One day after the news that Roger Ebert had succumbed to death after a long battle with cancer, it’s starting to sink in what we’ve lost in the passing of this amazing man. While this is ostensibly a rock music site, anyone writing or talking about art in 2013 is doing so in a P.E. (Post Ebert) era, and personally Ebert was one of the first voices speaking about art that snagged my attention and ultimately my own passions to explore, comment and otherwise get entangled with music, film, etc. Some of my fondest television memories are of watching Siskel & Ebert spar on PBS, and while the takeaway for too many cultural critics today is the thumb gimmick, it was their all-in engagement with film AND how they threw the net very, very wide to connect politics, literature, sports, and a whole quietly semiotic slew that fascinated me, even long before I learned what “semiotic” meant or how the interdisciplinary approach to cultural thinking could enliven and enlighten in such profound ways. What attracted me to Ebert as a kid was his energy and the sense that he meant what he said no matter where it might take him or who it might ruffle or delight – which is about as punk rock an attitude as any offered by Keith Morris, Johnny Rotten, et al. He made me excited about something I already loved on an intuitive level – film – while simultaneously showing me through his example that what happened on the screen was only part of the full story.
By high school, I was devouring his books, his words a succulent feast filled with ideas I needed to scout around for answers to, if only to see if I agreed or disagreed with his point. And this is a crucial difference between Ebert and most folks who call themselves critics: He wanted you to talk back to him, to defend your position with real thinking, to challenge his notions, and he was always ready to be surprised out of his current stance – again a marked difference to most commenting on art today who too often go in with the answers to their questions already penciled in or a review half-written before the thing is taken in for what it is not what they think it is. Strong of will and opinion, Ebert was formidable and cantankerous. I loved, especially as I began to write for my high school paper and onward through my college weekly and countless other nickel & dime employments I’ve had with my pen, that there was nothing academic or “learned” about him. He was of the people, a town crier from the hoi polloi with more brains than most of us and quite likely more heart and soul, too.
He took each film, each book, each idea as it came, open armed and only pushing it away if he really deemed it lacking, hurtful, lazy, consciously stupid, etc. His reasons for disliking a work were generally legitimate, but he did so without a lot of obvious malice. He wasn’t out to destroy the creators the way say wrongly beloved Lester Bangs did. Ebert had high standards but also a tremendous love of low culture that deflated any notions of him being a stern, authoritative scold. He adored b-movies and cult cinema, and one of the things that endears him most to me is he wrote not one but two movies for Russ Meyer. And while Beyond The Valley of the Dolls is the one most folks cite, it’s 1979’s goofily surreal sexploitation joint Beneathe The Valley of the Ultra-Vixens that reveals what a keen satirical edge and spot-on black humor Ebert possessed as well as a healthy appreciation of mega-boobed smut. More sincerely, it’s another complicated facet to a man who seemed to embrace humanity in total, trying to understand what drives us, what hurts us, what scares us and what makes us laugh and tumble down into one another. In fact, it is hard to escape one’s humanity and one’s connection to the human condition in the larger sense reading Ebert’s work or listening to him talk about the world we live in as seen through art’s lens.
It’s not overstating things to say the man had a massive influence on my life and my choice of what to do with it. I often describe myself as a writer who has chosen to make music his focus and inspiration rather than a “music critic” or even “music journalist,” and the distinction is crucial – at least to me. I rarely if ever think of myself as a critic since I’m more interested in digging my mind and fingers into what excites me, what feels worthwhile, what moves me in some way. Using the work of others as one’s springboard in their own craft is a strange business. It calls into question whether one is “creating” anything at all. Ebert’s example and unflagging determination to be part of a great, bold, universal conversation about who we are and what stories we tell about that has been and always will be inspirational.
Few people who’ve done anything like what Ebert did with his life have so richly lived up to Oscar Wilde’s notion of The Critic As Artist. He was never afraid to be an obvious fan, shirking the notion of being an all-knowing objective POV, and he enthusiastically championed artists he felt deserved his muscle and powerful push – two huge examples I’ve tried to follow with all my heart. His refusal to parse high and low culture and to treat each work as its own thing and judge its own merits (or faults) as they come is at the core of what we’re doing at Dirty Impound. Just because everyone knows the names Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty or Radiohead doesn’t mean that a new artist just putting out their first single, album, etc is any less worthy of our consideration OR any less deserving of praise when their talents, imagination, etc. warrant it. Ebert taught me that art is a level playing field and that hierarchies are for people who don’t like to be challenged or pushed out of their comfort zone.
This is a thank you note that comes too late, as they so often do. It’s my hope that what I’ve tried to do with my writing since the very beginning honors the man just a bit, and I promise to further honor him by carrying on his legacy in spirit here at the Impound in the years to come.