To honor the life and legacy of film critic Roger Ebert, Criticwire invited the members of our Criticwire Network to share with us any tribute they saw fit. Many sent links to their full obituaries and appreciations elsewhere — which we’re currently collecting and will share in another post later today. In the meantime, here are some of the shorter comments from our Network.
Rest in peace, Roger. You’ve inspired a generation. Here is just a small portion of the proof:
LAST UPDATE: April 7th, 12:00 PM — with contributions from Ethan Alter, Jason Bailey, Bruce Bennett and Robert Levin
“As a child, Roger Ebert’s TV show ‘Siskel & Ebert’ was my introduction to film criticism and really any world of film outside the multiplex. The syndicated show used to come on well past my bedtime, but my father would tape record the weekly broadcast for us to watch. I very clearly remember the pair discussing a little black and white film called ‘Clerks.’ I was eventually able to track the film down on a VHS tape that was recorded from the laserdisc. I watched the film repeatedly, soaking in the DIY spirit. That discussion between Siskel and Ebert ignited an interest in me that would eventually developed into a career-defining passion for indie cinema. Thank you Gene. Thank you Roger.”
“While I never had the good fortune to meet Roger Ebert in person, I do have two memories that, in some small way, indicate the impact his work had on my life.
Fall, 1988: Realizing they had a 10-year-old budding movie enthusiast on their hands, my parents gift me with a copy of Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion— the just-published 1989 edition with Ebert flashing his famous (though not to me, yet) thumb atop a stack of VHS tapes—for Hanukkah. I open the book at random and start reading a review, followed by another, and another, and still another. The writing is elegant, witty and entirely accessible, the words of a fellow film lover sharing his enthusiasm (and, sometimes, derision) in print. The following year, I join my elementary school newspaper as an after-school activity and decide what the quarterly rag really needs is a movie column. My first-ever review is of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s ‘The Bear’ and I enjoy writing it so much, I think, ‘Huh…I’d kinda like to keep doing this.’
Spring, 2000: I’m in my final year of film school at Northwestern, winding down my tenure as film editor of the campus newspaper and putting the finishing touches on an independent study project that explores the impact the Siskel & Ebertprogram had on film criticism. I manage to secure a press ticket to a special University of Chicago screening of Woody Allen’s ‘Small Time Crooks’ that will be followed by a Q&A with Allen—one of my movie gods—and Ebert. The movie is so-so, but the post-screening discussion is marvelous, with Ebert holding court in grand style, engaging Allen in a natural, off-the-cuff conversation and encouraging questions from the audience. The opportunity to be in the same room—third row back from the front, no less—while a professional inspiration and a favorite director converse is a thrill and, in a way, a kind of graduation as I prepare to pursue film criticism in the ‘real world.'”
“I was brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed on Thursday night when my phone rang. It was Bilge Ebiri, and I made a mental note to send him an email letting him know that I would call him back. Then my phone rang again, and it was Elcin Yahsi, my friend and sometime-editor for Istanbul’s Sabah daily. As I picked up the call, I turned to my girlfriend and said: ‘Oh, god. I think it’s Roger.’ Elcin replied: ‘I am so sorry.’
I don’t recall the conversation Elcin and I had then. I don’t recall hanging up. I don’t recall collapsing down on the sofa. And I don’t recall when I started to cry. But crying I was, sobbing, tears streaming down my cheeks, as an uncontrollable sorrow penetrated deep into my very being. My eyes drifted to the shelves in the living room. I never had to look for one of Roger’s books; I knew exactly where they were. I stood up, and picked up his Great Movies compilation. I read for ten minutes, and then called Bilge. His usually mellifluous voice was full of sadness. We talked, exchanged a few stories, and then he said: ‘You know, what’s also important is that he plucked so many other young writers out of relative obscurity and championed their work. The onus is on you now. Now is the test.”‘
Yes. Now is the test. Now is the time to write.
I have been reading obituaries by many of Roger’s fans, friends, and colleagues, and a lot of them highlight his prolificity. He loved writing about movies almost as much as he loved watching them. After one of his personal heroes fell, Roger would produce an eloquently written obit almost instantaneously, full of admiration and never mawkish. I have to write two obituaries for him, one in English and the other in Turkish. I am on a tight deadline. And I am finding it hard not be maudlin in the wake of his passing. This insurmountable challenge for me would have been nothing to him. Grace came to him naturally.
He was a kind and generous soul. Our personal friendship dates back to 2003, when we started having a conversation on email about a particular scene in ‘The Godfather.’ It’s somehow fitting that the scene in question was the Don’s funeral.
I am filled with memories. And I am filled with love for not just Roger, but my extended family that I made through my friendship with him. I could tell you about the first time I met him. Or how he pulled a prank on me on a night I was feeling particularly vulnerable. Or a particular piece of advice he scribbled down on his notepad that I now have hanging on my wall.
But I don’t have the time. I have an obituary to write.”
“He wasn’t a New York critic, bitchy and mean like Rex Reed or John Simon, and he wasn’t an LA critic, cozy and eager to please. He and Gene Siskel were Midwesterners; Roger wrote for the working-class Sun-Times, and when he appeared on your television, chubby, bespectacled, and sweater-vested, he was like your smart uncle who was always recommending something great you’d never heard of.”
For a handful of Reagan-era Labor Day weekends I flew out west from New York to meet up with my brother Rob, his wife (and widow) to-be, Cindy and some of their friends to drive from their home in Denver to the annual Telluride Film Festival. I have no idea what the festival is like now but back then it was a programming mystery box of tributes (largely overseen by the late, great Bill Everson) and contemporary releases whose actual titles weren’t revealed until you got there. To the best of my recollection, Roger Ebert never missed a Telluride weekend. More miraculously, he somehow managed to seemingly be at every screening of every film regardless of overlapping venues and showtimes and the surrounding hype or the obscurity of the individual picture showing. Even more surprising to me was that despite being a fixture on national television at the time, Ebert would engage anybody there about pretty much anything.
In movie lines, at breakfast – pretty much anywhere in Telluride except in a darkened theater – Roger Ebert was always completely approachable and ready to talk. He had a boyish, gregarious quality that his more professorial ‘Sneak Previews’ persona only hinted at and was always funny or insightful or both depending on the tone of the encounter. Once, while waiting in line for a film (Paul Cox’s ‘Man of Flowers’, maybe…?) Ebert tried to break up my sister-in-law by making a whooshing jet plane sound and zooming his hands past her when she took off her sweater. Realizing that she didn’t get the reference, Ebert smiled broadly and asked, “You didn’t see ‘Jet Pilot’?” The Joseph Von Sternberg (and Jules Furthman and Howard Hughes) RKO Cold War potboiler had played the festival that year as part of a Janet Leigh tribute. If you’ve seen it, you know what Ebert was referring to (if not, it’s at about 3:25 here). Cindy hadn’t, and Ebert laughed hard by way of apology and moved on to talking with us about the weather. It was disarming. He just seemed nice.
The same year, or maybe the year after, ‘China Lake’, a polished short film about a rogue cop caused a stir among the more squeamish at Telluride for its depiction of various grindhouse grade acts of violence. The cop was played by Charles Napier – Baxter Wolfe in Russ Meyer and Ebert’s ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ – so I made a beeline for Ebert when I next saw him. He praised Napier as the perfect Russ Meyer he-man actor and ‘Cherry Harry and Raquel’ as a very underrated film. Our dual enthusiasm for Napier’s filmography led us to the actor’s performance as a space hippy named Adam in the ‘Star Trek’ episode ‘The Way to Eden’ and an impromptu duet rendition of as much as we could each remember of the song that Napier’s Adam sings in it. ‘Headin’ out to Eden, yay brother…’
My only non-Telluride encounter with Roger Ebert was during the 2011 New York Film Festival. I’d successfully pitched a local broad sheet preview to a NYFF Pauline Kael symposium and screening that assembled boxed quotes from esteemed film critics on the topic of Kael. A quick search of Ebert’s website revealed his 1975 Kael piece ‘On Art & Trash, Life & Lice’ and after reading it I had to include him, even if a phoner was out of the question. Ebert’s email replies to my individual questions were thoughtful and affectionate – he recast the ‘legendary feud’ between Kael and Andrew Sarris as a forgivable act of self-promotion by Kael, recalled social occasions with her warmly, etc. I particularly liked his response to a boilerplate query about Kael’s journalistic legacy. ‘Perhaps critics are less guarded and protective, and more willing to jump in with both feet,’ he wrote. That epitaph applies Roger Ebert’s work pretty well, too. Though, I’d hasten to add ‘and he did a hell of a singing Charles Napier impression.'”
