In Honor of Roger Ebert
And an Ode to the Movies
Four years ago today, we lost the greatest and most beloved film critic to ever walk the earth. Roger Ebert covered the movie beat for nearly half a century working at the Chicago Sun-Times, but his body of work reviews films dating back to the beginning of the medium. He is the only film critic to have ever won the Pulitzer Prize, and he even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Ebert was perhaps best known for his long tenure as one half of, as Letterman once so affectionally put it, “America’s favorite couple”, covering new releases alongside Gene Siskel on their widely popular television program, “At the Movies”.
Roger’s résumé speaks for itself. At the end of the day, the most important thing you could know about him was that he loved the movies.
In that way, I connected with Roger. My affinity—or let’s face it, obsession—with movies was spearheaded when I took my first film study class in high school. I had always held tight to a couple of my favorite films: The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars (of course), Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Rocky movies, and a few others. I’d seen a handful of beloved ‘80s movies: Ferris Bueller, lots of Harrison Ford, some Spielberg summer movie phenomena, etc. Sometimes I’d see the occasional dollar movie when the Tuesday combo deal rolled around. But I largely missed the majority of major releases that happened in my lifetime. I never saw cultural icons like The Dark Knight in theaters. Not Avatar, either. I caught the last few Potter movies, but only because I had read the novels. For the most part, I had lived under a rock when it came to the movie scene.
Last year, I added film study to my schedule as a semester elective, originally on the sole basis that my teacher’s favorite movie was Star Wars, and that we were watching it in the first class. It was that shortsighted, impulsive, logically lousy decision that opened up the door to a passion unlike any I’d ever explored before. Under the guidance and superb selection of movies on behalf of my brilliant teacher (to whom I give credit for creating the movie-loving monster that I am, and who I still seek out movie discussions with on a nearly daily basis), I began to catch up on over a century of film. I started by tackling the AFI top 100 list, and later moved onto the Sight & Sound and Criterion collections.
And after I’d watch each film, the very first thing I’d do was go to Ebert’s website and see what he had thought of it. He always had unique insight or unbelievably specific knowledge about the movie that no other critic could offer. Sometimes he would take the most bizarre or forgettable shot in a film, and he’d write a paragraph on it that changed my entire opinion of the movie.
Often we’d agree, sometimes we wouldn’t. When we agreed on a movie, I’d find myself physically nodding along with his assessment, but also sitting back in awe at how profoundly he presented his opinion. His reviews were written as if he was already mid-thought, opting for opening paragraphs that belly flopped into full-blooded discussion rather than easing into his reviews with typical obligatory fluff. It was like he was talking to himself as he wrote, and was inviting you to join in on the conversation.
When I felt like he got a movie wrong (seriously, Home Alone 3 better than the original?), reading those reviews was unique because his views were respectable and qualified. Not in the sense that I gave everything he said weight because of his credentials (I did, but that’s not the point), but because he wrote in a way that was honest and told the reader, “Here’s what it’s like to watch the film. I didn’t like it, but you might.” Even when I thought he was wrong, he was still interesting to read.
And to hear Roger berate a movie he hated is among the most enjoyable, gut-wrenchingly funny experiences you can have. He never pulled punches and, bar Shakespeare, is without competition the wittiest insulter I have ever read. Here is an excerpt from his very negative review of Deuce Bigalow:
“Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” makes a living prostituting himself. How much he charges I’m not sure, but the price is worth it if it keeps him off the streets and out of another movie. “Deuce Bigalow” is aggressively bad, as if it wants to cause suffering to the audience. The best thing about it is that it runs for only 75 minutes…. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.
What I could consistently count on is that he would always provide an honest account of what it was like to experience a movie. He didn’t talk from a place of superiority. He didn’t come into movies with pessimism, wanting certain actors, directors, or films to fail. When you read his writing, you know beyond doubt that he came into every movie wanting to like it. That’s why his negative reviews didn’t feel like he was reporting his what he already expected to be true, but instead expressing genuine disappointment.
Roger was my mentor along my journey through studying a century of film. It feels weird for me to refer to someone that way whom I never personally knew and had already passed away for over a year when I first learned of him, but it’s the honest truth. When I read Ebert, it isn’t empty words I’m perusing. There was always a person behind his peerless prose—a very passionate, informed, witty, engaging, and profound person who loved life, movies, and his life at the movies.
Through his reviews, Roger’s legacy has become immortalized. With his widely accessible archive on RogerEbert.com, he lives on in his reviews and blog posts, and he is still a continual influence in my life today. I still read and re-read his reviews. He still occupies a spot on my browser’s bookmark bar. Heck, I even look up old Siskel & Ebert programs on YouTube whenever I see an older movie I know they enjoyed.
Over the course of studying Ebert’s body of work, I’ve taken away countless lessons, both about the movies and their criticism. I would try and list as many as I can think of, but in that way madness lies. If I could sum up the core three principles I’ve learned from Ebert, though, they would be: (a) Don’t be dull, (b) don’t be dishonest, and (c) don’t miss a movie, because you never know what kind of experience you might have. Those are solid rules for watching and reviewing movies, but I think they work pretty great as principles for life, too.
Finally, I’d like to share one of my favorite quotes from Roger’s work.
“A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.”
It was actually Robert Warshow who first said that, but Ebert cited it many times as his critical approach, and I believe it’s the only approach a critic should ever take. When Roger loved a movie, he said he loved it. When he loathed a movie, he said he loathed it (often in very bitter fashion). When he only watched eight minutes of a movie, he admitted it in his review. That’s what I love most about reading Ebert: he didn’t try to be anything but subjective. That’s because the movies have more emotional capacity than any other medium ever conceived. He could have stood on a high horse of objectivity and addressed each year’s lowly releases as if he were detached and emotionless, but what would be the point?
Over the past year, I’ve tried my hand at film criticism from time to time. I’ve reviewed the Star Wars movies, written here and there about recent releases, wrote about one of my favorite Hitchcock movies yesterday (one of the few movies Ebert never reviewed), and have written pieces about movies that I’ve never published. Roger has had more influence on my critical technique — and really, my writing in general — than nearly anyone. I’ve adopted his four-star rating system, tried to emulate his strong-willed, first person point of view, and can only hope to bring the same energy he brought to reviewing every movie.
The item in that list, of course, is an impossibility. There can never be another Roger. What I mean to say is that as someone who so ardently loves the movies, there has not been a single name — not one who has been more insightful, who has helped define so much what I find entertaining, who has better taught me how to watch and what to look for in movies, and who has more inspired me to share my thoughts on them with the world — not one name more influential in my experience with the movies than Mr. Ebert’s.
So I thank you, Roger Ebert. You are and will always be sorely missed.