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The Depredations of Roger Ebert

Welles shoots the battle mostly at eye level, with what often appear to be handheld cameras. Though set and costumed in the Middle Ages, most of it looks like newsreel footage, and while it is edited to appear to be chaos, it quickly becomes clear that it has been very carefully constructed in order to evoke a kaleidoscopic, subjective experience of battle. Watching it, one sees immediately what inspired the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, the opening fight in Gangs of New York, and even some of Peckinpah’s most famous set pieces. What it provides us, moreover, is a vision of the two faces of the origins of cinema. On the one side, a battle montage worthy of Eisenstein and Griffith; and on the other, in Welles’s intercuts of the plump Falstaff pratfalling his way out of danger, the physical comedy of Keaton and Chaplin. Welles’s genius in this scene, in other words, is to show us just how powerful cinema, at its proper extremes, can be, and always has been. In Ebert’s hands, however, it is merely a catalogue of badly described moments, given no meaning or context, and marked by such hideous deformations of grammar as “There was not something Falstaffian about Welles, there was everything.”

So long as we are on the subject of battle scenes, Ebert’s take on two films by the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa provides equally damning insights into the poverty of Ebert’s work. Describing the central battle scene of Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), a version of King Lear set in medieval Japan, Ebert informs us that Kurosawa “uses several static cameras to film the action, cutting between them; because his cameras don't dart and whirl, we are not encouraged to think of ourselves as participants but as gods, observing, taking the long view here and then a closeup look.” This is not wrong, per se, but it ignores, quite stupefyingly, the most important distancing element in the sequence, which is that it contains no live sound for half of its running time. Instead, the silent images of carnage unroll with nothing behind them but an extraordinary rumbling dirge written by the modernist composer Toru Takemitsu. The live sound then returns with the report of a gunshot, and the viewer is suddenly thrown headlong into the chaotic noise of war. The sequence, in effect, provides us with an object lesson in how cinema can manipulate our perceptions, keeping us at arm’s length and then suddenly pulling us in, forcing us simultaneously to reckon with our reactions to the violent images Kurosawa is presenting, and to question our distance from them, a distance that is inherent in cinema itself.

Equally egregious is Ebert’s inscrutable indifference to the final sequence in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), perhaps the director’s greatest accomplishment. The film tells the true story of a thief who is used by a samurai clan to impersonate their dead warlord, the charismatic Lord Shingen. “At the end,” Ebert writes, “the son of the real Lord Shingen orders his troops into a suicidal charge, and their deaths are not only unnecessary but meaningless, because they are not on behalf of the sacred person of the warlord.” This is essentially all he writes about what is quite simply one of the greatest moments in cinematic history. The clan faces off against its enemies, who are dug in across the plain and armed with muskets. One by one, Lord Shingen’s son orders his army’s divisions, each named after one of the elements from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, into battle. They charge into the field. Gunfire erupts. But Kurosawa denies us a shot of the battle itself. After the last division is exhausted, a terrifying kettle drum rumbles on to the soundtrack. And then we see it: A sea of corpses. Wounded men and horses trying to raise themselves, stumbling, and falling in slow motion. An apocalyptic vision of horror and death. Kurosawa sustains the scene for several minutes, an eternity of screen time, until it is almost unbearable to watch. He ends, finally, on the thief, who has witnessed everything and now stumbles, white-faced, toward the fallen standard of the clan. He has finally become Lord Shingen, but he is Shingen’s ghost, there to witness the decimation of his army and his dreams of a united Japan. Through the simplest cinematic tools -- nothing more than editing, picking and choosing what to show and when -- Kurosawa denies us the vicarious excitement that usually accompanies cinematic battle scenes and instead forces us to confront the full horror of man’s ability to destroy himself. It is a transcendent scene, perhaps the greatest Kurosawa ever shot, and Ebert has little more to say about it than a banal, moralistic aside that is not much more insightful than telling us that you cannot outrun an explosion.

To be fair, it should be noted that Ebert’s career has not been entirely without merit. He championed Scorsese before it was fashionable, and has taken the occasional unpopular stand, most notably on behalf of Sam Peckinpah’s demented classic Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) which occasioned one of Ebert’s few genuinely insightful remarks. “Courage usually feels good in the movies,” he writes, and he is right, “but it comes in many moods, and here it feels bad but necessary, giving us a hero who is heartbreakingly human -- a little man determined to accomplish his mission in memory of a woman he loved, and in truth to his own defiant code.” Somewhat maudlin, perhaps, but an admirable sentiment nonetheless, and worth being reminded of.

Such moments are few and far between in Ebert’s work, however, and perusing it, one is struck throughout by what can only be described as a persistent inability -- or perhaps refusal -- to actually think about what he is watching, and to provide his readers with something more than a mere reiteration of events and a handful of apparently arbitrary judgments. Ebert’s theory of cinema in effect amounts to little more than “I liked this, I didn’t like that.” Or, perhaps, “This happened, and I liked it. Then this happened, and I didn’t like it.” This is cataloguing, not criticism, and while it may lend itself to the fast-food style of movie reviewing that assigns stars and a thumbs up or down, it abdicates entirely the role and responsibility of the critic, which is to discern what the object of his criticism is, what it says about itself and its medium, and what it says, also, about we who are witnessing it and the society that created it. Ebert has made pale and stumbling attempts at one or two of these things, and they merely serve to throw his limitations into ever more devastating relief. When it comes to America and it’s often fraught relationship with what may be its greatest art form, Roger Ebert is heard everywhere; but, ironically and unfortunately, he has proved to have remarkably little to say.