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The Depredations of Roger Ebert

Is it fair to say, as Armond White of the New York Press recently claimed, "that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism"? (Update: And don't miss Ed Driscoll on "Springtime for Ebert.")

by
Benjamin Kerstein

Bio

August 22, 2010 - 12:24 am

Indeed, Ebert’s own writings on Citizen Kane provide some valuable insight into just how pedantic and irrelevant Ebert’s observations can be. Orson Welles, as many know, did everything in his power to downplay the significance of the Rosebud twist at the end of his film, and Ebert may well be deferring to this when he notes that “it explains nothing.” A few sentences before, however, he expended a large number of words telling us everything it does explain: “Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which a man can spend his life seeking to regain. It is the green light at the end of Gatsby’s pier; the leopard atop Kilimanjaro, seeking nobody knows what; the bone tossed into the air in 2001. It is that yearning after transience that adults learn to suppress.” None of this awful pseudo-poetry amounts to much, and Ebert’s final missive that “it is remarkably satisfactory as a demonstration that nothing can be explained” is nearly incomprehensible, on a par with another of his insights, “A man always seems the same size to himself, because he does not stand where we stand to look at him.”

Ebert is, of course, partially correct in the most banal sense, in that Rosebud, as a simple plot point, is a symbol of lost innocence. But even the most challenged of viewers can realize this within a few seconds of the film’s final shot, and Ebert’s gibbering accomplishes little more than restating this at great length. And his one attempt at a deeper insight is quite simply wrong. The final images of Kane are clearly not a “yearning after transience,” but a lamentation on transience. There is never the slightest indication anywhere in Kane that transience is something to be desired, and the sense of a lost, lamented world is something that runs throughout all of Welles’s work, especially Kane’s immediate successor, the magnificent and mutilated The Magnificent Ambersons.

It is merely sad that Ebert cannot read his favorite film with any degree of accuracy. More problematic, however, is that the banality of his remarks robs his readers of any new insight into or appreciation for one of the most important and influential films ever made. Indeed, Ebert’s entire take on the film can essentially be summarized as follows: “Orson Welles made this movie when he was really young. It has very good photography. It’s all about trying to find out what Rosebud means. But in the end it doesn’t mean anything. Which is kind of a good thing.” This is a caricature, of course, but it is not much exaggerated, and it applies quite well to most of Ebert’s other writings on films both great and small.

To stay with Welles for a moment, Ebert provides a good example when he writes about the director’s last masterpiece, Chimes at Midnight (1965), a variation on Shakespeare’s Falstaff plays. “The scene of the battle of Shrewsbury is justly famous,” he writes. “It lasts fully 10 minutes, chaotic action at a brutal pitch, horses and men confused in smoke and fog, steel crashing against steel, cries of pain, desperate struggles, confused limbs caked in mud and blood, men falling exhausted or dead.” This is, again, accurate so far as it goes. It explains next to nothing, however, about what may be the greatest and certainly one of the most influential battle scenes ever filmed.

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