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Thoughts & Reflections on Roger Ebert

April 8, 2013

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The wet Chicago streets were lit this morning just the way Roger Ebert would expect them to be  in a noir film, one of his favorite film genres. Maybe it’s appropriate then that the film critic was laid to rest then on this cold and rainy Monday, even moreso that the sun eventually burst through, calming a windy day of mourning. He’s been gone three full days now and it’s still hard to fathom that we’ll never again get his take on a movie. His last review was recently posted and it remains to be seen what kind of revamp (if any) his website will undergo. Thankfully, we’ll always have thousands of reviews to draw upon and, of course,  the memories.

Which brings me to the title of this entry….

While I’ve already shared some of my own thoughts immediately after his death last week, it’s obvious there are others who have been similarly impacted by the man. I’ve been reminded of this in my recent interaction with friends, both in person and online.  It’s always good to appreciate the fact that we all have our own story and all film enthusiast were introduced to Ebert in different way and during different times in their lives. So, I’ve compiled some thoughts and reflections here on the man, written by a few friends of mine, which prove just  how important he was to so many.

Scattered between their own thoughts, I’ll break down my favorite paragraph from Ebert’s Introduction that appeared in his 2006 book  Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert (which I highly highly recommend) in between their thoughts and reflections. We’ll start out with two current contributing writers here at Keeping It Reel and then move on to submissions by friends of the site….

 

“What does it mean to love the movies? It does not mean to sit mindlessly and blissfully before the screen. It means to believe, first of all, that they are worth the time.” 

 

Matt Streets: “As a child growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, we were a Chicago Tribune family, meaning that I was weaned on the film writings of Gene Siskel. His concise, short reviews were my favorite part of every Friday edition. And every week without fail, we would catch “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies” (my parents are also film junkies) and watched as our beloved movie critic bickered and bantered with the portly Roger Ebert from the rival Chicago Sun-Times.

At that time I thought that Ebert was the lesser of the two critics, a loudmouth who couldn’t understand the fineries of modern cinema like Siskel did. It wasn’t until after Siskel passed away, and Richard Roeper took his place (on the show at least), that I started to appreciate the work of Ebert. I found him to be an honest critic who could judge a film on its own merits, and seemed impervious to the trends or buzz that might be surrounding a movie.

He opened my eyes to filmmakers like Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Spike Jonez, and instilled in me a love of the documentary form with his early championing of Errol Morris and his love and promotion of masterpieces like Hoop Dreams. That’s not to say that I didn’t disagree with him or flat-out think that he was nuts from time to time. He seemed to hate every David Lynch film I loved, and thought that “Crash” was the best film of 2005.

But that was the whole ethos of Roger Ebert. He taught us to love cinema, to take it seriously, to form our own opinions on a movie and defend it as vigorously as possible. He inspired me to write film criticism and gave me a passion for movies that will never die. In the split-second world of Internet “journalism” and armchair critics, he was the last of his kind, and will be sorely missed.”

 

“That to see three movies during a routine workday or thirty movies a week  at a film festival is a good job to have. That your mood when you enter the theater is not very important, because the task of every movie is to try to change how you feel and think during its running time.”

Tim O’Brien: “Roger Ebert had an impact on me before I ever knew it. Growing up in Chicago, I knew the name from an early age. I don’t remember exactly when, but I started watching At the Movies on Saturday nights on ABC Channel 7 with Ebert and long-time critic partner Gene Siskel. I was maybe 10 years old, but every Saturday I sat down and watched the entire episode.

I always kept up with the show whether it moved its time slot (Saturday nights at 10:30) or when Ebert left the show because of health issues. Grammar school, high school, even when I went away to college, I found “At the Movies” on the local affiliate. Even if he wasn’t there, it was still a great show to watch. And even though it had been years since he had been on, I was still sad when the show aired its last episode.

