Why Roger Ebert was a good writer

Before I tackle what made Roger Ebert a good writer, I’d like to tell  a story about why he was a good colleague and good person. It was 1978 and I was spending the year as a substitute film writer for the St. Petersburg Times.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were flying high with their tag-team television show, and I had the chance to interview them over the telephone.

Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A few months later, Ebert visited St. Pete to check in on the making of a disastrous Robert Altman movie called HEALTH, a political parody so lame that it was never released, in spite of a cast that included James Garner, Glenda Jackson, and Lauren Bacall.

I wrote more than two dozen stories and profiles about the making of the movie, and Ebert must have been paying attention because he recommended me to the Detroit Free Press for a job there.

Quite content in paradise, I never made it to Motown but I retained a warm spot in my heart for Ebert for identifying me back then as a writer with promise. That affection remained even after he savaged me on Twitter, but more on that later.

To honor his contribution to journalism, I am going to try to answer this question:  What made Ebert a good writer?  Notice I am not using the word “great” because good is good enough, especially if you’ve been good for more than forty years.

In looking for examples, I made a strategic decision.  Rather than look for his “best” or “prize-winning” work, I decided to examine the first three examples of his work I could find online.

Specifically, they are the first three reviews from the book Roger Ebert’s Four Star Reviews 1967 – 2007.  The movies appear in alphabetical order beginning with the 1986 film About Last Night. Here’s the lead:

If one of the pleasures of moviegoing is seeing strange new things on the screen, another pleasure, and probably a deeper one, is experiencing moments of recognition – times when we can say, yes, that’s exactly right, that’s exactly the way it would have happened.  About Last Night is a movie filled with moments like that.  It has an eye and an ear for the way we live now, and it has a heart, too, and a sense of humor.

According to traditional standards of newspaper writing, this lead should be a disaster.  It is 79 words long, most of them in that first rambling sentence.  It begins not with the news but with a subordinate clause.  There are no concrete nouns.  No strong active verbs.  Why, then, do I think it works so well?

In a word, it has voice.

On the page, voice is an illusion.  I cannot hear Ebert’s speaking voice, but in a way I can.  There is the illusion here that a smart person is speaking directly to me off the page.

Read that first sentence aloud.  Doesn’t it sound like someone thinking out loud at an intimate table in a crowded restaurant?

Any experienced writer can master the short snappy sentence.  It takes a good writer to master the long sentence, the one that takes the reader on a journey of discovery, the one that leads you to a special place you could not have imagined when you stepped on board the bus.

Here is Ebert’s lead on the 1988 movie The Accidental Tourist:

“Yes, that is my son,” the man says, identifying the body in the intensive care unit.  Grief threatens to break his face into pieces, and then something closes shut inside of him.  He has always had a very controlled nature, fearful of emotion and revelation, but now a true ice age begins, and after a year, his wife tells him she wants a divorce. It is because he cannot seem to feel anything.

I see more rule-breaking here.  Who begins a newspaper story with a bit of dialogue? And who begins a review of a film by immersing the reader in the narrative, that crucial scene Robert McKee describes as the “inciting incident” of a story?

If I had read this in the Chicago Sun Times instead of an anthology of four-star reviews, I would know immediately what Ebert thinks about the movie. It manages to be both discursive and immediate. He doesn’t tell us yet that it excels, but he shows us in his careful decanting of that powerful screen moment back onto the page.

Almost 20 years later he offered this lead for a review of Across the Universe (2007):

Here is a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical where we walk into the theater humming the songs. Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is an audacious marriage of cutting-edge visual techniques, heartwarming performances, 1960s history, and the Beatles songbook. Sounds like a concept that might be behind its time, but I believe in yesterday.

This may be Ebert at his best, reversing the cliché about walking out of the theater humming the music then giving that lead its own exquisite kicker, an homage to one of Paul McCartney’s most memorable and cherished lyrics.

As a dabbler in the craft of film criticism, I found it much harder to write a positive review of a really good movie than to hammer a lemon into greasy pulp.  The flaws of a truly bad movie are transparent.  A catalog of those flaws turns out to be pretty easy – and lots of fun for the writer and the reader.

What, on the other hand, makes a good movie work?  Ebert could take a stand on behalf of the reader — and deliver.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve to be rewarded with an example of how Ebert could slice up a bad movie. He preferred the scalpel to the scimitar. Here is his lead from the 2002 remake of Swept Away, starring Madonna, which appears in Ebert’s book Your Movie Sucks:

Swept Away is a deserted island movie during which I desperately wished the characters had chosen a movie to take along if they were stranded on a deserted island, and were showing it to us instead of this one.

That one delivers like an atomic bomb test on Bikini Atoll. (Sorry, Roger, I’ll do better next time.)

Which brings me to my own personal Thumbs Down from Mr. Ebert.  It arrived, via Twitter, after I wrote of my discomfort with guys of a certain age trying to look all hip and modern by using emoticons and acronyms in tweets and text messages.  To which he responded:

OK, he wasn’t just good, he was damn good.

More on Ebert: Neil Steinberg’s obituary in Ebert’s paper, the Chicago Sun-Times | The Wall Street Journal’s “social obituary” for Ebert | Ebert: “I do not fear death” (Salon) | Dan Zak on how Ebert taught him to write (The Washington Post) | Roger Ebert Hails Human Existence As ‘A Triumph’ (The Onion)

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