In the summer of 1980, Roger Ebert stepped into Chicago’s now-defunct United Artists Theater for a matinee of a low-budget horror film called I Spit On Your Grave.
Ebert and his colleague Gene Siskel often attended exploitation movies for their PBS show Sneak Previews, where they would review a “Dog of the Week.” If he was looking for a movie that would arouse his ire, he certainly found it.
“A vile bag of garbage named I Spit on Your Grave is playing in Chicago theaters this week,” wrote Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. “It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it's playing in respectable theaters.”
I Spit On Your Grave is about a womanwho rents a cottage in the country to complete a book, only to be beaten, raped, and left for dead by four hicks. She survives, and spends the last act of the film killing her assailants one by one. “This movie is an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures,” wrote Ebert. “Because it is made artlessly, it flaunts its motives: There is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering.” Ebert was even more disturbed by the audience:
How did the audience react to all of this? Those who were vocal seemed to be eating it up. The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud. After the first rape: “That was a good one!” After the second: “That'll show her!” After the third: “I've seen some good ones, but this is the best.” When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: “Cut him up, sister!”
I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie's heroine. I wanted to ask If she'd been appalled by the movie's hour of rape scenes. As it was, at the film's end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.
By conservative estimate, Ebert reviewed at least 10,000 movies during a career that spanned from 1967 to 2013. Most of these films were graded on a scale of four stars to one-half star, but I Spit On Your Grave was awarded zero. His exhaustive website, RogerEbert.com, includes only sixty zero-star films (not counting films to which Ebert did not assign a rating, including Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and the first Human Centipede, and a handful of films that RogerEbert.com has misattributed the rating, including Murder at 1600, Erendira, and Lumiere). For Ebert, the zero-star grade was locked in a glass case, to be broken only in case of emergency. In his review of Death Wish II, he stated, “I award ‘no stars’ only to movies that are artistically inept and morally repugnant.” On his blog in 2008, he claimed to reserve the rating “for movies I feel in some way or another are a transgression against humanity, if that doesn't sound too lofty.”
Ebert was thirteen years into his career as a film critic when he saw I Spit On Your Grave, but evidently hadn’t yet learned what P.T. Barnum said about bad publicity. His newspaper columns and TV appearances slamming the film helped turn I Spit On Your Grave into a minor box office success with a long legacy (including a series of remakes and an upcoming sequel). His review has also coloured every piece of critical writing about the film ever since—most notably Carol Clover’s book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, which offered a feminist reappraisal of the film.
This is not to say that Ebert was wrong to condemn the film so harshly, but rather to point out what a zero-star review from him represented. Roger Ebert was the most famous and influential American film critic who ever lived. What does it mean when the most famous and widely read American film critic regards a movie as “artistically inept and morally repugnant”?
Before answering this question, maybe we should ask: what makes someone the most famous and influential American film critic who ever lived? Ebert was not necessarily fated for the job. He joined the Chicago Sun-Times as a reporter and feature writer in 1966 at age twenty-four. In 1967, he was told he would become the paper’s film critic—movies were a young person’s art, so the paper put its youngest reporter on the beat. “At the time I thought that five years would be enough time to spend on the movie beat,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir Life Itself. “My master plan was to become an op-ed columnist and then eventually, of course, a great and respected novelist.”
Ebert was acquainted with the classics through his campus film society, but by his own admission, he learned on the job. It helped that he landed the job during a particularly fruitful period of film history: in these early years, he reviewed Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Easy Rider, Blowup, The Graduate, Weekend, Faces, Who’s That Knocking On My Door, and The Battle of Algiers. He was one of the youngest major critics in the country, and on these revolutionary films he found himself on the right side of the generation gap.
In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. But it is safe to say that his fame exploded in the ‘80s thanks to his popular TV show with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. The show (originally titled Sneak Previews, then Siskel & Ebert when sold to syndication) offered the novelty of seeing two average-looking journalists having tetchy three-minute arguments over movies. Natural rivals, the two critics parlayed their anti-chemistry into lucrative media careers, doing regular Sunshine Boys shtick for Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Their “Two Thumbs Up!” verdicts became ubiquitous marketing tools.
