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.
Gabe Toro: Roger Ebert made the world feel like a bigger place. He understood how to talk film, but he also knew how to apply those philosophies to life. In some ways he was a humanitarian -- there was a Sarris here and a Kael there, and all were essential to discussing film. But Ebert is the one who translated those ideas in a way that added clarity for audiences based on an element of warmth. When he hated, good lord did he hate (see: “North”). But when he loved, there was no one who could shine a light on a film quite like him, no other critic that so convincingly wrote with his heart and his mind. Film criticism was an arcane, unreachable, unteachable thing without Ebert. Those who bothered to reach beyond the thumbs of he and his cohort Gene Siskel noticed a voice that spoke with clear language, that broke down complex ideas and beliefs in a way that made movie criticism feel tangible, important. He could say something pithy and incisive that reached the five-year-old and the eighty-five-year-old in the audience, but he never condescended (save for the thumbs, a commercial concession all critics would gladly make to spread their words). More importantly, he made film criticism fun: the popular image of a critic to most was (or is) a stuffy, humorless prig with zero insight into the human experience. Not only did Siskel and Ebert openly feud like a couple of sports fans at the bar, but they spoke from a place that came not only from years of watching films, but also decades of unspoken experience. These were men who loved movies, but they also loved life, an essential part of the equation lost on a current generation of film writers weaned on glowing computer screens. As he aged, Ebert’s deteriorating health forced him to become more introspective. He became more active online, more aggressively political, more electric in his opinions about philosophy and lifestyles: it was no longer just about movies. But when it came to writing about film in later days, he had made peace with his paramour, learning to take the bad films in stride, and to embrace every good picture as if it was his last day on earth. He wasn’t always the favorite critic (honestly, he showed a peculiar favoritism to a few big budget spectacles), but a critic who says they didn’t want to be Roger Ebert, who didn’t want to have that love in their heart, and the ability to express it, is a true liar. He was the godfather of the profession, and given the state of 21st century criticism, it’s not certain we’ll ever recover. Rest in peace, Roger. We loved you.
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.