The Pencil Today:

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“I begin to feel like most Americans don’t understand the First Amendment, don’t understand the idea of freedom of speech, and don’t understand that it’s the responsibility of the citizen to speak out.” — Roger Ebert



I’m worried:

Ebert FB Post

Roger Ebert has battled various cancers for years now. He lost his jaw and has been unable to speak, eat, or drink since 2006. He nearly died that year when his carotid artery burst due to neutron beam treatment for his cancer. He communicates with an innovative technology that uses actual recordings of his voice from the past. He types in the words he wants a machine to say and then the machine plays the appropriate tracks.

Ebert made his bones as the film reviewer of the Chicago Sun-Times. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Tom Van Riper of Forbes magazine ranked him America’s “top pundit” in 1997, ahead of such luminaries as Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher. Ebert even worked with Russ Meyer to write the screenplay for the 1970 sexploitation flick, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”; no one could say he had no right to criticize movies since he’d never made one.

Neither an academic bloviator like Vincent Canby nor a patron of the lowest-common-denominator like Michael Medved, Ebert could occasionally make or break big budget movies based on the direction — up or down — his thumb pointed.

Ebert & Siskel

Ebert And His Long-time “At The Movies” Partner, Gene Siskel

But just as often, the ticket-buying public ignored his recommendations. He loathed “Dirty Harry,” calling it “fascist,” but people still flocked to see it. His list of movies he absolutely hated includes:

  • “Joe Dirt”
  • “Spice World” (“The Spice Girls are easier to tell apart than the Mutant Ninja Turtles but that is small consolation: What can you say about five women whose principal distinguishing characteristic is that they have different names?”)
  • “The Dukes of Hazzard”
  • “Tommy Boy”
  • “Freddy Got Fingered” (“This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”)
  • “Catwoman”
  • “Armageddon”
  • “Ballistic” Ecks vs. Sever”
  • “Battlefield Earth” (“The Psychlos can fly between galaxies, but look at their nails: Their civilization has mastered the hyperdrive but not the manicure.”)
  • “Flashdance”
  • “The Green Berets”
  • “The Usual Suspects”
  • “North” (“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”)

If you’re in the mood for positives, here’s Ebert’s latest list of the best movies ever made:

  • “Agguire, Wrath of God” — Werner Herzog
  • “Apocalypse Now” — Francis Ford Coppola
  • “Citizen Kane” — Orson Welles
  • “La Dolce Vita” — Frederico Fellini
  • “The General” — Buster Keaton
  • “Raging Bull” — Martin Scorsese
  • “2001: A Space Odyssey” — Stanley Kubrick
  • “Tokyo Story” –Yasujirō Ozu
  • “Tree of Life” — Terrence Malick
  • “Vertigo” — Alfred Hitchcock

It’s a good bet that Ebert doesn’t have much time left in this mixed-up movie theater we call life. He’s been writing about this mad, mad, mad, mad world these days in addition to keeping up with Hollywood (before his health took its current turn for the worse). He’s become a philosopher and a voice of sanity.

He felt compelled to post something in his blog about Sandy Hook last Saturday. He explained that nothing he could write would suffice (plus, apparently, he was in too much pain to do it) so he ran a excerpt from a review he did on Gus Van Sant’s movie, “Elephant,” inspired by the Columbine shootings. Here it is:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

If this sounds like a pre-death obit, so it is. It seems all my local boyhood writing idols have checked out, or in the case of Ebert, are in the process thereof.

Mike Royko’s gone. Irv Kupcinet’s gone. Studs Terkel’s gone. Soon, Ebert will be gone. If I try to do anything in this blog, it’s to mash the styles and sensibilities of all those fellows together — along with my own — and hope that what results is a mere tenth as good as what any of them could do.

I can only try.

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