So, I fired off an email to Roger Ebert, who at the time was still in his post as film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. I quickly told him about my situation and if he had any advice for the criticism I was sure I would encounter. To my surprise, I received a response from him a couple days later. In it, Roger explained that film was the dominant art form of the 20th century and was more than worthy for study in a high school curriculum. He wished me the best of luck. I’d always been a big believer in taking big risks when trying to contact important sources for projects on which I was working. I’d just never had one actually respond to me.
When I was 12 years old, I saw my first Woody Allen movie. It was 1980 and Woody was at the start of what was going to be a historic run of great American movies. The film in question was his faux documentary Zelig, and I went to see it because I had heard Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel rave about it. I had to talk my parents into taking me to an art house cinema in the city to see it; the film wasn’t screening at any suburban multiplexes.
I was always a movie-mad kid. I have no idea why I am this way. I just am and always have been. When I was very young, I remember I would open the newspaper to the Arts section and lay out the pages of the movie section on our kitchen floor. I would just sit and stare at movie ads. In an interview, Quentin Tarantino once explained that he was similarly afflicted as a kid. He spoke of kids at school who were into sports or into cars. He was into movies. So was I.
So, you can imagine my joy when I discovered the old Siskel and Ebert PBS show Sneak Previews when I was probably nine or ten years old. Here were two guys who would sit and debate the merits of the movies of the day. In the early 80s, they would migrate to syndication with At the Movies and, later, with Siskel & Ebert & The Movies.
Roger and Gene influenced culture in a way similar to the way Julia Child had. Where Child brought complex French cuisine into suburban kitchens, Roger and Gene brought film criticism to the masses. They championed indie and art house films and as I grew up, I sought those films out. I remember in high school dragging my poor unsuspecting friends to see arcane films that Roger and Gene had recommended. I didn’t always get those films, but I was most definitely enriched by them. They showed me that film was more than just entertainment. At its best, it was art and it could be transcendent.
Roger and Gene went on to become the most famous film critics in the country. They were staples of the talk show circuit, and while they were never hip (Ebert was rocking the sweater vest at least 20 years before Rick Santorum.), they were rock stars of their field. Two fiercely competitive Chicago newspapermen, they had tremendous chemistry on television. There was nothing quite as much fun as seeing them get into a knock-down, drag-out fight over a movie’s particular merits. A buddy of mine once said that watching them fight was kind of like hearing your parents argue. It was oddly upsetting and exciting at the same time.
Roger Ebert died yesterday after a well documented fight with cancer that lasted the better part of a decade. I don’t know if I can accurately express how profoundly his work and life have impacted mine. His passion, his wit, his writing skill have influenced me in ways that are perhaps beyond my understanding. His work on television and in print (one of the great things about living in the internet age is I could read a Chicago newspaper while not living in Chicago) pushed the boundaries of the art I was consuming and my appreciation of that art. Reading him in print made me a better writer. If you’ve never read him in print, you should. He was fantastic.
After Gene Siskel passed away, Ebert worked with various co-hosts before re-launching his TV show with Richard Roeper. Roeper was competent, but he always seemed to defer to Ebert. The days of the scintillating arguments were done. When Roger’s health forced him to leave the show, Roeper went on with co-hosts before being joined by Michael Phillips. That show would ultimately be cancelled, and Roger’s attempt to resurrect it a couple of years ago would ultimately fail. It bothers me greatly that kids today won’t have a show like this to influence their appreciation of art and movies.
A couple of years ago, we learned that Roger had lost his lower jaw to cancer, losing the ability to eat or speak. Taking his meals through a feeding tube, Ebert took to social media. His physical voice might be lost, but not his writer’s voice. The Pulitzer Prize winner doubled down on the written word. He wrote reviews. He blogged about life and his health. He embraced Twitter with a vengeance. He wrote a memoir that’s being developed as a film by Martin Scorsese and Steve Zallian. He curated a movie festival called Ebertfest in which he screened films he loved that had never been widely seen. While other people would go quietly into that good night, Ebert used his fingers and a keyboard to raise hell. It’s an example I hope I can follow.
On Tuesday, Roger announced that his cancer was back. He had been hospitalized with a fracture for several weeks and the cancer was discovered. "My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me," he wrote in a statement. "What's more, I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review."
According to Roger’s wife Chaz, he was readying to leave the hospital and go to hospice care yesterday. Roger looked at everyone, smiled, and then quietly passed away. She reported that there was no struggle or pain. She called it a very “dignified transition.” As I write this, I’m feeling very guilty, because I have the job Roger always fantasized about – I only review the movies I want to review on Fanboy Comics. I’m getting to do what Roger Ebert dreamed of doing.
Roger Ebert wrote his last blog post two days ago. His final words?
“I’ll see you at the movies.”