Roger Ebert: A Good Soldier of Cinema by Susan Doll

I lived in Chicago during the heyday of Roger Ebert’s career as a movie reviewer. I read his weekly reviews and Sunday essays in the Chicago Sun-Times, and I watched the various incarnations of Siskel and Ebert on television. Though I was a regular reader and viewer, he was never my favorite reviewer. As a matter of fact, I have always been ambivalent about his work, though I acknowledge his influence on the discipline of film reviewing, and I salute him as a champion of cinema.

My ambivalence comes from his approach to examining film, which is based mostly on personal taste. Coming from film studies, which involves a variety of structured methodologies for digging deeper into the meaning of movies, I don’t care for the idea of using personal taste as the dominant criteria for judging a film’s quality. As a young female with a modest income, I did not have the same experiences, interests or tastes as Ebert, a middle-aged male from a different economic class. I rarely agreed with his perspective, and there was little else in the reviews. Like many taste-based reviewers, he equated high drama with quality filmmaking and tended to dismiss genre movies, especially horror.

But, Roger Ebert was much more than a weekly movie reviewer; he was a good writer who wrote expressive essays, often based on unique interviews. He was a true cinephile who promoted unsung films that had been squeezed out by an increasingly unfair distribution system. Eventually, he parlayed that obsession into his Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign, Illinois, which fans have dubbed Ebertfest.

It is this Roger Ebert who is the author of Herzog by Ebert, a collection of writings about the work and career of Werner Herzog. Ebert greatly admired Herzog, whom he met in 1968 at the New York Film Festival. Both were 26 years old at the time and about to participate in the most original era of filmmaking in cinema history—the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Herzog would be behind the camera as a filmmaker while Ebert was in front of the screen as a critic. They sustained a personal relationship until Ebert died at age 70 in 2013. Herzog dedicated his documentary ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (’07) to Ebert, whom the great director called “the Good Soldier of Cinema,” because he “plowed on until there was no breath in him.” Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, which began a roller-coaster of relapses and complications from various surgeries. His health struggles left him unable to speak and without part of his jawbone. Yet, he continued to write and to manage his Overlooked Film Festival. His last review was written within hours of his death, so Herzog’s statement was no exaggeration. Herzog wrote the introduction to Herzog by Ebert, which is an honest assessment of their relationship. He doesn’t romanticize or exaggerate it, so when he ends with the acknowledgement that his life was better for knowing Ebert, you know he means it.

The best way to enjoy this book is to read it in conjunction with the Herzog films available on FilmStruck. Six of Herzog’s earlier films are available, including AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (’72) and FITZCARRALDO (’82), as well as two documentaries about him, WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE (’80) and BURDEN OF DREAMS (’82). The films represent his work from the first half of his career; the latest is MY BEST FIEND (’99), Herzog’s documentary about his relationship with the eccentric, volatile actor Klaus Kinski.

You can sense Ebert’s respect for Herzog’s approach to directing in which each film represented an adventure to be taken, often to a far-off corner of the world. Herzog has shot in the jungles of South America, the sands of the Sahara Desert, the frozen glaciers of Antarctica, even on the slope of an active volcano. Herzog’s mad idea to drag a steamship over a hill in the jungles of South America for FITZCARRALDO, like the title character does in the film, was mentioned by Ebert on more than one occasion over the years. Though Ebert calls FITZCARRALDO meandering and “formless at times,” his admiration for Herzog’s audacity overrides his opinion of the film, noting it is “a movie in the great tradition of grandiose cinematic visions.”

In an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, where FITZCARRALDO premiered, Ebert questioned Herzog about the necessity of dragging the ship over the hill. The director answered in larger-than-life statements, claiming the scene with the boat allows audiences to trust their eyes again after years of Hollywood’s trick photography and unreal special effects. His boat is real, he declared, which “gives you courage for your own dreams.” Ebert poked at the director a bit: “Did you wonder if it was all just a little ludicrous?” But Herzog, who thought in grander terms, remained elusive, and the interview ended on that note. Their exchange is a perfect example of Ebert’s unique interviews, which are actually closer to essays, because his questions are embedded, almost hidden within conversation and observation. In his interviews, he revealed the essence of his subjects, foregoing the trivial factoids or cutesy anecdotes of most celebrity interviews.

Ebert offered noteworthy critical observations and interpretations of Herzog’s work, and those observations were often evocative and expressive. Herzog’s relationship to the settings of his films is profound; the setting or locations are as much a subject or character as the human participants. Ebert liked to say that Herzog “believed in the voodoo of locations,” which was a great phrase that he borrowed from the director himself. But, it was Ebert’s clarification of the phrase that made it understandable. In his review of WHERE THE GREEN ANTS DREAM (’84), he explained that the director “believed in the possibility that if he shoots a movie in the right place at the right time, the reality of the location itself will seep into the film and make it more real.”

After Herzog dedicated ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD to him, Ebert penned a letter to the director. The letter expressed his deep appreciation for the honor, but just as his interviews were more than just interviews, this was more than just a letter. It became a summary of his thoughts and observations on his films over the years as well as a mini-analysis of Herzog as director. In the last paragraph, he states, “You ennoble the cinema when so many debase it.” It is one of those statements that seems so simple on the surface but has many layers: It reveals Ebert’s great passion for film; it extolls Herzog’s artistry; and, it reminds us that the great era of cinema they experienced together is long gone.