I can’t think of too many people who have impacted films more than him. I loved his reviews, even looked forward to visiting his website every Thursday and Friday to see his new reviews. I loved reading his books, articles, just about everything he wrote. Did I always agree with him? No, of course not, but it was always a treat reading them. I’ve been writing reviews for a little over three years and hope to keep it up for years to come. All those reviews I read and episodes I watched clearly put me on the path I am now writing film reviews. If I can write my reviews with even the smallest percentage of Ebert’s talent, I’ll be happy. You’ll be missed, Roger. There won’t be more like you.”

“That it is not important to have a “good time”, but very important not to have your time wasted. That on occasion you have sat before the screen and been enraptured by the truth or beauty projected thereon.”

 

Matthew Gramitt: “As a teen, then into my 20’s, I usually agreed with the bald guy and was annoyed with the fat guy. Then I went back to college and studied film, and all the sudden I noticed that Ebert was speakin’ my language! He seemed to consider each film within that film’s world perspective, while Siskel seemed to get caught up in moralizing. Over the years I came to appreciate him even more. His analysis was never predictable. I especially enjoyed the originality and daring of his reviews’ introductions and conclusions, and I loved how some reviews were short, some long, and a review’s length didn’t necessarily have anything to do with how much he liked or didn’t like the film. And they were as well written and compelling as they were logically sound. I rarely disagreed with his view of a film, even when my thumb would have gone in the opposite direction.”

(Matthew Gramitt writes to us from Ironwood Michigan, where he parses truth and meaning not only from film, but also daily from the extremes of weather, personalities, and natural beauty inherent in the Upper Peninsulas’ wild character.)

 

“That although you may be more open to a movie whose message (if it has one)  you agree with, you must be open to artistry and craftsmanship even in a movie you disagree with.”

 

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“A movie is not good because it arrives on conclusions you share, or bad because it does not. A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it: about the way it considers its subject matter, and about how its real subject may be quite different from the one it seems to provide.”

Matthew Southworth: “I was excited when I first heard of “Sneak Previews”, which meant I could see actual movie clips of movies soon to come out. This was at the dawn of the VCR, when my friend Steven and I watched “Escape from New York”  four times one night because it was either that or one of the Pink Panther movies–that’s all he had. And so you got these little gems, actual chunks of “The Blue Lagoon” or “Cujo”.Except who were these guys, Siskel and Ebert? Particularly the little pudgy guy with the assuredly non-TV Coke bottle glasses who’d assert his authority over Siskel whenever they disagreed. It was the first time I remember seeing people argue on television; now we have nonstop yell shows like Hardball or Bill O’Reilly’s crapfest. But Siskel and Ebert didn’t hate each other, and they both stood for the same thing–movies should be good, they should be honest, they should be more than just a means to sell action figures or magazines.These guys fought one another and they fought together for a cause I believed in, and I still believe in it. That entertainment matters, not just as a way to pass the time but as a way to enrich the time that passes. I learned to apply criteria to the movies I liked (and the music, and the comics), and I learned I didn’t need to be ashamed for caring so much.Later, I worked at Paramount Pictures, and I worked for other companies in Hollywood, and I learned that not everyone applied stringent criteria to movies; in fact, the criteria they applied tended not to mean much to me (nor, I suspect, would those criteria have mattered to Siskel and Ebert). “Sneak Previews” gave way to “At the Movies” and then “Siskel and Ebert At the Movies”–and I think eventually that may have been known as simply “Siskel and Ebert”.

Gene Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999; it was only a few years later that Roger Ebert revealed himself to have an aggressive cancer that took away–cruel, cruel–his ability to speak, and my admiration of his work gave way to a much deeper admiration of his humility and his humanity. People often speak of someone “battling” cancer, but in Ebert’s case, while it was no doubt a battle, his commentary on it and on the disfigurement he suffered as a result was strangely a gift to me. I saw something quite rare in him–true dignity. He dignified himself by his candor, and it was quite a gift he gave us, dignifying us by trusting us enough to share.

