We’ve let our colleagues and peers have their say; now it’s our turn. To round out our all-day tribute to Roger Ebert here at Criticwire, we’re bringing in the staff of Indiewire (along with Criticwire’s own Steve Greene and Forrest Cardamenis) to honor Roger however they see fit: with a personal story, links to the best of his work, clips from “Siskel & Ebert,” or a mixture of all three. My own contributions are at the bottom. Have a good weekend, and we’ll see you next week (at the movies).
“Sitting cross-legged on the red shag carpet, way too close to the TV, and watching ‘Sneak Previews’ is one of my earliest TV memories. I liked the critics’ voices, which reminded me of my own Chicago-born family; I liked the way you could tell their opinion of the movie by how much they talked over the clips; and most of all I liked the way their brains worked. I didn’t always understand the movies they discussed, but they way they talked about them — out of passion, not snobbery — made me want to understand.
My favorite episodes may have been the ones where they sometimes discussed films I really had no business knowing about, much less seeing. One was devoted to cult movies like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘ (they loved how Frank N. Furter broke the third wall by throwing water at the camera) and ‘Pink Flamingos,’ which sounded weird enough to scare me — and to make me remember to watch it as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Other times they’d close an episode by discussing one really strange movie they loved, like Paul Bartel’s ‘Eating Raoul.’ These nice midwestern men with their tweed jackets on Channel 13 told me about more than movies; they tipped me off to transgressive culture.”
“I think for a lot of people, he represented validation, that if he felt the same way about a movie that you did, there was a connection with someone who had talent. Maybe you both were completely wrong, but at least you weren’t alone. One of the first times I really felt that connection was with ‘Synecdoche, New York,’ a movie that inspired him to three separate pieces.
I’m not sure which of the headlines were Roger’s and which were the contributions of Jim Emerson or other editors, but the photo caption on his ‘War of the Worlds’ review has always stood out to me, too: ‘Death and destruction come from above and below in ‘War of the Worlds.’ Here, Tom Cruise has a revelatory science fiction experience and, wisely, tries to decide which way to run.’ Simple, straight to the point, with a dash of humor and slight irreverence. Maybe he wasn’t the one who wrote it, but I imagine he must have gotten a kick out of it.
Also, I hope that the fact that Ebert included the ‘Up’ series on his personal top ten means that more people will seek out all 8 installments. Having tried it myself, it’s extremely difficult to distill down the appeal and merits of the series into one piece. But his ‘Great Movies’ article on the series takes a simplified approach and covers just enough ground for a compelling overview.”
“Last fall, I organized a workshop for aspiring film critics at the New York Film Festival. We brought some great critics to visit with the students, but I had hoped to get Ebert’s voice at the table. Not his literal voice, of course, but since Ebert really led the charge against the perception that great film criticism was in decline, I felt that he would identify with the goals of this initiative. Midway through the workshop, I wrote to Ebert and asked he would be interested in writing a letter of encouragement to our participants. But I found him in a downbeat mood. ‘I no longer know what advice to give your film critics,’ he wrote me. ‘Sometimes I think a sandwich would do more good.’
The next day, we bought everyone sandwiches. They got a kick out of it. Even when he was in a foul mood, Ebert was still a constructive presence.”
“I routinely and enthusiastically watched ‘Siskel & Ebert’ as a kid, a highlight of which was always their year-end episode where each would lay down their best and worst lists. I can still vividly remember watching the show that capped off 1994, particularly Ebert’s hilarious monologue explaining why Rob Reiner’s ‘North’ was his worst of the year. Not to focus in on a memory of one of Ebert’s negative reviews (he’s also done so much good by championing small films and getting them attention they wouldn’t otherwise; this a prime example), but when we were asked to pick our favorite Ebert moments, my mind immediately went to his ‘North’ rant and I was grateful to find it’s already been eternalized on YouTube. The clip is a great showcase for how funny Ebert could be, and how he could make even critical rants charming.”
