In the media-saturated era that we live in, it’s commonplace to form connections with people that we never actually really know. News anchors, bloggers, radio DJs, and reality TV stars have become so ubiquitous that they occupy a place in our lives. Most of the aforementioned are abundant in frivolity and, as such, it’s best to minimize the associations. But, in rare instances, the presence of these characters in our lives have great value. It is quite possible that, outside of my friends, family, and colleagues, no one person has had a more consistent presence in the past two decades of my life than Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert. As a dedicated cinephile, I’ve always enjoyed his virtual company. As someone who writes about film, I consider his influence to have been immeasurable. Ebert passed away yesterday, April 4th, after a nearly decade long battle with cancer. To the world of film criticism, his death brings a void that can perhaps never be filled.
Like many of us, I was introduced to Roger Ebert through the syndicated television show, Siskel & Ebert and The Movies. In my hometown, it was shown on our local ABC affiliate on Sunday mornings. Gene Siskel passed away in 1999 and was replaced by frat-boy-cum-film-critic Richard Roeper, who never came close to filling his predecessor’s shoes, but eventually grew on me nonetheless. When Ebert’s cancer forced him to depart from the show, Roeper carried on with a series of rotating guest critics until the show’s ultimate demise in late 2008. All the while, it remained required viewing for me. The show was never the only place for film criticism on television, but nowhere else was there ever such strong debates, cogent ideas, and bleeding passion about film. For many people in America, the standard Sunday ritual involves stained glass, kneeling, and prayer. Mine involved sitting with my dog, drinking coffee, and watching Siskel & Ebert. When more social engagements and the introduction of alcohol changed the structure of my weekends, I would still fight hangovers and exhaustion every Sunday morning in order to practice it.
Roger Ebert has also been a staple of my Friday mornings for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, his reviews would appear every Friday in the local Syracuse Post-Standard. They were a necessary compliment to toast and orange juice. As print declined, rogerebert.com became regular accompaniment for my Friday morning coffee. His writing was always thoughtful and often seemed ripe for thoughtful debate. Never did he devolve into obvious “thrill-a-minute rollercoaster” or “fun for the whole family” cliches. Nothing in a Roger Ebert review ever seemed to be begging for a pull quote.
As a child, I had developed my love of cinema through Star Wars and James Cameron. It was Roger Ebert that helped me explore a broader world. Through his writing, I discovered names like Ingmar Bergman, Buster Keaton, Vittorio De Sica, and Terrence Malick. At a time long before Netflix broadened our access to films, when all I could rely on was the selection at my local Video Factory, I kept a notebook filled with the titles of films that he’d mention in his writing, films that I had to one day seek out. At the age of thirty, I’m still working through it. When I was eighteen years old, I sat in my darkened dorm room with a pen and a notebook and listened to his DVD commentary to Alex Proyas’ Dark City, scribbling down any knowledge about film theory that I could glean from it. He was a mentor of sorts and, over a decade later, I’m still trying to learn from him.
There’s no question that he was the most well-recognized film critic in America. That reputation means that there will always be detractors that think his work was too simple, watered-down, or whatever erudite condescension is in vogue that week. But sometimes a craftsman achieves such fame simply because he’s that damn good. Conventional wisdom holds that any songwriter or musician over the last fifty years was somehow influenced by The Beatles. Today, if you write about film, in any capacity, you were influenced by Roger Ebert. Simply put, no single person has done more to place serious conversation about film into the public consciousness.
This was because he had a manner of writing, of speaking, that allowed him to take those conversations outside of the Village Voice crowd. A big-tent intellectual. He never talked down to his audience and he never dumbed down what he had to say. Instead, he transformed big ideas into everyday truths. They were put them forth in relatable human terms. Convention or formality were not his greatest concerns. He relied on his genuine emotional reaction to a film. He trusted his gut. As an art form, he found that cinema was closer to music than it was to literature, as it works more on our instincts and emotions. “Your intellect may be confused,” he wrote, “but your emotions will never lie to you.” Most importantly, he accepted movies on their own terms. The understated emotion of Tokyo Story, the postmodern deconstruction of Breathless, the special effects ingenuity of Tron; they all had value to Roger Ebert.
He was intensely passionate about film. Understanding the power of cinema, he couldn’t simply let a truly bad movie slide by, and the pointed wit that he used to cut them down was remarkable. His eviscerating review of Rob Reiner’s North, a film that he “hated hated hated hated hated” is nearly legendary. A 2003 war of words with Vincent Gallo over The Brown Bunny was a hilarious game of one-upsmanship. But, like so many of us, Ebert was at his best when he was in love. Somewhere I still have a VHS tape of an Siskel & Ebert special in which he and Martin Scorsese, another insatiably passionate cinephile, discuss their ten favorite films of the 1990s. I’ve watched it a number of times over the years and continuously found their enthusiasm thoroughly engaging. He takes such obvious joy in discussing the films that he loved and clearly understood the potential power that his recommendations could have. Just last month I wrote at length about Hoop Dreams, a brilliant documentary that Ebert considered to be the best film of that decade. He and Gene Siskel talked about their love of that film constantly during the year of its release and there’s no doubt that much of its eventual success is due to their tireless advocacy. Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, is currently working on a documentary of Ebert’s life; a documentary which now, sadly, has a definite endpoint.
As much as he loved film, he loved his own craft. He cared about criticism. He cared about writing. In the 21st century, when things like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have turned the entire concept of film criticism into a simple numbers game, Ebert never stopped engaging with film. To the end, his writing displayed as much insight, wit, and emotion as it ever had. In 2012, what was to be the last full year of his life, he wrote 306 movie reviews, in addition to a wealth of articles on film and other topics. In his final days, he posted on his blog that, while he planned to scale back the number of reviews he intended to write, he was planning to write about other topics, including his health, continue to organize his annual film festival, EbertFest, and organize a Kickstarter to bring At the Movies back on the air. At the very end of his life, film and film criticism remained his passion. Robbed of his voice, he was still never at a loss for words.
I wrote about rituals earlier and, as an admitted creature of habit (and obsessive-compulsive), there are a number of them that I associate with watching films. One has long been that, after I’ve watched a film, reflected upon it, and come to my conclusions, I’d look to what Roger Ebert had to say and compare notes. This weekend, I’ll have the opportunity to see Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, a film that I’ve been anticipating for some time. Regardless of the quality of the film, it will be a bittersweet moment. For the first time, I won’t be able to confer with my favorite film critic afterwards. Fridays may never be quite the same.
Written by John Price