I think we all knew 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 he would be cutting back his workload to conquer this dreaded disease which had wreaked havoc on his body for the last decade or so. He really did fight the good fight against this indiscriminate and infuriating disease, and you had to admire how he refused to hide from the world after it robbed him of his speaking voice and made him look a little less handsome. But after all the battles, his body could only take so much. His wife Chaz described his passing as a “dignified transition,” and I am just glad it was a peaceful passing and that he was not in much pain.
Like you, I have been a big fan of Ebert’s ever since he started sharing 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 show as it was 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 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,” and I quickly purchased them year after year once they became available at my local bookstore. Sometimes I was bummed when he gave a so-so review to favorite films of mine like “Caddyshack” (he gave it * * ½ out of * * * *), but in the end he had understandably strong reasons for why he felt the way he did, and it was hard to disagree with his reasons when you thought about them.
In many ways, you did not read an Ebert review as much as you experienced one. This was the case 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 how attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of his life. It was a review filled with spoilers as Ebert described everything which happened, 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 when it came to this particular film which has since become a cult classic. He even went out of his way to describe the reactions of other patrons in the theater which were very disturbing as they seemed to shamelessly cheer on the rapists, and this made his experience of seeing this dreaded movie all the more unsettling. Now while his review may have drawn more attention to this movie than he would have liked, you cannot say you were not the least bit warned as to how difficult it would be to sit through it.
As for myself, I loved how Ebert always wrote in the first person, and I am quite confident I do not need to prove to you of the effect his writing had on my own. Many websites and print publications these days do not like it in the slightest when you write in the first person, and while I understand why, it still drives me nuts. 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 is a lot more fun to write them in the first person as there is only one of you in this universe and, the way I see it, people tend to find more enjoyment in reading those kinds of reviews anyway.
Back when I was in high 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 I did not want to appear too different from everyone around me, but I was still annoyed at the summary judgment they made against him. I wanted to yell at them, “DO YOU REALLY THINK HE WOULD SPEND ALL THIS REVIEWING AND TALKING ABOUT MOVIES IF HE REALLY HATED THEM?! WHAT WORLD ARE YOU FROM ANYWAY??!!” 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 to me. While you may be annoyed how he gave thumbs down to “Full Metal Jacket” and yet give a thumbs up to “Cop and a Half,” he was fully aware of how not every movie could be on the same level as “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, it was effective entertainment. Sure, you could compare it to “Lawrence of Arabia,” but why?
In retrospect, if it were not for Ebert, or even Siskel, would audiences have taken the time to discover movies such as “Roger & Me” or “Hoop Dreams?” The one gift Ebert gave us was his power to give a voice to and support films which Hollywood studios were not quick to shower their attention to as they did with summer blockbusters. He made us realize it is up to us to give smaller independent movies the attention they deserve. Otherwise, they just might fall through the cracks to where they become completely obscure.
I also admired Ebert for cutting through the hyperbole which could completely engulf a film. 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 1980’s, instead saw it as a story of where race relations were at in America, and that it was a reality call we needed to wake up to. He made you see Lee was not endorsing one course of action over the other, but that he was instead showing us what happens when people do not 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 film as a result.
Now how come other film critics could not see Lee’s film in the same way Ebert did? Maybe it was because he was a much more opened minded person than others. What a critic can say about a movie often says more about them than anything else, and even if you do not agree with Ebert on a particular film, you cannot say 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 other filmmakers were truly getting at with their work.
Ebert’s fight with cancer made me admire him even more. Once it robbed him of his voice and a good portion of his jaw, you would have expected him to 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 everyone in the world 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.
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 the power of the written word. Like many others, I will miss your presence in life and on the web, but you still left us with so many great articles I still have yet to read.
WRITER’S NOTE: Down below, I am including the exclusive interview I did with director Steve James and Roger’s wife, Chaz Ebert, while they were doing press for the documentary they made entitled “Life Itself.” Based on Roger’s memoir of the same name, it was an enthralling documentary I was ever so happy to sit through.
This is a really fascinating and well-written essay about Roger Ebert. He was one of a kind, giving a personal view based on deep knowledge of films of every type, and audience appeal.Thanks for reminding me of how important he is in film history. Pat Kenber