I went to hear Roger Ebert in conversation with A.O. Scott at the New York Times TimesCenter last night. He is touring to promote his new book, Life Itself. It was an enlightening and, at times, moving discussion between the two critics, rife with bits of inside cinema humor that I love. Note that I didn’t say inside Hollywood. Ebert loathes celebrity gossip and insider chit-chat. For him, it’s just about what’s on the screen.
Ebert has been functioning without his jaw since 2006 after he underwent surgery to treat thyroid cancer. For public appearances, he types on a laptop and then hits a button to let it speak for him.1 The result is something spectacular. Ebert has worn many hats over the years, perhaps most popularly as a TV personality. His main calling, however, is as a prolific writer. Watching Ebert speak is watching him write.
He clacks away on the keyboard, sometimes pausing to reconsider his thoughts and often mousing around to correct typos. When he hits the play, he uses his eyes and hands to accompany the words as they come out. Sometimes, he mimics what he would be doing if he had his own voice. Other times, he is clearly performing, hamming up his gestures to make sure the people in the cheap seats catch his wit. Whenever he had something to say and didn’t want A.O. Scott to move onto another topic, he would raise a hand, often to comic effect. Once he even smacked the table to keep A.O. from changing the subject. As readers of his reviews, tweets and blog posts know, Ebert hasn’t actually lost his voice; he has just repurposed it.
Perhaps the best moments of the evening occurred when Ebert put Scott in the hot seat. When Scott brought up Ebert’s vociferous campaign against 3-D, the Sun-Times critic explained that the technology is a waste (“Maybe one or two movies a year, but I’ve seen enough Pandas doing kung-fu.”) and that no critic has made a decent justification argument for it. Then, with a sharp look to his moderator, his computer asked “You’re not seriously telling me you like 3D, are you?” Scott didn’t offer a defense, but tried to convince Ebert that Wim Wenders’ forthcoming 3-D dance documentary, Pina, shows an extension of the form. “Maybe,” he answered. He also copped to liking Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, another 3-D documentary.
Later, the two brought up the topic of streaming films. Ebert is a big advocate of streaming media as it can connect audiences to cinema faster than ever. He often recommends films to watch on Netflix and YouTube via Twitter, and he loves watching movies on his Roku box. “What do you think of the quality of streaming movies?” Ebert asked Scott. It’s an interesting question the two didn’t spend too much time boring the audience with, though Scott did explain the films he watches online run the gamut from “smeary” VHS quality to crisp HD. He also noted that it’s often unclear which version of a film you’ll be watching on streaming services, whether it will be letterbox or pan-and-scan or be dubbed instead of subtitled. They agreed that streaming standards are nowhere near the standards of DVDs, but perhaps it will get there someday.
One joke that didn’t quite get the laugh it deserved was one that Roger made after a video from his acceptance into the Directors Guild of America played. “Now that I’m in the DGA, I can sign my bad reviews Alan Smithee.” A.O. cracked up but forgot to clue the audience in (though frankly, I thought the crowd would have gotten it). An anagram for “the alias men,” Alan Smithee is a pseudonym directors traditionally use for films that they feel have been corrupted by the Hollywood system, a work they wouldn’t want to put their name on. A geeky reference, but that’s who Ebert is.
Perhaps one of Ebert’s most endearing qualities is his simple pragmatism. Unlike some other elder critics, he is incredibly supportive of younger, amateur critics coming into the fold. He loves the expanding discussion of movies. He noted that print is still his favorite medium, but that since the internet is boundless, there is plenty of room for more criticism and discussion. Instead of deriding critics like myself who set up a home online, he lauds them. “In fact,” Ebert posited, looking around the TimesCenter, “I bet there are a number of great internet critics in this room right now.”
When asked, as his last question, what he would tell an up and coming critic who wants to be the next Roger Ebert, he left the audience with a warm-hearted answer. “Don’t be the next Roger Ebert, be the first you.” It’s straightforward, eloquent, inarguable, a bit corny and easy to remember. In other words, it’s a classic piece of Ebert’s prose.
The voice’s name is Alex.↩