With the release of Steve James’ “Life Itself” approaching this Friday, this is a week for many to look back once more over the career of Roger Ebert. At The Dissolve, Noel Murray begins at the beginning, looking over some of Ebert’s earliest reviews. Given that it involves going back more than 40 years, it’s not surprising that some of the judgments have aged poorly, as has the authoritative, quasi-mandarin tone that became less common as Ebert grew both more confident and more generous in his writing. Of Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls,” he writes that “Warhol has nothing to say and no technique to say it with,” which is not only wrong but preposterously overreaching. (Really, no technique? Nothing to say?) It recalls Ebert’s priggish pan of John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos,” which as late as 1997 he plainly declined even to engage with. The review is addressed to the film’s 25th anniversary rerelease, but for the most part it sounds as if Ebert is holding to judgements he formed in 1972.
“Pink Flamingos” was filmed with genuine geeks, and that is the appeal of the film, to those who find it appealing: What seems to happen in the movie really does happen. That is its redeeming quality, you might say. If the events in this film were only simulated, it would merely be depraved and disgusting. But since they are actually performed by real people, the film gains a weird kind of documentary stature. There is a temptation to praise the film, however grudgingly, just to show you have a strong enough stomach to take it. It is a temptation I can resist.
It seems strange that an enthusiastic fan and collaborator of Russ Meyer’s would harrumph at Warhol’s and Waters’ brand of debauchery, but then as Murray points out, Ebert’s criticism was always personal:
In review after review, week after week, year after year, Ebert let slip little details about his Illinois upbringing, his political leanings, his habits, and his hobbies. While the New York critics were staking out rigid ideological positions and savaging each other in print — fighting battles that seem far less important now than when they were raging — Ebert was coming at movies as a curious, studious, passionate Midwesterner, applying a little humility and a lot of honesty, to keep his confidence from slipping into cockiness.
Part of what’s fascinating about trawling through Ebert’s early reviews is seeing him find that balance, even, perhaps especially, when he fails. It heightens the contrast to his later years when, even if he could sometimes be generous to a fault, he rarely slapped down a movie as if it wasn’t worth his time.