I'm pre-empting the review of Pony of the Opera to talk about some news I just heard: Roger Ebert, after more than a decade of battling cancer and two days after announcing a "leave of presence" from his reviewing job, died Thursday. Click down below the break for some of my thoughts on the man.
I'm not really a movie person. Sure, I watch movies often enough, and there are some that I really enjoy. But all things being equal, I'd generally rather read a book, see a play, or listen to a concert than watch a movie. Indeed, my filmographer friend has told me in the past that one of the reasons I don't "get" movies is because I treat them like plays; I focus too much (for the medium) on characterization, dialogue, and setting, and don't seem to appreciate the visual, particularly the special-effects, aspects of film.
My apathetic relationship with movies notwithstanding, for years I used to watch Siskel and Ebert every week. A lot of the enjoyment of the show, it's true, stemmed from watching two adults get riled up about whether or not a given film was good or bad, but the concept of a review was what really interested me. Someone taking the time to analyze a film, to not just say it was terrible, but to say why, never got old for me. And the conceit that, as a viewer, I should be able to decide at the conclusion of every review whether or not I would like a particular movie, regardless of what Gene and Roger thought of it themselves, seemed such a lofty goal to me that I could hardly help but be intrigued. Even after Siskel died, I kept watching, and I've regularly read Ebert's reviews in my paper right up until this past week.
Now, to be honest, I didn't have a lot in common with Ebert when it came to taste. When I was watching the show, I found my opinion of movies I did go see was more likely to match Siskel's than his, and that many of Ebert's technical observations proved at best irrelevant to my enjoyment of a film. Although I understood the concept behind his star ratings (he would rate movies based on how they stacked up to other works in the same style--that way, there wouldn't be any silliness like trying to figure out whether Airplane! was a better movie than Schindler's List), it lead to some really absurd moments; any system which leads to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid getting just 2.5 stars (on a one-four scale) and 2012 getting 3.5 has some serious flaws. And although I think there's at least some merit to his famous declaration that video games cannot, in themselves, constitute "art," the manner in which he presented his argument was so condescending that it's easy to see how it provoked the furious backlash it did.
But I still read his reviews week after week--still enjoyed reading his reviews, week after week--for a variety of reasons. Those reviews may have sometimes (okay, often) been at odds with my own opinions on one or more points, but they were invariably the product of an intelligent, insightful mind. I can't think of a single article of Ebert's where I ever felt like he phoned it in, or was "watching" without really seeing what was going on on-screen.
Moreover, even when he and I were totally at odds over our opinion of a movie, I was generally able to tell that just from reading the review itself--I could tell that the two of us disagreed without ever having seen the movie itself. To me, that is the mark of a great reviewer: if a reader can correctly determine that they'll enjoy a movie (fanfic, whatever) that you've just panned, it means you're doing your job well, rather than giving in to the temptation to exaggerate and to focus on the negative. Likewise, if a reader can tell from one of your "glowing" reviews that a movie isn't for them, that says that you've managed to walk the impossible tightrope of offering an opinion while remaining objective.
And on top of all that, the man could turn a phrase like nobody's business. One of my favorite quips of his, which I occasionally find the opportunity to repurpose, was: "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." The man had a knack for using vivid, original language in a way which both entertained and didn't devolve into mocking tirades--something many of his imitators seem to struggle with.
Anyway. If you've read more than a few reviews of mine, and of Ebert's, you'll know that I haven't particularly styled mine after his. But to me, he was the ur-reviewer: the critic who was the standard against which I judged other critics, and the definition of what a critic is. It was from reading his reviews that I developed my sense of what a review should and shouldn't be: opinionated, but evenhanded; biting, but never malicious; unafraid to point out problems of any size, but willing to acknowledge successes likewise; and most importantly, geared towards helping readers find entertainment they'll enjoy while avoiding that which they won't, rather than focusing solely on being entertainment in and of themselves. And when I started this blog, it was because nobody at the time (at least, nobody that I knew of) was reviewing fanfiction the way Ebert did: producing consumer-oriented guides that were more than just recommendations. That were actual reviews.
Without Roger Ebert, it's safe to say I'd have never started this site; "to be ponyfic's Roger Ebert" was basically my mission statement at the start, and even though I've never tried to ape his rating criteria, tastes, or anything else specific from him, I have tried to provide the high-quality commentary that he seemed to so effortlessly produce day after day, week after week, and year after year, even as he dealt with his health issues that would inspire anyone to throw in the towel and say "maybe it's time to give up the day job."
So RIP, Roger Ebert. Even when you and I disagreed about something, which was approximately all the time, you were a pleasure to read.