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Remembering Roger Ebert

Remembering Roger Ebert

On Thursday, the film world lost a true titan. And it wasn’t a director or movie star or producer that warranted the kind of heartfelt and universal response we saw that afternoon — it was a film critic. There were disarmingly earnest Onion articles and political cartoons and a statement from President Obama. All of this spoke to the singular power, impact and importance of Roger Ebert. Those of us who write about movies professionally were obviously hit pretty hard by yesterday’s news, and at The Playlist, we wanted to each contribute our personal thoughts about what the man meant to us. We encourage you to do the same below.

Oliver Lyttelton: I have to confess that I came to Roger Ebert late. In the U.K., “At The Movies” didn’t air, so growing up, while I’d heard of him (who hadn’t? He was, after all, the most famous film critic in the world), I wasn’t all that familiar with his work. So with all honesty, I can’t say, like so many others have, that he was my gateway into film and film writing. But what I can say is that, once the internet made his work accessible, there were few critics I’d rather read. He was proof, if proof were needed, that you could love film unconditionally, yet still be discerning (his legendarily scathing pans always read like he was disappointed a film didn’t turn out to be great, rather than that he’d walked in sharpening his claws for a takedown). He would champion the mainstream and the obscure; his top 10 of 2012 was bookended by “Argo” and “A Simple Life.” The thrill of discovery was ever-present in his writing, and his turn of phrase meant that even if you disagreed with him on a film, you’d still get something out of reading his review. Perhaps most importantly is his Great Movies series, something that comes as close to a definitive film canon as anything else out there (and I’m going to spend the next weeks and months working my way back through them, I think). He was a titan, and one who never stopped evolving, enthusiastically adopting the web, and later, social media, to communicate with his readers, encourage new writers (having one of my pieces linked to by him on Twitter a few years back was probably the proudest moment of my time at The Playlist), and generally preach the cinematic gospel. In his memoir “Life Itself” (which I read and adored barely six months ago), Ebert concludes by saying “I am comforted by Richard Dawkins‘s theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, cliches that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.” But he was being modest; as long as there are movies, Ebert, and his work, will live on. 

Rodrigo PerezRoger Ebert and Gene Siskel, for me, were a window. Growing up in small town Ontario in the 1970s and 1980s, information wasn’t as easy to come by as it is now. We had TV and we had the weekly papers from Toronto, but those weren’t easily accessed and it was common to go, “holy crap, my favorite band just played,” as often you’d tragically find out after the fact. Movies were the same way. My friends and I were thankfully blessed with amazing video stores and an indie-rep theater, but there wasn’t really a defining filter. But for me, and my friends, “Siskel & Ebert” were that filter. They, we discovered quickly, were like-minded friends. They were intelligent, thoughtful, passionate, and in our early formative teen years, we quickly realized we were on the same page with these guys. They were taste arbiters and they helped us inform our decisions when we went to the movies or had to wait to see things on VHS. They argued, they fought, and they were passionate about what they believed in. As angsty, emotional teenagers, we could totally relate to these funny looking dudes (you gotta love the era of television that kept people on TV for what they had to contribute rather than how they looked). We had an affection for them, and my close-knit group of high school friends — who I still consider my best friends — watched them weekly like a ritual, often going to the video store, arguing for hours about what to rent, watching a movie and then turning on “Siskel & Ebert.” 

I remember vividly seeing Roger and Gene’s review of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” in 1989 — a film that they both placed at #1 on their top 10s of that year. Outside of a David Lynch film or two, the strongest memory I have of seeing a movie in my teenage years was seeing Lee’s picture. My friends and I sat in silence afterwards; angry, distraught, confused, emotionally charged. The movie — like it intended to — set off every incendiary emotion within us. We may have seen it regardless, but I like to think Roger and Gene nudged us a little further the day they reviewed it. I’m often asked who my favorite filmmaker is, an impossible question to answer, but to give some kind of response, I often just blurt out the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski whose metaphysical, existential films about chance and fate often ask tremendously poignant questions about the meaning of life. I know I can directly attribute this to Roger Ebert who championed “The Dekalog” in 1998 (though it might have been after the fact, as the film apparently never received a U.S. theatrical run) and then once again with the “Red, White & Blue” trilogy. There’s absolutely no way in the world I would have ever known about this Polish filmmaker back then without Roger’s championing (he recorded a DVD intro to “The Dekalog” when Facets finally put it on DVD in the mid-90s). 