“We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.” –Roger Ebert
“Many try. You succeed.” — Humphrey Bogart
“The word that comes to mind most about Roger is his generosity. Though he was someone who made his living having opinions I found that in nearly all my encounters he was as open and helpful as he could possibly be, every bit as much after he how found success and fame as much earlier in his career. He championed specialized film in a significant way earlier than most critics, and treated a wide range of them in Chicago locally with an enthusiasm that made a big difference. When I programmed some obscure New Yorker films while in college (Northwestern), he reviewed them in the Sun-Times. Throughout the 1970s, he would emphasize ‘art film’ releases that had small ad budgets and might not even have been big deals in New York earlier if he thought they were worthy, often being responsible for making them successes. (The opening of the Andre Gregory documentary at Film Forum this week reminds me how it was Roger’s discovery of ‘My Dinner With Andre’ that led to that film’s national success after it had failed to catch on in New York, a very early example of how influential he went on to be. I booked specialized theaters in Chicago during the 1980s at the height of the Siskel/Ebert partnership (which was also a fierce rivalry). The reality of the way both men wielded power, and more importantly the higher readership for the Tribune (where Gene wrote) for our audience, meant Gene more often was fed news first when it came out. Roger once complained about this, but did so in a way that was totally devoid of anger or personal rancor. It was typical of him — he was a positive person in personal encounters as much as he came across in his writing. He refused to take it personally. I can’t imagine dealing with the devastating hand life dealt him over the past decade and coming across with the vitality and optimism he showed. As significant as a force as he was as a critic, his personal courage will be what will he his legacy.”
“As a 24-year old writer, I think it’s safe to say that most of the time I’ve been able to read, I’ve been reading Ebert. More so than his actual writing, I’ll always remember his passion. Be it his passion behind each word he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, each word he threw at his various ‘At The Movies’ co-hosts (particularly Gene Siskel who, if there is a heaven, he’s hopefully bickering with in a balcony somewhere up there), or the various words he wrote when he adapted to the growth of the internet, his true love for cinema forever changed the way I looked at film as an art. Also, the way he championed everything from documentary cinema to anime, Ebert has proven to be as much of an influence on the film world as any of his peers. While his word will always live on, its his love and passion for cinema that will be as timeless as the way he fought cancer for over a decade, and did so with a punk rock energy, seeing the web as a way to only grow as a writer. This one’s tough. I feel like a father figure, for me if not this entire generation, has been taken from us.”
“As a kid I grew up in a house filled with love and reverence for film. Some of my earliest memories were watching the old Adam West ‘Batman’ show. But before it came on there was always this show about these two guys sitting in a theater discussing (and arguing) about movies. Yes, it was ‘Siskel & Ebert.’
I was too young to know what movies they were talking about as well as understand their criticisms but I always understood and loved when they gave their trademark ‘two thumbs up.’ But, even at 5 years of age, what really resonated with me were the times when Roger Ebert would throw an arm over the chair, turn round and start talking directly to me; well, at least that’s what it felt like. Simple but effective, that was the beauty of his approach; his reviews were more of a discussion rather than a dissemination of an irrefutable opinion.
It was his approach to film that made it more about what was good and what was bad. He taught us not to take a film at face value but to challenge it, encouraging us to get a conversation going (it was probably a subconscious reason we call our site GoSeeTalk with a tagline that’s simply ‘Welcome to the conversation’). Further it showed us that film and reviews of them can be intelligent but also very acceptable.
It’s that delicate balance that he walked again and again. He also showed us, part of his job really, that it’s OK to not like something (when he didn’t care for something he had no reservations about letting us know or letting a film have it). With his articulate but casual approach to his work he became a symbol of the film journalism world, a friend to every household and an example to many, many people.
Film and opinions of film will always be subjective and with the warm invitation ‘see you at the movies’ he was something an icon, a legend and someone who could appeal to any and all film fans. He’ll be sorely missed.”
“I grew up watching my father watch ‘Siskel & Ebert,’ and during the commercial breaks he’d always turn to me and continue their conversation about a particular movie with this little kid who had no idea what he was talking about most of the time. I was just excited to see my father, a workaholic who wasn’t home much, attempt to share this passion he had for movies with me, even though I couldn’t offer much in return.
To this day the greatest bond I have with my father is over our mutual love for movies. It was through Ebert that my father learned how to engage me in a way that brought us closer together in times when we spent hours and sometimes days apart. That’s the thing I most respect about what Ebert accomplished. Not only did he have this uncanny way of connecting with people, but he also taught them how to connect with each other. With their colleagues, their spouses, their mailmen, and in my case, their families. Thank you, Roger.”
“I would be full of crap if I were to go on and on about how Roger Ebert inspired or influenced me as a film critic. Sure, I watched his show with Siskel diligently in the ’70s and ’80s before I moved to New York but by the time I was writing movie reviews in 2001, Ebert was already doing the show with Roeper and frankly, I felt that they had become a little too much about studio glad-handing and giving quotes to less than quote-worthy movies. On the other hand, Ebert specifically championed many great indie films I might never have checked out if not for his raves and the longer I wrote about movies, the more I appreciated Ebert and what he’s accomplished over his career.
To think that yesterday marked 46 years at the Sun-Times is just mind-blowing and makes my ten years at ComingSoon.net seem like a drop in the bucket. But it was after Ebert was stricken with cancer and left the air when I really started to respect him because he took to the Internet and Twitter like no other print/TV critic before him. His writing got better and better, more introspective and less about pleasing the studios and maybe that also had to do with his age and experience. His resourcefulness and his strength at fighting against the debilitating nature of his cancer was inspiring for sure. I even joined The Ebert Club because of my newfound respect for him.
The first time I encountered Roger Ebert in person was at the Toronto Film Festival right after he had his jaw removed and any thoughts I might ever have of approaching him and introducing myself went out the window because I could never think of a way of going up and talking to him without it feeling awkward. I do have to say that the few times that Ebert quoted one of my interviews on his blog or retweeted something I had written were proud moments for me because it told me that he knew who I was even without us ever meeting face to face and that was enough for me. He was a great man and his influence and inspiration towards my colleagues and close friends is something that will never depreciate nor will it be something I ever take for granted.”
“When Roger Ebert entered a theater, people applauded.This is not some generalized statement; it was an actual event I witnessed. At a public screening last year at the local multiplex (Forgive my memory, but these things do start to bleed together), Ebert came in and slowly, deliberately made his way to his seat. Before he sat down, some people — not critics, mind you, but members of the general public — rose and began applauding. It was a spontaneous and incredibly touching moment. Everyone loved Roger, and we still do.”
“I had the opportunity to cover the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010. It was my first time at a film festival. There I saw and interviewed some of the biggest stars working in cinema, but I was never stunned by them, like some people are in the presence of celebrities. On my first day at TIFF, while I waited for an early P&I screening of ‘The Town’ to begin, two rows in front of me Mr. Roger Ebert took his seat with his wife Chaz. It was then that I discovered the true meaning of the word ‘starstruck.’ I didn’t have the guts to say hello to him that day nor the day after, when I sat even closer to him during ‘Black Swan.’ What would I say to him? “Thank you? It’s an honor?” When the film ended I walked down the steps and got really close to him. He looked at me, smiled, and gave me a slight nod. And that’s it. That was my close encounter with one of the most renowned film critics in history. It’s not a great anecdote, but for me it was a great moment. I was covering one of the biggest film festivals in the world, surrounded by some of the best critics and, amongst them, was Ebert, the one that showed me that to write a good review you had to put a little bit of yourself in it, so the reader knows who you are and where are you coming from. For that and more, I’ll be forever grateful.”
“Roger Ebert’s incomparable brilliance as a film writer wasn’t because of his profound expertise on cinema, but in the way his work allowed the reader to feel they shared that level of insight. To read his reviews was to understand how film works, to join him in celebration of the medium. No one had the impact on my development as a writer (not just film critic) that he did. In high school (and beyond) I poured over Ebert’s reviews, memorizing not just his scores and opinions, but desperately trying to soak up his style. How was he able to so beautifully express that vast spectrum of emotions that movies bring out in us? And Ebert was just as astute and entertaining when discussing dull or mundane films as he was when savaging one he despised or praising something that stirred his soul.
Ebert’s death closes a chapter in the history of film criticism. There are now no living film critics with anywhere near his level of fame or impact. His takes on movies were pervasive, affecting the views of cinephiles, general audiences, and other critics in equal measure. Ebert’s reviews often became part of the lore and the history of the films they discussed, such as his writing on ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ ‘I Spit On Your Grave,’ and ‘Blue Velvet.’ Casual and hardcore movie lovers alike could never go long without hearing his name. ‘What did Ebert think?’ is a question asked frequently in circles that go well beyond cinephiles. It’s a strange thought that there will be no more words from him, no more discussions about what he thought of Friday’s new releases. I spoke to him several times through email, a couple of times through his blog, and he twice answered questions of mine in his Answer Man column, which were then printed in his yearly review collections. He was the rare person that I didn’t know, but that I will greatly miss.”
