Siskel and Ebert in their classic pose.
I can honestly say that most of what I learned about films, I learned from Roger Ebert. Most of us from my own and subsequent generations can surely say the same. From his trademark “two thumbs up” to the heated arguments he had with fellow critic and “brother” Gene Siskel, Roger brought a true, pure love to his reviews that only a genuine lover of films can bring. Critiquing films was not just a job that Roger happened to stumble into, it was his passion and that was inherently clear to all who listened to, watched or read his work.
Honestly, I have listened to Roger for so many years, I cannot recall the first time I was exposed to him, but I can tell you that it was during his stint on PBS. I can still see the opening of the show. The cartoonish theater seat backs, the curtain in front of the movie screen and those famous silouettes of he and Gene against the screen. The fearsome twosome to every director and film studio in existence.
For those of us who truly love the medium of the film, Roger was a purist, one who “got” it. If he loved a film, he gushed like the majority of us tend to do when something strikes us as amazing. The purpose of film is to incite emotion. When a good film makes us run through a gamut of them, its one of those “the more the better” deals. A good film will leave you a spent emotional wreck by the time the credits roll. Think: Silence of the Lambs. When I left the theater after seeing it, I could barely walk and my entire body felt like a block of wood. I loved it. Roger got that. That made me love and trust Roger and his reviews. If he loved it, odds are I would. If he hated it, I’d hate it. Simple. Simple works. It still works.
Conversely, when he hated a film he was honest, brusque and loud about it. It sucked, I HATED it. And then the dreaded “thumbs down.” Its interesting to think that film production companies, producers, directors, cinematographers and actors lived in fear of Roger’s thumb diving toward hell. Surely this rating sent shudders all over Hollywood. Like an earthquake, Roger created his own ground-shaking fear. He was powerful because he was honest. He came from the same place that the rest of us did. He wasn’t doing it for effect or to get attention, he was doing it because he cared. He loved it or he hated it. It simply worked or it didn’t. I can’t recall a single time that he was completely on the fence about something. He always had an opinion.
So much had been written about the old guard and their embracing of social media. It seemed to me that social media came along right at the time that Roger needed it. When he was diagnosed with cancer that effected his thyroid, salivary glands and chin; when he could no longer speak, Roger took to the internet and social media to reclaim his voice. Writing made his problems disappear, he was the same person he always was. He told Esquire magazine in 2010, “All is well. I am as I should be.” As a writer, I can relate to this feeling. A writer speaks best in words on the page, be it a printed page or a page on a screen, it still works and we still have a powerful voice. Roger continued and some would agree that he was better than ever. It kept him going. It kept us going. We needed each other. It made me smile when Roger succumbed and became addicted to Twitter along with the rest of us. This is what made Roger so relatable. He was one of us from the start.
The best thing about his embrace of social media was yet to come. Roger became embraced and loved by a whole new generation of movie goers. If someone would have told me this would happen, I would not have been completely surprised, but the manner it would take may have surprised me. I would have seen him a old school and perhaps not as quick to grasp and utilize new-fangled technology. Had I really thought about it; however, I would have realized that Roger was first a foremost a writer, and when our fingers are finally pried away from our ancient manual or electric typewriters, embracing the computer to do our writing comes fast and easy. Always the comment “why didn’t I do this sooner?” I was one of the last holdouts, I get that part. So he was back and not surprisingly, more popular than ever. It made me so happy to witness. His snarky sense of humor on Twitter was a wonder to behold.
But, back to the beginning of this film buffs memory. . .Gene and Roger began working together the year I graduated from high school, 1975. They would go on to revolutionize film criticism with their collaboration. It all sarted at WTTW, the PBS station in Chicago where the name of the game was a show called “Opening Soon at a Theater Neat You.”And the rest, as they say, was history. The Chicago Sun Times took on the Chicago Trib. It was like the deathmatch of film critics. Everyone loved it, especially when it got heated. And boy, did it get heated. Like the fights at a hockey game, Gene and Roger arguing was a highlight of the show and no doubt the reason a lot of people tuned in.
Through several iterations, the show that most of remember came years after Tribune Entertainment purchased the franchise and the show became what we remember today “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies.” There they sat, our two heroes, ensconced in sweaters, sitting elbow to elbow in overstuffed armchairs. Let the games begin. Even with the somtimes on-air combativeness, it was clear that Roger and Gene weren’t just friends, they were family. Again, the genuineness of their rapport is what made the show golden. Roger restablished the ancient rating system once used in Roman times. Think Colloseum. Thumbs up or thumbs down. Roger thought of it, and it was Gene who realized it had become a trademark. And so it was.
The winning team was broken up in 1999 when Gene passed at the untimely age of 53 in 1999. As expected, it took a while for Roger to recover from such a deep loss, but a year later, Richard Roeper joined Roger from the Sun-Times and the show became “Ebert & Roeper.” Roger reclaimed his stride and the show was successful until health issues drew him away in 2008.
Roger left us with so much. So many great quotes were attributed to him. This is one of my favorites because as a film aficianado it rings so true: “Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie.” Roger understood that no matter how many times we watch the same film, we see in it something anew each and every time. This is one of the things that makes a film great. Think Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, Out of Africa. Okay, that last one was mine.
Another of the great Roger moments that I will aways remember fondly was the time he raked Hollywoood over the coals due to their lack of support of documentaries. Roger felt that Hollywood had taken to utilizing cheap thrills such as digital effects and 3-D. He fought the good fight and garned lots of attention, but I sadly feel that Hollywood still overuses these and documentaries continue to be relegated to the back rows the the theater. Outrages me as much as it did Roger.
When I heard of Roger’s passing yesterday, it made me immediately sad, like I had lost a friend. Because I had. We all have. Its hard to pinpoint what I will miss most about Roger. Probably the first thing will be his absence on Twitter, where he was a force who consistently brought a smile. To keep myself from shedding a tear, I reminded myself that he and Gene are finally reunited in that no doubt fabulous theater in the clouds. I see them, seated side-by-side, silouetted against a giant screen. They are screening “Citizen Kane” and eating Haagen-Daz vanilla ice cream. Godspeed Roger, godspeed.