Roger’s little rule book | Roger Ebert’s Journal
This piece was originally published on October 28, 2008 and is being republished for Roger’s birthday.
We critics can’t be too careful. Employers are eager to replace us with Celeb Info-Nuggets that will pimp to the mouth-breathers, who underline the words with their index fingers whilst they watch television. Any editor who thinks drugged insta-stars and the tragic Amy Winehouse are headline news ought to be editing the graffiti on playground walls. As the senior newspaper guy still hanging onto a job, I think the task of outlining enduring ethical ground rules falls upon me.
Advise the readers well. This does not involve informing them, “You’ll love this!” If I approached some guy in a restaurant and told him what he would love, I might get a breadbasket in the face. No, we must tell the readers what we ourselves love or hate. If we work for employers who think we should “like more movies like ordinary people like,” we should make a donation in his name to the Anti-Cruelty Society.
Provide a sense of the experience. No matter what your opinion, every review should give some idea of what the reader would experience in actually seeing the film. In other words, if it is a Pauly Shore comedy, there are people who like them, and they should be able to discover in your review if the new one is down to their usual standard.
Carefully clip the Rules and fasten them to your refrigerator with a Homer magnet looking like this:
Keep track of your praise. If you call a movie “one of the greatest movies ever made,” you are honor-bound to include it in your annual Top Ten list. Likewise, for example, if you describe a film as “the most unique movie-going experience of a generation,” and “one of the best films of 2007, and of the last 25 years,” it’s your duty to put it in the Top Ten of 2007. This is doubly true if you have published two separate lists naming 14 of the year’s top 10 films.
Do the math. If one week you state, “Mr. Untouchable” makes “American Gangster” look like a fairy tale,” and the next week you say, “American Gangster” was “Goodfellas” for “the next generation,” then you must conclude that “Mr. Untouchable” is better than “Goodfellas.”
Do not make challenges you are cannot to back up. For example, never say in your “Hamlet 2” review, “I challenge anyone who goes to see the movie not to sing the words to ‘Rock Me, Sexy Jesus’ for years to come.” When Gene Siskel predicted that “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King” would become a national catch-phrase, he later gracefully acknowledged he was wrong, after only a little prodding from me. [Note: A reader informs me that Gene was right. I believe the jury is still out on “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.”]
Respect the reader’s time. For example, in reviewing “City of Ember,” a film about a city of the future buried deep beneath the surface of the earth,” you must not say it “looks like it was shot on a sound stage.” As Louis Armstrong said about jazz, some folks they know, and the others, you can’t tell ’em.
Respect the reader’s money. It is admirable that the DVD of “Cool Hand Luke” contains an extra where they guess how many eggs Paul Newman ate while filming the egg-eating scene. But in hard times like these, do not say, “Reason enough to get it!”
Beware of verbal parallelism. Never make a statement such as, “I like women in real life, but I didn’t like ‘The Women‘.” Readers may write you sharing that they loved “JFK,” but they fly out of O’Hare.
Beware of category confusion. If you for example say, “When I was growing up my role models were Spike Lee and Woody Allen, but the kids in ‘Role Models‘ are forced to seek guidance from Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott,” you run the risk of seeming unable to distinguish directors from actors.
Trailers. Have nothing to do with them. Gene Siskel hated them so much he would stand outside a theater until they were over. If he was already seated in the middle of a crowded theater, he would
shout “fire!”plug his ears and stare at the floor. Trailers love to spoil all the best gags in a comedy, hint at plot twists in a thriller, and make every film, however dire, look upbeat..
Above: Me on my birthday, not posing with Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann.
A trailer is not a movie. Thus, when urged to select your “picks of the week,” you must never pick a trailer for an upcoming film. You must actually wait to see the film itself. [Footnote: This rule also applies to television, where as a movie critic you must never show a film’s entire trailer for free. As Shakespeare writes in the saddest line in all of his plays: Never! Never! Never! Never! Never! At least that’s an easy line to memorize.
Be wary of freebies. The critic should ideally never accept round-trip first-class air transportation, a luxury hotel room, a limo to a screening and a buffet of chilled shrimp and cute little hamburgers in preparation for viewing a movie. If you go, your employer should pay for the trip. I understand some critics work for places that won’t even pick up the cost of a movie ticket, and are so underpaid they have never tasted a chilled shrimp. Others work for themselves, an employer who is always going out of business. Yet they are ordered to produce a piece about Michael Cera‘s new film. I cut them some slack. Let them take the junket. They need the food. Also, I admire Michael Cera. But if they work for a place that is filthy rich, they should turn down freebies.
I admit the Freebie Rule was a hard one for me to acknowledge. In the good old days, movie critics flew more than pilots. I flew first class to Sweden, Ireland, Hawaii, Mexico, Bermuda, Iran, Colombia, Italy, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. I was virtually on the Los Angeles shuttle. I flew to England in November for the filming of “Battle of Britain,” and was whisked at dawn to a rainy WWII air field near Newmarket where I was able to stand for hours and freeze my ass off while watching the filming of a scene involving a dog gazing wistfully into the sky for its master’s missing airplane. If someone had given me a chilled shrimp, I would have rubbed it between my hands to warm them.
Accept no favors. For example, if some “friends” throw you a birthday party at a Vegas joint they hope to fill with movie stars who are your “friends,” say thanks, but no thanks. That crosses the line, even if the “Britney Spears of Korea” truly is your close personal friend. Your only real friends come to the party you throw for yourself in the activities room of your condo building, and they bring their own booze. [Note: If the Britney Spears of Korea is the real thing, Britney Spears should be known in Korea as the BoA Kwan of America.]
