Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

I've seldom written in this blog unless its to either write a film review or write some Oscar-related fanboy screed and I've written precious few In Memorium pieces (though there are a few - the most puzzling, even to me, is probably the one I wrote about Michael Jackson, but I digress). That being said, I can't think of a single person who has had a bigger influence on this blog and my style as a film writer than Mr. Roger Ebert. The man was a legend, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and probably the most popular film reviewer of all time. A master of the written and the spoken word, I have gladly followed the word of Ebert for the last decade plus, and while I would be lying if I said I agreed with that word 100% of the time, there was no one else who I was more willing to watch wax poetic/pontificate.

Ebert had been writing reviews since his college years in his school paper, but became the lead film reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 (where he was already championing films like Bonnie & Clyde). He also collaborated with controversial filmmaker Russ Meyer to write the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But what probably made Ebert the household name that he's been for the last three decades was his collaborations with fellow Chicago film reviewer Gene Siskel. The two began reviewing films together in 1975 on the show Sneak Previews. Their style - conversational but introspective, friendly but combative - was unlike any other show of its kind. It was not like even the film review shows of today, because Siskel and Ebert were true friends, and these were conversations that, if they weren't having them in front of the camera, they certainly were having them off of it (this similar strategy is being utilized on ESPN with the show Parden The Interruption which is built almost entirely on the chemistry of sports journalists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon - incidentally, this is best show that network has).

As the success of Siskel and Ebert grew, so did the reach of their show. The show's name became At The Movies, and the two created the now infamous "thumbs up, thumbs down" grading system which was probably meaningless as a true judge of film, but iconic in representing the two film giants. This would be the catchphrase that would be attached to these two men for the rest of their careers, and they both wore it like badges of honor, posing with the proverbial thumbs up in media appearances. In 1999, Gene Siskel passed from surgical complications regarding his own battles with brain cancer. His absence was not only tragic, but it effected the balance of the show from that point on. The magic of At The Movies was all about Siskel and Ebert, and though the show pushed on with Ebert's fellow Sun-Times writer Richard Roeper, it never really had the same magic that came from the two originals. Siskel's death, both sad and sudden, was its own day of mourning in the film industry and a topic that Ebert would revisit in his own writing many, many times.

But if Siskel's death was a surprise, Ebert's passing seemed to be a matter of time. He was originally diagnosed with Thyroid cancer in 2002. And while the illness took its toll, it did not stop him from writing about films for his weekly reviews. He was even able to return to At The Movies until 2006, when complications from a second surgery left him without the ability to speak. As the cancer progressed, Ebert was even left without his lower mandible, creating deformities to his physical appearance. This did not stop him from making public appearances to talk about movies, unafraid of what his condition and appearance may seem to other people. More than anything, he continued to keep writing about movies, and while he may not have been able to speak, that familiar voice was still ever so present throughout his weekly reviews (and this guy was no slouch, he saw EVERYTHING). That is until recently, when he had a setback with his illness, and his reviews became fewer and farther between fellow contributors writing in his place. Until today, the day he finally passed.

Ebert in one of his many appearances after losing his lower jaw.
Roger Ebert was not my favorite film reviewer because I agreed with him a whole lot. Actually, we probably didn't have very strict agreements on many films at all. We almost never agreed on what the best film of any given year was. But its his conviction, his intelligence and more than anything his love of movies that really set him apart. In a subsection of writing that is flooded with pious megalomaniacs shouting out fire and brimstone about their ever-so-important opinions, Ebert wrote with a wit that always seemed humble to the point of self-deprecating. Not that he couldn't be mean. Oh boy, could he be mean. He once filled an entire book with his most popular negative reviews, entitled Your Movie Sucks. But despite all that, he always managed to seem fair and he never seemed to have an agenda. And while he may have a reputation for being partial to commercial films, he was always a champion for the smaller filmmakers (just last year, he wrote a LONG blog post imploring people to recognize the work of Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo filmmaker Ramin Bahrani).

More than anything, Ebert rooted for films that he enjoyed, even if it wasn't in his best interest to enjoy them. Just a few years ago, he gave the dubious Nicolas Cage vehicle Knowing a four-star review and even had the gaul to include it on a list of the ten best films of the 2000s. And that it was I respect the most about Ebert: his knowledge that the most important part of how you view a particular film is how much you enjoyed it. You can use vocabulary of hifalutin film theory and metaphors to support your case, but in the end you either enjoyed the film or you didn't. And if you enjoyed Knowing as much as you enjoyed No Country For Old Men, well so be it. (*For the record, I have still never seen Knowing and don't plan to. So, I have no comment on that debate.) So, Ebert was both a film scholar and a terrific middle finger to all film academics who feel you can only enjoy movies only after you've studied Andre Bazin or baked out on Stan Brakhage movies. He was the ultimate populist in this way.

So, while I know that Roger Ebert was just popular enough to have a sizable backlash, I announce that today is not for them. Instead, we celebrate the life of one of the single best film writers in the history of the medium.

I should probably admit now that I have also very recently lost my older sister, Chloe, just last month to illness. It was an event that, while also not a complete shock, was a moment that shook me cold and made death a much more real and perceptible concept for me. Not that I'd ever compare the two experiences, but losing both of these immensely important figures in my life so close together really does give me a feeling of melancholy that I did not expect. Goodbye Roger. And just know that you made movies that much more enchanting for this little boy from Pembroke Pines, Florida. More enchanting than you'll ever know.