Tuesday, October 12, 2004

"But One Day I Shall Be Thin..."

Following a series of health scares, Roger Ebert is indeed a lot thinner than once he was; But his recently-launched web presence—an expansion of his review archive at the Chicago Sun-Times site—is substantial indeed. With an archive of over five thousand reviews (dating back to 1967), the Little Movie Glossary, a ton of interviews and essays—all of it searchable, all of it beautifully designed—what was already an invaluable resource now approaches the status of national treasure.

If you only know Ebert from TV, as the portly gent in the V-neck sweater, setting up clips and poking his thumb up or down after a thirty-second scuffle with his current interlocutor, you'll be surprised by how, freed of the restrictions of the format, he lays out arguments and observations of genuine nuance. Read further and you'll be amazed by the broadness of his thought and the depths of his knowledge. His writing is lucid and graceful, and he's a dab hand with a one-liner. He never fell prey to the dense, superheated style of Pauline Kael and her legion of imitators and disciples. And while the role of serious film critic (as opposed to ad-blurb hack, a trend that Ebert, ironically, helped make possible) has shifted, post-Kael, to a sort of crypto-social-criticism—lots of asides about what Trends in Popular Entertainment say about the State of the Republic—Ebert has largely steered clear of the pundit trap, too.

His criticism finely balances the old and new schools; while he keenly understands the larger implications of the art he analyzes, his primary focus is always on the art itself—on what it is trying to do, and how well it succeeds. What impresses me, review after review, is his essential fair-mindedness; he's not measuring every film against some arbitrary benchmark—he's trying to divine each film's own terms, and to judge how well it succeeds on those terms. It's a fascinating process.

This is a guy who flat-out loves the movies. If you have any interest in the artform, you owe it to yourself to check out his work. Set aside some time and browse.

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