I (we) learned not to pity this man, who had suffered so obviously, but to admire his strength and to envy the beatitude that he gained, as he said he no longer felt as angry about bad movies but felt more grateful for good ones. Roger Ebert himself was a good one: he lived a good life and did good work and taught me a lot of good things.

I’m glad I was obsessed with the movies from an early age, and I’m glad Roger Ebert was there to teach me not to lose that as I grew older.

(Matthew Southworth is a cartoonist and musician in Seattle, WA.)

 

“Therefore it is meaningless to prefer one genre over another. Yes I “like” fim noir more than Westerns, but that has nothing to do with any given noir or Western.”

 

Jeff Duhigg: “Roger Ebert was able to give me so many things that have had lasting effects on my life. Since his death, I felt each of them reintroducing themselves to me. I watched “At The Movies” growing up. While I had no frame of reference for film for most of that time, I still watched. There was something in that show that made watching movies more intellectually challenging. Then my sister turned me on to his writing when I was in high school.

The respect he had for films and the history of the medium helped me see what I was looking at in a different, bigger way. His archive reveals so much of his passion and love and humor toward, not only the films that I enjoyed with him, but of life itself. All of it – heartbreaking and hilarious, full of dizzying highs and soul crushing lows, war and peace, everything and nothing. He saw it all up there and he translated it for me, every week.

I just want to thank him for making the world bigger for me, in a time that can feel reductive and spoon fed. I want to thank him for the movies in the park. I want to thank him for speaking his mind and heart politically. I want to thank him for all he provided to those who were open enough to listen. The balcony may be closed but our minds and hearts will stay open.

(Jeff Duhigg is a Chicago actor, currently performing onstage  in Eugene O’Neil’s “Hughie”. More info here.)

 

 

“If you do not “like” musicals or documentaries or silent films or foreign films or films in black and white, that is not an exercise of taste, but simply an indication that you have not yet evolved into the more compleat filmgoer that we all have waiting inside.”

 

Randy Yelverton: “Other than my family, no one has affected the way I see movies more than Roger Ebert. Even if you didn’t agree with Ebert on a given film, it was always worth reading what he had to say. He was a teacher that taught so many of us how to watch movies. His reviews elucidated without talking down to us. He was no snob and would praise genre pictures and ambitious art house films if they achieved their ends successfully.

Mr. Ebert instilled in me a key idea that changed the way I view all film: it doesn’t matter what a movie is about, but how it’s about it. There is no subject matter off-limits for filmmakers—or any artist. The success, or failure, of a film comes in how the movie addresses a subject matter. It’s an epochal notion that changed filmmaking, film criticism and informed the spirit of significant film websites like Ain’t It Cool News and The AV Club.

In 2006, for instance, this egalitarian idea had taken hold to such a degree that critics championed the monster on the loose movie “The Host” alongside more somber efforts like the docudrama “United 93”. In that same year, we also saw filmmakers win critics over with the wartime drama/fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth” and sci-fi social commentary “Children of Men”. No genre, or subject matter, is irredeemable and no art can be rejected prima facie. Ebert gave us a democratic way of viewing film and lent movie-going a sense of adventure. You never knew if your next great movie experience might occur at the multiplex or from the $1.00 aisle at the video store. He will be missed.

(Randall Yelverton is a librarian, writer and film enthusiast living in Peoria, IL. He recently contributed to the Directory of World Cinema: Britain from Intellect Books. He is currently working on pieces for the second volume.)

 

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Funeral services for Ebert took place this morning at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, IL, where hundreds attended. Coverage on that and info on the memorial tribute scheduled for Thursday at the Chicago Theatre, can be found here.  If you’re so moved to do something, well-wishers are encouraged to send donations to The Ebert Foundation, c/o Northern Trust at 50 S. LaSalle Street, in lieu of flowers.

 

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