Yesterday Roger Ebert told all of us he needed to take a ‘leave of presence’ due to his battles with cancer. Today, that same cancer has taken his presence from all of us. Everyone is writing beautiful things about the iconic film critic, the film critic I grew up wanting to be and thinking to myself, “He’s so lucky that he gets to see all of these films and then write/speak about them. And he gets paid, too? Dream job!” It’s something I still think, in the back of my head, today, even with my cynical minded self.
We lost a great mind, thinker, critic, crock pot enthusiast, lover of film, purveyor of everything from the indies to big Hollywood fare. Many times I disagreed with his stance on certain subjects, such as his thoughts on video games and how they weren’t artistic. Same goes with many of his reviews for films, one of which I always laughingly bring up when some people think Ebert was perfect, which was his praise of Garfield. I remember hearing what he said, reading what he wrote, and thinking, “Did we see the same film?” But that’s the wonder, the beauty of film and criticism in general. We don’t all have to agree on the same films. Your favorite film might be my least favorite and vice versa. And watching At the Movies (or as most of us called it, Siskel and Ebert) week in and week out gave me my own personal film school before Criterion came into my life.
As I sit here, wiping away some residual tears that keep coming up while I recall memories of yesteryear, enjoying the small battles Siskel and Ebert would have every week or when they’d team up to either skewer a film or champion one, it was always an entertaining time on my couch. I felt like they were my secret friends, two people who loved film as much as I did, but they were much older and more knowledgeable. I would speak about them with friends at school, junior high or high school in particular, and it was a rarity when someone would know what I was even talking about. But my parents would watch the show too, especially my mom and we’d talk a bit about some of the films but most of them I’d take down in a black and white notebook to keep a reference to what I wanted to watch and what to avoid like the plague. Even when FOX would keep on changing the times when it would air, Channel 5 to be exact, I would have to sneak a watch on my 13 inch black and white TV at midnight, amusing myself by Roger and Gene as they dueled it out every week.
Many years later, and I probably champion a lot of the schlock, the slasher films they despised and various other genre films they might have given a thumbs down to, but it didn’t matter. I think the worse review they would give a film made those even more desirable to watch and it was something I took with me, especially when I went to college. Watching Raise The Red Lantern in college and having his review from 1992 gave me the edge I needed and had over all the other students in that course. Or when I would wait until they’d finally put out their worst movies of the year shows, which were always amazing because the films they hated the most got to be trashed yet again (some of which I love for completely that reason. I’m looking at you, Over the Top).
I cheered like a dork when I heard both Siskel and Ebert would be on the cartoon series The Critic (which had an amazing title of ‘Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice’). It was a cartoon series that wouldn’t have been if it wasn’t for the fact that both Ebert and Siskel were such pop culture icons by then, forever changing the way film criticism would be seen on TV and how film discussion between two ‘rivals’ could be informative, insightful, a bit catty but always giving us something to think about.
While I had wanted to be a filmmaker at first, soon enough time, money and schooling proved that to be a bit difficult, so I got back into the mindset of writing about film. Starting with taking out a ton of books from Ebert and Pauline Kael as a crash course on what the best of the best was, I studied these tomes. Soon after, many others came into play, from Richard Schickel to Joe Bob Briggs, all giving different sides to the same career. Why would anyone want to read the same style of writing over and over? That’s never any fun. I’d even watch people like Time Lucas, Danny Peary, Robert Osborne, Richard Roeper, Mark Kermode and various others. Even when I disliked their opinions or their style of criticism, I would continue to take it all in to fully flesh out where I wanted to come from and how my style could be different from the rest. Devouring the written word was something I loved to do and to this day I continue to do so, still not truly finding my voice so to speak.
Roger Ebert first lost his colleague Gene Siskel back in 1999 from cancer. Then he lost his voice to cancer, and ultimately his life but he never lost the will to live. He never lost his written voice, the one where he continued to crank out reviews, tweet, editorials on any and everything and puts someone like myself to shame when I complain about writer’s block. It’s sad that his death has woken something up inside of me and I bet it has done the same thing with many other writers who have been going through the same thing. And right now, with my own aunt battling cancer for the last few years and being put into the hospital yet again due to complications from it, it paints a all too familiar picture, one that his own family went through. My thoughts go to all of them, his wife Chaz who was his ultimate supporter and fan, and to all the people who found the movies because of him. Right now Siskel and Ebert are laughing it up somewhere, with a couple of buckets of popcorn and taking in a film festival that lasts an eternity. One day we’ll all be in that same there, but until then, the balcony is closed.
Please leave your memories of Roger Ebert down below if you want. I’d love to hear them.