I think we all knew that the end was near for Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert when he announced to the world that his cancer had returned. In his blog entitled “A Leave of Presence” which was published just a couple of days before his death on April 4, 2013, Ebert announced that he would be cutting back his workload to conquer this dreaded disease that has wreaked havoc on his body for the last decade or so. He really did fight the good fight against cancer, and you had to admire the fact that he refused to hide from the world after it robbed him of his speaking voice and made him look a little less cute. But after all the battles, his body could only take so much more. His wife Chaz described his passing as a “dignified transition,” and I’m just glad that it was peaceful and that he wasn’t in much pain.
Like many of you, I have been a big fan of Ebert’s ever since he shared the balcony with Gene Siskel on “At The Movies” all those years ago. Before I made going to the movies a regular event in my life, I had to settle with watching this movie review program along with several others as they were my gateway to the world of movies back when going to the local theater happened as often an eclipse of the sun. Even if they did give thumbs down to movies that I loved like “Better Off Dead,” nothing could stop me from watching their show.
Eventually, I became exposed to Ebert the writer through his various “Movie Home Companion” books which later became known as his “Video Companion” and then eventually his annual “Movie Yearbook” which I quickly purchased year after year once they became available. Sometimes I was bummed when he gave a so-so review to a favorite film of mine like “Caddyshack” (he gave it two and a half stars out of four), but in the end he had understandably strong reasons for why he gave it the rating he did, and it was hard to disagree with those reasons when you thought about it.
In many ways, you didn’t read a review by Ebert as much as you experienced one. That was the case for me when I read his review of the infamous “I Spit on Your Grave” which he gave one of his rare zero star ratings to. He described it as “a vile piece of garbage” and that attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of his life. It was a review filled with spoilers as Ebert described everything that happened in the movie, and while we hate it these days when people spoil a movie for us (we have Wikipedia for that), it felt like he was doing us all a huge favor. He even went on to describe the reactions of the other patrons in the theater which were very disturbing, and that made his experience of seeing this dreaded movie all the more unsettling. Now while his review of “I Spit On Your Grave” drew more attention to the movie than he would have liked, you couldn’t say that he didn’t warn you about how violent it is.
For me, I loved how he always wrote in the first person, and I’m confident that I don’t need to prove to anyone of the effect Ebert’s writing had on my own. Many websites and print publications these days don’t like it when you write in the first person, and that drives me nuts. There’s no doubt that anyone can write a movie review, but no one could write one the way Ebert did. When I first started writing my own movie reviews on the internet, I found myself writing them in the same way he did. Truth be told, it’s a lot more fun to write them in the first person as there is only one of you in this universe, and people appear to find more enjoyment in reading those kinds of reviews anyway.
Back in school, many of my friends came to hate Ebert because, the way they saw it, he just hated movies. Now granted this made me a closeted fan of his for a while because back then you didn’t want to appear too different from everyone around you, but at the same time I was annoyed that they made that summary judgment against him. I wanted to yell at them, “DO YOU REALLY THINK HE WOULD SPEND ALL THIS REVIEWING AND TALKING ABOUT MOVIES IF HE DIDN’T LIKE THEM?! WHAT WORLD ARE YOU FROM ANYWAY??!!” Now while Ebert at times seemed to dislike more movies than he liked, it became easy to see why; many of the movies we loved as kids were no different from the ones he saw as a kid himself, and what we saw as new seemed like the same old thing to him. As we continue to get older, we have come to feel the same away about movies in general because the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Furthermore, Ebert was never a snob. While you may be annoyed that he gave thumbs down to a movie like “Full Metal Jacket” and yet give a thumbs up to a crappy one like “Cop and a Half,” he was fully aware that never every movie could be on the level of “Citizen Kane” or “Vertigo.” Some film critics like Rex Reed are uber snobs who revel in the power they think they have to destroy a movie, but Ebert was able to judge a movie for what it was trying to be as opposed to what he wanted it to be. “Days of Thunder” clearly earned its unofficial nickname of “‘Top Gun’ on wheels,” but Ebert gave it a thumbs up because on that level the movie was effective entertainment. Sure, you could compare it to “Lawrence of Arabia,” but why bother?
In retrospect, if it weren’t for Ebert (or for that matter Siskel), would audiences have taken the time to discover movies like “Roger & Me” or “Hoop Dreams” which were never expected reach such wide audiences? The one gift Ebert gave us aspiring movie critics was that we had the power to give a voice to and support films that were not given the kind of support Hollywood studios usually shower on their summer blockbusters. He made us realize that it’s up to us to give the smaller independent movies the attention they deserve; otherwise they just might fall through the cracks.
I also admired Ebert for cutting through the hyperbole that could completely engulf a movie. One great example was Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” which many mistakenly saw as a call to violence. Ebert, who would later declare the film to be one of the best of the 1980s, instead saw it as a story of where race relations were at in America and it was a reality we needed to wake up to. He made you see that Lee was not endorsing one course of action over the other, but that the filmmaker was instead showing what happens when people don’t do the right thing. A few years later, Los Angeles was besieged by riots which came about after the Rodney King verdicts, and this made “Do The Right Thing” seem like an eerily prophetic movie as a result.
How come so many other film critics couldn’t see Lee’s film in the same way Ebert did? Maybe it was because he was a much more opened minded person than others in his field. What a critic can say about a movie often says more about them than anything else, and even if you didn’t agree with Ebert on a particular film, you couldn’t say that he was a man consumed with hate or any deep-seated bias. He was never blinded by any particular ideology or thought process, and he forever remained gifted at explaining what Lee or any other filmmaker was truly getting at with their work.
Ebert’s fight with cancer made me admire the man even more. Once it robbed him of his voice and a good portion of his jaw, you would have expected him to go hide in a cave somewhere. But he refused to do that, and his work as a film critic and a writer never suffered as a result. In fact, he wrote even more than ever before as he expanded beyond his usual movie reviews to cover current events that Americans were constantly caught up in discussing. You could argue with Ebert on certain points, but he was always ready to back up what he said with the facts. Your best bet, instead of trying to prove him wrong, was to outguess him at the Oscars (and someone did that this year).
Thank you Roger for being a hero of mine, thanks for all your great reviews even if you badmouthed some of my favorites, thanks for continuing to write and not hiding from the world after cancer robbed you of your voice, and thank you for sharing the balcony with Gene Siskel and Richard Roeper for all those years. But most importantly, thank you for showing me what a great movie is as well as the power of the written word. Like many others I know, I will miss your presence in life and on the web, but you still left us with so many great articles that I still have yet to read.
By the way, I still haven’t had the chance to read your autobiography “Life Itself” yet. Rest assured I will be purchasing a copy of it very soon.
A Fond Farewell to ‘At The Movies’
Roger Ebert Resurrects ‘At the Movies’ for PBS
Becoming a Memorable Movie Critic