Film critic Roger Ebert was famous for great insights. He was legendary for the way he expressed them.
Here are just three of the things I learned about writing from reading his magnetic reviews.
1. Give something of value to your readers
If Roger Ebert had been assigned to write about sports, politics, or travel instead of movies, his readers would be more discerning about sports, politics or travel.
I always felt that Ebert had our best interests at heart. He didn’t come off as someone who was just a very clever writer and smart about things. His ego didn’t seem to get in the way. And it never seemed like he was just cranking out another column.
He consistently remembered that people read movie reviews in order to make decisions about how to devote two hours of their lives and a piece of their budget. He wanted us to get a return on our investment.
This is evident in so many of his memorable quotes, such as this one on the movie Do the Right Thing:
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. [Chicago Sun-Times]
Roger Ebert made being reader-focused look effortless. In reality it takes hard work and diligence to be so kind.
2. Stay on earth
Among the things you could count on from a Roger Ebert movie review was that it would be sensible and not loaded down in intellectualism or grandiose language.
Consider his 1998 review of a classic movie on the occasion of its 60th anniversary:
Gone With the Wind presents a sentimental view of the Civil War, in which the “Old South” takes the place of Camelot and the war was fought not so much to defeat the Confederacy and free the slaves as to give Miss Scarlett O’Hara her comeuppance. But we’ve known that for years; the tainted nostalgia comes with the territory. Yet as “GWTW” approaches its 60th anniversary, it is still a towering landmark of film, quite simply because it tells a good story, and tells it wonderfully well.
Sometimes he had absolutely nothing good to say, but that was often when he was the most fun to read. Such as in this review of Mad Dog Time:
Mad Dog Time is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time…Watching Mad Dog Time is like waiting for the bus in a city where you’re not sure they have a bus line.
3. Be conversational
Several years ago, I was in the market for a rice cooker as a gift for my husband (the true cook in our family). Feeling uncertain about the utilitarian nature of such a gift, I thought adding a rice cooker cookbook would make it more thoughtful. That’s how Roger Ebert’s blog promoting his The Pot and How to Use It cookbook ended up in my bookmark folder called “great writing examples.”
His opening is smooth, funny and one of the best illustrations of effectively writing in first and second person around:
First, get the Pot. You need the simplest rice cooker made. It comes with two speeds: Cook, and Warm. Not expensive. Now you’re all set to cook meals for the rest of your life on two square feet of counter space, plus a chopping block. No, I am not putting you on the Rice Diet. Eat what you like. I am thinking of you, student in your dorm room. You, solitary writer, artist, musician, potter, plumber, builder, hermit. You, parents with kids. You, night watchman. You, obsessed computer programmer or weary web-worker. You, lovers who like to cook together but don’t want to put anything in the oven. You, in the witness protection program. You, nutritional wingnut. You, in a wheelchair.
And you, serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. You, person on a small budget who wants healthy food. You, shut-in. You, recovering campaign worker. You, movie critic at Sundance. You, sex worker waiting for the phone to ring. You, factory worker sick of frozen meals. You, people in Werner Herzog’s documentary about life at the South Pole. You, early riser skipping breakfast. You, teenager home alone. You, rabbi, pastor, priest, nun, waitress, community organizer, monk, nurse, starving actor, taxi driver, long-haul driver. Yes, you, reader of the second-best best-written blog on the internet.
After that, I didn’t much care whether the cookbook was really going to change our lives, I just wanted to keep reading that dialogue.
Roger Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013, but his writing lives on to entertain, inform and inspire.