I never met Roger Ebert, but I certainly wish I had. Video evidence that we’ve all seen suggests a kind-hearted, sharp man who was not afraid to say how he felt. He was also a man with a sense of humor. I’ll never forget (who can, really?) Vincent Gallo hexing Ebert with colon cancer for his brutal evisceration of “The Brown Bunny” at Cannes in 2003. Roger, not so comically, of course would go on to get salivary cancer, which sadly robbed him of his ability to speak, but when Gallo was on Howard Stern, the shock jock called up Ebert, the two men talked, and Roger, had a funny, self-deprecating take on their beef that obviously demonstrated a great sense of humor. He always seemed magnanimous and gracious, and that’s what I’ll take away in the end from this influential voice who is no longer physically present, but will be with us for ages, regardless.

Diana Drumm: As America’s most beloved film critic, Roger Ebert touched generations with his witty yet approachable passion for the movies. Being popular not populist, the Pulitzer Prize-winner was loved and respected by the public and fellow critics alike. Ebert had a way of saying things better than anybody else, and you didn’t have to be a film snob to appreciate it. He gave clear and succinct criticism while still exuding a glow about watching movies that has been lost on more jaded film critics, and fearfully may be lost on future generations of moviegoers. That isn’t to say Ebert condoned all filmmaking for movies’ sake, he didn’t always give his trademark “thumbs-up.” Some of his snarkier digs include, “I will one day be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of ‘The Brown Bunny,’ ” and, from his infamous review of “North,” “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.” He was honest and we loved him for it. As he wrote, “Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you.” Emotions over his passing have poured throughout social media and stand as a testament to his life and work. He will be sorely missed. If there is a heaven, Roger Ebert is up there this very moment watching “Citizen Kane” and eating vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream. 

Kevin Jagernauth: In the mid-to-late ’80s two things happened that would forever change my life, in ways I probably didn’t realize it at the time: my parents finally bought a VCR and I discovered “Siskel & Ebert At The Movies.” My memory is fuzzy, so I don’t remember exactly when ‘Siskel & Ebert’ became a weekly ritual, but it did, and I followed the show as best as I could, even as its time slot would seem to change week-by-week. But in those two bickering friends, I saw two men who were obsessed and passionate about cinema, and their enthusiasm undoubtedly impacted me profoundly.

In fact, I was becoming an obsessive myself. With a VCR that could record, it suddenly opened a world of opportunity for me. Each week I sat down with the TV guide and a highlighter, looking up the movie listings (particularly the late-night programming) and marking what I needed to record. (Remember when A&E used to show film noir in the early morning hours?) I made tapes upon tapes upon tapes of movies of almost anything you can imagine. And with ‘Siskel & Ebert’ I moved into the age of the DVD and internet, using them as a guide to track down the movies I needed to see. Somewhere along the way I became a cinephile, and there is no question that ‘Siskel & Ebert’ — with their debates, feuds, praises, and championing of a variety of pictures — made movies mean so much more to me than I can articulate in any coherent manner. Simply put, they made them matter.

I may not have kept up with him in recent years as much as I had in the past, and perhaps I even took him for granted, thinking he’d be around forever. It really seemed like he would be. I remember seeing Ebert in his later years at TIFF and Cannes, his wife Chaz usually by his side, and I regret not introducing myself and letting him know how important his work is to me. However, Ebert was like a cinematic pen pal, a friend from afar who understood how a movie could get under your skin and into your brain and burrow its way into your heart and never let go. I spent last night at a movie screening, and with the lights down low, the tiny, packed theater became a hushed, communal space of shared experience and feeling, and Ebert, from the first day he sat behind a typewriter, understood why this was special and unique. I hope wherever he is now, that magic is still with him. 

Deborah Bosket: Some of my earliest memories about movies are of watching “Sneak Previews” and “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.” I remember watching ‘Siskel and Ebert’ at home every week, always trying to predict whether a film would get “two thumbs up” or not during their discussions. That show fostered a love of film in me at a very young age; I highly doubt I would’ve gone through my ‘Godfather’/gangster movie phase at age 13 without it, and my obsession with film would not have grown into what it is today.

