Roger Ebert receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, June 23, 2005. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
Yesterday, after the news about Roger Ebert broke, Chicago radio host Milos Stehlik reached out to Werner Herzog. Herzog and Ebert had been friends for decades, Ebert having been a great admirer of Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. From there it was nearly always a love-in, Ebert often writing tributes to the director. But it did not obviate Ebert’s critical eye. In one conversation at the University of Urbana-Champaign in 2004, Ebert told Herzog, “Your films expand me, they exhilarate me, they make me feel that you are trying to put your arms around enormous ideas.” He then added, “And at the same time there's a feeling of hopelessness. I think of Aguirre on the sinking raft, in the middle of the river, mad, surrounded by gibbering monkeys.”
To Stehlik, Herzog did sound a hopeless note. Of course, he said he had only heard the news of Ebert’s death a few minutes before. He was audibly upset; at the end of the interview he made a sound that could only have been a sob. He said that Ebert was among the “very last” serious writers about movies. He worried that the trend had shifted to celebrities, and celebrities only. There were a few others who wrote seriously, Herzog said, but “none of [Ebert]’s caliber.” “My question is, what do we do without him now?” Herzog said. “What do we do?”
Grief gets its own logic, I think. And I love Herzog, both his films and the way he thinks. The note he sounded is one he’s spoken about before, once joking in an appearance at the New York Public Library that he’d forced Ebert to watch The Anna Nicole Smith Show because it was “a monumental failure of civilization.” And no one really disputes that he’s wrong; it’s a difficult thing to keep talking about movies as objects of art in an age where most are cynical CGI-and-poop-joke extravaganzas.
But just to voice a small bit of hope: as someone who just read Ebert, who only watched him from afar, it seems to me that one of his great talents was not just sorting wheat from chaff. He was as much a popularizer as he was a critic, a person who did not spend his life advocating for one aesthetic preference over another as he just loved talking about movies with other people. He made it a popular pastime in a way the great idols of movie criticism like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris never attempted. All morning as I’ve been writing this the tributes have been piling up from young critics he encouraged and communicated with, but I don’t just mean his encouragement of professionals. He had a way of being a critic without coming across as high-handed or snobbish, and the liberatory power of that isn’t a thing to underestimate. Will Leitch, of New York magazine, wrote a few years ago that Ebert was, to him, a “glimpse of a better life: He was proof there was a ticket out.” It’s not an accident that a “better life” was one spent drenched in the culture, I think. And that glimpse should still be held out to everyone and anyone, no matter the pedigree.
In an age where the economics of cultural journalism are bottoming out, where professional book reviews compete with Amazon ones and everyone with a WordPress account can get their reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes, a lot of critics do a lot of rather anti-democratic grumbling about the diminishment of taste. You know what they mean, but I’ve always thought that their target was wrong. If we’re going to find a way to have a meaningful culture in this country, the obstacle doesn’t lie with a growing number of people who are passionate about discussing the ins and outs of it. It’s with a corporatized cultural industry where the bottom line is so important that no risks are taken. Sure, some of the shlock sells, but much of it, from John Carter to The Host, fades out and dies a quick death. It does so because no one can find anything to say about it the moment they walk out the door.
Ebert, I think, understood this. In that conversation with Herzog he also said, “I see so many movies that are all the same, they're cut off like sausages, you get another two hours worth and then you go home and you forget about them.” The point of Ebert’s criticism was to preserve the things that mattered to you, and forget all the ones that didn’t, the ones he generically dismissed with complaints like, “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie.” In the last years of his life, with his loss of the power of speech, he became an inspirational figure precisely because even in the midst of a lot of bad stuff he still saw the good. The best way to remember him, I think, would be to try to do the same.
It didn't take long for the University of Louisville to bank on an ugly injury to one of its basketball players. Read Dave Zirin's take.