By Matt Singer | Criticwire April 5, 2013 at 9:17AM
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.'"
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.