Around the time that I discovered the internet as a place of leisure, and not just research, I discovered movie reviews. I found it hugely satisfying to read movie reviews in the major publications – the New York Times, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone. It was like sitting in on a cinematic round table with the leading lights of the film critics’ world. Some of their reviews were near works of art, literary pieces in their own right, offering insights into films that I couldn’t possibly dream of, and sometimes didn’t understand. I reacted to films and I could analyze my response, but not on the same level.
But there was one critic whom I read for his own sake, not the publication’s reputation, and that was Roger Ebert. I’d never seen his shows, either with Siskel or with Roeper, so I only know Ebert’s voice through his writing. And his reviews changed me. They changed how I watched movies, and they changed how I write today, as a critic of romance novels. I didn’t always agree with Roger Ebert, but his reviews always made sense. Rewatching films from his perspective, I understood where he came from. I trusted Ebert because I trusted that he was writing from his heart. We know reviewing is a subjective process, but sometimes, it seemed like he was the only one who put his heart on the line.
This sometimes resulted in him walking one way while everyone else walked in the opposite direction. Case in point: at a time when I was glomming Keanu Reeves films, I came across Ebert’s review for A Walk in the Clouds. He’d given it four stars out of four; Rotten Tomatoes has an aggregate score of 42%. Most of the world thought it was one big pile of mush, and that Keanu Reeves was a fantastically bad actor. Ebert called his performance “almost transparent”, the “highest compliment I can pay it”, and said the film “sang with innocence and trust”:
”A Walk in the Clouds” is the kind of film you have to give yourself to, open yourself to. Logic and cynicism will get you nowhere with this one. Oh, it will show you’re tough, and can’t be fooled, and no one can slip these ancient romantic notions past you. But if you can resist the scene where he sings beneath her window, then for you I offer this wish, that no one ever sing beneath your window. Even if sometimes you find yourself listening.
And there, in a nutshell, is why I loved Roger Ebert’s reviews, and why I cried when I saw that he’d died. Even though this paragraph skewers the film’s detractors with a five-year-old’s nose-thumbing, he spoke to directly to us. He spends the review defending his four stars, and after I’d seen the movie I could see his point of view, even though I thought Keanu Reeves was fantastically stilted. He is also unashamedly, unflinchingly romantic in the best and truest sense of the word – someone who is imbued with lifelong hope and resilience.
Roger Ebert was honest, and his writing could be absolutely beautiful in its simplicity. Reading his reviews made me a better reviewer – I read his reviews, and thought, Well gee, here is someone who defies all the rules of reviewing. He doesn’t always start with a synopsis. He doesn’t dissect the characters, plot, setting, and other elements like a checklist. Sometimes I don’t even know what the damn thing is about. But I can understand every word he wrote. He provides reasons to his responses. And he cares, so much, about the film, his writing, and the filmgoing world.
So thank you, Roger Ebert. For demystifying movie reviews and making average schlubs realize they can voice their cinematic opinions against the likes of Pauline Kael and Janet Maslin. For being a big voice that stood against other opinions. For being an unashamed romantic. And most of all, for caring.
– Jean Wan