Friday, April 5, 2013

How Roger Ebert Accidentally Created One Man's Pony Ramblings

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.


  1. Heh, I actually considered messaging you about Mr. Ebert's death. I've actually compared you two in the past, as you both have given me the best idea of whether or not I'd like a given work. Difference is, I tend to agree with you a lot more. There were times when I'd really disagree with Ebert and want to argue with him about it. With you, there's only ever been a difference of one star. Hardly something to cry about

    The biggest disagreement I'd ever had with him - and apparently you too - was on the aforementioned "video games as art" issue. I think his problem was he only saw artistic value in passive mediums. My understanding of art, though, is that it's about evaluating a work as an example of some kind. We look at a given medium and ask what constitutes it and what it excels at. For something to be art, it must exemplify those characteristics

    From that perspective, though, I feel video games are actually becoming less artistic. The great platforming games of yore gave us a unique experience that only video games could offer. Nowadays, games strive for story, but they can never compete with literature and film in that regard without ceasing to be games altogether

    Guess I got a little sidetracked there, but I've thought a lot about that issue over the years. Anyways, I was very sad to hear the news a few hours ago. It's going to be very weird not being able to read Mr. Ebert's opinion on new films

    1. Forgot to add, I wanted to thank you for cheering me up earlier. I read a shipfic the other day, very cheesy with not-so-brilliant writing (certainly no It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia), and I actually liked it! Maybe it's silly, but I like to think I have good taste (evidently not, considering the critical hate for my favorite author) and such a fic seemed below my standards. Normally that's the case with your standard shipfic, but apparently that's dependent on the characters' genders

      Anyways, I stumbled upon your old review for Feedback, wherein you mentioned My Time Among the Clothes Hangers, the very fic that had been bothering me! "Well," I thought, "if Chris enjoyed it so much, then I'm probably being really stupid right now. After all, I know he has good taste." So, thanks again for your unintentional help

  2. "'to be ponyfic's Rodger Ebert' was basically my mission statement at the start"

    And in that I'd say you've succeeded.

    Between what you wrote and what the Nostalgia Critic said in his farewell video, I don't think I have anything I can add. He was one of those rare critics where, even when you disagreed with him, you still didn't feel like he was being condescending. He was able to convey intelligence and thoughtfulness and a passion for art without coming across as snobbish, something even many film critics I respect seem to have trouble with.

    Farewell Rodger. You will be missed.

    1. How did I miss all those d's before reading your comment?

    2. And now I look and realize it's "Roger", not "Rodger." Thanks, Chris.

    3. Er... looks like I couldn't decide which way to spell the man's first name, so I alternated! Let's standardize that to "Roger" across the board, seeing as that's how he actually spelled it.

  3. I feel I've missed out on something, as the only work of Ebert's I've ever experienced is the introduction he wrote for Fake AP Stylebook's "writing guide", Write More Good, which is quite funny (the intro and the guide).

    1. Speaking as someone who only got into Ebert based on his writings (as a German, I never got around to seeing his TV shows), you have definitely missed out.

      It's never too late to start, though. Be it getting a good laugh out of seeing a critic tee off on a movie he hates (in the compilation books "I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie", "Your Movie Sucks" and "A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length", all of those titles being actual lines from his reviews) or seeing that same critic praise things he loves (the collected "Great Movies" I-III), Ebert is consistently a joy to read, and I say that as someone who never saw his show and is, if anything, even less of a cinephile than Chris.

    2. Thank you for the list of titles! I will definitely check those out. :)

    3. No problem. :) Pretty much everything he ever wrote is worth reading (I'll admit I haven't gotten his rice cooker cookbook. Yet). For something a little off the review path, I'd also recommend his autobiography, "Life Itself".

      Speaking of, I guess this is as good a place as any to mention my favourite Ebert obit.,31945/?ref=auto

      Yes, it's "The Onion" (for those who haven't heard that name, it's a satirical website). And yet somehow, that little paragraph of text manages to capture perfectly both Ebert's tone in writing and the attitude towards life that he showed in his later years. I must have read dozens of farewells to Ebert, and this just stands out.

  4. So this doesn't exactly add much to the conversation, but I found this quote about videogames:
    "To say "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" is a video game for the big screen is to insult a number of video games that are far more creative, challenging and better-looking. Like a Dumpster bin behind Tiffany's, this contains nothing but well-packaged garbage."
    Maybe he changed his opinion? *Shrug*

    But wow, I see what you're all talking about. It's really fun to read his reviews.

    1. Doubt it. Ebert wasn't really trying to disparage video games. He just felt they weren't art, which isn't a bad thing, nor would that preclude them from being creative, challenging or good looking

    2. The review you quote wasn't actually by Roger Ebert. He'd started letting other reviewers publish reviews on his site when he couldn't shoulder the workload any longer, including this one by Richard Roeper, his former partner on TV (he was the "replacement" for Gene Siskel). Roeper is seventeen years Ebert's junior, so it stands to reason his attitude towards videogames is different.

      Don't let that dissuade you, though. These reviews by others only started showing up a few months ago; everything before that on Ebert's site is by him, and even some of the reviews that went up recently are by the great old man himself (I can immediately name "The Host", "From Up on Poppy Hill" and his last review, "To the Wonder").

  5. " 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."

    I do see this come through in your reviews especially in the way you try to find someone to recommend stories to regardless of your opinion on them.