Thursday, April 4, 2013

Captain, My Captain: Remembering Roger Ebert

I always made time for Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. It didn't matter how good the day's campaign in G.I. Joe game play was going, every Sunday evening was reserved these opposing film critics from Chicago, Illinois. Even as a youngster in the early 1980's, I'd shun interaction with my peers just to watch to two grown men with Mid-Western accents pontificate and (more often than not) argue about motion pictures.

I grew up in a single parent home. We were poor, and going out to see movies was a luxury my Mom could rarely afford. The best we could do for cinematic entertainment was watching third run movies through the static of the the local UHF television station. Siskel and Ebert were my window into the world of modern cinema.

Watching At the Movies was as near to a religious ritual as I would get on Sundays. If you were to ask the 8 year-old me what it was that I loved about watching this program, I don't know if I would have the wherewithal to concisely say why beyond enjoying watching the clip reels included with Siskel and Ebert's reviews. On a deeper level, though, I enjoyed the discussions between these two newspapermen (Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, and Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times).

As I got older, I came to understand exactly why I loved watching Siskel and Ebert's reviews. These were two intelligent men who loved movies. They would often hate movies, too, and sometimes not the same ones. And this is where their opinions would flair, inciting unscripted, off-the-cuff discussions. That was the magic of this show; the genuine (and at times) heated debates on the merits of film, storytelling and art. We, the audience were engaged because Siskel and Ebert were engaged. 

Neither critic were shy about speaking truth to power, either. If they felt the motion picture industry were cynically targeting and exploiting a certain demographic (like, say, the Friday the 13th franchise), they'd say so on the air. Siskel and Ebert's words carried weight, something their imitators never could.

What got me the most in those formative years, however, was the idea that people got paid to not only watch movies, but that they also got to go on TV and rant or rave about them (Roger Ebert was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975). Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are my first (and still very much primary) influence for going into writing.

After Gene Siskel's death in 1999, Roger Ebert continued to review films on the air with Richard Roeper. After his health started to decline due to thyroid cancer, Ebert eventually "retired" from his on-air duties, but maintained a presence in the review sections of the Chicago Sun Times. Ebert's cancer would eventually claim his jaw, depriving Ebert of those things he loved to do most in life the most: speaking and eating.

But the cancer could not quiet Roger Ebert's voice. He would continue to review films and write books in that inclusive, welcoming and often times humorous writing style of his. He became a force, branding himself anew through his website, blog and twitter accounts. I even followed Roger Ebert on Facebook, where his asides and observations always seemed to make the gloomiest days seem brighter.

In this way, Roger Ebert inspired me for a second time. Here is a man who has lost his ability to speak; to say his words aloud. He could have wallowed with the hand life had dealt him, but instead Roger Ebert, with the aid and support of his loving wife, Chaz Ebert, mounted a phoenix-from-the-ashed relaunch of himself. Here he was, more prodigious than ever. His speaking voice then became a text-to-voice computer assistant and the Internet became his outlet; his sounding board. 

Even when it was recommended he not, Ebert posed for pictures; his jawline now slung low, but his eyes peering back at the viewer with warmth and optimism. It was a triumph. Roger Ebert wouldn't allow cancer to claim his soul.

Roger Ebert meant a lot to me. He was an accomplished reporter and writer who loved the cinema, traveling abroad, living in Chicago, and being surrounded by his friends and family. His words carried weight, and more than a couple of times he saved several hours of my life from watching bad movies (though the review in his book Your Movie Sucks of Battlefield Earth made watching that film too much of a so-bad-it's-good movie-watching experience). Along with Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert defined the face of film review. It went beyond the simple "thumbs up/down" gesture that became their signature for rating movies. They encouraged America to discuss and have opinions about movies, whether you agreed with their assessments or not. The way we look at film in this country owes a debt to these two.

Roger Ebert is someone I hold in the highest of esteem. A big regret in my life is never having had met the man to tell him how much he and Gene Siskel inspired me to write, review and debate not just movies, but life in general. I'm sad to see Roger Ebert pass from this mortal coil, but I will always remember the impact he had in it. 

Rest In Peace, Mr. Ebert. The balcony is closed.

Roger Ebert
6/18/42 - 4/4/2013