No commercial endorsements. This used to be a given in journalism ethics. A critic must be especially vigilant. If you express approval of a product, you must sincerely believe what you are saying. How will we know you’re sincere? Because you have (1) accepted no money, (2) or donated the money to a charity, and (3) have not accepted a free example of the product, except in such cases as foodstuffs, where the difficulties are apparent. You gotta eat ’em to review ’em. The Sun-Times has a policy: All Christmas gifts must be returned, except for perishables like papayas, etc. Candy is not a perishable. Neither, to the incredulity of many reporters, is liquor. Back to endorsements. Were I to recommend, say, a rice cooker, that must not imply I obtained it for free, or that 100 lb. sacks of rice were being dropped at my door. I mention this because I may be compelled to recommend a rice cooker in the very near future, in defense of my Who’s Who entry, which claims I can cook almost anything in a rice cooker.
Be prudent with free DVDs. Of course movie critics get tons of free DVDs, just as book critics get books, etc. You may review those you want, even going so far as to pay for those you don’t get for free. Recently I ordered the complete Werner Herzog documentaries from Germany, for example. Herzog would no doubt have been happy to supply them, but I would have felt like a creep for asking. If I admire him so much, I should be willing to buy them. Your unwanted DVDs must never be sold, unless you are a starving critic, in which case you are exempted under the La Boheme amendment. Technically, you should put a scissors to them before discarding, but I don’t think the FBI will come after me if I give some to our grandchildren, or donate them to a veteran’s hospital.
No advertisements. Gene Siskel, who I frequently quote as a fierce paragon of high standards, used to quote what someone, maybe it was David Mamet, told him: “As a critic, everything you say depends on your credibility. When you sell that, somebody else owns it.” Gene and I (regretfully) turned down offers in the extremely low seven figures from a fast food chain and an airline. “After we retire, then it would be okay,” we speculated. Even then, maybe not. Look at Fred Astaire. How many people thought they were paying him for their dance lessons? They look at “Swing Time” on TCM, and say, “There’s that bastard who overcharged me for the mambo.”
Be prepared to give a negative review. If you give one to the work of a friend, and they’re not your friend any more, they weren’t ever your friend. As Robert Altman once told me, “If you never gave me a bad review, what would a good review mean?” He was a great man. He thought over what he had said, and added: “But all your bad reviews of my films have been wrong.”
> Never review a film you have anything to do with. No, not even if you have a bit part or a walk-on. You were not chosen for your unique skills at bit parts and walk-ons. Why were you chosen? Figure it out. Full disclosure: I once dreamed that after I retired I would be in big demand for speaking roles. But wouldn’t you just know? I lost my voice. Life has a way of keeping you honest.
Left: The delighted Clint Eastwood.
No posing for photos! Never ask a movie star to pose with you for a picture. No movie star ever wants to do this. They may smile, but they’re gritting their teeth. “It is the Chinese Water Torture,” Clint Eastwood told me. “And 99 times out of a hundred, the stranger they hand their camera to looks through the lens, pushes the button, and says ‘It isn’t working!’ and then the fan has to walk over to the guy and demonstrate the camera and say, ‘now try it’. And then it isn’t working again. Looking at someone looking puzzled at a camera, that’s the story of my life.”
In this connection, as Emily Dickinson observes:
How dreary to be somebody! How public, like a frog To tell your name the livelong day To an admiring bog
Remember, you are a professional. You are not a friend. You diminish yourself by asking for a snapshot. I so firmly believe this, I have a sad lack of movie star photos co-starring me. For example, the University of Chicago Press asked me if I had photos of myself with Martin Scorsese to help promote my new book Scorsese by Ebert. [Note: Plugging your own book is ethical.] I have been in Scorsese’s company in Cannes, New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Toronto and Columbus, Ohio. But I had only one photo of us together, from the time when he was a guest co-host on “Siskel & Ebert.” That sort of situation is okay. By posing, I was just being nice to the guy. I couldn’t use the photo. We were both wearing TV makeup and looked like an exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s. I once visited a set of an Ingmar Bergman film, and Bergman and Liv Ullmann signed a photo to me when they heard it was my birthday, but I didn’t ask them to pose with me. Damn it.
On the other hand, treasure real photos of you really with a movie star. Photos taken at a real event by a real other person unknown to you who didn’t ask anyone if he could take it. My favorite such photo shows Jason Patric and me assisting Peter O’Toole as he makes his way from a reception at the Savannah Film Festival. I have appended this to the left as a sample of a permissible star photo. Such a photo can be distinguished from the other kind because they represent abstinence applied to star-f***ing.
No autographs! If for example, you are at a press event and interviewing a star, the stars are old hands at this and will think of you as a species of bottom-feeder if you ask them for an autograph. Your fellow professionals will try to pretend they are in another room, and gossip scornfully about you in the buffet line. It is bad enough they have to make a meal out of more of this god-damned shrimp without their being being associated with you. Either you are moronic enough to desire an autograph after having had the opportunity of speaking with the star in person, or you hope to sell it on eBay. It is doubly reprehensible if a star asks you for your name, and you reply, “Just your signature will be terrific!”
Sit down, shut up, and pay attention. No cellphone use. No texting during the movie. No talking out loud. No sucking up the last Coke out of the Kidney-Buster. It is permitted to laugh, or to scream when a movie scares the crap out of you. It’s okay to join in the general chuckle after the It’s only a cat! moment is over. There was a special amendment forgiving Pauline Kael for saying “Oh! Oh! Oh!” in astonishment. We eagerly awaited her “ohs!” and took care to note when she uttered them. It is acceptable, but rarely, to join in a general audience uproar, as at the first Cannes press screening of “The Brown Bunny.” Even then, no cupping your hand under your armpit and producing fart noises.