Or “How I learned to stop worrying and write from the heart (or at least try to)”. Our editor shares how Roger Ebert (RIP) set the standard for clarity, authenticity and connection in writing.
There are writers that you pretend to like, writers that you like and writers that you really like. Roger Ebert fits into the third category. But I did not come to this conclusion—or imagine how he could come to be so important to me—during my initial readings of him. He started off as the first, as someone that you should read because he was famous, one of those guys whose names kept appearing under quotes in Hollywood movies: “Awesome movie!”; “A spellbinding fable about growing up!”; “This really sucks!”; and so on and so forth. Of course, these aren’t his actual quotes (he is too smart for that), but it’s just to give you an idea.
I cannot really remember the first review I read from his website (hopefully it will be preserved for posterity). But I do remember the review that made me sit up and take notice. Describing the implausible drama and setting of the disastrous The Hills Have Eyes remake, he wrote:
“It is curiously touching, in the middle of this polluted wasteland, to see a car that was towing a boat that still has its outboard motor attached. No one has explained what the boat was seeking at that altitude.”
Any Hemingway geek would immediately recognize the second sentence as being adapted from the opening anecdote from his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. I was a big Hemingway fan at the time, but I’m both sad and increasingly glad to say that the brightness of his star has dimmed for me, while Ebert’s has begun to shine more brightly. Both writers shared a similarity: to write simply and communicate effectively to a wider audience. However, that’s where it ends.
While Hemingway’s ego grew to encompass the universe (in truth, only his own), Ebert’s remained tempered and well connected with the common folk. In other words, Ebert maintained high standards without succumbing to pretension. A good demonstration of this is the maxim he used to review his movies: judge each according to its own genre. He will never review True Lies according to the standards of The Age of Innocence, or snub the latest Clint Eastwood movie just because it didn’t come remotely close to anything by Ingmar Bergman. He was very clear about their distinctions. Each had different aims and it would be impossible and even unfair to judge everything by a single yardstick. And that is what I love about his writing and thinking: clarity. He sought to see things as they really are, and work with it.
Another achievement that cannot be underestimated is his ability to render positivity without sounding shallow. Ebert had this magical penchant for unearthing the good in things. To me, this goes against the habitual grain of the cynical and relativistic mood of the Left and the artistic community that he was part of. It is a refreshing blast of truth. A prime example is his review of Casablanca. In this “romance for cynics”, Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick faces a hopeless love affair and utters, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” However, Ebert’s reading of it turns it on its head. Seeing nobility in Rick’s final act of flying away to fight against the Nazis in WWII, he concludes in his essay:
“…as we leave the theater, we are absolutely convinced that the only thing keeping the world from going crazy is that the problems of three little people do after all amount to more than a hill of beans.”
This same attitude can be seen in his review for Shoah, a clinical documentary about the after-effects of the Holocaust. He describes the movie as “an act of witness. In it, Claude Lanzmann [the director] celebrates the priceless gift that sets man apart from animals and makes us human, and gives us hope: the ability for one generation to tell the next what it has learned.”
And finally (bear with me) one more from the Tree of Life. The protagonist Jack looks back on his childhood, and remembers an exchange with his stern father, Mr. Brien. Ebert isolates and analyses the scene:
“‘I was a little hard on you sometimes,’ Mr. Brien says, and Jack replies, ‘It’s your house. You can do what you want to.’ Jack is defending his father against himself. That’s how you grow up.”
This insight could only be gleaned from a man who was thoroughly immersed in life. Ebert wrote from the heart, and it showed. His reviews always talked to you—not down at you. Reading them is like having a fun but intelligent conversation with a good friend during an after-movie supper.
And it is thanks to him we have a standard of writing to achieve. Clarity, authenticity and connection.
Thanks, Mr. Ebert. It’s been a pleasure.