didn't dig weekly reviewers like Sarris or Kael; the former being a brilliant theorist on cinema and the latter a really great writer). Clearly, though, when he and Siskel became national celebrities, Ebert's life changed for good. He and Siskel were the only movie reviewers besides Rex Reed who were ever invited on talk shows as “celebrities.”

The thumbs up/thumbs down thing, which was single worst dumbing-down of film crit since the invention of the star rating, and their bickering shtick were their twin trademarks. It got old very fast for some of us, but the show remained a hit essentially until Siskel died in 1999. Then Ebert went searching around for a replacement and wound up simply slotting in another reviewer from the paper he worked at (so much for diversity).

In 2002, he encountered his first troubles with cancer. He suffered from, in succession, cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands, and the jaw. As I've said already, his recovery from these awful, debilitating, and life-altering experiences is to be admired.

What was a concern, though, was his evident desire to still be on TV every week. He found a way to speak again when his voice was gone and decided to demonstrate this new technology to his wife (to let her hear his “new voice”) for the first time on Oprah. Not for Roger the private moment.

His return to weekly TV in 2011 with Ebert Presents: At the Movies was equally bizarre (he appeared in one segment per show, gesturing and speaking with the aid of a flat-voiced computer). The fact that he attempted to remain an active reviewer while recovering from cancer was laudable and heroic; his seeking to be on TV on a weekly basis again was a sadly vain act, akin to Dick Clark's final appearances on New Years Eve.

But the man is gone now, so I want to celebrate what he did that I really, really enjoyed. There are the first few years (from '78 to around '82) of Sneak Previews, in which Siskel and he did some extremely valuable work promoting independent features like Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven (I owe my love of Morris' work to Sneak Previews, and for that I am in Ebert's debt). They championed the film several times on the show and no doubt brought it greater attention than it would have received otherwise – and it is indeed the masterwork they said it was.

Another episode I remember fondly from 30 years ago (!) was “performers that should've won an Oscar." It was a really fascinating show, in which S&E touted Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork (a film that Ebert hated, btw), Shelley Duvall in Altman's perfect Three Women, and Gazzara in The Killing of Chinese Bookie, among others. The latter was VERY important to me, because at that time Cassavetes was “hiding” that film (read: no distribution, except in Europe) and the only chance I got to see it was on Sneak Previews where it was highly praised in two episodes by Ebert.

Those first few years of the show were indeed true bliss – the reviews of mainstream movies I could take or leave (of course that was still the period when a latter day “maverick” movie like Raging Bull was appearing at local area theaters). It was the special features and special episodes they featured that made the show memorable in its initial incarnation.

I still remember fondly their trashing of the ridiculous kung fu opus The Mean Guillotine (aka The Flying Guillotine), in which a garbage can with a propeller blade in it cut off people's heads. A year or two later I discovered the wonder that was Michael Weldon's Psychotronic book and magazine, but at the turn of the Eighties, truly Siskel and Ebert were trailblazers for praising indie films that were being under-distributed, promoting *excellent* performances in misunderstood movies, and showing us clips from low-trash wonders (their “skunk of the week,” turned “dog of the week” – or was it the other way 'round?).

At the point when the show was growing in popularity I was also discovering the repertory house circuit in NYC (and, of course, the writings of Sarris, Kael, and the abovementioned immortal film critics). I began to love the films of renegade softcore deity Russ Meyer, in particular the insanity of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), his merciless send-up of Hollywood melodramas, “rise and fall” music movies, and, most importantly of all, Sixties pop culture.
Finding out the film was written by Ebert was a major revelation – suddenly the “extremely square guy in the sweater and glasses” on TV acquired a degree of coolness that I found hard to reconcile, until I later read some interviews with him. BVD, as its cult of fans call it, is a really savage satire of many things, and it brilliantly prefigures all the later satires of the Sixties (the line “This is my happening and it's freaking me out” was copped a million times).

There are so many elements in BVD that were later stolen that one can easily lose track of the instance in which life imitated art – the character named “Z-Man” (John LaZar) is a Phil Spector-ish wunderkind pop producer (“the teen tycoon of rock”) who turns out to be a homicidal maniac at the film's conclusions (in a spree of the craziest fucking moments Russ ever put on film). Ebert did audio commentary honors for the DVD release, but never mentions this fact (although I believe Spector had been arrested by the time he recorded the commentary), focusing instead on the inspiration for Z-Man's odd “murder party” (obviously the Manson murders).

Ebert became Russ's central scripter in his later years, sitting out the two meagerest films, Supervixens (1975) and Blacksnake (1973), and writing Up! (1976), Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens (1979), and the unproduced Who Killed Bambi?, which was to star the Sex Pistols (he made the script available on his blog). The films got much, much sillier and cartoonlike as they went along, but the work of Russ was NEVER like any other filmmaker (esp. not in the “adult” world).

Thus, it was the unexpected sides of Ebert that made the greatest impression on me: his wonderfully camp work with Russ; his promoting “forgotten” films on TV when no one else was doing it; and the articles and blog entries he wrote in recent years when he returned to writing full time. His final triumph over cancer was an important one, since he will be remembered.

You can find ample amounts of Siskel and Ebert reviews on YouTube – I looked through page upon page of entries and not a single one blew my mind (no one evidently taped the special theme eps, except for that freaking “women in danger” show). So I offer you the episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show on Russ, in which Ebert is one of the talking heads:

I will tackle his three Meyer movies backwards, first Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, featuring the wonderful and bountiful Miss Francesca “Kitten” Natividad (another Kitten sequence from the film can be found here):

For reasons I won't go into, several posters on YT have put up the opening scene of Up!, in which Adolph Schwartz (aka Hitler) suffers endless sexual indignities.

The problem with showcasing a great piece of Ebert's comic writing from BVD is that Fox LOVES to pull movie footage off of YT (as I well know, from the instances in which my interview clips about their films, adorned with short sequences from the films, have been “internationally banned”). The melodramatic ending of the film is here. Thus, I could only find two sequences in which Ebert's dialogue is included. First this slice of melodramatic plotting (“I'm a capitalist, baby!”):

And this gorgeous montage that leads into “Come with the Gentle People.” The problem here is that Ebert's audio commentary on DVD found him explaining that Russ himself wrote the narration for the craziest montage sequences. My assumption is that, since the dialogue over this montage is cross talk between two characters, it might have been Roger's creation:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Love this. Hated, hated, hated his glib dismissal of "Dead Man". He was great at championing a lot of small stuff, though, for sure...