Paying tribute

For the second consecutive week, the Critical Eye finds itself paying tribute to an important member of the arts community who has left us, on a permanent basis.

Critic, screenwriter and lecturer, Roger Ebert gave many works of art his celebrated rating of “thumbs up.” His willingness to evaluate truthfully may have slowed the success of some films, it’s true, but it was his truthfulness which made his genuine words of praise into a major boost to the success of those who deserved success.

This week, I’d like to celebrate the life and career of Ebert, and to say a word about the role of the critic in the arts process.

ROGER EBERT

Roger Joseph Ebert died April 4. Had he lived until June, he would have been 71. He was an author, a journalist, a film historian, a screenwriter, an illustrator and most of all, a critic. Most people know him from his work on his various television programs, in which he usually teamed with another critic and the two debated their opinions of a list of major films, ending with a decision of whether – with all the pluses and minuses taken into consideration – the film was worth attending or not, for the public. That ultimate decision was denoted by the two critics turning their wrists so that their thumbs were up, or down, rather the way Roman emperors determined if a gladiator’s fighting had been good enough that his life should be spared, or bad enough so that it would be taken.

Ebert’s colleague on the majority of his shows was Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. When Siskel died in 1999, Richard Roeper, a columnist on Ebert’s own Sun-Times, took over his duties. Any film which won the support of both critics typically included the phrase “two thumbs up” in all of their advertising and publicity materials.

Despite his television fame, Ebert’s principal area of activity was as a newspaper critic and columnist, which he began writing in 1967, and for which he was still writing, when he died. His writings were syndicated, and were published in more than 200 newspapers, across the U.S. and in Europe. He also regularly wrote a blog, which enabled anyone with a computer on the Internet, to examine his published critical opinions without charge, and on which he published in full opinions about his own writing, both positive and negative.

In 1975, he was the first critic to be honored with a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Rivals pooh-poohed, at that time, that he was honored for the quality of his writing, not for the quality of his criticism, but he remained the best-known film critic in the nation. His name often appeared on various lists of the most influential people in the U.S. He was even given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in 2005.

Some writers for publications, including Forbes Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, offered the opinion that his thumbs-up or down could make literally millions of dollars’ difference in how much a film would earn from its box office.

In 2007, a feature story in Time gave the estimate that up to that date, he had reviewed more than 10,000 films and written more than 3,000 essays. He also has written a novel, a travel book on London, a guide to computer viruses and similar malwares, and more than 40 books about films. He also wrote a screenplay for a truly horrible film, made by director Russ Meyer, called “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” He has done a number of DVD recordings of classic films in which he talked over the film, explaining what he thought was especially effective, or distracting, or whatever, about what was appearing on the screen. Sometimes he was hired to do the voice-over technique at live public appearances.

Each year, he ran a festival of films which he considered overlooked and/or under-publicized, and which is reputed to have saved a significant number of films from financial ruin.

Among his many accomplishments, he was credited by Oprah Winfrey with convincing her to take her locally broadcast talk show, and to syndicate it, so that it could be purchased for broadcast by stations across the U.S. and internationally. Although she had already won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the film “The Color Purple,” that syndicated program was the beginning of her major career.

In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, which was what ultimately took his life. Surgery to deal with the cancer resulted in the removal of much of his lower jaw. Despite his radically altered appearance, Ebert continued to appear on television and at public events, although with declining frequency and often doing only one segment of a show, staffed by other critics. Additional surgery resulted in the loss of his vocal cords, but he continued to write, and even to make public appearances and television appearances, with his words written by him and spoken by voice-over actors or by the electronic voice of a speaking computer.

He continued watching films and writing about them until a few days before his death.

Born in Urbana, Ill., the critic attended the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He later wrote about his destructive fight against the bottle in his early life, before being able to escape from alcohol’s grip on his life through Alcoholics Anonymous. He remained unmarried until the age of 50, when he married attorney Chaz Hammelsmith, to whom he was married at his death.

CAREER

On his television programs, Gene Siskel was known as “the skinny, bald one,” and Ebert was described as “the fat one with the glasses.” On “Saturday Night Live,” actors dressed as the two critics, and began discussions of films which inevitably ended in punches being thrown and various weapons and methods of attack being attempted.

In his 2007 feature, which ran with the headline “Thumbs Up for Roger Ebert,” critic Richard Corliss decried the enjoyment some critics seemed to get from protesting the quality of films. He described Ebert’s approach as that of a physician, regretting the seriousness of a patient’s illness, yet needing to tell the truth, so that proper responses can take place.

The point about criticism is that it has no divine-established rule book. People often refer to a review which praises a work of art as “a good review,” and one which is negative about the work as “a bad review,” but that is utterly inaccurate. A good review is one which gives you a clear understanding of what took place on the stage, or wherever, which clearly explains the writer’s responses to the event, and which gives reasons for them. Just as you might enjoy cotton candy more than a nutritional salad, but that doesn’t make it “better” food, you might enjoy a badly done performance more than a brilliant, challenging one, but that doesn’t make it more praise-worthy.