“Roger Ebert was the critic who made me want to be a critic. From a very young age, I bought his books and read through every one of his reviews (including his pan of ‘Blue Velvet’ and his rave of ‘About Last Night’). I even used to scrawl down my own mini-reviews on looseleaf paper, each with a 0-to-4 star rating (including half-stars, per Ebert style): my effort to mimic the master. His passion for cinema was infectious, and his ability to express plainly why exactly he felt a certain way about a certain film was unmatched. He valued subjective reaction as much as technique, and that has been his greatest legacy for me as a critic. One film can be dazzling on every formal level, but leave you feeling cold, empty, and unresponsive, while another movie can be clumsily made but so sincere or funny that you can’t help but love it. He was totally unapologetic about his opinions, and that is part of what makes the best critics compelling. He was also a proudly unfashionable critic, and I admit that as I developed my own critical voice, I drifted away from his reviews, paid less attention to his tastes (which seemed to me to become increasingly soft and indulgent), and read other writers with much greater interest. (The exception was his Great Movies series, which consisted of invaluable assessments of why certain classics matter, and featured a greater focus on style than could be found in his regular reviews). But despite that, in my mind and heart, he remained for me the towering father of all film critics: the most committed, the most passionate, the most honest, the least pretentious, the most pure — in retrospect, the one with the least to prove, and perhaps the most to offer.”
“I recall a moment, when I was still a grad student and just starting out as a critic, seeing everything I could, reading everyone I could, and admiring RE’s generosity of spirit and fine writing. I happened to attend the Cannes Film Festival in 1989, when ‘Sex, Lies, and Videotape’ won the Palme d’Or. Being a newbie, I couldn’t get into any big film screenings, and so I went to all the small ones I might fit into each day. In one especially teeny venue, I found Charles Lane’s ‘Sidewalk Stories,’ and I was one of about five or six people in the audience. One of the others was Roger. The reps on hand were giddy, thrilled and nervous, greeting him with special offers of food and beverages — which he put off, very politely. The reps then waited, for pretty much the entire screening, watching him watch. When the film was over, the lights came up and Roger turned to the girls at the door and nodded his head and smiled. They were jumping up and down as they thanked him. He was gracious and lovely and left the theater as quietly as he could. He wrote a nice review. The film won the Prix du Public. And I was impressed that you might be a powerful figure in the business and still attend to emerging filmmakers with remarkable ambitions and no money, be sweet with anxious reps, and even say hello to grad student newbies. I never forgot it.”
“I’m not entirely sure exactly when I started reading Roger Ebert’s reviews for the first time, but it was shortly after I graduated from college that I began reading them, without fail, every single Friday. I thrilled at the prospect of reading one of his critiques, because I felt like they were always informed, insightful, and yet fully accessible; he was a cinephile whose thoughts were fun to read and easy to understand. That sounds simplistic, but what I mean is that he had a way of deconstructing the language of cinema, its impact, and his reaction to the art form in a way that helped me comprehend it better, a skill which I certainly tried to bring with me when I started writing professionally. Moreover, he helped me commit to the one point of view that I knew I could sustain as a film critic: what is the emotional effect of what I’m watching? There are wordsmiths infinitely more gifted than I am and academics whose knowledge of film history, technique and language greatly outpaces mine, but he helped me appreciate the value in my writing, if I simply wrote about how movies made me feel, and then tried to figure out what about them made me feel that way.
When ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ was released, I was among the first critics to write about it, and I described it as ‘the most movie I’d ever seen,’ referring to the volume of content that was being blasted at me as I watched it. Incredibly, Ebert quoted me in his review of the film, which, regardless of the gentle ribbing he gave me about even vaguely championing it, was among the greatest highlights of my professional life. But several days later, he wrote an essay about the reactions he’d gotten from his negative review of the film, and, shockingly, mentioned me again. He called me ‘Todd Gilchrist, a most reasonable critic at Cinematical,’ and it was possibly the best compliment I’d ever received about my writing. That is, until he and I shared a short exchange in the comments section of that same article. After telling him that I was having “most reasonable” printed on my business cards, I sort of reiterated the point that I was trying to make about the movie which he’d goofed on a bit in his review. His response:
Ebert: ‘I was trying to make amends for having in an earlier draft quoting that line but taking it out of context. In terms of your review, it makes perfect sense, as your reviews always do — although I’ll bet you a shiny new dime it doesn’t outgross ‘Titanic’ or ‘The Dark Knight.’ I’ve also written defenses of movies simply because they were so much of a muchness. This one, for me, was way, way too much of so much of a muchness. Readers: Click on Todd’s name to see his review at the always-interesting Cinematical site.’
His discourse was civil. His language, assured and confident, but respectful and complimentary. It was then and is now a reminder that disagreement doesn’t have to be disagreeable, and that the best we can do professionally and personally is articulate our point of view, and do our best to help others understand, whether or not they agree with it.”
“When gathering my thoughts on the loss of Roger Ebert I realized that his real legacy is based on how unremarkable my attachment to the man was. I never met him, never shared a room with him, or interacted in anyway. I was just a kid who would wake up Saturday morning, shun cartoons, and turn on ‘Siskel and Ebert.’ These two men taught me what films are, that they deserve to be discussed, analyzed, and even argued about. The fact that my Ebert story is so standard, no special attachment beyond my own cinematic development, proves the impact the man really had on not only the film world, but on whole generations of humanity. The world, and the films within it, are all a little bit better because Ebert was part of it. That is the legacy of Roger Ebert. And I think we all thank him for it.”
“What Roger Ebert really brought home to me as a critic was that film appreciation isn’t about affirming personal likes and dislikes, or biases and prejudices, but rather opening yourself up to the art as a whole. He could bring as much passion to assessing an Adam Sandler movie as he could to one by Abbas Kiarostami. To talk with Roger was always to talk about movies, one way or the other.
When he came to Toronto in late 1996 to promote a new book of his writing, I had a lunch interview with him. We had barely sat down at the table before he told me of an insight he’d had that very day: that ‘The English Patient’ and ‘Casablanca’ had similar plots, only reversed. I’m still pondering that one.
Roger did have a talent for making you think, especially when he was convincing you of the merit he’d found in a movie that other critics might have dismissed. Film was a constant adventure for Roger. I’m forever in awe of his energy, industry and insights. I shall miss him, and I know I’m far from alone in that feeling.”
“I was actually fortunate enough to have Mr. Ebert watch two of my short films. He even tweeted one once. From time to time I would e-mail him just general notes, questions, complaints about life and sometimes he would be gracious enough to respond. My favorite thing he ever said to me, when I asked if you ever get a handle on what life is, was, ‘You never stop running.’ I will always miss him.”
“It was common to run into Roger walking down Lake Street in Chicago during business hours on a weekday. He was usually rushing to press screenings at 70 East Lake. You’d say hi and he would offer you a nugget or two of wisdom and then turn a corner and disappear. In the mornings he could be quite chatty. After lunch he was back at the screening room in his track suit, quiet. He filed his pieces quickly, didn’t waste any time talking to you if he was in a hurry. There was always a newbie college paper critic at screenings looking in his direction. ‘Oh, wow, there he is,’ they must have all thought. Roger liked being present and never carried the air of a celebrity. He could have asked the studios to book private screenings for him but he preferred to be with other critics.
On the morning of September 3rd, 2001, the news came in that Pauline Kael had died. We were watching ‘Mulholland Drive’ at Lake Street. Roger, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and others began to recall Kael, sometimes affectionately, sometimes not. Lots of insider stuff about National Society of Film Critics meetings. Lake Street felt like a private club in these moments. Roger was definitely the dean. He sat in the first chair in the back row as you enter the room.
In 2002 I applied for press credentials with the Toronto International Film Festival and received a letter saying my request had been denied. I told Roger this. He called them and put in a good word. The festival publicist at the time called me immediately and said, ‘You don’t know Roger Ebert!’ I said, ‘Yes, I do, in fact.’ She couldn’t believe that an Internet writer no one had ever heard of could be associated with Roger Ebert. I wasn’t the only one. He did such favors without thinking twice.
