Yesterday I posted a review of the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. Today, I thought I would repost a (slightly modified) tribute I wrote (on a different blog) the day he died.
Roger Ebert 1942-2013
April 4, 2013
This is a very sad day for me. One of my heroes, Roger Ebert, passed away today. I consider him a personal hero because he was able to do two things I’ve always wanted to do: watch movies and discuss them in a way that is intelligent, informative, yet unpretentious. Ebert had a way of writing about movies – even movies you’d think you’d have no interest in watching – that made you want to trust him. Although I found myself agreeing with him less and less these past few years, I always respected his opinion, experience, and tremendous amount of knowledge.
I’ll never forget having seen the movie Magic (starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margaret) in 1978, when I was all of 16 years old, thinking it was absolutely sensational until I watched the episode of Sneak Previews in which Ebert tore the film apart. I watched Magic again and realized Ebert was right: it wasn’t a very good film and he could point to all the reasons why.
From that moment on, I found myself agreeing with Ebert more than I didn’t. In the opening of one of their shows, you would see Siskel on a Chicago street corner, grinning as a Chicago Tribune newspaper delivery truck passed by sporting an ad that read “Read Gene Siskel.” In the next shot, Ebert motions another truck to pull up, a Chicago Sun-Times truck that reads “Trust Roger Ebert.” I did trust Ebert. Although I liked and respected Siskel, there was something in Ebert’s delivery (even though Siskel was the more natural of the two on camera) that spoke to me.
In the 80s, I would frequently purchase Ebert’s yearly book of movie and video reviews, reading them from cover to cover. I wasn’t always able to catch Sneak Previews or At the Movies, but when I did, you couldn’t pull me away. The best portions of those shows included heated arguments between Siskel and Ebert. You could tell these arguments were completely unrehearsed; you just can’t capture spontaneous passion like that from non-actors and make it seem real. They both defended their positions tooth and claw. You got the impression that not only did they frequently disagree, they probably didn’t even like each other.
That thought was confirmed in a series of interviews with Bob Costas that aired sometime in the late 80s or 90s. I remember it was a two-part interview with both critics that was very revealing. Both Siskel and Ebert started out as journalists, not film critics and each of them thought they were the better critic. I think they eventually replaced that animosity and rivalry with something that eventually evolved into respect. If you never saw Siskel and Ebert in action, you really missed something special. If those episodes are ever released on DVD, I’d buy ’em in a minute. (You can see many of them on YouTube.)
Of course Ebert’s Chicago Sun-Times webpage and his blog have always been enormously popular, but my favorite way to experience Ebert is by reading his books, particularly his three volumes of The Great Movies. These volumes are priceless, presenting Ebert’s choices of and justification for the greatest films in cinematic history. I only hope that more of his reviews and essays will be collected for future volumes.
Ebert was deeply passionate about film. He once stated on a show that he had seen Citizen Kane at least 75 times and several other films 25 or more times. People don’t watch films that many times without being passionate about them. Ebert was a frequent lecturer on film and provided commentary on far too few films, among them Citizen Kane, Casablanca and Dark City. I deeply regret that I never met him, but after reading his memoir Life Itself, I feel I know him in a distant, yet significant sort of way.
Are there better critics out there? Probably. But something about Ebert spoke to me, and not just me, but no doubt countless others. Roger Ebert talked intelligently about a subject I already loved and turned it into a life-long passion. For that, I owe him a great deal. Rest in peace, Roger.