Ebert’s preeminent position among critics is interesting when considering the range of writers whose careers his partially overlapped. There was Pauline Kael, known for her intoxicating prose (no one better described sensual experience of watching a movie) and merciless certainty (she claimed never to see a movie twice). Andrew Sarris brought the auteur theory to America, helping popularize the idea of the director as artist. Manny Farber found art in the highbrow and lowbrow, and scorned the middlebrow. Jonathan Rosenbaum alerts readers the ideological factors that determine a film’s distribution and reception. J. Hoberman explores how films reflect the eras and dominant ideologies from which they emerge. Armond White specializes in contrarian, often racially charged takes that seek to unmask the hidden prejudices of the critical community. John Simon was a proud snob and aesthetic conservative with a Platonic approach to film as art.
Why Ebert and not any of these writers? All of them are niche tastes; Ebert was the exact midpoint between a scholar and a hack. Most of them sought to alter our understanding of film; Ebert was more like cinema’s ambassador. Those “Two Thumbs Up!” verdicts were a little dunderheaded, but he also used Siskel & Ebert to highlight foreign and independent cinema. He ran an “Outguess Ebert” Oscar contest for the Chicago Sun-Times, but he also led shot-by-shot discussions of Citizen Kane at universities. He released book collections of his pithiest pans (I Hated Hated HATED This Movie and Your Movie Sucks), but his biweekly “Great Movies” column also offered smart, jargon-free analyses of the classics. For a generation of aspiring cinephiles, these “Great Movies” essays were a roadmap to the canon.
As a prose stylist, Pauline Kael wanted to dazzle the reader. Ebert was also a good writer, but his first-person reviews are plainspoken, digressive, proudly subjective, and unintimidating. Consider this passage from his review of the Jackie Chan vehicle The Tuxedo (2002):
I have been waiting for a dehydrating villain for some time. My wife is of the opinion that I do not drink enough water. She believes the proper amount is a minimum of eight glasses a day. She often regards me balefully and says, “You're not getting enough water.” In hot climates her concern escalates. In Hawaii last summer she had the grandchildren so worked up they ran into the bedroom every morning to see if Grandpa Roger had turned to dust.
Because of his fame, there was a sense that Ebert was the critic who “mattered”—the critic who, more than any other, was the bellwether of mainstream taste. He was also an arbiter: without Ebert’s advocacy, it is unlikely that Hoop Dreams or My Dinner With Andre would have found an audience, and his support was crucial to the careers of Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, and Ava DuVernay. In 1999, he launched his Overlooked Film Festival (renamed “Ebertfest”), still an annual event in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
There were inevitably movies where he veered from consensus, but he was not provocative or idiosyncratic by nature, and didn’t have an antagonistic relationship with Hollywood. For the most part, you didn’t go to Ebert for an against-the-grain take. He wrote for the Friday-night moviegoer, and tried to find the good in anything (sometimes a little too hard, as his three-star appraisals of the Garfield films can attest). His reviews sometimes strike an awkward note between personal essay and consumer report: he wanted to articulate his feelings about a movie while also predicting how the target audience might respond. He defended his approach in this amusing 1973 passage:
I sometimes find myself the advocate of what might be called a generic theory of film criticism. That's to say I think movies should be judged, in part, in terms of the expectations we have for them. A handful of movies rise above their genres: Bonnie and Clyde is no gangster film, for example, and Stagecoach is more than a Western. But most of the time, when we go to the movies, we go seeking more modest rewards: A decent spy picture, for example, or a passable musical. If you can accept this system of judgment, then The Devil in Miss Jones is maybe a three-star dirty movie.
If Ebert had a critical philosophy, it came in the form of a few maxims he quoted frequently. First, by Robert Warshow: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” And then, three Ebert originals: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it”; “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are the windows in its walls”; and, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.”