Roger listened. He auditioned Ignatiy Vishnevetsky by eavesdropping on conversations at Lake Street. He would sit silently while you aired your opinions, and occasionally take you to task for something. One year I visited Ebertfest in Urbana to meet Bulle Ogier and Barbet Schroeder. I had never interacted with Roger outside of the Lake Street context and suddenly the small world of Chicago critics in a dark room was enlarged tenfold. There were legions of fans there — for a film critic! And lots of big name filmmakers and actors just hanging out. Hard to believe. A culture that Roger had managed to create in this small place where he came from. I always found it impressive with his fame that he remained loyal to his midwestern roots.”
I can’t believe he’s gone. Can’t say much more.”
“Whenever I encountered a movie for the first time as a teenager, I would immediately check out Ebert’s review and determine whether I agreed with it. Many can relate to that ritual, I’m sure. But what I found fascinating about Ebert’s style was that he managed to come across as a sincere movie lover while still placing his own moral code ahead of his aesthetic judgements. That’s a tricky line for anybody to walk in any discipline. At worst, sometimes it seemed like Ebert was smitten with a movie simply because its spiritual dimension was pure, but you could still appreciate his enthusiasm and the prose that came out of it.
At best, however, Ebert was the best ideologue who ever watched movies for a living. That’s why he was such a terrific television presence. It’s one thing to take a stance in print, which is an inherently one-way street. But when Ebert lectured you, stared you down, and didn’t just make his point but forced it into your mind with Jedi-like finesse — well, that was something else. I’m partial to this episode of the show in which Ebert defended John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween.’ Within six seconds, you’re hooked by way of Ebert’s emphatic cadences and the abrupt realization that he’s made a great point: ‘There is a difference between good and scary movies and movies that systematically demean half the human race.’ And just like that, I became a discerning horror fan. Every time I’ve been legitimately freaked out by a movie, Roger can take partial credit. He gave us reasons to love movies at all costs.”
“The line of Ebert’s that always sticks with me is ‘Sooner or later, everyone comes to Ozu’ When I see an Ozu film, I’ll think of him.”
“I’ve been trying to collect thoughts all day, and none of them feel worthy. I remember when my family home first got Internet, I would wake up early every Friday to use the computer before school specifically to read Roger’s reviews. Up to last week, I always check certain websites to read writers on film on Fridays. The websites have changed based on my own tastes and conceptions of cinema, but the only one that always remained constant was www.rogerebert.suntimes.com. There’s much more I could ramble on about, but I’m sure he would prefer something smart and pithy, so I’ll leave with one thought: Roger didn’t ‘review’ movies; he reflected on life through them. I already miss his voice dearly.”
“Roger Ebert was a personal hero to me, and I consider him a major, incalculable influence on my writing. I’m a little emotionally battered today by the news, and having just written a long tribute to the man, I feel I have little more to say. But if you want to look at my tribute article and quote from it, please feel free to.”
“It hurts me to say that I have never watched an episode of ‘Siskel & Ebert.’ I can’t say that I always read Roger Ebert’s film reviews with religious regularity, nor does he rank as the most influential person in my life who inspired me to start writing about film. I didn’t grow up with his commentaries on cinema. So while I can’t write my memories of the man like so many others have done eloquently and beautifully, I can state the truth. And it is that I have never truly considered Ebert a part of my life until the genuinely shocking moment yesterday where his death was announced. It sounds cheesy and forced to say that’s when I realized he was always a part of my young life, in an unique and strange sort way, just as my love of film is, and I don’t know if it is true. I really don’t know at the moment. But then you have the facts to look at — that Roger Ebert helped make film criticism popular, important, worthwhile. All while being an unfailingly kind, inspiring figure to thousands all around the globe and a wonderful human being in general. And then I say, of course, I write about film because of Roger Ebert. Everyone who was born after a certain date in the 20th century does so, and will continue well into time. Isn’t that just sensational? And I think the best way to honor his legacy, and his accomplishments, is to continue writing about movies in the best fashion one possibly can. I will strive to do so, and will dedicate my next piece of criticism to the man, the one and only Roger Ebert. Rest in peace, and thank you. I’ll see you at the movies.”
“One of my most important professional tricks is acting: acting as if I am on some kind of par with people I admire, trying to make them comfortable enough to relax and acting as if I am not quietly going nuts inside, channeling the little girl who is pretty much beside myself, just being in the same room with them. When I first met Roger Ebert, I pulled out the acting chops. Big time. Frankly, our introduction could have gone real bad, real quick. Ebert and Siskel were leaving PBS. Sneak Previews was being re-cast. And I flew into Chicago, two days before my wedding, to audition. I didn’t get the job, but I did get to sit in Roger’s ‘balcony chair’ and talk movies. It was pretty amazing. A few months later, I found myself sitting behind Roger at a screening in New York. After several deep gulps, I introduced myself. He nodded in response. His friend, however, seemed more interested in chatting and told Roger how much she enjoyed my radio program. He mentioned to her that I had almost gotten his old TV job, too. I think I mumbled something about how cool it was to be on his set and wished him well with his new program. The movie started and I pretty much shook through the whole thing. As we were leaving the theater, Roger clasped his hand on my shoulder and said good night. I think that’s when I started breathing again.
Over the years, I was lucky enough to spend more time with both Gene and Roger. We even got into a few lusty discussions about a film or two. And what a treat it was, hashing it out with men who cared so passionately and respected the art, not just of film, but also of criticism. There weren’t as many people writing about film then and certainly far fewer of us fighting the good fight in the broadcasting arena, but Roger and Gene, in conjunction with their written work, also proved longer form critical analysis could also be popular, stimulating television entertainment.
I was shocked when Gene died. Even knowing how much Roger had endured these last years, I was shocked to hear he had passed. It just didn’t seem possible that this man, who loved his life, who loved his wife and family and who loved film with such enduring undeniable energy, would no longer be sharing it with us, even if simply through his salient (and often, surprisingly political) tweets. Everybody is trying to find the best stories, memories, quotes with which we can honor him. Here’s a good one: he and I were walking down 57th Street, in between screenings. Yes, we were talking film when we passed an elderly woman, looking confused and frightened. Roger dove right in and not just joined me in helping her figure out the maze that is Manhattan, but he also offered to hail her a cab. She had no idea who he was, except a fine gentleman.”
“It’s hard for me to put into words exactly what Roger Ebert has meant to me, to my career, to the person I am today. The shredded, worn-out copy of his 1996 Video Yearbook, which sits next to about fifteen other Ebert books on my shelf, says more than I ever could. There’s also the souvenir T-shirt my family gave to guests at my 1998 Bar Mitzvah. On it, there’s my picture, cropped into a Siskel and Ebert image. Our thumbs, naturally, are up.
There’s not another author I read more growing up; there’s not another man I watched more on television. Roger’s extraordinary writing, his unparalleled ability to get at the core of a movie with clear, deceptively simple prose, ignited my passion for the medium. I’ve internalized his writing to such an extent that my memories of certain movies are inextricably tied with the words he wrote about them. I can’t think of ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ without recalling Roger’s ‘bruised forearm movie’ concept; E.E. Cummings’ ‘You Shall Above All Things Be Glad and Young’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ are forever connected because of what Ebert wrote.
On television, Roger was no less of an icon. ‘Siskel and Ebert’ wasn’t just my favorite TV show, the program that inspired me to launch my own website (now defunct) with a friend that featured both of our takes on new releases. It taught me how to build an argument and defend it, how to convey my thoughts concisely and powerfully. It helped me see the value, the joy, in friendly debate, and drove home the fact that there are few things more pleasurable than talking about movies in an interesting, thoughtful way.
I never got to meet Roger Ebert, never had the chance to tell him any of this myself. But even as a young, impressionable movie fan turned into a working film critic; even as my hero became a colleague of sorts, his influence only grew. In his last years, Ebert provided us all with a blueprint of how to live and die with dignity; how to accept our mortality and live life as fully as possible until we breathe our last breath.
In his 2011 Salon article ‘I Do Not Fear Death,’ which has circulated quite a bit since Thursday, Roger wrote: ‘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.’
Two thumbs up for a job well done.”
Have a memory of Roger Ebert you’d like to share? Email it to us at email@example.com or leave it in the comments section below. And click below for Page 2 of our Ebert remembrances from the Criticwire Network.
