Thursday, April 4, 2013

Tribute: Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

There's no way I can let the passing of Roger Ebert go by without a word of regret and astonishment. Along with his Sneak Previews/At The Movies cohort Gene Siskel (who passed away in 1999), Mr. Ebert was honestly my main inspiration in becoming a commentator on films.  I began watching their weekly show sometime in 1978 or so, three years after it had migrated from their hometown of Chicago to PBS (and eventually syndicated) outlets all across the United States.  Then a 12-year-old kid with a voracious appetite for movies, I don't think I had ever considered writing and talking about them as some sort of career path.  With their wry rivalry, obvious passion, and singular charisma, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel changed all that for me; as a sometimes lonely teenage movie buff, each episode made me feel as if they were kindred fanatics talking to me exclusively, teaching me how to take in and discuss a particular film's merits.  Looking back at television history, it seems clear they really changed that medium's landscape.  Siskel and Ebert were the natural outgrowth of "Point/Counterpoint," the contentious 70s-era 60 Minutes debate segment with Shana Alexander and James Kirkpatrick, and were thus also the precursors of such argumentative shows as Crossfire and Politically Incorrect.  But, here, these talking heads--the bald one and the fat one--were not talking politics (not directly, anyway) but instead were debating my favorite subject, and doing so not lightly, but with such intelligence and deep concern over what profound effects movies have on our lives.

When Siskel passed--way too young--Ebert did not let that crumble his world.  Instead, he reveled in the snarky friendship he had with his newspaper rival (Gene wrote for the Chicago Tribune, Roger for the Chicago Sun-Times, where he won the first ever Pulitzer Prize for film reviewing).  Ebert mourned the loss of his friend openly, with great affection and, as always, impeccable honesty.  It was one of the first signs of utter grace from this journalist who, in the years hence, would impress us first with his prolific writing (in the last year of his life, Ebert clocked in a record 306 film reviews on his website, his embrace of the internet as a communication tool, his loving relationship with his steadfast wife Chaz, and finally with his open battle with cancer that cost him his speech and his lower jaw, but not his ability to reach out to his readers in such a way that, even beyond his film reviews, you really got the sense that you knew everything about the man, and from the man's own hand.

Ebert's approach to writing was always well-reasoned and breezy.   He was able to make even the normally boring parts of a review (the recounting of a film's story) into essential reading, in that he blended such necessities so seamlessly (and often hilariously, in the case of his glib negative reviews) with the recounting of his dynamic opinions.  Though his observations could occasionally be puzzling or infuriating, he was never too academic in style--he had an everyman kind of voice.  Even so, he was always able to engender thought about the greater meaning of a movie, about its effect on the culture, or on how we view movies in general.  In his later years, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and launched Ebertfest--a passion-driven annual celebration of both new and classic movies held yearly in Champaign, Illinois--while continuing to dominate bookshelves with scores of tomes examining both the great and the not-so-great films (plus he penned an autobiography, Life Itself, and even a cookbook--after he'd lost the ability to eat solid foods--called The Pot and How to Use It).  He was some sort of unlikely Superman.

And so now, after writing one classic film (Russ Meyer's 1970 cult epic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), and after revolutionizing film criticism, television, movie marketing ("Two Thumbs Up" changed film adverts forever), the internet, and even the concept of bravery itself, Mr. Ebert is gone and it just feels as if the projector lights in movie theaters should go dark as tribute.  But, of course, he would not have wanted that.  He was much too devoted to having people see all the great stuff, and to having them avoid those titles that deaden the soul.  He reminded us there is often something to like in even the most mundane of films, that sometimes there is reason to question even the most acclaimed ones, and that there are always both old and new masterpieces in the ether to be endlessly adored--movies that could literally change who you are and how you thought about the world.  In that way, he might be my most treasured influence.  I started my own blog, Filmicability, in 2007 with the high-minded intent of leading readers to only the best movies.  The proudest days in this blog's history was one during which I noticed my hit count had shot up in the neighborhood of 7000 hits.  After some investigation, I realized Roger--as he had surely done with countless other film bloggers--had generously tweeted about one article I had written.  Having worked in relative anonymity, I was astonished the man had taken the time to appreciate my efforts.  I never got to meet him, sadly, but that event really felt like he had reached out from his Chicago home and, through the computer screen, patted me encouragingly on the back.  I'll never forget Roger, or Gene.  I miss them both terribly, and the world will always be indebted to them for showing us film lovers--the professionals and the hobbyists--exactly how to celebrate the movies.

Here is a link to MOVIE GEEKS UNITED's fine appreciation of Mr. Ebert...

And here are only a very few of my favorite Siskel and Ebert TV moments:

Their review of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas:

A wonderfully negative review of Rob Reiner's North:

Their look at David Lynch's Blue Velvet, which Ebert was offended by:

A very memorable look at Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre, which really helped that movie's critical standing:

Siskel and Ebert go at it over Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket:

A rave of the Coen Brother's Fargo:

Another Rob Reiner film, This is Spinal Tap, is gushed over here:

Their slam of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls:

An entertaining compilation of negative reviews with Ebert, Siskel, and Siskel's TV replacement, Richard Roeper:

Finally, nothing says more about the Siskel/Ebert relationship than this collection of outtakes from some promo pieces they were doing for their show.  They could hurl nasty insults at each other, and then could be laughing and shaking hands soon after.  What a hardy and unique pair they were: 


Lisa said...

Smart people writing about film is endlessly entertaining and enlightening -- you, Ebert, Kael, everybody else in that league -- and what a contrast to the hacks and flacks. You knew when something got a thumbs up or down that there was much more than whim behind it.
I'm glad that you got to reach out through the internet to him.
A great tribute and reflection with great film clips, Dean.
I especially like those outtakes because it reminds me of great working relationships which are based on brains and hilarity and that you don't always want people around you who are JUST like you. You get inspiration from those who aren't just like you, but they do have to be able to spar with you intellectually, though. No fun in a sparring partner who can't defend himself. No problem with that with Siskel and Ebert!

Patricia Perry said...

These clips are so great, and bring back such great memories of watching AT THE MOVIES. I miss these guys - no one who teamed with Ebert on television after Siskel's death was ever as great a sparring partner.