Maybe a third of Ebert’s zero-star reviews are for movies that are just plain bad. There is nothing particularly “morally repugnant” about Burn Hollywood Burn, Frozen Assets, Erik the Viking, North, Speed Zone, Jaws: The Revenge, or Mad Dog Time, unless you consider it morally repugnant to waste an audience’s time. These films have been mostly forgotten, and Ebert’s withering review of North (“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.”) is probably better-remembered than the movie itself. A few are movies that offended Ebert on political grounds, like John Wayne’s Vietnam puff piece The Green Berets and the death-penalty thriller The Life of David Gale. At least one zero-star review is inexplicable: Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. “As a movie,” writes Ebert, “this material, freely adapted by Stoppard, is boring and endless. It lies flat on the screen, hardly stirring.” (Fair enough, but… zero stars?)
Ebert was basically a liberal humanist, and this point-of-view is evident in many of the zero-star reviews. Writing about the Andrew Dice Clay concert film Dice Rules (1991), he enumerates Clay’s targets as “The handicapped. The ill. Minorities. Women. Homosexuals. Anyone, in fact, who is not exactly like Andrew Dice Clay is fair game for his cruel attacks.” Shot at the height of the Diceman’s popularity, the film captures two sold-out performances at Madison Square Garden, which triggers Ebert’s recurring concern about the audience. “Watching the way thousands of people in his audience could not think for themselves, could not find the courage to allow their ordinary feelings of decency and taste to prevail, I understood better how demagogues are possible.”
A lot of Ebert’s zero-star movies are the kinds of nihilistic horror films that often get a rise out of critics: The Human Centipede 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003 version), Wolf Creek, The Hitcher, and Chaos. Earlier in his career, he went overboard with offense (“Guyana—Cult of the Damned has crawled out from under a rock and into local theaters, and will do nicely as this week's example of the depths to which people will plunge in search of a dollar”). He went on a memorable tirade during his TV review of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984):
Just think of the message this film offers to its teenage audience: “The world is a totally evil place,” this movie says. “It’ll kill you. It doesn’t matter what your dreams and hopes and ambitions are. It doesn’t matter if you have a new boyfriend or a new girlfriend or you’ve got plans for the future—you can forget those plans ‘cause you’re going to wind up dead.” … I think the people who made this movie ought to be ashamed of themselves.
In some of the Siskel & Ebert shows from the ‘80s, the critics come across as self-styled public servants: they warned parents about the so-called “Video Nasties,” and shamed the makers of Silent Night, Deadly Night. Ebert was a lifelong Democrat who often used his platform to campaign against censorship, but it’s no surprise that these sorts of segments resonated in the Reagan and Thatcher years. John Carpenter took a swipe at him in They Live (1988), when two Siskel and Ebert-like critics are revealed as being among the film’s alien ruling class. (The Siskel alien says, “All the sex and violence on the screen has gone too far for me! I’m fed up with it! Filmmakers like George Romero and John Carpenter have to show some restraint!”).
Whatever these seeming contradictions, Ebert’s reviews do articulate a consistent worldview. He gave positive reviews to horror films that used violence in the service of humour and social commentary, notably Last House on the Left, Evil Dead 2, and The Devil’s Rejects (“A kind of heedless zeal transforms its horrors. The movie is not merely disgusting, but has an attitude and a subversive sense of humor”). Later in his career, Ebert took a more resigned—and, in my opinion, persuasive—tone in his zero-star reviews. Reviewing Chaos in 2005, he wrote, “The filmmakers want to cause disgust and hopelessness in the audience. Ugly emotions are easier to evoke and often more commercial than those that contribute to the ongoing lives of the beholders.”
It’s a tired old truism that the worst response to art is indifference. With that in mind, it’s interesting that among the films in Ebert’s zero-star canon are a subsection of movies that are actually pretty interesting. None of these are perfect, and some are even bad, but they deserve a more nuanced take than Ebert was able to provide. These are the reviews that show Ebert’s limitations.
Perhaps the best zero-star movie is Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), a media satire in the form of a violent exploitation film that anticipates the work of Paul Verhoeven. Ebert does not register the satiric elements, and spends most of his review reviewing the audience—according to Ebert, the R-rated film attracted mostly children. “I was torn between walking out immediately and staying to witness a spectacle more dismaying than anything on the screen: the way small children were digging gratuitous bloodshed.”
