Reviewing the history of Ebert

By David Combest

April 17, 2013

It is late at night. Outside the rain is hammering against my window and I am in front of the soft blue hush of my laptop screen, looking up videos of a T.V. show I used to watch in the 90’s. The name of the show is “The Critic”, which follows a short, plump and hilarious film critic named Jay Sherman (played by Jon Lovitz). To my excitement YouTube has every episode, including the pilot!  To my surprise and excitement, one of the first episodes to come up guest-starred Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.

Roger Ebert, the man who could make or break a film with his signature thumbs-up, thumbs-down. He needs no introduction.  His fame was and is a juggernaut that will always have its imprint on the film-criticism industry. Because of his impressive presence even after his death, I felt like Ebert was haunting me, eerily enough because I was assigned to write an article on some of his most thoughtful reviews and some of my personal favorites.  So, now you may be wondering: Is this reporter going to review a master reviewer? Yes, Yes I am.

How could I review someone who is so well respected, so honored, so dedicated. This dedication to film criticism is evident when Ebert incorporated his voice into his personal computer speech program so he could continue to communicate his reviews to the film critic community and audiences. I decided to choose a few reviews of my favorite movies, I was happy to see Ebert and I saw eye-to-eye on these films in the same range of their art, but we took different approaches when reviewing them.

The first film is by Jim Jarmusch entitled “Coffee and Cigarettes.” Jarmusch is often seen as a minimalist filmmaker. His films seem to be more character based than plot based, this is expressed very well in “Coffee and Cigarettes.” I was attracted to this film because I am a huge Tom Waits fan; to my joy not only did I love the Tom Waits vignette, but the entire film! The film follows a series of people having strange conversations over coffee while smoking cigarettes.

What this film does masterfully is draw the viewer into the film-noir aspect, achieved by the white and black filter and manipulations of shadows that keep you hanging on every word that is spoken. By the time the vignette ends and it’s on to the next scene, you feel as if you’ve had a wonderful conversation. Ebert enjoyed this film as well and he found it to be somewhat close to the reality of your average coffee break, commenting that it would be strange conversations you’d overhear at a Starbucks. Ebert sees the film as something that shows human nature in compacted form. I can see this; I think that it does show the wide range of topics people discuss in day-to-day life.

The second film I looked up was “Dark City,” a neo-noir science fiction film. This film follows a man who wakes up without his memory and is accused of murder. This city is filled with shadows because the sun never comes up, the man uses those shadows to hide from the police and discover who The Strangers are, the sense of government that runs the city naturalistically, like a maze.  Ebert and I both enjoy the film and I agree with his applause for the visual aspect of the film. “Dark City” has powerful scenes that create a world of sinister intent and yet, beauty. Ebert brings up a strange theme stating, The movie is a glorious marriage of existential dread and slam-bang action.” I personally saw the film as a message of hope, a rally for society to change the norms, in short the complete opposite of existentialism. Still, I am happy that Ebert saw the importance of visuals in this film.

The final film is “My Dinner with Andre.” It follows playwright Wallace Shawn and famous theatre director Andre Gregory as they break bread and discuss a whole range of philosophical topics and viewpoints. Ebert and I agree that this film is devoid of clichés. We both realize that this film is odd, yet charming and very engaging. The secret to this film, in my opinion, is that you lose yourself in the conversation. Ebert and I both agree that Wally takes a more realistic approach where Andre is more concerned with transcendent ideas and philosophies.

Roger Ebert and I do not see eye-to-eye on many films, even the ones we both like, we take different viewpoints on the films, but I respect his style. He knew the context of a film. Often, Ebert would review films compared to their genre i.e. “Hellboy” compared to “The Punisher.” I respect this approach; he knew that films in the same genre where produced in different ways. He appealed to many moviegoers and had something to say on every genre. It was clear he loved cinema and had an eye for it. And now that Ebert’s gone, he’s enjoying one of his favorite films, “Citizen Kane,” with Gene Siskel somewhere out there.