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Remembering Roger Ebert

by The Playlist Staff
April 5, 2013 12:40 PM
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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. 

Gabe ToroRoger 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.

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.

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  • Funny Hats | April 5, 2013 3:43 PMReply

    Gabe Toro will be the next Roger Ebert, mark my words.

  • Funny Chiffon | April 5, 2013 5:46 PM

    No, just your moms.

  • Jackie | April 5, 2013 3:31 PMReply

    Nice work, Playlist team.

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