In fact, also, praise is a form of criticism, and “they performed brilliantly” is certainly criticism.

Like, I suspect, most fathers, I would rather watch my daughter dance than the finest, best-trained and most talented women from the finest ballet companies of the world. I’d enjoy it more, but that doesn’t make it better.

In preparing for a talk I was asked to give, recently, at a community organization, I came across this review, which was published in one of the largest newspapers in Europe: “His music is mediocre, pretentious, and derivative. It angers me that this presumptuous mediocrity is sometimes praised as a genius. I have played over this man’s music – What a giftless dastard.”

And, who is the presumptuous mediocrity whose music has been so negatively described? Johannes Brahms.

Oh.

So who is the know-nothing fool who called himself a critic and published this ridiculous diatribe? Piotyr Illych Tchaikowsky.

It is relatively safe to conclude that Brahms’ music is of good quality, and equally safe to presume that Tchaikowsky knew quite a bit about music, when he wrote about it. The public is often too literally minded. People tend to think that if the critic didn’t respond positively, either the performance wasn’t good, or else the critic wasn’t talented and wasn’t right in his evaluation. Certainly neither of these needs to be true.

Ebert could be quite negative in his opinions. In response to the 1994 film “North” by Rob Reiner, he wrote “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

I haven’t seen the Reiner film, but that might be at least a slight over-reaction. But, it is certainly clear how the critic felt, and it inspired a great deal of examination of the film and discussion, both verbal and in print, about what films should do, and how they should do it.

Ebert could be especially defensive of anyone, especially writers, whom he believed to be unfairly treated. A critic for the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein, wrote a negative review of the film “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo,” by comic Rob Schneider.

Schneider responded by taking out an ad in a trade newspaper in which he wrote, “I did some research of your career, and I find you have won nothing. Maybe you haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize because they (don’t have) a category for best third-rate, unfunny, pompous reporter who’s never been acknowledged by his peers.”

Ebert never minded people who disagreed with writers, including himself, and even published some savagely negative writing against himself in his blog. But, he felt Schneider had attacked the writer and not the writer’s words. So, he responded in his column, “Schneider is correct, Patrick Goldstein has not yet won the Pulitzer Prize. As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified, according to Schneider’s terms. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.”

Fairly recently, Ebert was prevailed upon by his publisher to print a volume of his least positive reviews. It was published with the title from that exchange: “Your Movie Sucks.”

A few days before his death, Ebert received a large bouquet of flowers, bearing a card which read, ”With sincere best wishes for better health, from your least-favorite movie star. Rob Schneider.”

Ebert wrote film criticism for the best possible reasons. He knew a lot about film, and he had a talent for choosing especially fine words to share his responses with the public.

You should read his writing, or any critic’s writing, to learn his response to a film, or a play, or a dance, or a song, or whatever. You shouldn’t replace your response to the work of art with his, unless his reasons have truly convinced you. If you love “Gone With the Wind,” and your friend hates it, which of you is right? Obviously, both of you are right. You’re entitled to your reaction, and he or she is entitled to his reaction. You can disagree, without the slightest need to fight it out.

Newspapers publish reviews, among other reasons, to create a history of what elements of the community’s artistic life have taken place, who participated in the creation and how it affected the community. Anyone who tries to tell you that X is a better critic than Y is almost certainly telling you that X responds to the same things the speaker responds to. That makes him more pleasurable for that reader to read, but neither better, nor more accurate.

In our modern world, we have come to expect that if someone works hard, he should be praised, whatever the result of that work. That kind of thinking can put you inside a great many crumbling buildings, and aboard many sinking ships, among many other hideous hazards. I’ve met an astonishing number of young adults who believe completely in their own knowledge and ambition, who have done an enormous amount of damage and harm, because they believe they have no responsibility to be correct, as well as finished.

Critics have a responsibility to be truthful and accurate, but have none, whatsoever, to be “right.” Roger Ebert’s writing inspired a lot of talk, reaction, response and action, relating to the arts. That earns him our respect, and our heart-felt salute to him and his career.

WINKS

Today, customers at Brigiotta’s Farmland Produce and Garden Center will be greeted by young musicians from the Chautauqua Region Youth Symphony, and be given the opportunity to financially support the three orchestras which make up CRYS.

Monday, between 4-8 p.m., customers of the Fairmount Avenue Pizza Hut can have 20 percent of their dine-in or carry-out purchases donated by the restaurant to CRYS. To do so, you must have a flyer, which can be obtained from any member of the organization, or printed out from their website, at www.CRYouthSymphony.com.

April 26-28, tag days will be held at the WalMart, on Fairmount Avenue, in Lakewood.

The organization’s three orchestras will perform their spring performance at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, on May 5, at 4 p.m. Tickets are available in person through the civic center’s box office, or by telephone at 484-7070.

For many reasons, CRYS is a major asset to our community and its cultural development, and is worthy of your support, if you can do it.