Kristen Lopez: I can’t recall the one specific moment where I declared “I want to be a film reviewer,” but I’m damn sure Roger Ebert helped me along, and I’ve always cited him as a key influence. I own and have devoured all of his written works, and every film in his Great Movies series is on my Netflix queue. Roger Ebert taught me to appreciate films, and I’m not sure that without him I’d be the film connoisseur (in my mind, at least) that I am today. Ebert’s Facebook page has been a must-read for me, and I think that’s why his death shocked me so. He recently posted something at the end of March with little indication anything was wrong. I’m shocked and saddened, but grateful to have him as my inspiration. Goodnight Roger, the world is smaller because you’re gone, but better because you were here. You’re one of a kind, and have inspired a young girl to believe that her pen can make a small difference. Rest in peace.

Cain Rodriguez: Even though we were born forty years apart and in different states, I always felt a strange kinship to Roger Ebert. He was a schlubby man who loved movies and I was a schlubby kid who loved movies. It was as simple as that. Growing up in an immigrant and working-class neighborhood, I didn’t exactly study the works of Pauline Kael, so Siskel & Ebert’s landmark show was the first outlet for cinematic discussion I had. I initially stumbled upon them while surfing TV late one night and was drawn in by the weird image of two older men (who weren’t exactly made for TV) sitting in chairs with a screen behind them. It was as if I had stumbled into their living room, if their living room had a large movie screen. As I got older and the internet became more easily accessible, Ebert’s were the first reviews I read. It wasn’t that I necessarily agreed with him (or even saw many of the films he had), but I was attracted to the obvious love he had for cinema in its all incarnations, from the highest-brow to the trashiest genre film. This was a man who loved “Anaconda,” for goodness’ sake. Even when I went through my pretentious phrase I never forsake Ebert who, even though I never laid eyes on the man, I held dear to my heart like the mentor I never had. I don’t think I could ever truly explain how much he meant to my gooey, sappy heart so I’ll just end with one my favorite Ebert quotes: “It takes more nerve to praise pop entertainment; it’s easy and safe to deliver pious praise of turgid deep thinking.” So long, sir, we’ll forever live in your shadow. 

Charlie Schmidlin: I spent the majority of my teenage years in Chicago at the film institution Facets Multimedia, where every visit to their offices also took me past a framed B&W picture of Roger on the wall inside. The picture grew to be a consistent, comfortable presence in my time there, just as Roger’s tremendous output — from “At The Movies” to his illuminating and personal blog entries — similarly found its way into countless lives.

Another charming aspect to Facets as a venue was its main theater, lined with seats demanding a clever placement strategy — or else a three-hour film would advise your back as much by the final reel. When I commented on the seats to Roger, who attended and taught at the cinema often, he recalled when “[Facets co-founder] Milos Stehlik was hiding his screenings in a former church. You brought your own pillows; the pews were hard.”

His straightforward response hinted at a shared history that I was only beginning to comprehend, and a tactile, grounded perspective that always made his work so meaningful. Most of all, it served as a gentle reminder to move past any qualms about the screening environment, and to simply enjoy what we as an audience patiently come to see — the art of cinema itself.

Ken Guidry: Watching films would have never been more than a fun little hobby for me if not for Roger Ebert. He was the gateway drug. My gateway to more serious films, my gateway to reading and ingesting film criticism on a regular basis. He lead the way for me as I’m sure he did for many others. He inspired the way I write and debate about movies. For the first forty years of his career, he showed us what a great observer he was when it came to the movies. In the last few years, he showed us all what a great observer he was on life, in general. He simply had a great mind, and thanks to social media, we were all exposed to it. As sad as it is to have to write about Mr. Ebert in the past tense, it’s important to remember how he never wasted a single day while he was here, even when he had every right to do so. That’s what I find to be most inspirational about the man. May he rest in peace, though I have the sneaking suspicion that wherever he is he’d rather be writing, not resting.

India Ross: My phone buzzed in the middle of the night with a text from an old friend from school. He had to tell me that Roger Ebert had died. It had been five years since school ended, and we’d grown up in a rustic corner of England, four thousand miles from the offices of the Chicago Sun-Times. It didn’t matter: Mr Ebert, like the cinema he championed, did not discriminate by age, experience or geography. A couple of kids from Cornwall with no more going for them than a dodgy old cinema and a fanatical love of “Groundhog Day” could join the big conversation through him: post-picture debates were won and lost on arguments bootlegged from Ebert. I can say without hyperbole that he was, as a guide I’d stumbled upon during marathons of internet film geekery, the reason I could justify going to the movies for a living. Suffice to say, there is an old note on my desk which reads: “What Would Ebert Do.”