Film critics remember Roger Ebert:
“I grew up in Orland, California which is basically an agricultural wasteland in Northern/Central California. I loved movies but the theater in our town only played movies in Spanish, cartoons on weekend mornings and the occasional blockbuster but only for 3-4 days. Usually the print was so well-traveled it either broke or burned at some point in the screening. We also only had three TV channels at that time and channel 9 was one of them. As a kid who loved movies my only real connection to seeing what was new and exciting in film were a few magazines and ‘Siskel & Ebert’ on Channel 9. These two guys made me realize that movies were indeed something as awesome, important and worth talking about as I felt they were, even at 8 years old. I was a voracious movie watcher on those 3 basic channels and when I went to someones house with cable, I was an immovable object in front of the TV. As a loudmouth little kid I took it upon myself to argue for films I loved with adults who didn’t ‘get it’ and that’s something I learned from Siskel and Ebert. It’s something I still do today whenever I can in life or in print. I won’t lie; as a fellow chubby person, I always liked Roger Ebert more than Gene Siskel. I not only related to his portliness, I also always sensed he loved films for the fun of them and how they hit you in the, well, gut. When he hated something, it seemed personal and the same could be said for when he loved something. He never, ever got cynical or seemed bored in his work and that’s something few can ever say.
When we finally moved out of Orland to a city with TWO (!) movie theaters, I finally felt like Roger Ebert and I could ‘talk’ about the same things, at least in my mind. I later read all his books and tried to model myself after him, at least in terms of passion for film, as I started to write criticism. When I finally came face to face with him at the Sundance Film Festival several years back, I froze. How could I even begin to tell this guy how much his work had meant to me? I wouldn’t even BE at Sundance let alone writing for a major website if he and Mr. Siskel’s television show hadn’t inspired me. While obviously I was more enamored with writers, directors and celebrities, Roger Ebert was the guy who started it all for me and seeing him in person brought a flood of emotion.
Every year I came back to Sundance, Mr. Ebert was always in the back, left corner of the Eccles Theater and every year I swore I’d say something to him and I never did. I could never rev myself up enough or feel like I’d say anything worthy of a response. But even though I didn’t know him, I kinda know Mr. Ebery would have been kind and gracious to yet another slobbering film nerd he helped create. He will be missed but like the films he was so passionate about, he will live on forever in his writing.”
“As a child, my favorite days were Christmas and days I could find ‘Siskel & Ebert’ on the dial. I literally could never figure out when the show aired, but I knew if I flipped around enough on a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon, I’d find it and be in heaven. Roger and Gene helped develop my personal identity as a film fan. Through them, my desire to grow up and write about movies grew. They inspired me to pursue that dream academically. Whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grow up, I’d say ‘Host Siskel & Ebert’ and to this day, I enjoy watching their reviews of my favorite movies just like I did on opening weekends in the ’80s and ’90s. In the years since I started writing about films professionally, one of my great thrills was having Ebert tweet out one of my articles. It was a piece I wrote about Mondo posters, and I worked very hard on it. That he had read it, enjoyed it and thought highly enough of it to tweet it out to his 800,000 followers still brings a tear to my eye. I just regret that I never got to shake his hand and say, ‘Thank you Mr. Ebert. Thank you for making me realize it was okay to be me.'”
“I never got to meet Roger Ebert. I know a few of my colleagues who did, and they all spoke glowingly about him, the rare hero who lives up to the legend. Roger Ebert never knew who I was, but he’s responsible for me becoming a critic and trying to make a go of writing about film for a living. He was the first film critic that I ever knew about, the first I ever watched on television, and he was like no other. I valued his opinion immensely and always felt a little extra pride when he and I had a similar take on a movie. He will be sorely missed, and his impact has been incredibly far reaching, even including a statement from President Obama, but he’s hardly gone. Yes, we’ll all still see him at the movies, just like he wanted.”
“I never met Roger Ebert personally, but growing up in Mexico City, with the lucky luxury of cable, I came upon his show with Gene Siskel. It was the first time I saw that people other than my parents could have strong, dissenting (and informed) opinions about movies. That talking seriously and spiritedly about films was not only the province of pretentious academics or long-winded critics in print. That it could be pithy, fun and entertaining. And though I always felt that the thumb thing was a bit of a gimmick (albeit a good one), their moxie and combativeness have certainly been a good influence. Of the two, Ebert was more biting, adventurous and less forgiving of schlock. So two thumbs up! Anybody who makes it his calling to enlighten as many people as possible about appreciating good films, is cool in my book.”
“I replaced Roger Ebert. Sat in his chair. Literally. There aren’t many people who can say that. I can also say I largely failed in my attempt to replace Roger. Failed publicly, as most of you know.
Roger, it turns out, is irreplaceable. I knew that when took over co-hosting ‘At the Movies’ in 2008, but I suppose I pretended I could carve out my own brand, my own style. But I couldn’t because no one could. You can’t replace Mickey Mantle in centerfield, you can’t replace John Wooden on the UCLA bench and you can’t replace Roger Ebert doing movie reviews on television.
The film criticism community in Chicago embraced neither me nor my partner, Ben Lyons, when we got the job. There were a few exceptions, but for the most part, that screening room in Chicago was as an icy place. Rarely have I gone anywhere in my life and felt as strong a consensus that I wasn’t welcome.
But the man who showed me the most warmth was Roger. He and Chaz were consistently welcoming, decent and kind. Though Roger clearly didn’t like the new incarnation of ‘At the Movies’ (he was hardly alone), he seemed to give me his blessing — he’d send me encouraging emails and even did what no man has done before or since. After Disney chose not to renew our contracts, Roger said I’d handled the whole affair like a gentleman. A gentleman!
I saved our exchanges. There weren’t that many, mind you, I don’t want to overstate our connection, but they meant a great deal to me. In one, I praised Roger for the piece he wrote following Chris Jones’ powerfully honest profile of him in the March, 2010 edition of Esquire.
The magazine ran a photo of Roger, looking as he did after all those awful surgeries, his jaw melting away into the blackness of his shirt. The photo initially jolted Roger. ‘But then I am not a lovely sight,’ he wrote. ‘This was no time to get sensitive and ask for photo approval, or an advance look at the piece. I’d been the goose, and now it was my turn to be the gander.’ Roger then added, ‘I’ve never known what that means, geese-wise.”
I emailed him, lauding his ability to give an honest review of a story about him, and adding my own befuddlement at the whole goose/gander situation.
His response was simple. ‘In my honest opinion,’ he wrote, ‘what’s good for the goose and what’s good for the gander may be two quite different things.’
It figures that Roger would re-write a tired cliche and turn it into something more compelling. That I was unable to follow in those mighty footsteps is a failure I can easily live with.”
“My memory of Roger Ebert is not as extensive, or as effusively detailed, as those of the estimable, sometimes emotional, colleagues who have rung in about him. In fact, I can’t even remember the name of the movie it centered around. What I do recall, indelibly, is the kindness of Ebert. Not what you might have expected from a Big Time critic who didn’t have to bother. My recollection has a ‘Perils of Pauline’ quality.
In the late 1980s I had talked my then newspaper, the Arizona Republic, into letting me cover the Cannes Film Festival. To say I was overawed by the experience would be an understatement, but I was determined to make good since the paper was a bit puzzled as to why I had to be on the French Riviera reporting on movies which might (or just as likely might not) come to the local Phoenix multiplexes. Still, there I was and as was not uncommon for the time, the only female at the table. To say film criticism then if not now was hierarchal is to miss the point; in pre-internet days there was no haziness about circulation figures or importance. Ergo, at a table limited to the top twenty circulation newspapers in the country, we were seated in descending order of importance. Ebert was at the head, and this correspondent way down on the very last seat. However I was intent, # 20 or not, token female or not, on getting my question to the celebrity being grilled/lionized. Naturally, when my big moment came, my question just didn’t come out right. Tongue-twisted and perplexing, my query hung out there. The subject wanted to answer, it wasn’t that. He (it was a he, I do remember that) was willing, but what exactly was I asking? A few seconds of silence that seemed to me like the longest, most painful, freeze frame in the world. I started to wonder what point I was trying to make. Did I really deserve to even be at the table? Suddenly a stentorian voice boomed out ‘I know what she means,’ and Roger Ebert re-phrased the question, made it pertinent to the film, and the tension in the room evaporated like the proverbial pin-pricked balloon. Sigh from all on hand, relieved, especially this then-novice. I didn’t know Roger before this mini-episode, and never saw him in person after.
Ebert rescued me, that’s all. No, that’s not all. He lifted me out of the category of squirming idiot, made me feel that I did have a place at the table, and that we were in the same boat. Come to think of it, that was the main appeal of his reviewing. Like the movie, love it, hate it, or re-visit it and change your mind, we were all in it together: directors, writers, stars, even critics, for all those decades. We all loved movies, or we wouldn’t be there, right? Right.”
