15 Roger Ebert Passages That Epitomize His Writing

ca. 2005 --- Roger Ebert.
Roger Ebert Photo: Michael Lewis/Corbis

Roger Ebert’s passing yesterday marked the end of one of the most influential, entertaining, and versatile voices in American criticism. (Though, technically speaking, he has a couple more reviews coming up, according to his longtime collaborator, editor, and friend Jim Emerson.) In honor of Roger Ebert’s immense, diverse body of work, here are fifteen great quotes and passages from his writing — from pans to effusive praise to touching blog posts and even recipes. These aren’t necessarily his most definitive reviews or passages, and yet each one evokes exactly what he did so well in every bit of writing, no matter how banal, grand, or universal the subject. (And make sure to also read David Edelstein’s eloquent eulogy to Ebert.)

Do the Right Thing review, June 30, 1989
“Of course it is confused. Of course it wavers between middle-class values and street values. Of course it is not sure whether it believes in liberal pieties or militancy. Of course some of the characters are sympathetic and others are hateful. And of course some of the likable characters do bad things. Isn’t that the way it is in America today? Anyone who walks into this film expecting answers is a dreamer or a fool. But anyone who leaves the movie with more intolerance than they walked in with wasn’t paying attention.”

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen review, June 23, 2009
“‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.”

Revisiting Last Tango in Paris, August 11, 1995
“Watching Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘Last Tango in Paris’$2 23 years after it was first released is like revisiting the house where you used to live, and did wild things you don’t do anymore. Wandering through the empty rooms, which are smaller than you remember them, you recall a time when you felt the whole world was right there in your reach, and all you had to do was take it.”

The Next Best Thing review, March 3, 2000
“‘The Next Best Thing’ is a garage sale of gay issues, harnessed to a plot as exhausted as a junk man’s horse. There are times when the characters don’t know if they’re living their lives, or enacting edifying little dramas for an educational film. The screenplay’s so evenhanded it has no likable characters, either gay or straight; after seeing this film, I wanted to move to Garry Shandling’s world in ‘What Planet Are You From?,’ where nobody has sex.”

Tootsie review, December 17, 1982
“‘Tootsie”s central question: Can a 40-ish New York actor find health, happiness and romance as a 40-ish New York actress? Dustin Hoffman is actually fairly plausible as “Dorothy,” the actress. If his voice isn’t quite right, a Southern accent allows it to squeak by. The wig and the glasses are a little too much, true, but in an uncanny way the woman played by Hoffman looks like certain actual women who look like drag queens. Dorothy might have trouble passing in Evanston, but in Manhattan, nobody gives her a second look.”

Season of the Witch review, January 5, 2011
“You know I am a fan of Nic Cage and Ron Perlman (whose very existence made the ‘Hellboy’ movies possible). Here, like cows, they devour the scenery, regurgitate it to a second stomach found only in actors and chew it as cud. It is a noble effort, but I prefer them in their straight-through Human Centipede mode.”

Revisiting La Dolce Vita, January 5, 1997
“Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw ‘La Dolce Vita’ in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.”

All About Steve review, September 2, 2009
“An actress should never, ever, be asked to run beside a van in red disco boots for more than about half a block, and then only if her child is being kidnapped.”

Happy Gilmore review, February 16, 1996
“’Happy Gilmore’ tells the story of a violent sociopath. Since it’s a movie about golf, that makes it a comedy.”

From Questions for the Movie Answer Man
“Every time you hear The Doors, we attack Vietnam.”

From The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker
“Look for some unground flaxseed. Never mind why ‘unground.’ It’s good for you. Believe me, there’s a reason why you don’t want to grind your flaxseed and let it sit around. I’m cooking here, and I don’t have the time to go into endless details.”

From his remembrance of Gene Siskel in the Chicago Sun-Times, February 17, 2009
“We both thought of ourselves as full-service, one-stop film critics. We didn’t see why the other one was quite necessary. We had been linked in a Faustian television format that brought us success at the price of autonomy. No sooner had I expressed a verdict on a movie, my verdict, than here came Siskel with the arrogance to say I was wrong, or, for that matter, the condescension to agree with me. It really felt like that. It was not an act. When we disagreed, there was incredulity; when we agreed, there was a kind of relief. In the television biz, they talk about ‘chemistry.’ Not a thought was given to our chemistry. We just had it, because from the day the Chicago Tribune made Gene its film critic, we were professional enemies. We never had a single meaningful conversation before we started to work on our TV program. Alone together in an elevator, we would study the numbers changing above the door.”

The Tree of Life review, June 2, 2011
“I wrote earlier about the many ways this film evoked my own memories of such time and place. About wide lawns. About a town that somehow, in memory, is always seen with a wide-angle lens. About houses that are never locked. About mothers looking out windows to check on their children. About the summer heat and ennui of church services, and the unpredictable theater of the dinner table, and the troubling sounds of an argument between parents, half-heard through an open window … The parents are named Mr. O’Brien and Mrs. O’Brien. Yes. Because the parents of other kids were never thought of by their first names, and the first names of your own parents were words used only by others. Your parents were Mother and Father, and they defined your reality, and you were open to their emotions, both calming and alarming. And young Jack O’Brien is growing, and someday will become Mr. O’Brien, but will never seem to himself as real as his father did.”

From “Reflections After 25 Years at the Movies,” April 1992
“‘Get a life,’ they say. Sometimes I feel as if I have gotten everybody else’s. I have a colleague who describes his job as ‘covering the national dream beat,’ because if you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear in their deepest secrets. At least, the good ones will. That’s why we go: hoping to be touched in those secret places. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.”

From “Nil by Mouth,” a blog post about his not being able to eat or speak anymore, January 6, 2010
“The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments and shared memories I miss. Sentences beginning with the words, ‘Remember that time?’ I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to break out in a poetry recitation at any time. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why I enjoy this blog. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.”

15 Passages That Epitomize Ebert’s Writing