Drew Taylor: In 1996 something miraculous happened: Rogert Ebert and Gene Siskel, the notoriously persnickety co-hosts of nationally syndicated “At the Movies,” agreed on something. I was 13 at the time. And instead of doing whatever it is 13-year-olds do on Saturday nights, I was watching “At the Movies” on the local ABC affiliate in San Antonio, Texas. What was so profound about this agreement was that it wasn’t just one of their cordial on-air armistices. No, this was the end-of-the-year episode, where they each ran down their ten favorite films from that year. And they both agreed that the very best movie of 1996 was “Fargo.”

I remember the way the clips unspooled, with that unforgettable Carter Burwell music playing over it, and I also remember thinking, deep down inside: I must see this movie. It took some lobbying to get my mother to let me see the movie, but I finally watched it on VHS. And then I watched it again. And again. And again. I watched it over and over because I really loved it – the blood reminded me of the horror movies I would sneakily watch late at night on the secondhand television given to me by my grandparents (as profound a childhood relic as a baseball bat or bicycle) and even then I thought it was pretty hilarious – but I was always watching and rewatching because I wanted to know why Siskel and Ebert loved it, what they saw in it. It was, after all, something they could agree on. I wanted to agree too.

As my cultural and critical tastes expanded, Ebert was no longer the galvanizing force he once was. He seemed safe, bland, lacking in the color and sharpness of some of my favorite writers. His thumbed verdict meant very little to me. But then a series of tragic events, beginning with the death of his longtime partner Gene Siskel and culminating in his devastating cancer treatment, which left him without the ability to eat or speak, left Ebert strangely reinvigorated. After he got sick, his presence on television was replaced with a grand residency on the Internet. He wrote so damn much. The illness didn’t strike him down or even weaken him; instead it was like a bolt of lightning, inspiring some of the most cutting, incisive and clever writing in his already lengthy career. When most people would roll over and give up, Ebert rose to the occasion and made us all remember why he was the most important and beloved film critic of all time. Everything about him became inspirational. Again.

A couple of weeks ago I was grinding through some review of a movie I was fairly sure no one would see (or read about) and feeling sapped of energy and lacking in the fundamental creative juices required to make it happen. In times like these I would often think: How does Ebert still write so well about even the crappiest little movie, even now? I never got the answer, of course, and I finished the review.

Even when you didn’t agree with him, Ebert was still an absolute joy to read. He was always witty and funny and effusive. Ebert talked about movies in a way that would make a 13-year-old kid in San Antonio, Texas beg his mother to let him watch a movie about a “true crime” kidnapping and murder spree. He wasn’t always right (his crusade against eighties horror movies seems particularly misguided in hindsight), but he was always great. I never communicated with Ebert directly but one time he re-tweeted a Playlist piece I had had a hand in. I hope that he read what I wrote and liked what he read, but I’ll never know. Still, that simple re-tweet had me walking on air for the rest of the day. He was, after all, someone who had a profound effect on the man I have become. When I come home tonight from a screening and look at the “Fargo” poster on my bedroom wall, I’ll probably miss him even more. 

Kimber Myers: As a kid, I learned through Roger Ebert that you could make a career out of loving the movies, even if you weren’t making them. I remember watching “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies” with my grandmother (who was quite the movie lover herself) and being in awe that someone got paid to talk about movies he loved and hated. As many critical reviews as he gave, it was always absolutely clear that he adored the medium, and that adoration was infectious. As I grew older, I used “The Great Movies” like a bible, checking off ones I’d seen, reading and relishing every word. I fell in love with “Beauty and the Beast,” “Un Chien Andalou” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” and remembered the magic of “Gone with the Wind,” “Star Wars” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Ebert had a way of making any obscure film accessible and reminding us that big studio films could be art, too.

Mark Zhuravsky: Goodbye Mr. Ebert. Thank you for your wit, your strength and for inviting us into your life so warmly in your later years. You resisted being defined by your place in pop culture lore and instead took chances – lived, loved, and learned. We are forever grateful.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Ebert’s family. It goes without saying that the world lost someone truly special yesterday, and that we all will continue to be inspired by his great work for many, many years to come. Feel free to share your own Ebert stories in the comments; we look forward to reading them. And check out Criticwire‘s thoughts and reflections as well. The balcony might be closed, but it will never be empty.

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