When it comes to his takedowns of two difficult artists—Andy Warhol and Jerry Lewis—your mileage may vary. You may agree that Warhol’s I, a Man (1967) is “an elaborate, deliberately boring joke,” or you may be transfixed by the rigorous gaze of Warhol’s camera on eccentrics like Nico and Ingrid Superstar. You may agree that Lewis’s Hardly Working (1980) is “one of the worst movies ever to achieve commercial release in this country” (as per Ebert), but you may be interested in how it continues Lewis’s preoccupation with the loser in an uncaring society. Comparing the film to Lewis’s earlier The Bellboy, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes that Hardly Working “is both looser and more tragic—not merely in depicting the vain efforts of an out-of-work circus clown to hold down a steady blue-collar job, but in showing the effects of aging and lessened stamina in its star.” In both cases, I think Ebert’s is the less interesting take.
The same can be said of his reviews two revisionist historical epics, Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and the notorious Caligula (1979). In the former, Ebert goes for brittle sarcasm: “It is about time that someone had the courage to tell it like it was about Loudon, a seemingly respectable provincial town beneath the facade of which seethed simmering intrigues, unholy alliances, greed, fear, lust, avarice, sacrilege, and nausea.” In the latter, he chooses outraged hyperbole: “Caligula is sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash,” he writes. “If it is not the worst film I have ever seen, that makes it all the more shameful: People with talent allowed themselves to participate in this travesty.” He continues his dismissal along moralist lines:
You have heard that this is a violent film. But who could have suspected how violent, and to what vile purpose, it really is? In this film, there are scenes depicting a man whose urinary tract is closed, and who has gallons of wine poured down his throat. His bursting stomach is punctured with a sword. There is a scene in which a man is emasculated, and his genitals thrown to dogs, who eagerly eat them on the screen. There are scenes of decapitation, evisceration, rape, bestiality, sadomasochism, necrophilia.
Caligula was and is a notoriously troubled production—and, frankly, a bad film. Originally titled Gore Vidal’s Caligula, the esteemed author removed his name from the film after conflicts with director Tinto Brass—and then Brass removed his own name after producer Bob Guccione locked him out of the editing room (and inserted hard-core pornography). Ebert asks, “What in the world could it mean that this film is ‘Adapted from an Original Screenplay by Gore Vidal’?” The film is an indigestible slog, but it’s not hard to place it within Vidal’s lifelong interest in subverting heteronormative sexuality and popular history.
Like many critics of his time, Ebert detested Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, the Italian filmmakers who specialized in lurid “shockumentaries.” Ebert gave zero stars to two of their films: Africa Addio (1966), about the end of colonial Africa, and Farewell Uncle Tom (1971), a mockumentary about American slavery. Ebert is rightly appalled by the filmmakers’ latent racism, and for their abhorrent ethical failings (he cites a rumour that an execution was delayed by twenty-four hours so the filmmakers could capture it for Africa Addio, and notes the degradations inflicted on the extras in Farewell Uncle Tom), but “zero stars” is too simple. Though its colonialist politics are difficult to accept, Africa Addio is also a stunningly vivid document of a continent in transition, and Farewell Uncle Tom remains the most realistic and uncompromising film about the horrors of slavery. Neither film is noble, but neither can be dismissed so easily.
Speaking of uncompromising films about slavery, we have Mandingo (1975). Ebert was a supporter of films that dealt with race in America—he ranked The Color Purple, Mississippi Burning, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Monster’s Ball, and Crash as the best films of their respective years—but Mandingo is a violent, sensationalistic movie that does nothing to comfort its audience. Ebert calls the film “none too subtly exploitative of the subject of interracial sexual intercourse,” and chides the theatre for selling tickets to children. In Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, the Marxist academic Robin Wood wrote persuasively of Mandingo as an intersectional work. “If Mandingo is the greatest Hollywood film about race, it is because it is also about sex and gender. … If we genuinely wish to end racism we must attack it at its sources, of which the irrational dread of miscegenation is perhaps the most fundamental.” For Wood, the film was a condemnation of a patriarchal capitalist system that turned women and black men into commodities.
