Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert: an appreciation

Filed under: Film,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

As a film critic by avocation and one with little use for Hollywood, I had mixed feelings about Roger Ebert but mostly tilted toward regarding him as part of the Establishment. Now with his passing and after I’ve had some time to review his career, particularly those aspects of it that were reflected in the Marxism list archives, I am tilting in the other direction, especially after taking into account what he had to say about Hugo Chavez. On October 31, 2003 I posted his review of “The Revolution Will not be Televised”:

Why was Chavez not our friend? It all comes down to oil, as it so often does these days. Venezuela is the fourth largest oil-producing nation in the world, and much of its oil comes to the United States. Its price has been guaranteed by the cooperation of the nation’s ruling class. Chavez was elected primarily by the poor. He asked a simple question: Since the oil wells have always been nationalized and the oil belongs to the state, why do the profits flow directly to the richest, whitest 20 percent of the population, while being denied to the poorer, darker 80 percent? His plan was to distribute the profits equally among all Venezuelans.

Now I ask you. Doesn’t this sound like an excerpt from a review that I might have written?

Two years later another Marxmail subscriber posted a link to Ebert’s review of “The Take”, Naomi Klein’s documentary on labor struggles against austerity in Argentina. Once again he comes down on the right side of the barricades:

Now here is “The Take,” a Canadian documentary by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, shot in Argentina, where a prosperous middle-class economy was destroyed during 10 years of IMF policies, as enforced by President Carlos Menem (1989-1999). Factories were closed, their assets were liquidated, and money fled the country, sometimes literally by the truckload. After most of it was gone, Menem closed the banks, causing panic. Today more than half of all Argentineans live in poverty, unemployment is epidemic, and the crime rate is scary.

In the face of this disaster, workers at several closed factories attempted to occupy the factories, reopen them and operate them. Their argument: The factories were subsidized in the first place by public money, so if the owners didn’t want to operate them, the workers deserved a chance. The owners saw this differently, calling the occupations theft. Committees of workers monitored the factories to prevent owners from selling off machinery and other assets in defiance of the courts. And many of the factories not only reopened, but were able to turn a profit while producing comparable or superior goods at lower prices.

I wearily anticipate countless e-mails advising me I am a hopelessly idealistic dreamer, and explaining how when the rich get richer, everybody benefits. I will forward the most inspiring of these messages to minimum-wage workers at Wal-Mart, so they will understand why labor unions would be bad for them, while working unpaid overtime is good for the economy. All I know is that the ladies at the garment factory are turning out good-looking clothes, demand is up for Zanon ceramics, and the auto parts factory is working with a worker-controlled tractor factory to make some good-looking machines. I think we can all agree that’s better than just sitting around.

I got a chuckle seeing Ebert’s reference to countless e-mails from Rush Limbaugh fans. So when I wrote him a snide message taking exception to his favorable review of “Crash”, Paul Haggis’s coincidence-laden fable about racial reconciliation in Los Angeles, he must have been so shocked by being attacked from the left that he rose to the bait and wrote me back defending his review. About 4 or 5 exchanges took place that day, leaving me finally with an appreciation for his lack of snobbery and willingness to engage with a lout like me.

I wonder if Ebert’s working-class roots made him more sensitive to pro-labor movies like the ones cited above and to ordinary people who crossed paths with him in cyberspace and real space. His dad worked in the power plant at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, a blue-collar town. He had lots in common with another working class kid named Michael Moore, who he publicly egged on to get political at the Academy Awards: “I’d like to see Michael Moore get up there and let ‘em have it with both barrels and really let loose and give them a real rabble-rousing speech.”

Moore has a wonderful story about trying to get Ebert to attend a screening for “Roger and Me” at the Mason’s Hall in Telluride that conflicted with Ebert’s prior engagement at the Opera House for the opening night gala of the film festival there. When Moore kept pressuring him to come to his screening instead, a clearly annoyed Ebert told him that he had spent $800 for the other event. Moore recounts what happened later that evening at his screening:

About five minutes before showtime, I looked out the window of the hall and saw a lone figure, a stout man, waddling down the street toward Masons Hall. It was none other than Roger Ebert. He walked in the door and saw his stalker standing there.

“Don’t say a word,” he ordered, putting his hand up and averting his eyes from mine. “I’m here. That’s all that needs to be said.”

“But —” I said, disobeying him — and being cut off by him in the same instant.

“I’m only here because there was this strange look in your eyes, a look that told me maybe I better be there. So here I am.” He went into the theater and took the last available seat, three rows from the back. No pressure now.

Of course the only other thing worth commenting on is Moore’s description of Ebert “waddling down”. Here goes. Pot… Kettle…

Like Moore, Ebert was a big supporter of the Democratic Party and of Obama. At the very least what can be said about these two major (in more ways than one) talents was their ability to say things in their films and reviews that cut across the Obama neoliberal agenda. I guess in this dreary epoch that’s what we can expect from all except the most unrepentant enemies of private property.

