A few thoughts on Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Roger_old_office425pixYesterday, Roger Ebert posted an article on his website (www.rogererbert.com) called “A Leave of Presence,” which detailed everything from his early days at the Chicago Sun Times to the health scares he’s been forced to deal with over the last couple of years. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent read, which is something you could say about all of Roger Ebert’s articles, but it also signaled the end of an era for anyone who has followed Mr. Ebert at any point in his 46-year-stint in the criticism biz:

Roger Ebert was scaling back. It was a sad day, indeed.

The reason Ebert was cutting down his workload is most unfortunate: Last year, he had a painful fracture that made it difficult for him to walk. Alas, that “fracture” has turned out to be the return of cancer. Mr. Ebert underwent several surgeries in 2006 that robbed him of his voice, thereby restricting his presence on his show, “Ebert and Roeper,” which led to several changes on that show as well. Since then, Ebert has given up on any more surgeries but has continued to work on many projects in addition to his print reviews at the Sun Times, which he had been writing weekly since April 3, 1967.

Unless your name is Bosley Crowther or Pauline Kael, every single film critic in the world owes a bit of gratitude to Roger Ebert. I know it, they know it. Along with fellow Chicagoan and rival paper critic Gene Siskel, the two of them pretty much brought film criticism into the mainstream with their review programs, “At the Movies” in the early 80s and “Siskel and Ebert” from the mid-80s until the death of Siskel in February 1999. I was first introduced to their handiwork around the time I was 13 years old, when I just happened to flip on the TV at the exact moment they were ripping Macaulay Culkin’s “The Good Son” a new one. It wasn’t long after that no matter what I had going on Saturday night, “Siskel and Ebert” was first on the agenda.

When Siskel died, my heart shattered. I still get a little weepy when I think about it. In fact, I still read Siskel’s reviews to this day (obviously in archive form, many of which can be found by searching here). Even so, I knew as long as Ebert would keep the show going, I would continue to watch on the same basis as before. It wasn’t long until Ebert hired himself a new co-host, fellow Sun Times columnist Richard Roeper, to fill Siskel’s shoes. It was a job Roeper would fill until retiring from the show himself to make way for “the Bens,” which we don’t really need to ever bring up again.

Ebert stayed on with Roeper until the summer of 2006, but he continued to write reviews, even if he was no longer on TV. In 2011, after “At the Movies” was cancelled after an unsuccessful stint with the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips and New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, Ebert started his own show using public broadcasting, starring Associated Press critic Christy Lemire and Mubi.com critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. The show was fully funded by Ebert and his wife Chaz, and when the bills were outweighing the take, that show, too, bit the dust. (Although the show’s catalogue is still available at ebertpresents.com)

And yet, despite all that, Ebert refused to give up. According to his article, he was to continue writing for his new website, which was supposed to launch April 9, although he admitted he would only “review only the movies (he) wants to review.” He was to continue the effort to reignite the “Ebert Presents At the Movies” TV show, hoping to start a collection at Kickstart to do so. Ebert was also supposed to attend his 15th annual film festival at the Virginia Theater in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., which sells out almost as fast as they put the tickets up for sale.

As an admirer of film and of film criticism in general, I have a tremendous respect and admiration for Roger Ebert. His current site is just one of a few websites I check out on a daily basis, and I often search individual reviews while finding something worthwhile to watch. I own every single Video Yearbook he published since 1985 (the only reason I stopped is because his website offers the same content at the click of a button), and I watch old episodes of “Siskel and Ebert” as much as I can at this tribute website, which is all about preserving everything S&E.

I met Roger Ebert once, two months after the passing of Gene Siskel, and I was so starstruck the only thing I could muster was an appreciative handshake. I know it seems silly today, but I did get an autograph out of the deal. His memoir, “Life Itself,” was a day one purchase for me (although, embarrassingly, I have yet to open it up; the 1985 Podcast is eating up a lot of my free time these days). And I even attended his film festival back in 2004 (where I was finally able to catch “Lawrence of Arabia” on the big screen — in 70mm, no less).

To say that Roger Ebert has made an impact on my life is an understatement of epic proportions. When I heard he was backing off on his day-to-day routine to focus on his health issues, I was both shocked and saddened. This is a man I have followed for two-thirds of my life, and I hated to see him fall on hard times. Fortunately, Ebert was remarkably upbeat about his current situation. In fact, if you read his article carefully, you’ll see he was not about to lie down and admit defeat. With many projects in the pipeline, this little hiccup seemed to be just another blip on Ebert’s roller coaster journey.

I write this not merely to inform but as a show of appreciation. As I have already stated, there isn’t a critic in the world that doesn’t owe Ebert a huge debt of gratitude for the great strides he’s made in the world of film criticism. Not only by bringing the medium to the forefront, but by inspiring so many of us to look at moviegoing in a whole new light.

It is with a very heavy heart that I write these words because Mr. Ebert has just passed away at the age of 70 after his long battle with cancer. One day after announcing his “semi-retirement,” and now he is gone forever. It just doesn’t seem right.

I know I speak for everyone at Film Geek Central when I say Mr. Ebert will be sorely missed. A biopic by Martin Scorsese about Ebert’s life is already in the works. Let’s hope the movie is able to do the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic the justice he so vehemently deserves.


Categories: Jesse Hoheisel, Movie News, Special Reports and Rants

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