Thursday, April 4, 2013

In Memoriam: Roger Ebert

Some jumbled memories of one of my heroes:

Everything I know and love about movies, I owe to Roger Ebert. I remember being in seventh grade and typing up my own Ebert-esque reviews. I penciled in my own star ratings next to his in his annual movie yearbooks. I have my 1997 copy sitting next to me right now, and I see that I gave Eraser 4 stars to Ebert’s 3, and that makes me smile (oh, 15 year-old Kevin). I could always count on these books to show up under the Christmas tree every year; my parents knew I loved those books, filled with those reviews and brilliant essays. that much. Reading his reviews either in these yearbooks, rushing first thing to the computer when he began posting reviews online, or staying up past midnight to watch “Siskel and Ebert,” his thoughts on movies were, and continue to be, a kind of Daily Office for me.

I still treasure my copy of Ebert’s 1996 Pocket Video Guide. Oh, that Pocket Guide. I took it everywhere. Every trip to the video store or public library; I remember flipping through that thing night after night trying to figure out which film I was going to rent next. Crossing off titles in that Pocket Guide was like some kind of nerdy badge of honor. Some people kept checklists for comics or baseball card sets, I collected movie titles. And thanks to Ebert I have so many movie memories that I’m not sure I would have without his words to guide me in that direction.

I never missed an episode of “Siskel and Ebert.” The show aired Saturday nights at 11:35 in Salem. I’d stay up late and jot down notes on which movies to try and convince my parents to take me to. I learned a lot about movies I never would have heard of. Whether it was something as important as Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, a small-scale genre film like One False Move, or something utterly irreverent like Kingpin, Siskel and Ebert’s championing of those films inspired me. I remember watching them review Hard Eight and talking up the promise of Paul Thomas Anderson, or the way that Ebert so passionately spoke of Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, or when I gave a pumped my fist in the air all by myself in my bedroom because he selected Dark City as his #1 film of 1998 (this was also the episode where Siskel selected Babe Pig in the City as his #1 film), and I was so ecstatic because I had been championing that film; I mean, I absolutely loved that movie.  I was that annoying kid in high school that was telling everyone who was gushing over The Matrix to see Dark City because it put the former film to shame.

Those are just a few memories — both on television and in print — I have of Ebert and his influence on me. My dream was always to be a film critic. I will always be thankful for what he taught me: how to look at a film, knowing what works within the frame and why it works; and how to look at a film, understanding how it works on you while you watch it. Ebert’s passion for movies showed that movie-going was not a passive process. We don’t go to the cinema to merely escape; we go for intellectual and spiritual reformation, because Ebert always taught us that emotions in the movie theater are just as important and relevant as intellect.

And Ebert had some emotional responses to movies. Sure there are the obvious ones that most film critics can get behind, but the recommendations I remember the most are for the movies like Under Siege 2Speed 2: Cruise Control, The Fast and the Furious, or Knowing. I loved how Ebert didn’t take himself too seriously (but he certainly took the movies seriously) and stuck with his convictions. If he felt a movie was worthy of a “Thumbs Up,” then he was going to be proud to give that movie a “Thumbs Up.” He was not above recommending bad action flicks, B-movies, or “trash” (Wes Craven Tweeted today that Ebert was the only film critic at the time to give The Last House on the Left a positive review) to people, and I always loved that about him.

Like most, I’ve been hearing a lot of his words today. “Every great film should seem new every time you see it” is one of the quotes I often think about when I watch my favorite film, 8 1/2. I remember the opening of the Dark City commentary track he did, and how his exuberance in deconstructing what’s in front of him — gleefully comparing it to Kubrick — is one of my favorite things he left us with (not to mention his other invaluable commentary tracks). Or the time he and Siskel were on “The Critic” singing to each other from across the city after they broke up due to a post-Oscar tiff. But I’ve mostly been thinking about one of my very favorite Ebert quotes — something I repeat over and over again when someone tells me that they didn’t like a movie because it was depressing:  “No good movie is depressing. All bad movies are depressing.”

What’s truly remarkable about Ebert goes beyond the movies. His words on life and love and happiness and compassion and making other people happy are just as powerful and important and inspiring as his thoughts on film. He was everything I ever associated with film criticism; he was synonymous with the movies. He was also so much more than the movies, too. I find it fitting that after Ebert had to have surgery that resulted in the removal of his lower jaw, he didn’t shrink back; he remained pro-active and passionate. If going to the movies is not a passive process, then surely life isn’t meant to be lived that way. Roger Ebert not only understood this, he embodied it.

I don’t know where to end this thing, so I’ll make it simple: below is a cartoon from the Chicago Tribune that I saw people linking to on Twitter; it’s absolutely perfect.

R.I.P., Mr. Ebert.


  1. Really, really nice. He will be missed.

  2. The world is lessened with his passing. Ebert has been such a towering figure that it's hard to imagine a life without him.

  3. Couldn't agree more. He was an early entry point into my film fandom, I used his tomes so often to get acquainted with classic Hollywood. Who know how long it would have taken me to see a Nicholas Ray without him. Over lunch I went out and bought today's Chicago Sun Times, which features a large section devoted to their most famous, and respected scribe.

    His appreciation for all types will be missed. RIP.

    (I just have to do this:

    1. I'm glad you posted that link, Jamie (I knew what it was before I even clicked on it). It made me smile.

  4. Enjoyed reading your thoughts and hearing how much of an inspiration he was towards your love of film. I knew this but you voiced it well here.

    The thing I always loved about him was the way he viewed films and that they didn't always have to be earth shattering or Sundance Film festival winners to be worth watching and enjoyed.

    He will be missed.

  5. This is lovely, Kevin. I only vaguely alluded to this in my own piece, but if you grew up in a place like Oregon, as we did, Siskel and Ebert were likely two of the three critics you knew existed -- the other being the person who wrote for the local paper. Granted, many are more well-read than that and found ways to read Kael, Sarris, whoever wrote for the NY Times, etc. But in this era of the web and social media it's so easy to underestimate just how much Ebert shaped our understanding of what cinephilia looked like.

    1. Thanks, Jason. It's funny: I saw your post go up around when mine did, and I noticed we had similar things to say in regards to the whole "not knowing him but feeling like we did."

      I wish I would have talked more about the importance of the show in places that weren't LA or NY or Chicago. Like you said, before the internet, places like Oregon were "unconnected" from those particular hotbeds of the arts, so I relied on that show to let me know about certain movies to keep an eye out for in the video stores because they would never come to Oregon theatrically.

      I've seen some on the internet write very lovely pieces on Ebert, but a lot of them talk about how he never really was the catalyst for them becoming a cinephile. But in places like Oregon, that TV show was really all we had as a gateway. Siskel and Ebert made the life of a cinephile accessible to the masses. Even though my life is devoted to movies (like you say so wonderfully in your piece), I feel like I know a lot more about a variety of filmmakers and genres and how to watch (and talk about) a movie than I ever would have were it not for that TV show. That's another thing I undersold and kind of spaced on: Siskel and Ebert taught me how to talk about the movies.

      Anyway, yes, that show was so important for people like us that lived in those "unconnected" states.