Ebert was born two and a half years before me, fortunate enough to be a young man in what were arguably cinema’s greatest years. That must have factored into his selection of the ten greatest films ever made: 2001: A Space Odyssey; Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Apocalypse Now; Citizen Kane; La Dolce Vita; The General; Raging Bull; Tokyo Story; The Tree of Life; and Vertigo. Anybody who includes Aguirre is okay in my book, for damned sure.

I think most people who get into reviewing films do so out of a real passion for them. Back in 1961, when I was a freshman at Bard, we had Friday night screenings of classic films curated by Arthur Tress, who went on to a distinguished career in photography. If being exposed to films like Eisenstein’s “Potemkin”, Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou”, and Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante” was not enough to turn me into a cinephile, there was also the local movie theater in Red Hook that catered to the college. It was there that I saw Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”, Bergman’s “Seventh Seal”, and Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim”.

I became so hooked on cinema that my field period—a midterm project that Bard eventually abandoned—for freshman year was an essay on Bergman’s films that I wrote at my parent’s home. The idea was to get internships in New York City or Washington, a hurdle too steep for a sixteen year old, especially one as immature as me.

Tress’s film gig was taken over by Jonathan Rosenbaum who was one year behind me at Bard. Rosenbaum eventually became a film reviewer in Chicago as well writing both popular material like Ebert’s and more scholarly articles with a mixture of Marxist and postmodernist themes.

If I had followed my passion, maybe I could have developed a vocation writing film reviews rather than what I have been doing for the last 15 years or so, writing them in my spare time—or even during working hours when I had my job at Columbia University. If I write them mostly out of a love for the medium than for money, I can at least say that this appeared to be Ebert’s motivation as well. It is too bad that we have so few journalists worthy of the name.

Toward the end of his life, Ebert was getting more and more into the Internet—blogging and tweeting like someone possessed. He was also quite open about the illness that would eventually take his life. This is from his last blog entry:

The immediate reason for my “leave of presence” is my health. The “painful fracture” that made it difficult for me to walk has recently been revealed to be a cancer. It is being treated with radiation, which has made it impossible for me to attend as many movies as I used to. I have been watching more of them on screener copies that the studios have been kind enough to send to me. My friend and colleague Richard Roeper and other critics have stepped up and kept the newspaper and website current with reviews of all the major releases. So we have and will continue to go on.

For years I devoutly took every one of my tear sheets, folded them and added them to a pile on my desk. The photo above [at the top of this post] shows the height of that pile in 1985 as it appeared on the cover of my first book about the movies published by my old friends John McMeel and Donna Martin of Andrews & McMeel. Today, because of technology, the opportunities to become bigger, better and reach more people are piling up too. The fact that we’re re-launching the site now, in the midst of other challenges, should give you an idea how important Rogerebert.com and Ebert Digital are to Chaz and me. I hope you’ll stop by, and look for me. I’ll be there.

So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.

6 Comments »

  1. “I wonder if Ebert’s working-class roots made him more sensitive to moves like the ones cited above and to ordinary people who crossed paths with him in cyberspace and real space.”

    I think so. He was also an admirer and friend of Mike Royco the great Chicago columnist he worked with at the Sun-Times. Royco grew up above the saloon run by his immigrant father. Ebert did have a soft spot for Hollywood. He’d written the screenplay for the 1970 mush, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” But in his criticism he didn’t think in categories. A movie was a movie, not to be pigeon-holed as popular, art house, Hollywood, serious, etc.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 5, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

  2. He was also one of the few White established critics that was very anti-racist and took stands that others like him would not. Will be sorely missed.

    Comment by Erik — April 5, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

  3. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. It was intentional camp.

    Russ Meyer and Ebert collaborated again for the Sex Pistols movie, Who Killed Bambi. But Fox pulled financing after a couple of days of shooting.

    Comment by Rojo — April 5, 2013 @ 9:36 pm

  4. The Haggis movie is called “Crash,” not “The Crash.”

    Comment by Gene — April 6, 2013 @ 5:31 am

  5. Ebert is of course being seriously mourned here in Urbana, where his yearly film festival has become wildly popular and well-attended over the past decade or more–it is still on for later this month. Here is a reminiscence from a well-known Philadelphia sportswriter, also from Urbana:

    http://articles.philly.com/2013-04-05/news/38309643_1_happy-days-high-school-sports-insects

    Comment by David Green — April 7, 2013 @ 12:58 am

  6. There was always something about Ebert that I respected. Perhaps, it was his candor. If you watched him on his PBS show with Siskel, there were clues that he empathized with the struggles of everyday people. He had a good instinct for recognizing sentimentalism, and didn’t hesitate to call filmmakers and actors out on it. He also promoted foreign films with themes that were challenging for American audiences. For some reason, I recall him as a more populist version of Andrew Sarris, speaking to the intelligence of people instead of pandering to them.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 9, 2013 @ 8:19 pm


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