“Penguins, Morgan Freeman and a French movie began my online acquaintance with Roger Ebert. I had watched his TV program ‘Siskel and Ebert At the Movies’ at a time when I had little money and rarely went to the movies. Listening to their comments, I would decide on what movie was worth my time and money. When I was in grad school (the first time at UCLA) my friends and I avoided Friday night traffic by seeing a movie with discount tickets. I didn’t own a TV then so we went to see whatever had the best buzz. Later, I was often out at a different type of theater, seeing live actors on a stage and rarely had time for movies except to rent them for research. I didn’t come back to Roger Ebert until I began copy editing for a weekly newspaper. The movie critic drove me crazy and I had to do a lot of fact-checking and then I turned to Roger Ebert’s website. I was again hooked into a weekly habit.
Being a copy editor became a compulsion (I can still remember how delighted I was to find a typo in The New Yorker). I noticed a few errors here and there in Roger’s reviews. So I would send an email. You never know how people will react. Some people get angry. Some people are grateful. I know I would be (even if the person has a snide way of pointing the error out).
In 2005, after seeing a particularly funny mistake, I sent an email and then almost immediately I received a personal email reply from Roger Ebert. Roger was charming and informal. I believe he said something about blushing at his mistake. I, out of respect, continued to call him Mr. Ebert. Without telling me, he acknowledged me in one of his books. And eventually, last year I started calling him Roger.
When Roger took on Twitter and Facebook, I began to send things that I thought would amuse him, some of which were for public consumption. Others were just for him, particularly when I felt he was struggling under the dark cloud of illness. Then, seemingly out of the blue, he asked me to write for a relatively new column on his website: The Demanders. That was, a frightening task. I was unsure of my voice though I had been blogging sometimes as a snobby male collie (and the Scottish Collie Anti-Defamation League), sometimes as a belligerently bossy bitch of the human sort, sometimes as a hopeful idealist with prayers on my lips, and other times as a guerrilla geisha girl. I didn’t know what voice would be appropriate and writing for Roger was both a dream and a nightmare.
Roger was ever encouraging and gentle with his advice. Last year, he invited me to be a panelist for Ebertfest. I have been to film festivals before and since and yet Ebertfest was a true reflection of Roger’s generosity, kindness, and love for Illinois, particularly the University of Illinois. It was like the best kind of family reunion–a gathering of a community who can talk intelligently and respectfully with each other. Through Roger, I met some wonderful people with whom I share emails and information on a weekly basis now.
Like Ebertfest, RogerEbert.com is not just about Roger, but about a community of people from all countries, races, religions and walks of life who love movies — not just blockbusters but movies that are made with more love than money. Now I see that I’ve used the word love too much, but Roger was about spreading the joy and love of movies.
So I thank the writers of ‘March of the Penguins’ (Luc Jacquet and Michel Fessler), Morgan Freeman and the emperor penguins (and that harried copy editor who let those mistakes slip by) for giving me the opportunity to know Roger Ebert. I hope the emperor penguins will survive and, although they exist in a more hospitable climate than Antarctica, I also hope that RogerEbert.com and Ebertfest will continue for many years to come, spreading the glowing warmth that was Roger Ebert. This is one type of global warming would actually benefit the world and make it a better place to live.”
“When I started reviewing for the NY Post back in the mid-’80s, Roger, working out of Chicago, was the paper’s first-string critic. I saw him at the Telluride Film Festival at the time, but was too intimidated to approach him and tell him I was his back-up. Roger’s tenure at the Post was relatively brief, but I stayed for 30 more years. At the Karlovy Vary festival sometime later, Roger was a juror who joined his fellow judges in a little dance on stage on closing night. I was in the audience and I remember thinking he shouldn’t give up his day job.”
“As a 19-year-old film student in Oklahoma, I fed myself by working at the school library, and fed my mind by manipulating that gig to order every rare VHS on Ebert’s 100 Great Movies list. Some nights, I’d carry home a foot-tall stack of tapes that I knew nothing about except they’d earned his thumbs-up: ‘Gates of Heaven,’ ‘Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,’ ‘Stroszek.’ But equally important, his list taught me that great popcorn deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the classics, that critics could — and must — celebrate both ‘E.T.’ and ‘The Exterminating Angel.’ I had many fantastic teachers in college but without even setting foot in my state, Ebert left the biggest impact. I only wish I’d had the nerve to thank him when I had the chance.”
“They used to play ‘At the Movies’ on syndication very early on Sunday mornings when I was about 13. I would curl up in bed and watch, my fascination with film growing with every agreement and disagreement I had with these two men on TV. I found myself seeking out movies I hadn’t otherwise heard of. This fascination grew, and eventually led me to film school, where my greatest lesson came not from my professors, but from a collection of books I’d begun reading on my own. ‘The Great Movies’ series changed everything for me; how I think of film, what films I watched, and how I write about film. Ebert’s writing made me want to not only write about film, but write films themselves. Once he started to blog, I found myself engaged in his politics and life views, and soon realized that this man, even beyond his writing on film, was a philosopher for my generation, a liberal minded critic not only of art, but life itself. Roger Ebert inspired me to fight for my own opinion and make my voice heard. I eventually did write some movies of my own, including one exploitation film I like to think Ebert and Russ Meyers would have enjoyed. Ebert will be missed, but his words will live on, and in his legacy, voices will continue to be heard, whether panning a film or decrying social wrongs. Thank you Roger Ebert.”
“No doubt anyone reading this had read plenty of other obituaries about Roger Ebert, his life, his work, and so on. I’m sure you’ve read plenty of personal stories from other film critics as well. I can’t match any of those in terms of style or experience- I’m just an undergraduate/soon-to-be graduate student trying to make it in the criticism game, something damned hard in this day in age. I can only express what Roger Ebert and his work meant to me, personally, my fear of this turning into a maudlin tribute be damned.
“I chose my blog title, The Film Temple, because of my shared motto with my cousin Loren: ‘Some people go to church. We go to the movies.’ For us, Roger Ebert was the first great prophet and teacher for movie love — unpretentious, honest, and full of joy when he found a movie he truly loved. He perhaps didn’t inspire theories as much as Andrew Sarris or Andre Bazin, but he made film criticism accessible, fun, and still intelligent for budding cinephiles and experienced movie lovers alike. I watched episodes of ‘At the Movies’ with Ebert and Gene Siskel (and later Richard Roeper) religiously, and the wonders of the internet have made both his print reviews and his work on the show available to everyone. I’ve spent lord knows how many afternoons sitting around and watching his work, often taking notes. Sometimes Ebert’s work showed me the way to movies that I wouldn’t have found otherwise — ‘Hoop Dreams,’ ‘Aguirre: the Wrath of God,’ ‘My Dinner with Andre,’ ‘Drugstore Cowboy,’ you name it.
In my days as an often-sullen teenage movie lover, I’d often take a superior attitude when I disagreed with Ebert. ‘How could he hate something as great as ‘Blue Velvet’ but go for something as overrated as ‘Forrest Gump?” I read and re-read those reviews, and eventually something clicked, my first real lesson in criticism: what made a review great had nothing to do with whether or not I agreed with it. It had to do with honesty, clarity, levelheadedness, and wit. Ebert could only write openly about how the film affected him and whether or not it worked for him. I still disagree with both of those particular reviews and several others, but the fact that Ebert made me give a damn and better helped me articulate my views on film said something to his worth.
The most important thing about Ebert, though? He made it seem possible. Because of Roger Ebert, countless critics and aspiring critics first realized that they could spend their lives writing about an art medium they loved dearly and personally. Maybe they wouldn’t achieve his level of fame, but they could inspire other young film buffs and act as guides to movie lovers everywhere. They could write openly about their own movie love, add to the cultural conversation, and maybe, if they were lucky, they’d get paid to do it, too. Without Roger Ebert, I wouldn’t have a hope or a prayer that I could do this.”
“I grew up watching ‘Siskel & Ebert’ back when their show was still called ‘Sneak Previews,’ but Ebert solidified his influence on my movie-going when I saw ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ a few days after I turned 16. It was my first favorite movie, not because of the T&A, but because beyond the adolescent fantasy of rock and roll adulthood that it offered, it was the first time I noticed what a well-directed movie was. Ebert championed Russ Meyer for a reason: he was a great craftsman, and the editing and sound of that movie opened my eyes and ears to what a movie could do. It was because of that screening that I tracked down a VHS copy of the movie to christen the Siskel and Ebert Club at my Jesuit high school. Ebert’s screenwriting as much as his film writing was a formative part of what makes me love movies.”
