How Roger Ebert Made Me a Better Writer
When I had a heart attack in October 2011, an event brought on mostly by my unfortunate lifestyle decisions, my brain was deprived of oxygen for about 15 minutes. All I wanted to do when I came to, several days later, was read.
I couldn't. In the hospital, friends and family members brought me numerous books, issues of Rolling Stone, plus copies of The New York Times and even the Houston Chronicle. (Yes, the Press too.)
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The words swam around on the page. I knew what they meant individually, most of them, but following them one after another all the way to the end of a sentence, and then another one, I just wasn't up to. Not being able to comprehend what I was reading was more frustrating than not being allowed to use the bathroom under my own power, moreso even than the slowly dawning -- and completely bone-chilling -- realization of not only what had just happened to me, but what had just almost happened to me.
The results of the neurological and neuropsychological exams I underwent at the hospital were no more encouraging, and for days I still couldn't understand much of what I read. Eventually I went home.
At some point early in my convalescence, I started reading a couple of Roger Ebert's books that surely came to my parents' house through the Half Price Books in Clear Lake, and came to rest on top of the toilet. Sitting on the family throne, my real recovery began.
If memory serves, and it might not, there was a horribly dog-eared copy of Ebert's Bigger Little Movie Glossary on there. Your Movie Sucks, which takes its title from the review Ebert wrote for Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, sits there to this very day. The three months or so I was recovering at my parents' house in Friendswood, I read those books a lot.
As you might guess from the title of Your Movie Sucks, one of the things that made Ebert such a wonderful writer and critic was how direct he could be. Far too many of his colleagues in the so-called critical media -- those who review movies or albums or concerts or paintings or whatever -- take their position as an official reviewer either as a license to lord their knowledge over their audience, or shamelessly attempt to ingratiate themselves with the people who make the art they are supposed to be evaluating.
Either approach may be passed off as such, but it's not criticism. It's snobbery or plain and simple ass-kissing. Ebert did it right. He never wrote down to his readers, and he certainly never kissed a Hollywood ass just to make an actor or producer somewhere like him. (Ask Rob Schneider, who wound up sending Ebert flowers after one of his early cancer surgeries.)
If Ebert ever minced a word, he didn't often, and it was one I must have missed somewhere. His reviews were honest, direct, precise, knowledgeable, pointed, fundamentally decent, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. He was tough on the actors, writers, and directors he reviewed, but always fair. Thankfully, he was a lot tougher on the producers, the ones who are ultimately responsible for all the movies that get made and released.
If Ebert thought a movie never should have been made in the first place, he had no reservations about saying so. If a movie used some plot device or stock character in an especially egregious or cliched way -- the wellspring of the oft-reprinted Movie Glossary -- he would point it out, and go on to mention other movies where the same devices and characters were employed to a much better result.
Occasionally, often while reviewing a real turkey, Ebert would digress from talking about the acting or the script and relay an anecdote from his own life, something he thought of while watching this bad movie that made watching it somehow bearable. Those were always the best. His reviews were something you looked forward to reading in the bathroom, where people tend to be at their most relaxed.
I have read a lot of Ebert's reviews at this point, and after he passed away Thursday, what hurts me the most is knowing that the book is closed, and there will never be any more. But I will continue to read the reviews he has already written, over and over, probably in the bathroom, and then strive to be as honest, direct, and wise I as I possibly can in my own work. (Funny, too, but I can't promise anything.)
As a writer and critic myself, I owe him at least that much. Thanks, Roger.
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