I miss Roger Ebert already

The "best known film critic in America" has died, aged 70.

I miss Roger Ebert already. His great achievement as a critic was to make discussing movies personal. He was a great anti-intellectual and a populist - in the best sense of the word - in that that he approached pop culture with a liberal spirit: hoping for the best, eviscerating the worst. Reading Ebert on film provided more than one generation with the confidence to talk about their experiences at the cinema, for work, or for fun. You didn't even need to speak, if you didnt want to. Everyone has thumbs after all.

Ebert began his career as a reporter and features writer, hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966. When he moved on to reviewing the following year, he took the narrative-driven fundamentals of beat reporting with him to the arts desk. He had a prodigious memory, a head full of stories. His memoir, Life Itself, published in 2011, allowed him to focus on the activity that had come to define his life, movie-going, and providing him with a unique way of understanding the life it produced: “I was born inside the movie of my life,” the book begins. “The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”

His accidental entry into criticism, regular appearances on television (on Sneak Previews and At the Movies), led to disgruntlement from thoroughly-schooled rivals who accused him of reducing the art of reviewer to a series of subjective gestures. But all criticism is, to some degree, subjective – is it not? Orwell testified to the idea that a writer simply likes a book or does not. The challenge comes in attempting to justify that emotion. Ebert did it daily, for over forty years.

Only three days ago Ebert announced on his blog that he was taking a “leave of presence”. In recent years, I have followed his thoughts on illness, religion, and the future of criticism, almost as regularly as his reviews (astonishingly, last year was Ebert’s most prolific – he reviewed 306 movies and wrote weekly blog posts). Despite having undergone a series of debilitating operations since his diagnosis with thyroid cancer in 2002, he planned to oversee a series of projects (including a new website, the annual Ebertfest and an upcoming documentary on his life), while reserving the right to “wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”

For many, Eberts “leave of presence” has become an almost palpable absence of presence: in print, online (despite his best intentions, Ebert became a prolific tweeter) and on television. President Barack Obama paid him tribute: “For a generation of Americans – especially Chicagoans – Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive.” 

At the last, he addressed his readers, to whom through writing about film he had become a sweet great-uncle, in the conspicuous glasses and over-sized jacket of a local oracle. His final blog post ended with an expression of gratitude: “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

The American critic in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser