Friday, April 12, 2013

Ebert's Chaos: A review of a review

Roger Ebert was not just the greatest film critic of all time, but in fact the most amazing human being that ever lived. I would compare him to Jesus Christ, but that would be an insult to Ebert. Jesus only turned water into wine. Ebert turned language into platinum. Every letter he gave us was a gift that we should all be grateful for. He was never wrong about anything, even when he was. Especially when he was. Unlike the rest of us, he didn't type words. He typed majestic unicorns that shat rainbows covered in galloping fuzzy kittens. Those kittens galloped their way into my heart, making me a better, more loving human being.

Obviously, none of this is true, but you'd never know that from reading all the many tributes to his genius that have flooded the internet since his death. I realise that, when any celebrity dies, their flaws get understated when memorialising them. In this case, the flaws have, for the most part, been ignored altogether. I ain't down with that, so here's my take on the tragedy that started the whole filmworld crying.

 In light of Ebert's passing, I revisited his writing for 2005's Chaos, both the review and his following correspondence with the film-makers. An intensely negative review which wound up being the film's major selling point. The makers happily cherry-picked quotes from the review to splash across the DVD cover and Ebert's futile splenetic fury helped push a grimy low-budget exploitation flick into the mainstream public's eye, despite his insistence that "I urge you to avoid it". Poor old Rog' never did fully cotton on to the truism that all publicity is good publicity.

As was often the case when Ebert disliked a film, he really has nothing interesting to say about it. There's a bunch of quoting from other reviews (a truly lazy tactic for any professional film critic, one which Ebert would occasionally resort to), a brief plot outline and not much more. This was one of his major flaws - if he disliked a film, he disregarded his duties as a critic and stopped paying attention. He made the assumption that he was better than the film, as if spending an hour or two writing a review is a comparable achievement to the months-long process of making even a low-budget independent movie. In fairness to Ebert, he was a freaking good writer who actually could lay claim to creating art better than some of the drek he watched. Let's not forget, he wrote perhaps the greatest line of dialogue in cinema history. You know the one I mean. Sadly, his lofty assumed position of greatness was extremely influential and has been adopted by all manner of worthless critics, both professional and amateur.

What's more problematic is that, when the makers of Chaos suggested he didn't "get" the film, his response was an extensive merciless form of literary bullying, questioning any film-maker's responsibility in depicting "evil". A rant fueled by the same false premise that every single pro-censorship argument is built upon - the idea that morality is a purer form of human expression than art. In his original review, he asked "Why do we need this shit?" and, when pushed further on this stance, he questioned "To what end?" should evil be portrayed. Why even ask these questions? Haven't enough films and film-makers been attacked, censored and banned for these reasons? A few years after Ebert's bludgeoning of Chaos, Iranian director Jafar Panahi was imprisoned along with his family and friends, because his government felt they didn't need his shit and objected to what end its purpose may lead. Ebert lived and worked in the US, a country where artistic expression is protected by law. Others are not so lucky. 

I'd have thought that any true lover of film would feel thrilled at how fortunate they are to live in a society where all art is given the freedom to not be necessary or to not have a purpose or an end or a reason to exist. Apparently, I was wrong in this assumption.

When Ebert truly hated a film, he was unable to accept that "it's only a movie... only a movie... only a movie...". He genuinely attempted to destroy what he disliked and shamelessly used his considerable clout as semi-celebrity to achieve that goal. His review of I Spit On Your Grave (or rather, more accurately, his review of the audience he saw it with) was followed up with a campaign to have it removed from theatres in the US. His crusade against slashers aka 'dead teenager movies' contributed heavily to the stigma placed upon horror in the '80s and helped give legitimacy to David Edelstein's coining of the term 'torture porn' decades later. Not content with limiting his slammings toward only the artwork or artist, he would happily make snap moral judgements about any appreciative viewer, labelling them as morons, degenerates and people who should be avoided, simply because they enjoyed a movie that he didn't.
I'm not bothered by what he hated. I'm bothered by how he hated.

 In the final piece he wrote for his website, he told us, "I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review." Just over a day later, he was dead. Such a shame that he didn't decide to follow his dream earlier, preferably several decades earlier. When he wrote about movies he truly had a passion for, he was very, very good indeed. One of the best there ever was, for sure. But when it came to movies he despised, he revealed himself as nothing more than a petty, vindictive book-burner.

His writings on Chaos hold a dark irony regarding his eventual fate. He wrote of the movie that it "denied the possibility of hope". He deplored that "the monster is given no responsibility, no motive, no context, no depth. Like a shark, he exists to kill." A very real monster robbed this eloquent man of his ability to talk and eat. It did so with no responsibility, no motive, no context, no depth. Several years later, at the moment when he was looking forward to a life he'd fantasized about, that same monster took everything left of him. Like a shark, cancer exists to kill. His optimism and his positivity were not enough. The possibility of hope was denied. Hope did nothing to prevent him winding up in the cold, eternal grave. Hope couldn't even prevent a douchebag like me from spitting on that grave. Chaos was proven right.

 To conclude this rant: Less than a week before Roger Ebert's death, Jess Franco also died. Franco was a fearless and truly individual artist; a renegade who spent his formative years combatting a fascist political regime with the power of art. He fought against censorship with every bone in his body and forged an unmatched enormous catalogue of work that wholeheartedly celebrated the boundary expansion of artistic freedom. In contrast to this, Ebert was born into privilege in the one of the safest, most tolerant and most free societies in human history. And he unashamedly used his position to try to restrict any artistic expression that hurt his pissy little feelings.

2 major film figures dead within the space of a week. I'll only be mourning for one of them. The other guy gets a thumbs down from me.