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 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 his vengeance. 

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 down.

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 better.

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