“When I attended my first Sundance, in 2010, I went to a press screening of a truly, truly terrible movie called ’12.’ It was in the Yarrow Theater, and I was surrounded by a ton of critics who I knew a little, most of them young like me. Sitting in the row behind me was Roger Ebert. He couldn’t speak by then, but I carried on a conversation with him and a few others (including Erik Davis of Movies.com), us talking and him writing notes on a notepad, making faces, moving his hands — he had a lot of ways of communicating, of course. I remember less what we talked about than what happened after the screening. Looking at my friends and snickering at the genuine awfulness we’d witnessed, I turned to Mr. Ebert and asked him what he thought. He smiled and put a finger to his lips. I can’t promise that I stopped chattering after screenings, but every time I do it, I think of him. It’s the tiniest bit of advice a young critic can get, but coming from him, it mattered.”
“I met Roger several times over the years, and he was always extremely friendly and approachable. I even started studying how he spoke to people and incorporated some of his technique into my interviewing methods. He made you feel like you were talking to an old friend. But the first time I realized how funny and quick-witted he could be was at the L.A. junket for ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ in the summer of 1999. It wasn’t your typical junket: It was mostly writers for national publications and syndicated newspapers — maybe 30 writers at most. The curiosity around the movie was enormous, and this was the first time the film was being screened to anyone outside the studio. There were no roundtables or press conferences, just 1-1 interviews.
Before the film started, Kubrick’s longtime assistant Leon Vitali took the stage and asked everyone to remain in their seats until the closing credits rolled for a ‘special presentation.’ After the film, Vitali returned to the stage and told us what we had just seen was Kubrick’s original final cut, which had been slapped with an NC-17 rating and would not be released to theaters. Since Kubrick had died that February, and his contract promised him final cut, distributor Warner Bros. was in a bind. They couldn’t trim the film to get an R-rating, so they decided to insert digital obstacles and hooded figures in front of the more graphic sexual acts, in order to earn an R rating. Vitali then showed us the orgy scene with the digital obstructions in place. The moment the lights went up, Roger asked which cut of Kubrick’s final film would be released around the rest of the world. Vitali said the uncut (NC-17) version would be released everywhere except the U.S. And Roger burst into a hilarious — but spot-on — tirade blaming Warner Bros. and the ratings board for treating Americans like children. He was so mad, he was yelling. The line I remember best is ‘Why does everyone else get to see the movie the way a great artist like Kubrick intended, and we get stuck with the Austin Powers version? Is the studio afraid we’re all going to run off and have masked orgies?’
The entire theater burst into laughter. But I could tell by the look on Roger’s face he was genuinely angry. He cared. He had such a gift with words and language, and such a strong love for film, that he was able to articulate what every critic in that theater was thinking in a matter of seconds, and he did it in a way that was wittier, punchier and more eloquent than anyone else could have done.”
“As a little girl, I watched Roger Ebert argue with Siskel and wanted to be Siskel when I grew up so I could argue with Roger too. Then I watched the balcony critics on ‘The Muppet Show’ and thought him even cooler to have earned an homage on what was clearly the greatest show on TV. Decades later, I was lucky enough to hang out with Roger along with the likes of Nate Kohn and the late, great Jewish Cowboy Dusty Cohl and Paul Cox back when Ebertfest was still legitimately Overlooked and we spent most of every morning jawing over bad coffee in the Student Union. (My favorite exchange between us entailed me hypothesizing that leftists preferred sci-fi because they believed in positive change and Roger grinning and saying “I like sci-fi and I am definitely a leftist.”) I always say those morning comprised my film grad school and the fact that Roger and his cronies were generous enough to give me some airtime while they talked shop gave me the courage to really start pulling for critic gigs back in NYC. The more involved I grew with his festival the more in awe I was of Roger’s ability to speak extemporaneously, graciously and incisively as well as to produce realms of lucid, witty copy in the time it took me to put together a decent tweet. And as his cancer began to ravage his body, I was in awe of his dogged determination to continue to work and to support others in what he saw as important work. Now that I appear weekly on a film review show, I constantly wonder WWRS (What Would Roger Say)–especially when I’m really flubbing it and need to be more plainspoken and kindly. More than anything, it was his work ethic that I admired, and I pray that in his honor we all work just that much harder and truer at what we love.”
“I wrote an entire essay yesterday on Ebert’s review of ‘Short Circuit 2,’ of all things. I know it’s a weird thing to think of, but I always appreciated how Ebert never dismissed the middlebrow. (He and Siskel both gave it a thumbs up.) He never came off like a snob. In other words: Ebert wrote intelligently about film, but he never made the version of myself growing up in Missouri with, admittedly, less than refined tastes, feel stupid. He never made me feel stupid for loving something like ‘Star Wars.’ For this, I owe Roger Ebert so much.”
“I was, like everyone else, devastated to read of Roger Ebert’s passing, in part because, like everyone else responding to this, I can point to Ebert first and foremost as the guiding light, the bedrock of whatever inspired me to begin writing film criticism. I can’t remember the first episode of ‘Siskel & Ebert’ that I watched, nor the first review of Ebert’s that I read, just that I couldn’t get enough of it. Every one of Ebert’s books, from his Movie Yearbooks to a compilations of ‘Questions to the Movie Answer Man’ to his ‘Little Movie Glossary:’ these immediately became books I wanted to read and re-read as often as I could. Even now, I always find myself going back to one of those Movie Yearbooks, and seeing what he had to say about one new release or another; or laughing at his wit, dripping off each page of one of his bad-review books. I will always look to Roger Ebert, his generous spirit, and his honest, intelligent, but never condescending tone as inspirations going forward. I got into criticism because of this man; every day, I will continue to try to grow into — if I’m lucky — one-millionth the writer he was. And like everyone else, I’m going to miss him terribly.”
“Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘I could not stop for death so he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality.’ It is true that Roger Ebert could not stop for death. It came knocking once dramatically, when he almost died in the hospital. It came knocking again when he had to have his jaw removed. And it came at last, impatient as it always is, to take him, finally, into immortality.
The cultural contributions he leaves in his wake remain unmatched. He, in many ways and to many people, held up the structure of film criticism — a certain kind, of course, the accessible kind. The personal kind. Later, he evolved in unexpected ways online — rewriting the rules for what film blogging/criticism could mean. He couldn’t speak or eat but man could he write. He opened up his life and invited us in. For me, he was the final word on a movie’s worth because he blended in life experience, education and a love for film. He was a great writer of film because he was a great liver of life — observant, curious, insightful.
I could talk about how he rewrote the rules of Twitter, or how I’ve gone to a movie in twenty years, nor will I ever go to a movie ever again without thinking, in some way, of Roger Ebert. I could talk about his dedication to African American cinema, breaking (again) the rules by using his pulpit to advocate — he advocated for Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, for Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee. I could talk about a brutal email exchange with him where he rightfully put me in my place for huffing and puffing about how bad a movie ‘Crash’ was. I don’t have those emails anymore but I wish I’d kept them. As Ebert once said about his idol Thomas Wolfe, ‘I felt that if I could write like him, I would have nothing more to learn.’ But what I think I will choose to remember most about Ebert does not relate to film at all but to life itself, and more specifically, our dwindling time. Ebert chose to live every day like it was his last because it was. And so I’ll go out in the sunshine today, and I’ll leave behind the silly things that make me worry. I’ll go outside and I’ll choose to respect the minute, even the second. As I go I’ll say goodbye to someone who really does leave us all better off for having known him. I’ve never had a better teacher. I will see him everywhere, especially at the movies.”
“When I was growing up, he taught me about film. When I was lucky enough to work with him, he taught me about professionalism. And over the last decade, he taught me about strength and courage. I wrote this piece about him today and you can quote whatever you’d like. I’d be honored if you did.”
“I will remember Roger Ebert as a cultural force, open to new voices in cinema, who maintained his integrity and admirably fought for what he believed in throughout his deservedly celebrated career.”
“What’s interesting about Roger Ebert is that no one could ever land a serious blow towards him, reviewing films in a profession that practically places a bullseye on oneself. Rob Schneider’s pathetic barbs towards him in retaliation for a spat involving his classic ‘Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo’ lacked enough teeth that Ebert’s returning blows were actually career-damaging. A mano-e-mano with Vincent Gallo isn’t really too distinguished, as Gallo gets into a row with everyone, while a potentially-biting spoof in ‘The Critic’ was flattering enough to allow he and Gene Siskel to cameo as themselves, one of the few moments that show wasn’t taking the piss out of Hollywood. Most Ebert takedowns were along the lines of Mayor Ebert in Roland Emmerich’s pathetic ‘Godzilla,’ as Ebert lookalike Michael Lerner boasted of a city given a ‘thumbs up,’ seeming more like the schmucky Ed Koch.