But the most frustrating of his zero-star reviews is of the 1997 re-release of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972)—a rich, complicated object that Ebert is incapable of properly analysing. Ebert dismisses the film as a freak-show curio, writing, “Pink Flamingos appeals to that part of our psyches in which we are horny teenagers at the county fair with fresh dollar bills in our pockets, and a desire to see the geek show with a bunch of buddies, so that we can brag about it at school on Monday.” Ultimately, he dismisses the film as something its writer/director had grown out of:
John Waters is a charming man, whose later films, such as Polyester and Hairspray, take advantage of his bemused take on pop culture. His early films, made on infinitesimal budgets and starring his friends, used shock as a way to attract audiences, and that is understandable. He jump-started his career, and in the movie business, you do what you gotta do.
Ebert is not wrong to view the film as a canny piece of ballyhoo, but he doesn’t see why it resonated. Waters’ “filthiest people alive” could have only have emerged from the post-Altamont, post-Manson, Vietnam-tinted atmosphere of 1972. Its cavalcade of perversions must be considered in the context of a decade of movies like Mondo Cane, I Am Curious: Yellow, and Deep Throat, which pushed the boundaries of “obscenity.” Ebert is also blind to the radical queerness of Waters’ cinema: how the filmmaker creates worlds where everything that mainstream society regards as “ugly” becomes beautiful, and vice versa.
Ebert shows more imagination reviewing Freddy Got Fingered (2001)—his zero-star pan might actually count as one of the kinder reviews that Tom Green’s neo-Dadaist provocation received. Comparing the film to Un Chien Andalou and acknowledging its place “in the surrealist tradition,” Ebert writes, “The day may come when Freddy Got Fingered is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny.” A year later, in his (one-star) review of the Stealing Harvard, Ebert writes:
Seeing Tom Green reminded me, as how could it not, of his movie Freddy Got Fingered, which was so poorly received by the film critics that it received only one lonely, apologetic positive review on the Tomatometer. I gave it—let's see—zero stars. Bad movie, especially the scene where Green was whirling the newborn infant around his head by its umbilical cord. But the thing is, I remember "Freddy Got Fingered" more than a year later. I refer to it sometimes. It is a milestone. And for all its sins, it was at least an ambitious movie, a go-for-broke attempt to accomplish something. It failed, but it has not left me convinced that Tom Green doesn't have good work in him. Anyone with his nerve and total lack of taste is sooner or later going to make a movie worth seeing.
Ebert did not feel the need to stay faithful to his old positions. As times changed, so did he. “What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: Curious and teachable,” he wrote in a 2009blog. “If someone says the kung-fu movies of the 1970s, which I used for our old Dog of the Week segments, deserve serious consideration, I will listen.” Revisiting The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for a 2003 “Great Movies” essay, Ebert wrote, “Looking up my old review, I see I described a four-star movie but only gave it three stars, perhaps because it was a ‘spaghetti Western’ and so could not be art.”
The unusually deep bond that Ebert formed with his readership had a lot to do with passages like this. His reviews convey the humanity of the person writing them. That bond intensified in the last seven years of his life, after he underwent surgery for a cancerous tissue in his jaw in 2006. Shortly after the surgery, an artery burst, leading to the removal of part of his jaw and the loss of his ability to speak. Attempts to reconstruct his jaw failed, and Ebert remained speechless until his death in 2013. In these difficult years, he became more prolific than ever, expanding his online presence through his blog, Twitter account, and website, plus writing an autobiography and producing a TV show (Ebert Presents: At the Movies). He wrote regularly and candidly about his ailments, and allowed his final months to be chronicled in unsparing detail in Steve James’ documentary Life Itself (2014). He became a symbol of strength in the face of adversity: no one who glimpsed him shuffling between screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival could fail to be moved.
Ebert’s reviews were deeply subjective, but his position as America’s most famous film critic means he represented something bigger than himself. His perspective was that of an educated, middle-class, white, liberal American male, and his zero-star reviews are a reflection of what the average educated, middle-class, white, liberal American male was willing to accept at any given moment. Ebert’s forty-six-year body of work reads like an intellectual autobiography. There are few writers who I’ve spent more time reading than Roger Ebert. There are few culture writers who inspired more people to follow in his footsteps. I’m surprised by how seldom I’ve revisited him since his death.