“These two pieces on ‘The Tree of Life’ are probably my favorite film writings by Mr. Ebert. I was excited for ‘The Tree of Life’ at least a year before it came out, being a big fan of ‘Days of Heaven’ and ‘The Thin Red Line,’ and to see the man responsible for my interest in film write about it so honestly and personally remains quite remarkable. He describes what the film does to him, he has no qualms about comparing it to ‘2001’ and he had no qualms about putting it in his Sight & Sound Top 10, and to see someone 50 years older than me fall in love with the same movie that I did meant a lot to me. It was one of the last films I saw in theaters before going off to college to study film, and in a similar way that he describes it as his childhood, it was for me that sort of final ode to innocence and youth before being on my own on the other side of the country. These two pieces remind me why we go to the movies and what I want to accomplish in film criticism, to discover what it means to be human, and I think these two pieces really capture that.
I think this piece is especially appropriate right now, and it’s meaning has shifted somewhat. It’s a sad piece, about the fragility of memory, but all of a sudden, it’s about the immortality that writing grants. Now we all know a little bit about each of those people, each one painted with such careful, precise detail in their own way. It’s an impressive piece of writing for that alone, but suddenly it’s about us, the reader, remembering.
Ebert’s best talent was talking about life. Everything he says about the internet, relationships, and loneliness is ingrained with wisdom. This is contemplation at its most poetic.
‘I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.’
Nothing needs to be added to that. What a joyful and beautiful outlook on this thing called life.”
“As much as he was an advocate for films he loved, he remained the best (and most succinct) disser in the business — even as his health worsened. No more was that evident than in his hilarious one star review of ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,’ in which he capped off his opening graph with: ‘If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.’ The masses should have listened.”
“‘Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movie,’ Ebert wrote in his 1996 essay welcoming ‘The Third Man,’ into his ‘Great Movies’ series. As a child, I rented the film the next day and clung to his words throughout. It’s easy to guess I would’ve made it to the film eventually without his gorgeous writing on it, but it was the first of many times he pushed my exposure to film in new directions and defined my growing relationship with the medium, whether through his beautiful ‘Great Movies’ series, his most positive reviews or his most scathing rants.”
“For me, the Ebert pieces that jump to mind first are from my teenage years, when I treated his word like holy scripture. It was always exciting to love a new movie, and then to find your passion validated by a glowing Ebert review. ‘L.A. Confidential’ came out when I was a senior in high school; I saw it during its opening weekend and fell madly in love. I watched the film over and over; to this day, if pressed I could easily transcribe most of Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay from memory. My reaction was way over the top — but it seemed warranted after I read Ebert’s review, which was a four-star rave and called it one of the best films of the year. If Ebert liked it that much, I thought, I must be on to something.
When the Disney-syndicated version of ‘At the Movies’ was cancelled back in 2010, my colleague Stephen Saito and I made a joint list of our ten favorite ‘Siskel & Ebert’ reviews. My absolute favorite of the clips we unearthed was a review of a movie that has otherwise been completely forgotten: ‘Frozen Assets,’ a sperm bank comedy starring Corbin Bernsen. It certainly doesn’t contain Roger or Gene’s greatest insights into a film, but it’s a fantastic showcase for the pair’s incredible chemistry and their unbelievably quick wits. Keep in mind: Siskel and Ebert didn’t know what the other was going to say on the show before they said it. They didn’t read each other’s scripts in advance. They didn’t spoil their opinions. Which means everything that comes out of Gene and Roger’s mouths in the crosstalk section of this review is pure, improvisatory brilliance.
The other piece I love doesn’t seem to be online; it’s the introduction to the first volume of Ebert’s ‘The Great Movies‘ series, the one that begins with his succinct summation of film that has appeared in so many of his obituaries: ‘We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.’ The line is justly famous, but the rest of the introduction is an equally marvelous manifesto for Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ project, a fifteen year quest to bring the greatest films ever made to a mainstream audience that might never before have heard the names of Renoir, Ozu, Tati, and Murnau (as I certainly hadn’t when Ebert started the biweekly column in 1997). Some people look at old movies, foreign films, black and white, subtitles, as hassles; obstacles to overcome on the road to entertainment. Ebert made you understand they weren’t roadblocks but signposts on the path to cinematic enlightenment. He made you excited to discovery them.
Through the years, I’ve treated my copy of ‘The Great Movies’ like the Bible. I’ve certainly consulted it more than the actual Bible; my copy is so badly worn that the pages have pulled away from the spine. Ebert’s gone from his box now, but we’ll feel his presence whenever we peer out our own windows for the rest of our lives. There aren’t enough thumbs in the world to measure his contribution to film culture.”