Last week, I wrote about Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, but it didn’t take long to realize that there was more I wanted to say than could be squeezed into a single column. A concise writer like Ebert might’ve managed it in one, but for a less disciplined writer like myself? It’s gonna take two.
Part of the difficulty is that I don’t know how to talk about Ebert’s career without also talking about the times in which he lived. Prior to the ‘60s, American writing about the movies was mostly functional, consisting of no-frills reviews, Hollywood gossip, and studio PR. The novelist, James Agee, wrote some great pieces in the ‘40s, but his time as a movie critic was relatively short-lived.
Things were different in France. Led by critics like André Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard, and François Truffaut, the French critics helped elevate the reputation of the movies, and when the ripples of their work reached the far side of the Atlantic, the impact was profound. By the late ‘60s, a new generation of American filmmakers and critics had emerged, ready to put their stamp on the evolving art form.
So when the Chicago Sun-Times editor tabbed a 24-year-old reporter, Roger Ebert, to become the paper’s movie critic in 1967, the timing couldn’t have been better. The film industry was on the cusp of a revolution, and Ebert was uniquely positioned to report on it. He had no formal training for his new job—he hadn’t gone to film school, didn’t have a degree in film studies, and hadn’t published in film journals. He was simply a good news reporter and a gifted writer—smart, well read, incredibly observant.
It didn’t take him long to assert himself. After only a few months on the job, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde made its debut. It was a landmark film—fresh and relevant—that broke with the formal aesthetics that dominated most Hollywood movies. With awkward edits and unorthodox shifts in tone, the movie felt spontaneous and raw, and the story tapped into many of the signature issues of the time—feminism, class, the sexual revolution, violence, Vietnam, the generation gap, and the rise of the counterculture. Most of the movies that would define the next ten years—Easy Rider, M*A*S*H*, The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver—trace their roots back to Bonnie and Clyde. It was the first masterpiece of a new era in American film.
And everyone hated it.
Everyone, that is, except the young newcomer from Chicago. Ebert immediately proclaimed Bonnie and Clyde a masterpiece, but during its initial run, it received near unanimous condemnation from the rest of the newspaper critics across the country. Bosley Crowther, the powerful voice of the New York Times, served as the self-appointed gatekeeper for all art films, and he unleashed a blistering fusillade of thesaurus-infused invectives at the movie, firing away with the same self-righteousness as the police who assassinate Bonnie and Clyde at the movie’s conclusion.
But a funny thing happened. Bonnie and Clyde didn’t go away. Slowly, as reviews from some of the critics in the weekly and monthly magazines began to appear, more and more people were seeing what Ebert had seen. By the end of the year, Bonnie and Clyde had become one of the most celebrated films of the year, and Ebert had been its first champion.
Bosley Crowther was fired the following year.
There was a new sheriff in town—or new “sheriffs” rather. Readers looking for insightful writing about film could turn, not only to Ebert, but also to critics like Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice, Dwight Macdonald of Esquire, Stanley Kauffmann for The New Republic, John Simon in The National Review, or Pauline Kael with The New Yorker. At the risk of turning to cliché, it was like a golden age of American film criticism.
They all wrote reviews and most of them also wrote extended essays that explained their respective critical credos. Unlike most of them, however, Ebert soon began specializing in celebrity interviews as well. In place of Q & A, he simply observed what the person did and said, often removing himself from the story and leaving us to watch and listen as voyeurs.
When I was in college, I stumbled across a collection of these interviews in a used bookstore. Ebert’s A Kiss is Still a Kiss collects many of his best pieces from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s, and those interviews comprise some of the best writing about the movies I’ve read. I can still see Kirk Douglas, pacing back and forth like a cat, ranting about his critics and pounding his fist in his hand. I can still see John Wayne playing chess with Ebert while grumbling about why he hated High Noon, insisting that unlike Gary Cooper’s marshal, he would’ve left the selfish townspeople to die—revealing more about himself than he probably intended.
But the crown jewel of these interviews was Ebert’s legendary visit with a drunken Lee Marvin, who, in a publicist’s nightmare, managed to be abusive, offensive, funny, and disturbing. The Marvin interview was published in Esquire and remains one of the most celebrated pieces in that magazine’s history.
All of this writing appeared long before my time, but I spent much of my college years catching up. That generation of film critics became my unofficial professors. If you needed me in those days, you could usually find me sprawled on the dusty concrete floor in the basement of the university library. That’s where they kept the hardback archives of popular magazines—a year’s worth of issues bound together between the dullest green and blue covers you’ve ever seen. Most of these archives were alphabetized, so I usually camped out near the “N” section where I could prowl through The New Republic, The National Review, and The New Yorker for Stanley Kauffmann, John Simon, and Pauline Kael.
The three couldn’t be more different. Kauffmann was intelligent, reasonable, and measured, but I usually paid more attention to Simon and Kael. Simon was pompous, pretentious, and mean—despicable in so many ways—but he took the medium of film very seriously. Kael was the antithesis. While they both wrote brilliantly, she had eccentric tastes and was unashamedly personal in her reviews.
In fact, she reveled in her subjectivity. It was the central ingredient in her intuitive approach to criticism. In Life Itself, Roger Ebert remembers the way that Esquire’s Dwight Macdonald kept shortening his list of what he thought was essential to a good movie: “Finally [Macdonald] did what Pauline Kael once told me she did: ‘I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.’”
Because of that approach, Kael quickly became my favorite. Part of what I loved about her writing was that she wasn’t particularly intellectual or ideological about it. The more ideological critics, like Andrew Sarris, just seemed too predictable. The real subject of an ideological critic’s review isn’t the work of art—it’s the ideology. And if someone thinks they’ve defined what makes a good film, they’ve effectively limited their own ability to appreciate creative work. Movies will either meet their pre-prescribed definitions or come up short, so they find themselves spending most of their time defining and refining their theory.
As for me, I’d rather watch and think about movies.