In 2010, at the age of 67, Roger Ebert reviewed The Human Centipede (First Sequence) — a horror flick that seems to exist primarily to make viewers vomit. As a professional movie critic for more than four decades, Ebert could have been forgiven for skipping it altogether. Curt dismissal was another perfectly reasonable option.
A charitable senior-citizen writer might have picked the movie apart on moral, narrative, or aesthetic grounds, or used it as a launching point for a screed against the depravity of contemporary culture or the torture-porn genre.
But Ebert turned in a no-star-rating review that begins with an earnest rumination on the path to mortality: “It’s not death itself that’s so bad. It’s what you might have to go through to get there.” And he says that within the writer/director, Tom Six, “there stirs the soul of a dark artist.”
Ebert was interested in the movie, curious about its method and meaning. Ultimately, he didn’t interpret or judge it — “It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine” — but it’s clear he thought this film that most people would find inherently repulsive or worthless deserved consideration.
And then there’s his marginally positive 1981 review of Tarzan, the Ape Man, in which Ebert is nakedly smitten with Bo Derek: “The Tarzan-Jane scenes strike a blow for noble savages, for innocent lust, for animal magnetism, and, indeed, for softcore porn, which is ever so much sexier than the hardcore variety. If you do not agree with me, you will probably think Bo’s banana scene is ridiculous. I prefer to think it was inevitable.”
I’m starting with these admittedly odd examples to remember Roger Ebert — who died on April 4 at age 70 — because I think they’re true. They reveal the man and the critic in a way that gets past the vagueness and overreaching of many obituaries and appreciations of him.