There was always something Teflon about Ebert’s appeal. Pal Siskel was the angrier one, the feistier fellow with a bone to pick with some movies. With Ebert, his bone-deep hatred of some films seemed to come as a by-product of his love and affection for other films, whereas Siskel always seemed like an assassin. It’s what made their dynamic so interesting on ‘At The Movies,’ which most movie buffs of my generation grew up watching: Siskel would take personal offense when the industry would chuck a piece of junk in his direction, and he wouldn’t mince words. And while Ebert had his share of pithy insults and clever put-downs, he almost seemed either hurt or disappointed when a film was a let-down.
Of course, not many films were, not even the bad ones. Ebert singled out a few he hated in a couple of his seventeen published books, but in most negative reviews, it seemed like he was having a good time. Writing seemed fun when it came from Ebert: his more serious essays and reviews would have real intellectual heft, but he knew when to boil it down to ‘just a movie’ territory. The truth was, bad movies always had some sort of redeeming asset to him. He once told a lie that feels like truth to me: ‘All bad movies are depressing, no good movies are.’ It’s a testament to how beloved he was that I had trouble googling the exact quote, his passing jamming the traffic at Ebert-related sites.
But I don’t think films depressed him: even ‘Kick Ass,’ which repulsed him to no end, established a conflict within himself that proved more fascinating than the film: was this entertainment, and if so, why? Was the escalation of onscreen violence featuring children a changing of the times, or a lowering of standards? His changing opinion of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ ultimately said more about film criticism, and depictions of violence in society, than anything Ben Lyons has ever written.
The strongest criticism of Ebert came from those who derided the ‘thumbs up’ school of thought. Most of the time, the content of ‘At The Movies’ would be summed up by a late-show recap of thumbs, followed by a newspaper ad for a film that boasted the treasured ‘Two Thumbs Up!’ (or, sometimes, a cut-rate ‘Thumbs Up!’ from one of the two). The argument is that this led to the proliferation of odious sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which boiled down film criticism into arbitrary numbers or basic plus/minuses. Which may be true, but that was the direction the public was going to take in the first place.
Film criticism itself was alive and well when Siskel and Ebert found their way to television, but bringing it into our homes made all the difference. Suddenly, a debate could be had as to whether a film was good or not amongst family members, and film criticism wasn’t the dinosaur it is today, an arcane nerd caste system. The writings of Sarris and Kael would be even more obscure were it not for the public television efforts of Siskel and Ebert’s shows, a gateway drug for those who wanted to know about film, cinema’s ‘Mr. Rogers’ that played to all audiences, not just children. To some, it changed the way they think about film, and the way they think about thinking about film.
But, to the rest of us, it was sweet manna from Heaven. Even written at a fourth grade equivalency, the newspaper reviews we would read had a certain dry academic air to them. Films had to fulfill THIS criteria, said any number of syndicated critics. Others would simply, humorlessly pooh-pooh anything that wasn’t an elaborate think piece made for an audience much older than I was.
But seeing this paunchy dork and his punchy, pencil-necked companion verbally duke it out was to see something more unique. Reviews existed next to film, but film LED to this: a genuine connection between two people who could freely agree or disagree all day long, discussing bigger life issues, or smaller, dopier minutiae about today’s biggest films. It’s funny, the desire to be cool felt so tangible when we were young, but at the same time, we WANTED to be Siskel and Ebert, off-the-cuff critics who could riff with ease. In contrast, Siskel’s replacement Richard Roeper was never nearly as exciting, unless he was sparring with a female guest host, when he would lean forward in his chair, top button undone. The less said about the parade of celebrity fill-ins for Ebert (John Mellencamp, Harry Knowles, Jay Leno), the better.
As Ebert aged, his health diminished, he became more specific and incisive in his language. Films were no longer a diversion for him, but they weren’t a way of life. As his writing leaned more towards introspection, they seemed like a gateway into deeper philosophies. His hate was no longer red hot, or even lukewarm: there was a newer warmth, as if he recognized that the world of film was a place of acceptance, and that we could appreciate the misfit toys that suddenly came his way, whether they be dopey blockbusters or small failures. With the pillars of the critic establishment having passed on, it felt as if Ebert was the remaining acknowledgement that we were in this together, for the appreciation of the craft, the thrill of film unspooling, the projector whirring, the lights dimming and the movie beginning. With his loss, the feeling is that this is now a world with a lot less love. We’ll miss you, Roger.”
“Like most colleagues of my approximate age, I grew up on the broadcast TV reviews of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. I chuckled when they trashed horror sequels, I paid attention when they really loved a film, and I always trusted that they were honest. To say that these two men inspired others to write about film would be an absurd understatement.
I happened to meet Mr. Ebert at the Toronto Film Festival several years ago and was elated to know that he’d read some of my stuff. I told him I reviewed everything but I was mainly a horror guy — because I love horror cinema and I don’t think it gets a lot of respect. ‘Nothing wrong with being a horror guy, as long as that’s not all you watch,’ is one thing he said, and he didn’t mean it as a knock on me. He meant it as a reminder that if you truly love movies, there’s always something else to discover. Venture outside of your comfort zone. Dive into film noir or the French New Wave or the brilliant world of documentary movies. Plus the fact that Roger Ebert, a true hero of mine if ever there was one, knew who I was — I don’t mind saying it felt great. Forget film ‘criticism.’ Every film ‘lover’ in the world lost a friend today. That Mr. Ebert kept writing about films throughout all of his medical problems is nothing less than a testament to the power of cinema. He just loved movies that much, and that’s why we love him so much.”
“I don’t have one, distinct memory of Roger Ebert — I never came close to meeting him and only occasionally watched ‘At the Movies’ when I was growing up. Still, he and Gene Siskel had as much of an influence on me as the critics in the Dallas Morning News and on the local ABC affiliate… which is to say, quite a bit. Ebert, and these others, showed me what criticism is at its most basic level, and they taught me that film had a past that could be much richer than its present. In the past few years, I would occasionally go on Ebert binges, where I wouldn’t read anyone else, and when I couldn’t figure out how to get started on something, I’d think about what he always kept in mind (I’m paraphrasing here): what did the movie look like and how did it make you feel? Those two questions always helped find a way into a review when nothing else could. They’re the true starting point of criticism; everything else will come out of that.”
“What made Ebert great was not his taste, but how he approached movies as a writer. He was concerned first and foremost with the relationship between any given movie and lived life. As he got older, he brought a lot of his own life into his writing, particularly his meltdown as an alcoholic and his rebuilding himself in AA. The life wisdom he learned in the rooms permeated the work. A review of some forgettable, probably mostly forgotten-when-he-wrote-about-it, two-star hacky movie would prompt Roger to write amazing prose about some aspect of a character that reflected certain truths Roger had learned about life — about how people are, about how to get through life properly. The prose was simple, flexible, but capacious: old-fashioned newspaper prose at its best. Ebert was never stuck in a ‘movies for movies’ sake’ hall of mirrors. Movies, for him, were meant to enrich life and possibly help you work through its problems.
I was touched when, toward the end of his life, Roger picked ‘Juno’ as his best film instead of the choice that would have seemed obvious for anyone who knew his work and sensibility, ‘There Will Be Blood’ (fairly clearly the better film). He was drawn to that picture because he felt it, unlike the great movies of that year, praised life, it affirmed life, it came out in support of more life. Some might view that as a panicky or schmaltzy point of view. Knowing Ebert’s work, I think it was canny, strategized, and superbly practical.”
“I first started writing movie reviews for a student newspaper at the University of Chicago — and not the official student newspaper, a rival, so I was pretty far down on the totem pole even amongst campus journalists. But I was willing to see just about any movie, no matter what classes I had to skip, so I was at the Lake Street screening room in downtown Chicago a lot. One day I had a light workload, so I ditched class and went to the screening room even though I had not been invited to the movie being shown. I still remember the movie — it was ‘Full Tilt Boogie,’ Robert Rodriguez’s documentary about the making of ‘From Dusk Til Dawn.’ To my horror, the screening was almost empty, and I was the only student critic there. The official PR person for the movie sensed what was up almost instantly, and I was sure she was going to throw me out. But Roger Ebert recognized me from previous screenings and told her, ‘No, he’s okay.’ He never even knew my name.
I learned of his death the same way everyone did: via Twitter, while I was at my day job. I tweeted a shorter version of that story. Then I thought of the thousands of students who have come and gone through that screening room, self-assured that they were okay just because he was sitting there, and I put my head down in my cubicle and cried.”
“Roger Ebert had a distinct, irrevocable influence on my work as a film critic. I remember reading one of his compendiums in my high school’s film production lab. As my fellow critic Drew Taylor put it so succinctly, Roger Ebert ‘wasn’t always right but he was always great.’ Great men often cast a giant shadow. I and countless others — critics, moviegoers, student of film theory and more — owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.
The last thing Mr. Ebert wrote for public consumption were the following words: ‘So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.'”
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