Roger Ebert, the Screenwriter Turned Critic and Philosopher, Lives on in Us All
"You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance." -- Ronnie Barzell in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
That line of dialogue, by itself, would have been enough to get a flick one of film critic Roger Ebert's notorious thumbs down.
Ebert, who died of cancer on April 4, is as responsible for anyone for the democratization of film criticism. His 1980's TV series Sneak Previews and At The Movies with fellow Chicago newspaper film critic, Gene Siskel, simplified opinions to three words, two thumbs up, two thumbs down, or occasionally the six worded one thumb up one thumb down. You could give Ebert partial credit for making it look like the 140 characters you get on Twitter is more than sufficient space to criticize a film.
Of course that would ignore the majority of their show where Siskel and
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Ebert would discuss the merits and flaws of movies in a more thoughtful
and verbose manner. Their debates were famous for getting heated,
although Ebert never threatened to make Siskel drink the black sperm of
But that quote was relevant to Roger Ebert in that he actually wrote
it. Ebert in the 1970s had a run as a screenwriter for the
schlockmeister director Russ Meyer scribing Beyond the Valley of the
Dolls, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, Up!, and an un-produced
Who Killed Bambi? The latter was meant to star the Sex Pistols.
They were the
type of campy B movies, that as a critic, Ebert would savage, but they
clue us in on his true character. There is an argument to be made that
every decent critic is a failed artist. Ebert and every other critic
worth their salt showed contempt for every mediocre product pimped out,
because without a shadow of a doubt, they could have done it better. To
be halfway entertaining at critical analysis one needs that arrogance.
But the irony is that if Ebert had been a talented screenwriter, his
death would not be as noteworthy. One day before his passing, Ruth Prawer
Jhabva died. She won two Oscars for writing the screenplays for A Room
With A View and Howard's End, but you won't find many eulogies trying to
make sense of what her career meant. After all, who can relate to
someone who spends their days locked in a room typing away words? But a
man on TV, a social critic and philosopher of sorts, one who relates insights that resonate on everything imaginable through 140 characters and thoughtful journal entries, that's someone we can all connect
with. Because hell, I saw Olympus Has Fallen, and I'd give it two thumbs
In his later years, when cancer made a television career impossible for
someone in Ebert's condition, he continued watching movies and writing
about them. This was painted in his obituaries as proof of Ebert's deep
passion for the medium of film. But let us not forget the role played by
the black sperm of vengeance. For in every one of his reviews printed
in (black) ink lies the conceit that he knew how to do it
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